Updated: May 28, 2020
Texas summers are famous for the scorching heat, notorious for suffocating and dragging the life right out of you. Last June wasn't dry- it was a barren wasteland. There was no sign of life, nor any trace of flowing water. Just the thick heat, relentless and coming in waves off of the asphalt. I was growing brittle and dry by the day, skin turned tanned and sticky from the sunshine and even my smallest pair of denim shorts were falling right off of my hips. My hair had grown far out and had begun to reach the bottom of my rib cage, a feature newly highlighted by my frequent waves of panic and loss of body fat. Although it was turning blonde, it remained knotted and stringy, capturing the stench of my illness in every clump that washed down the shower drain, no shampoo bubbles to join it. The OCD was positively tyrannical, conspiring with the stifling heat to keep me living as a ghost, disappearing inch by inch every day.
There's no way to map out where the rituals began and it was impossible to keep up with the rapid spread. OCD has been described by clinicians as an infection that consumes everything in it's path- an idea that my health anxiety strongly dislikes. Long before I started doing any overt compulsions, I obsessed and ruminated for months, and would often be unpredictably swept up into riptides of panic and heartbreak. I could be found tearful and tucked away in closet floors or quietly waking my mom in the night when the fear became overwhelming. The compulsive behaviors became apparent with hand-washing, causing my hands to bleed each night after a hot shower, and what eventually became my trademark- avoiding foods which felt unsafe or contaminated. The illness didn't stop there; it was greedy to pry every last comfort and strength from my shaking clenched fists. Just when I was certain that it had gone too far, it came for more. It began leaking into every aspect of my life, staining every moment with distress. Rituals that my family noticed started to characterize me, and I became deeply isolated. By the time my friend flew in from North Carolina to visit, I had grown weary by the missed nutrients and the long nights of battles lost to rituals that kept me awake and frantic well into the early morning. He quickly became an observer, a witness to my elaborate system of rules, something that I could never find the words to explain. The concern was written all over his face throughout the weekend.
As he prepared to leave on the next Sunday, the panic was setting in, knots of growing dread in my stomach. The relationship between myself and my mother had grown strained at best. Most often, my family couldn't bear to be in the same room with my OCD and, as a direct result, me. I had not received a diagnosis of OCD so I assumed that I was losing it, and I leaned into the stigma and isolation. Nobody knew yet what my obsessions were, and I didn't identify them as such. The threat of making thoughts come true by speaking them aloud (courtesy of Magical Thinking) kept me silent and unraveling in secrecy. The evening before my friend left to return home, I began to crack, admitting that I might need more help, that I might be sicker than I ever imagined possible for myself. He couldn't agree more and we created a plan to get out of Texas and into treatment as soon as possible.
On that Sunday morning, I drove him to the airport, wearing the same ripped yoga pants that I clung onto for so long, and a t-shirt that had gone from fitting snugly to baggy on my bony shoulders. I left my mother, clearly still frustrated from yet another argument about hand-washing from the night before, in the kitchen to drive him to the airport. I don't remember now what plans I had for the rest of the day or what emotions were coming up that morning. Everything was out of focus and my attention was distant and distracted at best, my energy exhausted by all of the rituals and calculations.
Driving home from the airport tasted like defeat and detachment. The fears of punishment and obsessions filled the car, swallowing up much more space than simply the passenger seat. Just-Right OCD comes with it's own set of challenges, like urges that are accompanied by very strong physical discomfort which make them uniquely difficult to resist. I'd grown long used to the rigid expectations that my OCD had for me as I drove, often riding shotgun, loud and belligerent in it's commands and threats. It could be touching the steering wheel evenly, adjusting the radio volume to safe numbers, turning the air conditioner to either a 1 or a 4 (either so cold that my fingers would turn purple eventually, or turning it down so low that the Texas heat would have me covered in sweat and dehydrated by the end of the drive), and listening to one of a few safe songs repeatedly.
