I wrote this earlier in the year to kind of process some of the things I was going through. I thought long and hard about whether to share this, but ultimately I realised that somebody somewhere might need to hear this today. If you are one of those people, know that you are not alone and keep fighting.
For a long time now, I’ve had this inkling that I’m not quite what you would call ‘normal’. I think I first noticed it in my schooling days; I would check things incessantly in fear that I would be reprimanded or that something bad might happen. I remember in primary school, I must have been 8 or 9 years old, I always asked the boy sitting in front of me about homework our teacher gave us. Literally, our teacher would have just assigned the homework and like clockwork, I would tap him on the shoulder, “This is what we need to do, right?” I did this so much that one day, my poor classmate lost it. “YES! She just told us."
I’m the same at home. I repeatedly check taps, light switches and the stove to make sure they’re turned off, doors to make sure they’re locked and what strikes me as the oddest of all, when I wish my parents good night, I always check to see that the door stopper is placed aside and not somewhere in the middle of the room where my parents could trip on it in the dark of the night; a very specific fear to have but I’ve had it for as long as I can remember.
I have since come to realise that a lot of this obsessive behaviour stems from fear and worry or what some might call anxiety. Fear that if I don’t do my homework as instructed, I will be reprimanded, fear that if I don’t turn off the stove, the kitchen might explode, fear that if I don’t lock the front door, a cruel villain may enter my home and hurt the ones I love. I can go on and on. Where did all this worry come from? I haven’t a clue, but the one thing that has been rather constant about my personality over the years is this: I’m a worrier. I worry about everything, I over-think and concoct various worst-case scenarios in my mind that I feel I need to actively work towards avoiding. It’s like a hundred horror movies playing in my mind all at once except the twist here is that I was the villain all along, me and my inability to quiet my mind and just live in the moment.
Many with this kind of obsessive behaviour will say they have certain ‘rituals’ they have to follow, as do I. Before I leave the house (especially if I’m the last person to leave), I have certain things I must do beforehand. It starts from checking the taps, the iron, the lights, the windows, the kettle, the front door and gate. On good days, it’s a fairly quick routine and I’m out the door in under 10 minutes or so. On not so good days…well, let’s just say it can take longer.
At times, I’m stuck standing in front of the iron, having unplugged it and yet checking again and again to make sure it’s not turned on. It’s absolutely ridiculous, I’m aware but that’s what irrational fear does to you. It nags at you; at first it’s a small voice at the back of your mind and if you refuse to give into its commands, it grows louder and louder until it’s all you can hear and think about. What would happen if I left the house without checking the iron, you ask? Honestly, I don’t know. I would probably be worried the entire day about my house possibly burning down; I suppose I’d get distracted by work or other interactions, but when I have a free moment, the worry would resurface, consuming my thoughts and I wouldn’t be surprised if I convinced myself to make a quick dash home during my lunch break just to make sure the iron is turned off.
What really annoys me about this whole thing isn’t the time wasted performing a completely ridiculous ritual or the worry that almost always plagues my thoughts, but the sense of helplessness it brings on. When I’m standing in front of the iron, checking it for God knows the how manieth time, doing it over and over again like a maniac, I feel exhausted and saddened by the fact that I don’t trust my own mind. I envy my husband who does a quick check of everything as we leave for trips or somewhere for the weekend. “Is the iron off?” I would ask him and with such confidence he would reply, “Yes, I checked it. All’s good.” A silly thing to be envious of for most people, but as someone who struggles with the lack of confidence and security to trust herself regarding almost everything, I yearn for that kind of ‘normalcy’.
When you can’t trust yourself, you become your own worst enemy. You start to doubt everything you do and it’s exhausting to be your own worst critic. Imagine you’re sitting for a test and your answer script will be judged by the strictest examiner around. Now imagine that you are both the test taker and the examiner at the same time; how do you proceed? As the test taker, you answer each question the best you can and immediately, the examiner’s voice blares, “No, that’s not right, you idiot! Try again!” Feeling uncertain, you rewrite your answer. On cue, the examiner yells, “No, no, NO! You’re useless! You can’t even get this simple question right!”
In the past year, I worked at a nearby college as an Economics lecturer. It was one of the most difficult years of my life. I have an academic background in Economics and I enjoy the subject; there’s something about Economic theories and ideas that make sense and appeal to me. I previously had a corporate job so it took a little time to get back in touch with the theories I fell in love with years ago. Things started alright but over time, anxiety began to plague my mind once again.
The examiner kept taunting me, “These students are relying on you. Their grades will determine their future. Are you really good enough to guide them?” I would doubt everything I did, I checked my slides repeatedly, obsessing over the way things were phrased and the words I used. I would check book after book, one online source after another to calm my anxious mind. God bless my husband who was so patient with me as I would run through concepts and lessons with him. Please keep in mind that this is a man who has never learnt Economics a day in his life, but he often jokes that he’s learnt a great deal from me and that he’s pretty much ready to sit for the A-Level exams.
