Two UNW Alums Discuss OCD

Two UNW Alums Discuss OCD
by Megan Liesmaki (Theatre & Psychology ‘20) & Jackie Sommers (English—Writing ‘03)

Media has reinforced stereotypes that OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) is all about being clean. But we need the Northwestern community to know OCD is actually all about uncertainty—and the inability to tolerate it. It’s often called the “doubting disease.”

OCD starts with an intrusive thought which causes tremendous, often unbearable anxiety. The sufferer then performs some sort of ritual or action to alleviate the anxiety. For example, the person with intrusive thoughts of harming someone confesses his fears to a friend who reassures him he’s no killer. The one who fears contamination washes her hands for relief. The sufferer with blasphemous intrusive thoughts prays for forgiveness.

The disorder part comes in where this is happening so often that it negatively impacts daily life (this is part of the OCD diagnosis), and the compulsion which once brought relief becomes out of control.

Ironically, the best treatment for OCD is letting the thoughts exist and sitting with the anxiety. Picture a swimming pool. The OCD sufferer dips in a toe and, finding the water too cold, never gets in. The OCD sufferer doing exposure therapy goes all the way into the pool, lets the cold water engulf him, and later finds he has adjusted to the water temperature.

Jackie: I remember calling you to ask about your UNW application. What was going through your head in that first phone call?

Megan: I was so nervous. Fearful, even. The odds of speaking with someone about my doubt-ridden college application essay, someone who knew the specifics of a disorder that I hadn’t even really come to grips with, seemed impossible. I’m still dumbfounded and overwhelmed that when we were virtual strangers, you saw me— not the over-communicative, fearful, doubtful exterior, but the person behind the disorder.

How has knowing someone on campus with OCD helped or changed things for you?

Jackie: This may sound strange, but it felt like a second chance to relive college with more grace, nuance, and freedom— even though it was you I was hoping would experience those things. From the moment I read your UNW application— and even moreso when I first spoke to you on the phone— I felt like I was talking to a younger version of myself. I desperately wanted you to experience freedom from this monstrous disorder earlier than I had.

How about for you?

Megan: For me, it felt like knowing that there was a breath of fresh air if I ever felt like I was starting to drown. OCD is a master manipulator and a genius in terms of isolating people. Knowing that I could text you, pop by your office, or just run into you on campus gave me so much life— I knew that you were experiencing healing from OCD and were further down the road of healing than I was, that you understood me and my disorder and could talk me down when it was really bad. You started giving me tools that felt like oxygen and hope.

Jackie: When was the first time you realized you had OCD? How does it show itself?

Megan: In hindsight, I can identify OCD in my younger self; I remember the uncertainty, shame, and doubt that OCD traced into parts of my childhood and adolescence; this materialized in confessing “bad thoughts” to my mom, panicking over thoughts or feelings I had, spiritual doubt, and more. Coming to recognize that I had OCD and understanding what that practically meant took time for me. Your understanding of the disorder shed light onto my experience and was incredibly validating. If I could go back in time, I would tell younger Megan that OCD and the thoughts and doubts it fills her mind with are separate from her identity. OCD always comes back to uncertainty— specifically, uncertainty in the areas that you care most deeply about.

And you— what advice would you give your former self?

Jackie: My OCD also attacked the things most important to me: my faith, my salvation, my writing. I will always wish I had done exposure therapy— the gold standard treatment for OCD— earlier than later. I wish too that I’d sought out a diagnosis sooner. For me, it was a total of 20 years from onset to proper treatment; the average is 14-17 years, still far too long. I would tell young Jackie that there’s a name for those “bad thoughts,” that they are not her fault, that there is help, that even a brain disorder can’t separate her from the love of God.

What do you wish others knew about OCD?

Megan: I wish people knew that OCD isn’t about being a neat freak or a perfectionist. It is about uncertainty. It is also a mental disorder— not a personality trait. OCD is torture, it isn’t cute, and it is the least funny thing I have experienced. I also wish people who have OCD or suspect that they have the disorder would not be afraid to talk about it with people who understand. There are tools and help and freedom and hope through the door of understanding.

What is life like now after exposure therapy?

Jackie: Everything is different now. I walk in the lightness of freedom and not with the yoke of legalism. I can picture Christ delighting in me and my work. My new normal is feeling loved and accepted, redeemed and rescued. Amen.