Most notable was the relentless checking for the speed limit signs. I was terrified of breaking rules and offending my reckless passenger, so driving at least 5 miles under the speed limit at all times felt like the only option. It became a job that required constant attention to my speedometer and signs along the road. The OCD really didn't cope well with the uncertainty when I couldn't immediately find a speed limit sign or when I started doubting what the last sign said. Because OCD most often requires certainty and rigid structure, the rule became that my speed needed to be under 20 MPH until I found the next sign. Certainly, fellow Texan drivers were not always gracious about my slow and gradual driving habits. I became accustomed to getting honked at and irritated glances.
These are the rules that immersed me on that bright Sunday morning in early July. I was traveling in light traffic, in the middle lane (another rule to avoid an unsafe number) and noticed only the occasional cluster of cars fleeting, leaving the interstate mostly empty. I found myself desperately searching for a speed limit sign, fueled by the threat of causing my obsessions to come true if I didn't comply. Even considering the option of denying the commands of OCD invited a barrage of threats and danger signals: You will know what you did wrong. You're asking to be punished. If you cared about this as much as you say that you do, you'd do it the right way. You'll be thinking about this all day long. Your day will be ruined. Your life will be ruined. All of the good things in your life will disappear. What will be the point then? Sprinkle in intrusive and recurring images of all of the horrible things that could happen to me and just like that- resisting the ritual wasn't worth the risk. Once I allowed OCD to make that choice for me, I began slowing down, trying to get closer and closer to the 20MPH or under rule. Even that process brought on some level of anxiety, as I vigilantly checked my mirrors and tried to make the process as fast and as unnoticeable as possible.
I knew what was going to happen before it actually did. The last time that I looked in the mirror, I saw a car pop up over the horizon and, in the couple of seconds that I watched, calculated that it was covering the distance between our cars much too quickly. In that specific moment- the tiny shred of time between my realization and the impact- it wasn't fear or terror or any other emotions that I remember. It was one specific thought: It's going to be okay. OCD was not the first major challenge in life that I faced, and reassuring myself with faked confidence was a coping skill that I'd been practicing for years. That phrase, simple and certain and spoken like a vow to myself, was the last thread of me that existed, resilient, and refusing to falter easily. After fighting through weeks of hopelessness and emptiness; endless nights of grief and loss; afternoons in the scalding sun trained silent and tearful; months of second chances and irreparable defeats, that last tiny part of me sparked survival.
I imagine that everything in me tensed up, face squinted and wincing when we collided. I knew that my car was moving, being pushed from the impact, and I knew that the air had disappeared and was replaced with white smoke and the smell of burning asphalt. Nothing hurt in those first few seconds and any panic or fear lay dormant, likely softened by the shock. The OCD, always relentless and abusive, screaming and preying on my weakest moments, grew suddenly very quiet, perhaps stunned as I was that we landed here. It's often a selfish illness, so it was a sobering moment as I sat holding the consequences of indulging it, all by myself and the OCD nowhere around.
The first response was body-checking, a ritual I'd grown comfortable with from the constant stream of intrusive thoughts and health anxiety. When I called 911 it was difficult to speak clearly. The next response was another long known instinct- I needed to get out. Even as I shoved into the car door with my shoulder, it stuck jammed and wouldn't open. When it finally cracked, I stumbled out into the road, greeted immediately by the blaring horn of an 18-wheeler, causing me to jump back as it blew past me. Some of the other drivers had not yet noticed the accident, as my car was pushed so far up the road from the impact. Another car did eventually stop and as they approached me, I first noticed the blood on my hands and shirt. The stranger ran back to her car to bring me pads to use on my face to stop the bleeding. I called my mom and told her that there was accident and that I was bleeding from my face. Her voice shifted instantly from an exasperated "hello" into panic and problem-solving.
OCD can't stay away for long. It was as eager and urgent as the ambulance sirens blaring, reminding me that I hadn't taken so much as an aspirin or vitamin in years. I didn't hesitate to decline transport to the hospital, a place which always brings out the fears in me. When the police officers asked me how fast I'd been driving, I said (painfully) honestly that I wasn't certain of the number and that I had been paying attention to signs for navigation. I didn't tell the officers about my passenger. I couldn't bring myself to confess that I'd been so weak and desperate to satisfy the OCD that I was willing to put myself and others in danger; or that this accident was the perfect punctuation mark to this horrifying year, a run-on sentence of utter disappointment and regrets.
