Friday, June 4, 2010

Mental disability and mental health are not mutually exclusive

Image: A head with a face and brain visible, mapped into different sections labeled in German. The 1894 print represents phrenological mapping of the brain. From Wikipedia.

Right now, I have a mental disability that affects my day to day functioning, my minute to minute existence. I have to make considerations for myself, these parts of me that aren’t going away. I spend, on average, probably an accumulated hour a day righting myself from OCD attacks. It takes a little chunk of time to calm my pulse, to tweeze a hair from my chin, to quit procrastinating. This is an hour I could spend doing other things, as much time in a week as I spend at one of my jobs. Little by little, it’s not too bad, but it adds up and adds some extra challenge to life. My mental disabilities are active, and they are disabling.

Because I have OCD, I often have to counter little attacks of anxiety when I check my email, refresh my dashboard, or look at comments on my Bitch posts. Because I have OCD, I have to ward off dozens of intrusive thoughts throughout my day – horrible images that I’m not going to recount that try to disable my functioning, that I am only able to combat after years and years of practice. Because I have OCD, I have to check and recheck certain things – I just took 15 minutes to walk down to my car and make sure the doors were locked and the emergency brake was on. Because I have mild ADD, I have to constantly clear out my tabs in Firefox so I can get back to work. Because I have trichotillomania, I am constantly feeling my skin for hairs I want to pluck, constantly wondering where my tweezers are.

Despite all these symptoms, this is also the healthiest I’ve been mentally in quite some time. I feel good about myself and my life and my mind. I am confident. I think I am worthy of the positive attention I get, enough so that I feel ready to examine the negative attention I get and try to alter my behavior in consideration of this. I like the way I look and the way my body works. When I wake up in the morning, I feel good, and happy to be alive. ETA: These are all indications of my privilege, too.

I am writing more than I think I’ve ever written in my life. The words do not always come easily, but they are always there. Writing is what I want to make my bread and butter. I’ve always felt it to be a realistic goal, but for the first time, it doesn’t feel distant – it feels palpable, and I know it will happen. I am confident in myself. I like myself. I feel like I can, even if it’s not today.

At the outset of my most recent major OCD experience, I got very ambitious. My thinking was that I didn’t have time to be put out of my life by disability, so the disability had to be eliminated. From one perspective, I think this ambitious, goal-oriented approach help me empower myself when I felt cowed by my thoughts. (eta: again, thanks privilege!) But as happens so often with empowerment, I used the master's tools to get to it. This desire was also indicative of my internalized ableism. I thought that disability and happiness were completely incompatible, and so the only option for my disability was destruction.

My OCD is not curable, but its presence does not negate my happiness. Though, I will not always be this – happy. I haven’t always been. Sometimes it’s because of disability, sometimes it is not. But disability right now is not erasing or silencing my health. It’s there alongside my health, challenging it, making it stronger, preparing my health to survive and work through and with my disabilities.

Further reading:
Stop and think: invisible access for invisible disabilities
Disability and birth control: parts one, two, and three
OCD, Language, & My Place on the Disability Spectrum: One and Two
‘Normal’ and the Dominant Narrative
I can’t count on anybody to understand. (Blogging Against Disablism Day 2010)
Trichotillomania: cures, shame, localization, management
The Pain is real even though you can’t see it


  1. "Because I have trichotillomania, I am constantly feeling my skin for hairs I want to pluck, constantly wondering where my tweezers are."

    This is trichotillomania? Touching my chin all day to check for hairs? Being unable to go past a mirror without checking for chin hairs to pluck? spending a good 10 minutes several times a day at the mirror checking for new hairs to pull? Feeling anxious when I can't get to a mirror or don't have tweezers even if there's no hairs?
    Feeling anxious when i see and feel a hair that's not quite long enough to pluck but is still embedded?

    It's not just me? I thought trichotillomania just referred to pulling out head hairs?
    (or am I reading too much into your post?) Can I get help with this?

  2. Saranga, I am not medically trained so I cannot give a diagnosis. But many of your symptoms line up with mine, and you are DEFINITELY not alone. I am constantly feeling at my chin for coarse hairs to pluck - even though I only have about a half dozen recurring ones that I just pluck over and over again. I almost had an anxiety attack at a music festival when I realized that I had a chin hair I couldn't pluck.