For more information about OCD and ERP therapy, we recommend books by Jonathan Grayson, Lee Baer, Fred Penzel, Edna Foa, and Jon Hershfield. Megan and Jackie both write about life, faith, and OCD on Instagram (@megan_liesmaki and @jackieleasommers).

Writing Thoughts Lately

I’ve written five days in a row. Let me tell you how.

Sitting down at my computer was stressing me out. Reserving hours of writing time was stressing me out. My body couldn’t handle the stress, sitting at the computer, or the long hours.

So I took a blank journal, separated it into eight sections and every night I pick one or two areas and write about those things. It’s been less stressful. In fact, I’ve found myself looking forward to it each evening. It’s slower to write by hand (and I usually hate that), but it’s what this season requires of me.

Had a great conversation today with dear @brestrobel, who asked if I ever feel like WHY DO I KEEP TRYING TO DO THIS THING THAT IS SO HARD?

YES! ALL THE TIME!

But we both concluded it’s the one thing we want to excel at.

Writing at 39 is different than writing at 13, when I would willfully spend hours working on (terrible) stories. There was nothing I’d rather do. So why does it feel like I have to force myself these days? I suppose there could be a thousand reasons. Life is fuller, busier, and more complicated than at 13 (though perhaps not harder… 13 with undiagnosed OCD is not pretty). Maybe it’s harder in different ways.

Even in college, I saved my writing homework for last because it was so pleasurable. But when was the last time I’ve called writing pleasurable now? 2012 maybe, writing that first draft of Truest?

But here’s the thing. I still want it. I still love it. I’m still called to it and compelled by it. Life is messy and I have a complicated relationship with writing, but I DO HAVE A RELATIONSHIP. It has chosen me, and I really do feel a great sense of purpose in writing. There’s nothing else I want to do.

Wow, rambling, I know, but that was all to say: one thing wasn’t working, so I tried something else. The journal. And it’s working so far. And I love writing, except when I don’t.

Even then.

Strengths

I was today years old when I learned the StrengthsFinders strengths fell into categories. Four of mine (Learner, Ideation, Input, Strategic) fall under strategic thinking and the other one (Achiever) falls under executing.

This means NONE of my top strengths are in relationship building or influencing. I’m having a bit of an identity crisis.

GOLD, BLOOD, & STRUGGLE

Rhnull is the rarest blood on earth.  With only 43 people in history having such blood— and only nine active donors— every drop is so precious that doctors call it “golden blood.” For someone with this blood type in crisis, it becomes a global race against the clock. First, there are limits to how often those with rare blood can donate. Some countries pay donors, but many don’t— which means that donors often have to pay their own way to break through the red-tape of blood crossing borders. And of course, these donations have a shelf-life: frozen blood lasts 48 hours; fresh blood lasts 4-6 weeks. How ironic, the short longevity of that which increases longevity. 

*

Silent hypoxia is an unexpected but pervasive feature of COVID-19; that is, the body and blood are starved of oxygen before shortness of breath occurs. Oxygen levels in the blood are so low, doctors would expect these patients to be in shock; yet they sit calmly, smiling with blue-tinged lips. While many respiratory diseases use breathlessness as an emergency siren to the brain, this alarm has often been silent— the horror film with no soundtrack. 

*

Robert Frost’s famous poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” included in the Pulitzer-winning collection New Hampshire, calls out to the once-perfect garden of creation. Some scholars find fortune here though— a dawn succumbing to day being nothing to mourn. Felix culpa— a blessed fall. An hour of perfection, but a lifetime of meaning.

*

New guidelines from the London Bullion Market Association are well-intentioned: safe, environmentally friendly, and crime-free mining of gold, especially from big refineries. But for small-scale artisanal miners, these standards are impossible, meaning some of their spoils could be classified as “blood gold” due to their lack of protective clothing, ventilation, or other safety measures. The punishment of David, which was meant for Goliath.

*

Life is satire, but who is laughing?

This Week

I’ve been drowning in panic all week. Yes, it’s a big, busy, important week (new students move onto campus), but it’s also exciting and rewarding and I STILL FEEL LIKE I’M DROWNING. Then I scratched my eye, so everything feels foggy, and all I do is sleep. On Monday, I slept like 4 hours plus all night. Yesterday, 3-hour nap, then all night. Then all day today. This weird panic + the heat is just blazing through my spoons like they are matchsticks. I feel poor, out of control, and I cannot source this panic.

