The weather is very different this morning than it was on this day precisely one year ago. I'm told that my memory is eerily accurate, clinging onto minor details and sensations lingering in my mind for years to come. I have to admit that there is truth in that; that my neurological obsessions insist on my remembering every tiny fragment. The first thing that I remember about today is that last year's October 21st was sunny and the air was crisp. The next is the waves of regret and wrongness that overwhelmed me as I drove up the road to my new home. The hospital stood proudly at the top of the hill, covered in places in ivy and burning orange and crunchy leaves scattered across the grounds. Even the windows still had bars on them, which only added to the historical creepiness that blanketed the campus. In spite of my own conviction that I didn't belong here, I couldn't deny that the hospital was enticing, and intriguing in it's seclusion. The breeze held a chill much sharper than the southern winds that I was accustomed to, but the sun continued to warm my skin.
Today, the leaves don't crunch at all. Although they are still burning orange and yellow, they are soggy and pasted to the sidewalks. The constant drizzle has painted the road with a thin and shiny layer, reflecting the northeast autumn colors in a blur. The air is cool but wet, much different than the crispness of that first day in Boston a year ago. Although the weather is different, some things are quite similar: the nightmares that continue to unfold in my brain now are the same obsessions from last year (and the year before that). My inner monologue still has that same stream of counting and numbers too. Some of the very same intrusive thoughts, and rituals from then continue to haunt me now.
And then there are all of the differences: the room that I woke up in is very different than the unfamiliar hotel room outside of Boston from last year. This time it was in my own bed, in my Boston apartment, decorated and made messy by my own habits and punctuated by my cat's chirpy meows. Instead of preparing early for an admissions appointment, I got dressed and went out for coffee and music. When I started reflecting on this day last October, I thought mostly of touching every doorknob with both hands on both sides to make it feel even, or drinking Ensures in the place of meals. I thought of tracing and re-tracing steps until I finally got it right; I thought of how I must have smelled, wearing one of my few safe outfits, rarely comfortable using chemicals like soap or shampoo and I thought of how long it must have taken for me to get dressed then, with all of the safe numbers that I had to reach before I was able to do anything else. Mostly, though, I remember how muted I was, quiet and terrified and most comfortable fading into the background unnoticed- something so wildly out of character that it sounds laughable now.
In the three months after that day, I would spend my hours counting to unsafe numbers on purpose, attending groups, telling every clinician that I couldn't recover, eating everything in every room of the hospital, writing scripts out of my worst possible fears, and getting better every painful and panicking moment. During those days you could often find me tucked into a corner of the unit sketching another portrait or crying in the hallways avoiding the groups that triggered me the most. Eventually I would be laughing in the kitchen helping the staff prepare lunch and baking another batch of cookies for my friends. I spent most evenings shouting across the large dining room table over games of Scattegories or Bananagrams and the night would often wrap up with us curled up in stiff chairs watching another episode of the Holiday Baking Challenge or Twilight.
In early November I went into the woods for my first walk by myself- I found a river and the sun streaming through the trees. Thanksgiving was both incredibly stressful and rewarding. I helped to cook the dinner for about thirty people and ate the food too- both very different from Thanksgivings prior. Somewhere between unexpected blizzards and meltdowns in the hallways of that unit, things began to change. I stopped skipping that scary group on Tuesday mornings and I started eating chocolate again. I eventually went to a restaurant and bought new things. I began tapping things three times on purpose and smeared that horrible color green all over myself. I hung those scripts with my worst fears above my bed and got used to getting triggered on purpose. I slept upside down in my bed and sang songs that made me feel like the world was ending. Somewhere along the way, I noticed my own recovery.
By a certain point, I had quit the Ensures all together and ate only real food. I went on outings and found myself falling back in love with the parts of me that had existed before the illness swallowed me. I started buying contaminated clothes and screaming swear words into the courtyard and speaking the forbidden fears aloud and writing again. There was no one moment that I got "better" but each moment was significant. I remember a day at the end of November when a few of us left the unit to visit a friend in Boston. We grabbed lunch at a new restaurant and sat next to a bay window looking out into the city. I remember feeling on this day like I had returned to my life, to myself as a person in ways that I was once convinced were impossible.
Somehow without any warning at all, my birthday came and so did my exit date. I had just secured a new position out of treatment and had finalized my plans to move to a Boston suburb into a basement apartment. When I left there, I was tearful and filled with worry about the future. I wondered if I would make it out there in the real world and if the illness would come back for me again. I also left feeling as though I had conquered the entire world.
Now, one year later in the same October season, I don't feel as invincible as I did then. I have lost many battles to OCD since then, some threatening my recovery. I've won a lot of battles too. As with everything else that we were taught in the midst of panic, there is no certainty that I won't return to that same hospital on the hill in another season of life. There is no guarantee that the illness won't shift to yet another shape and that I won't find myself unraveling again. What is provided to me is this moment on this drizzly October day, are the accomplishments that I have gained over the past year. What I can have gratitude for is the past year of getting to be Ali in ways that I thought had been permanently broken. I do live with the constant fear of relapse. I also live with the hope for the future and an unending resilience for years to come.