Climb Out of the Hell Well, pt. 2 – Start Hoping

Sunrise by Roy Lichtenstein, 1965
Sunrise by Roy Lichtenstein, 1965

In part one of this essay I described the Hell Well as the pit of despondency we dig ourselves into through worry. Since worry and despondency are seemingly undying, or at least perpetually renewable, we need a tool against them that’s just as strong. That tool is hope.

Hope springs eternal. Yeah, whatever, put it on a poster with a baby sloth and hang it in the church basement. Any of us with even the tiniest ember of cynicism still glowing from thousands of hours of listening to Pavement records want to scrape that lavender-scented pap to the toilet and flush twice. Which is why we need to get over ourselves and accept the fact that hope is eternal. The powerful conviction that things can always improve 1Not the frail delusion that things will always improve. will not die unless you let it. No facts can invalidate it; no reality can extinguish it. Hope’s immutability is what makes it such a ferocious weapon against despondency. “Hope is an ax,” wrote Rebecca Solnit, and it is–an indestructible ax. An adamantium skull cleaver hewing bloody stumps from despair.

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1. Not the frail delusion that things will always improve.

Climb Out of the Hell Well, pt. 1 — Stop Worrying

Over Water II by Chuck Olson
Over Water II by Chuck Olson

In the wake of the election, some of my friends are stuck down a Hell Well. They’ve used their worry and fear for America’s future to dig themselves into a dark pit of despair, some of them so deep that the only light they see comes from the demonic flames further down. I recognize it because I spent most of my life down a Hell Well.

Thanks to an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, I passed decades in fear of one horrifying future or another, or the fear of their being no future at all. Only in the last six of my 42 years–a tiny 14% of my life–have I crawled out for any significant period of time. That was only after my life became so unbearable that I hit the emotional and psychological bottom of the Hell Well.

I’d dug myself down with my worry, and I’d stay down there for years because I’d been futilely trying to worry myself out. It doesn’t work. The tools you use to dig can’t be used to climb. I had to forge myself new ones. And while not everyone who’s dug themselves into a Hell Well has an anxiety disorder, we can all use the same tools to climb out.

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Pull the Mask Off of OCD

NOTE: Irrational anxiety is not a necessary part of life. Help is available, and the International OCD Foundation is a great place to start looking. Click here for the history of my own OCD and to learn and why you have nothing to fear.

Being an unemployed TV writer, especially an unrepresented one, consists mainly of being ignored. I write scripts no one reads, send emails no one responds to, and spend my days sitting alone at home waiting for a passage to materialize in the void and a hand to come through it and tap me on the shoulder.

It was with that feeling that I woke up yesterday morning and the thought popped into my head that it could make no possible difference to anyone if I didn’t get out of bed. No one would notice. The world would spin happily along outside not pausing to think about me, or if it did, because it was deleting me from its phone contacts, it would assume I was happily doing whatever it is I usually do. It wouldn’t care. So I stayed in bed. I laid there, sad and hurt that no one cared whether I was alive or dead, and refusing to see a reason to face another day during which it made no difference whether I was conscious or not.

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OCD is the Same Everywhere, And You’re Never Alone

spiral_path_by_cernig-d45xrgnMy hometown newspaper the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is running a series of articles this week about obsessive-compulsive disorder. Today’s installment, about Pittsburgher and OCD sufferer Amy Iannuzzi-Tingley, will seem familiar to anyone who’s fought the disease. And that’s a great thing.

When people newly dealing with OCD contact me for support, they’re anxious, 1Duh. filled with worried questions, and afraid that their particular situation is viciously unique. But it never is. It’s always typical, so much so that I tell them I could cut and paste a response from dozens of emails I’ve written to other OCDers. In fact, I sometimes do.

That might sound dismissive and upsetting, but only if you don’t have OCD. If you do, you know how deeply comforting and important it is to learn that someone else has experienced the same thing  you’re experiencing and made it out the other side. Which is why I’m happy that there’s one particular sentiment that I most often cut and paste a response to. It goes like this, from actual emails I’ve received:

  • “You described so many symptoms that I’ve been experiencing for years and silently suffered through. It helped me so much to know that you’ve managed to control your OCD and live your life.”
  • “I suffer from similar symptoms. It is really comforting to know others have fought through this battle successfully.”
  • “Some of your descriptions match identically with feelings and thoughts I have. I was so glad to hear I am not the only person who suffers from this. “
  • “I’m in the same boat. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one.”
  • It was cathartic to reach out to someone and ‘hug them’ over the internet.”

I could cut-and-paste part Ms. Iannuzzi-Tingley’s story with parts of my own, or vice versa, and nobody would notice the changes. All of us with OCD start out feeling confused, afraid, and alone. But as soon as we realize we’re not alone, we stop being confused. Then it’s only a matter of time until we’re no longer afraid.

Read about my own experiences with debilitating OCD in my essay “My OCD.”

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1. Duh.

Here’s Why You are Not “So OCD”

Jasper Johns, Untitled (Negative), 2001 (Collection of The Museum of Modern Art)
Jasper Johns, Untitled (Negative), 2001 (Collection of The Museum of Modern Art)

This CNN article about a patient with severe OCD seeking treatment through deep brain electrical stimulation is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the disease. More specifically, for anyone who wants to understand why it’s frustrating and hurtful when people call themselves “so OCD” because they keep a grocery list. To wit:

At 12, Larsen was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. It causes anxiety, which grips him so tightly that his only relief is repetition. It manifests in the smallest of tasks: taking a shower, putting on his shoes, walking through a doorway.

There are days when Larsen cannot leave the house.

“I started worrying a lot about my family and loved ones dying or something bad happening to them,” he said. “I just got the thought in my head that if I switch the light off a certain amount of times, maybe I could control it somehow.

“Then I just kept doing it, and it got worse and worse.”

The disease hijacked Larsen’s life (he cannot hold down a job and rarely sees friends); his personality (he can be stone-faced, with only glimpses of a slight smile); and his speech (a stuttering-like condition causes his speaking to be halting and labored.)

Read about my own experiences with debilitating OCD in my essay “My OCD.”

I Know I Won’t Slit My Throat. I Don’t Believe I Won’t Slit My Throat.

razorYou’re reading this blog, which means either you’re in the hands of interrogators working for a government that has not signed on to the Geneva Conventions, or you’re familiar with my OCD and my history of intrusive suicidal thoughts. I’ll assume the latter, though I won’t be so presumptuous to assume that you know that I no longer have a beard. So I’ll mention that I wore one for the better part of a decade but, despite what that big photo on the left indicates, I retired it several months ago.

Okay, with those preliminaries out of the way, I can tell you that sometimes I’m afraid I’ll slit my throat with a straight razor.

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