Dear 16-Year-Old Me

Dear sophomore-in-high-school Jackie, who just spent Thanksgiving sobbing on Grandma’s bathroom floor,

I promise you: it won’t always be like this.

It’s hard to imagine that now, I know. Doubt has been clawing at your mind for nearly a decade already, and now, this holiday, it seems like it’s finally captured you, a relentless grip you can never escape from. Everyone else is upstairs eating turkey and playing dominoes. Soon you’ll have to gather yourself together—thank goodness you don’t wear mascara yet—and head back upstairs to fake it. All you know is that something is wrong with you—your mind is in slavery, and you fear you’ll never find freedom. It’s not true. Oh, it’ll be a while still, about twelve more years, but you’ll find freedom. Believe me.

Here’s the truth. It’s OCD. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. You always thought it meant someone who washed their hands too much, someone who was a neat freak—and that was absolutely not you (I hate to tell you this, but even in your thirties, you still can’t keep your room clean), so you never gave it a moment’s thought. And now, in 10th grade, you’re only starting to learn how to use this wild thing called the internet. I know it’s not going to occur to you to Google “I think bad thoughts.” Scratch that. Google won’t even exist until next year.

Unfortunately, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. You’re going to wander down so many ugly alleys, obsessing over hell and your identity and the nature of reality. You’re going to believe that you’ve literally gone crazy, and no one on earth can keep record of the tears you’ll cry. But you’re going to write about it—all of it—and it’s going to be such lovely therapy for you in the interim. (Minus, of course, those months when that bastard OCD made you wonder if fiction was sinful like lying and you couldn’t go near your poetry or prose without feeling sick over it.)

You’re going to fill notebooks in high school with dramatic diary entries and over-the-top poetry. You’re going to go to college and study writing and pour your heart and energy into the creative work you’ll encounter there. You’ll even center your senior project—a memoir piece—around your battle with OCD, only you won’t have a name for it yet. But when the bottom drops out of your life in those years after college, you’ll finally be diagnosed, and it’s then that you’ll turn to writing novels.

Exposure therapy will save your life. And so will writing. So will Mom and Tracy and Megan and Cindy and Erica and Desiree and Ashley and God.

This holy amalgam will make you free. You won’t even know what to do with all the freedom, a surfeit of it, washing over you like a baptism, swilling out the pain, leaving behind … writing.

And so you’ll write. You’ll write stories that are raw and painful but hopeful. You won’t be able to write the ending to your first novel without having gone through the hell of OCD first. You’ll look back and say, Now I see. Same with your second novel.

So, for right now, teenage me, hold on. Find hope wherever you can, especially in others—they will keep you alive. And write. In every moment, good and bad, write. Let writing be your refuge and rescue. Give up the stupid show of pride. You’re going to need so much help; learn to ask for it. Find a place in your life for gray; throw your arms open wide to uncertainty. This will save you.

Love,

Jackie, now 35, free and writing

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The [Beautiful] Paradox of ERP

paradox of ERP2Exposure and response prevention therapy. ERP.

The hardest thing I have ever chosen to do in my life.

And one of the best.

But that’s not actually the paradox I’m talking about. The paradox of ERP that fascinates me most centers around uncertainty.

The whole point of ERP therapy is to teach someone to learn to live with, accept, even embrace uncertainty. ERP actually re-wires the brain to help the OCD sufferer with this. Before I went through ERP, I wanted to know everything with 100% certainty. Anything less would cause intense havoc in my mind, heart, and body. Because of this intense desire to know everything with certainty, I so often felt gobsmacked by uncertainty. I lived as if, without total certainty, I could barely know anything. Doubt pummeled me like a linebacker. My life was ravaged by uncertainty.

But once I went through ERP therapy and learned to accept uncertainty, the bizarre thing is that my confidence returned. I suddenly felt surety and certainty again– after I realized I didn’t need it.

When I demanded 100% certainty, what I ended up with was often something in the 25-40% range. Or lower.

When I abandoned the need for 100% certainty, I ended up in the 90-99% range. Sometimes less, but usually way, way up there.

That’s weird math. Backward logic. A paradox.

One I love.

99% sure,
Post-ERP Jackie

P.S. If the need to know for sure is ruining your life, you need ERP. Read more about it at jackieleasommers.com/OCD.

P.P.S. I’m a follower of Jesus Christ, and I can’t help but be struck by the similarity of this to “Lose your life to gain it.”

Image credit: Nicu Buculei, modified by me