    I've had trich symptoms for eight years now, and it's never ever been about my head. I've had issues with a lot of other areas that I won't mention for triggering reasons.

    I've never sought professional help with my trich, but I think you definitely can. Treating my OCD has made it a lot better, though the two are not necessarily related. Here's a starting point:

    This sounds like it's caused you pain and difficulty, and I'm so sorry for that. I hope you can find some help or resolution. <3

  3. thank you. i have considered my compulsive checking as a form of ocd before (which i think i have had a form of before altho that's purely self diagnosis and i am not medically trained), and i have known about trich but not made the connection.

    my boyfriend hates that i do it as i often have scabs/spots on my chin caused by picking (at hairs that he sees don't exist, because they aren't long yet) and i have gone through electrolysis before - which made me feel much freer for while, but it doesn't prevent new ones growing, sadly. plus it doesn't remove my issues, which is making me pick.

    the first time i found about someone else who did similar to me, and to the same extent was in the Dar webcomic. i felt so relieved (and I am someone who knows about mental health issues). so to read about another real person again, is, well, overwhelming really.

    thank you for the link and reassurance. it means a lot.

  4. I (Faye) too have trich, but I don't pull at head hairs unless severely, severely stressed out. Usually... [trigger warning:]...

    I pick at my eyelashes and eyebrow hairs, as well as percieved long chin/neck hairs, toe hairs, etc - things that don't seem normal to me. Dermotillomania, the picking of skin, is an associated disorder: the urge to pick at scabs, pluck at skin for no reason, pick open pores or zits, etc etc etc.

    For me, I only pick at my skin (I fidget with the fat areas on my arm and pull the skin) when I'm stressed, but I pull at my eyelashes when I'm tired, mostly, and also when I'm stressed, or even just itchy - I've learned to pick my makeup very carefully to not trigger "clumpiness". actually must be pretty common. My roommate, my girlfriend and I all have either dermotillomania or trichotillomania or both to varying degrees. None of us are textbook examples, but it's definitely a daily annoyance. will probably tell you this, but although trich is harder to treat through medicines than other kinds of OCD-spectrum conditions, it's had success being treated with cognitive behavioral therapy.

    Let your boyfriend know this isn't something you're doing simply out of vanity or choice. Believe me, it's hard to stop and the support/understanding of a loved one is really important. And also, understand it within yourself. It's a coping mechanism, and it's (albeit not efficiently) trying to serve a purpose.

    Wow, this was a ramble. Best of luck!

  5. Heh. I'll chime in with others in that I didn't realize that trichotillomania was a disorder or that it had a name. I pluck hairs from my beard all the time, and it leaves very noticeable bald patches that people have commented on in the past. I also pull hairs from other places, and it's strangely satisfying/addictive. It's more of an issue when I'm stressed.

    For the most part, though, I don't find that it interferes with my life. As worst it's a little embarrassing (but since I have tourette's perhaps my standards for "embarrassing" are a bit different from other people).

    Anyway, I don't mean to derail, and my apologies if that is what I'm doing. It just struck me as an interesting discovery about myself. Thanks for the post.

  6. Not at all derailing and completely on topic, Cessen. Folks experience different degrees of trich and all are welcome to share their experiences with it. Thanks for sharing!

  7. @ everyone: thank you.

    @ cessen: most of the time I don't feel like it interferes with my life, or is a problem, because I am so used to doing it and can do it easily and discretely. Though I'd still like to stop doing it/being in thrall to it.

    Anyway, it becomes an issue when for whatever reason I can't do it (lack of tweezers, mirror, being on a train journey, in a meeting etc) or when I think about my history of mental (un)health and realise that i have quite probably replaced one coping/controlling strategy with another, and I really really resent that.

    Part of my flood of emotions and questions yesterday was that it hit me that I still have these coping mechanisms, and that must mean that I am not as 'normal' 'healthy' or 'happy' as I thought it was. Labels are funny things.

    Today I feel different and realise that having a diagnosis/experience/syndrome does not make me a bad person, or make me less healthy/happy/normal than the next person.
    Ah, the ups and downs and worries of being in my head...

    (Now I feel like i've turned your blog discussion into being all about me...sorry about that, but thank you for the revelations and support)

  8. Saranga, not at all. You comments are brave and totally relevant - thank you so much for sharing.


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