I was mildly relieved to learn that there were no major injuries to the other person involved, which would have led to an opportunity to further shame me that OCD would have delighted in. My mom was not able to approach the scene because of the fire trucks, police and ambulances that had closed down the entire interstate. When she saw my face, one that even I had not yet noticed, her face crumpled, and her hand muffled the words, "Oh baby", an outcry that became a moment that would often recur to me throughout my recovery journey- something that felt impossible this morning. When we went to get my things from the car, we noticed that the cargo had been pushed completely into the backseat of the car. Even as I heard the gasp from my mother, likely a combination of horror and relief at the damages, I felt desensitized to it all. We knew instantly that it would all be a total loss- a car just recently purchased and the life of what had once been a girl full of potential.
Eventually, after being urged to go to the hospital to get checked out, I complied. I was accustomed to this conflicting identity- trying to be the negotiator between the OCD and the people around me, and navigating the two conflicting forces. Somewhere in the hours that we spent in the examination room, between the CAT scans and questions from the doctors, I noticed the pain for the first time. Each new ache and pulling back the hospital gown would reveal clusters of massive bruises and contusions. When the doctor finally confirmed that the worst of the injuries was the broken nose and busted lips, I was ready to get home. He warned me of immense pain to come in the next couple of days, strongly recommending that I consider taking pain medication and antibiotics to prevent infection between the broken bones. I politely declined prescriptions and had no intention of taking the medication that we picked up at the pharmacy.
It was late in the afternoon when we were finally released, and my mom suggested picking up some lunch, likely fueled by the repeated warnings from my dietitian about the weight loss. Clinicians often say that OCD doesn't take breaks or vacations, and this rang true for me on this day, as the dust settled and my attention was still almost completely devoted to obsessions and rituals. I told my mom then how I had planned to go to treatment. This became a turning point, and although the OCD grew desperate and spread in the next few weeks before I left, there was nothing quite like that day again.
I understand now that, although I was traveling very slowly, the car behind me had some duty to go around me, or apply brakes to mitigate the impact and that they likely didn't even notice my car until we collided. The liability or fault percentage is not so important as is the realization that we were both put in an unsafe situation, bound by the rules of my violent and aggressive passenger- the one that comes with me even when I'm not driving. I often indulge my scrupulosity and revisit this memory, held delicately like a secret. Even recalling the event now, the shame and guilt washes over me again. Those feelings have lessened over time, watered down by testimonies of peers on how their OCD tried to derail their lives and my choice to be vulnerable in recovery.
What doesn't lessen as much is the memory of that morning, where I was battered and broken, a process which had started weeks before any accident. In that moment when my face smacked the steering wheel, breaking the tiny bones in my nose, and my body slammed forward, leaving bruises and contusions scattered across me, splitting my lips open; when an impact happened, so severe that it broke the driver's seat completely in half; that moment felt like an ending- like every regret and mistake that I'd made over the past year stood there on the side of the road with me, degrading me, shaking and empty as I was. As the blood flowed from my nose and mouth, staining my hands and clothing, out spewed too the rage and disgust that I held for myself and was accompanied by the massive disappointment which was even more scalding than the Texas sunshine.
That sunshine was once my closest friend. I was raised on long days of swimming pools and I was always waiting for warmer weather. This year, as the windows begin to open and the air is painted with the smell of honeysuckle and fresh flowers, I can't help but notice that we're approaching June again. I find myself reflecting often on the last two summers and the suffering that they brought which kept me stifled by more than the overbearing heat. There's no way to be certain if this summer will bring another unraveling or not. What I do know is that this summer, I have so many things that I didn't then. I've discovered so much that I once thought was impossible- choosing recovery is a part of that. As the leaves return to the trees, and I enjoy late afternoons on my fire escape bathing in the sunshine, I will work at bringing myself back to the present moment, where I will continue to choose recovery every day, honoring this memory as a reminder of what can happen if you allow your passenger to take the wheel.