Okay, dear Body, I am listening. What do you need to feel safe? I can see my pillow, the phone screen with the blue light filter on, my wriggling fingers, the red numbers on the clock, the outside light coming through the space between my shades. I can touch the CPAP mask, it’s tubing, the felt against my cheeks, the air that vents. I can hear the cerebrospinal fluid in my head, the dull hum of the fan, the Trashcan Sinatras singing. I can smell shampoo on my pillow, smoke from outside. I can taste the sharp fizz of Listerine.

Bread, Moon, & Gravity

Bread, Moon, & Gravity

Early astronomers, mistaking the basaltic plains of the Moon for water, named them maria, Latin for seas. There’s Mare Crisium, Sea of Crises; Mare Ingenii, Sea of Cleverness; and Mare Cogitum, profoundly, the Sea that has Become Known. There are also lunar “lakes”—Lake of Summer, Lake of Autumn, but also Lakes of Sorrow, of Softness, of Forgetfulness—not to mention Bay of Roughness and Marsh of Epidemics and Lands of Manna. 

Manna on the Moon. Like an island wafer amidst these raging seas. 

Bread of heaven indeed. 

*

Turns out, whole grains are a thorn in a baker’s side. Germ and bran soak up water, add weight to a dough, hinder its rising capacity, and sometimes result in a loaf too dense to enjoy.

So water content is key. With white flour, the agreed-upon “baker’s percentage” of water to flour is 60%. With whole grain flour, it’s more like 105%– though sometimes up to 130%. 

In the words of legendary baker and grain expert Dave Miller: “You’re always fighting gravity with whole grain.”

*

The Moon’s gravitational field is full of anomalies, bullseye craters hiding an excess distribution of mass, altering local gravity above and around them. In 2012, twin probes Ebb and Flow orbited the Moon in tandem, mapping variations in the gravitational field and giving precise measurements of the lunar crust. Imagine ancient blows resulting all these years later in the Moon’s should-I-shouldn’t-I discretion, the way wounds make us wary.

*

During the Apollo 11’s radio blackout, aboard the Eagle lunar lander, Buzz Aldrin said a prayer and took communion— a small piece of bread, a small vial of wine. 

“In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup,” Aldrin wrote. The sacred crumb of God’s body rested on his tongue in a moment where man reached back toward heaven.

Summer Lessons 2021

Usually, as vacation winds down to its end, I find myself agitated and antsy, let down because I didn’t accomplish X, Y, or Z (to be clear, my vacations always have a long list of goals!!).

But today was great. I felt accomplished. I felt satisfied. I felt eager.

I’m objectively smart, and yet sometimes the most obvious things hit me like choruses from angels.

Today’s lesson/reminder was twofold:

1) You don’t have to keep doing things the same way if it’s not working anymore. So simple, yet sooooo freeing. I have all the permission in the world to try out new systems. Why was this so stunning and brilliant to me? IDK, but I’m sharing in case it is helpful for anyone else. I keep trying to force revisions of Yes Novel into the same format (a syllabus, deadlines, word counts, a narrative summary that feels like I’m banging my head against the wall) that worked for Salt Novel. It worked last summer, but it is not working this summer. OK. I’m going to try something else.

2) When I was younger, I believed I was capable of almost anything (*almost*… the WNBA was never a possibility). So the question was, “What would you do if you knew you’d never fail?” Now I’m a little older and am better acquainted with my own limits, the question is “What would you do EVEN IF you knew you’d fail?” There’s so much beauty in one’s calling.

Balance is an Illusion (in my life)

I get paralyzed with all the things I want to do. I wish I could find a routine and rotation for more balance, but instead I’m like WRITEWRITEWRITE, then OH GOSH I HAVEN’T CLEANED MY HOUSE IN FOREVER (clean clean clean), then HOW COME I HAVEN’T READ IN AGES (dives into TBR), then I HAVE NEGLECTED ALL MY PEOPLE (touches base with everyone and makes 100 plans, of which I will have to cancel 99 because…), I’VE DONE TOO MUCH AND NOW I MUST SLEEP FOR THREE DAYS IN ORDER TO FUNCTION.

I wonder what it would be like to be someone who read a little, wrote a little, cleaned a little, chatted with friends a little, etc. every day.

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