When I was eighteen, I was in a very emotionally abusive relationship. It was a very dark time in my life. When it ended, I was in an extremely bad place both mentally and physically. I was anorexic, afraid and I hated myself. It was the last year of high school and I had limited interaction with my friends and I spent a lot of time in my room
I began experiencing new depressive symptoms that made my life a living hell. My odd behaviours started small at first. They quickly grew to an uncontrollable level. The first thing that I did was wash my hands. All the time. I could not tolerate the thought of having germs on my hands, or anywhere else for that matter. At night when I would go to bed, I would wash my hands thoroughly, I’d turn the light out with my elbow so as not to get any germs on my hands and I would wiggle between my sheets ensuring that my hands didn’t touch anything. If by chance my hands brushed against something (anything), I would go back to the bathroom and begin the whole process again. Sometimes getting into bed could take me more than 40 minutes.
I started reading the bible which was quite odd for me as I had no interest in religion. My motivation was not to become educated in religion or to establish a relationship with God. My motivation was to read one verse of the bible each night before bed so that no one I knew would get cancer and die. I absolutely believed that if I did not read one verse of the bible and say the Lord’s prayer before going to sleep, I (or someone close to me) would get cancer and die a horrible death. I believed that with every ounce of my being.
This meant that my nightly routine got longer. I would read my verse, wash my hands and say my prayer. I did this every single night without fail. It was not possible for me to go to bed without doing all those things. I had become obsessed and it was exhausting.
Pretty soon one verse of the bible was not enough. It became a chapter. The same obsession just longer. Soon after that saying the prayer was not quite enough. I had to say the prayer and then in my mind write the words and put a full stop on the end each sentence. I had to get the full stop in exactly the right place. If I did not do it right, the full stop might become a semi colon and the sentence would not be complete I could die. I was petrified of dying and thought about it all the time. I was crippled with fear.
My nightly routine eventually became reading several chapters of the bible, washing my hands, sometimes a dozen times, saying my prayer in my head whilst in my mind’s eye writing the words and putting a full stop on the end. My nightly routine would often take several hours to get through. It was rigid, it was obsessive, and it was fuelled by intense fear and paranoia.
I wish I could say that my obsessive behaviours stopped there but I’m afraid they didn’t. Pretty soon it wasn’t enough to put the full stop on the end of the sentences in my prayer. I had begun putting full stops on all my sentences. Every thought that I had, every sentence I said out loud, I wrote the words in my mind’s eye and made sure that a full stop went at the end of every sentence. It was all consuming. It was exhausting. I began speaking less so that I had less full stops to do. I ended every sentence I could with the letter ‘y’ because it was the easiest letter to put a full stop behind. It’s quite incredible how many ways you can end a sentence with the letter ‘y’. I was very creative, and terribly fearful that I was going to die.
As with all my mental health issues throughout my teenage years I didn’t dare talk to anyone about them. I said absolutely nothing. I didn’t ever confide in my parents, my brother who I was quite close with or my friends. No one knew. I was a master at keeping it secret.
During these years I hated myself with such intensity that I thought that if I dared share with anyone that I was struggling, they would hate me even more than I thought they did already. I hated myself so much that I couldn’t understand anyone loving me or liking me. I thought if I gave them ammunition, they would eliminate me from their lives altogether, so I suffered in silence, I kept it all to myself. In my own head I was in tremendous pain every day. Outside my head, I participated in most aspects of life so that no one knew my deep dark secret – that I was a dysfunctional, crazy human being. I was surrounded by people but entirely and completely on my own.
If I’m being honest, I have to admit while I don’t read chapters of the bible each night before bed now, I do still put full stops on the end of my sentences. Not all the time. Usually when I’m not doing very well. It’s one of those things that happens when I’m starting to go downhill. As the darkness creeps in, all those quirky dysfunctions come back to haunt me. Funnily enough though these little dysfunctions are extremely helpful in helping me identifying the warning signs. I have a list of them on my fridge and it looks like:
- Putting full stops on sentences in my head
- Biting my nails
- Not going for a walk each day
- Obsessing about small details
- Getting uptight and anxious while driving
- Waking up at 3am
All these little dysfunctions are useful because are they are my warning signs. They warn me that I’m not doing well. They tell me that I need to make some changes if I’m going to avoid a full-blown depressive episode. My psychologist calls them my little red flags that exist on the side of the cliff. If I don’t recognise the flags and grab a hold of the edge, I will mostly certainly fall off the edge and into the abyss of depression.
I’m thankful for my little dysfunctions and they have saved me more on more than one occasions.
What are your little red flags and how do you use them to stay well?