Virtually on a daily basis, I would ask him, “Do you get it when I explain this to you? Is my example ok? Do you think I should re-phrase this sentence? Is it misleading?” Time and time again he would hold me and assure me, “You are doing a good job, Vidhu. You’ve looked at different books and sources, you’ve come up with easy-to-understand examples, you always take the time to answer your students’ questions. You are doing enough. You are enough.”
As many times as he would say it, I couldn’t believe him. The examiner wouldn’t let me. Every day going into class was a struggle. My mind raced with anxious thoughts and the minutes leading up to a lesson were torture. I’d doubt whether I could deliver the lesson in an effective way, whether students would be engaged, whether they’d understand and follow the lesson, whether I could answer the questions they ask. In a classroom of thirty over students, just about anything can happen and just about any question can be thrown your way. All that uncertainty was food that fed my anxiety and it got worse day by day.
I am grateful that despite the anxiety, I managed to function in the classroom without having a breakdown. I kept it together long enough to conduct the lesson and answer questions; the examiner agreed to sit quietly in a corner during this time, but when I got home he made up for all the lost time. “You explained this bit horribly! And it’s important too! Great job on butchering the lesson, the students seemed so bored. Guess what, you delivered to an audience of one, YOURSELF!” Countless times I would break down at home, usually in my husband’s arms, sobbing uncontrollably, re-running the lesson in my mind over and over, scrutinising every word, gesture and shortcoming. There are instances where hours later, I would think about a joke I cracked in class and wonder, was it inappropriate? Oh God, why did I say that?
Ultimately, it all got too overwhelming and I handed in my resignation. I was struggling to serve my notice period; every inch of my being was yearning to put an end to this suffering and just run away, but I knew I had to see this through till the end. And with the support of my husband and family, that’s what I did. Many may view this as a failure, I joined a job and couldn’t cope with it so I quit. In fact, there are days when the examiner convinces me that I’m a failure too. But the test taker in me is proud that I got to the end of the semester. Despite the anxiety, the self-doubt and all the breakdowns, I got to the end. It isn’t a big promotion or a gold medal, but I take pride in this small accomplishment. I didn’t let the anxiety win; no matter how loud it was, I didn’t give in. I refused to break my commitment to the college and to myself.
At times though, it feels like I may have won the battle, but anxiety has won the war that wages in my mind. I’m left thinking, so what’s next? Is this a vicious cycle that will continue in my next job? Will things always play out this way? Isn’t there something I’m meant to do that brings me joy instead of anguish? I know the problem begins with me and without dealing with my own issues properly, any future outcome is unlikely to be much different. Recognising this, I actually started seeing a therapist in my last few months as a lecturer.
When I first considered therapy, I was honestly very scared. Not because the idea of talking about my experiences were uncomfortable to me; in fact, it was quite the contrary. I felt quite at ease speaking about my obsessive behaviours to my therapist. I am fortunate enough to live in the internet era where there is an increased awareness about mental illness and I’m not ashamed of what I’m going through. I know many others face similar difficulties and I’m blessed that I can seek out the help I need. What really scared me was the stigma attached to seeing a therapist. I am not an unstable person. Sure, I’m a worrier, I tend to get socially awkward and I tend to fill long silences with oversharing, but we all have our quirks. For the most part, I consider myself to be compassionate and approachable. I wondered if people would view me differently if they knew I was seeing a therapist. Would they silently judge me? Would they act differently around me in an attempt to protect my fragile state of mind? Or would they avoid me altogether?
But I knew I had to do something. Suffering in silence wasn’t an option anymore. So accompanied by my husband, I went for my first therapy session. I’ve come to realise that it isn’t a quick fix; my mind is hard-wired a certain way and it’s been that way for many, many years. That isn’t going to change overnight. But right now, the sessions do provide some relief; as I share more and more about things I think are totally crazy about myself like my obsession with the iron at home, I begin to learn that I’m not in fact crazy and what I’m feeling is indeed legitimate. It’s an actual problem that others also face and there are things that I can do to try and overcome the anxiety, or at least keep it at bay. So I think I will continue with therapy and hopefully over time, it makes a difference.
As much as I fear what others will think of me, I am always my own worst enemy. What others might say is nothing compared to what I say to myself on a daily basis. We are often taught to treat others with respect and courtesy but we are rarely taught to do the same to ourselves. I must admit that my self-talk has been rather negative in the past. I would constantly berate my appearance, my competence at the workplace or my personality. The examiner often uses words like ugly, useless and boring. As mean as people can be, I don’t think anyone else would be as harsh to me as I am to myself. When my self-talk gets especially negative, I try to remind myself of the wise words my former colleague once said to me: “The world can be merciless towards us Vidhya, so we must learn not to be merciless towards ourselves.” I truly see her as a modern-day Yoda, spilling words of wisdom that I hold dear.
For a long time, I thought being a worrier was all I was. But slowly I’m realising that yes, I’m a worrier, but like many others going through mental health issues, I’m also a fighter. I fight the examiner every day; some days I win, some days I’m left bruised. I hope that one day, the test taker can take her test in peace and the examiner will learn to be quiet and only speak when truly necessary. Until then, this test taker will continue to fight.