"Aren't most artists a little crazy?"
I’ve always heard people joke about it: That artists are all a little crazy.
It’s May, and yet another "mental health awareness month” is upon us. I don't usually talk much about these things, but I figured this year, maybe it’s time.
For most of my life, I have dealt with an unusual level of anxiety. I never really understood what it was, but it definitely had a strange sort of twist to it. I have always had a tendency toward “catastrophizing”… A couple of decades ago, after a horrible family tragedy triggered my anxieties to an all time high, a doctor suggested “OCD” and that I go see a psychiatrist (or psychologist)… I did not take it seriously at all, and more or less laughed it off. My perception of OCD was that of what you see on TV, in the movies, etc. I thought, “I don't have to color coordinate things, line things up, or wash my hands all the time," and so on… Like most people, I had no idea what true OCD really was; that it is far more distressing of a disorder than most people know.
In the years after my brother was killed in 1999, my doctor kept trying to get me to go on meds for depression and anxiety. I always resisted, not trusting that stuff. But as years went on, it got worse— there was always this feeling that something really bad was going to happen— no matter how calm or good things were going in life. It was as if I had ESP and sensed something HORRIFYING was about to happen… But of course, nothing really ever did. Before I knew it, someone could suggest a "what-if" scenario about ANYTHING and I would get paranoid and wonder, “oh, my gosh— what if that happens to me?” What if that happens to my family? My mind would wake me up at 2AM and I would obsess with these things. Some topics would stay in my head for days-- even weeks sometimes. I had nightmares that were triggered by the death of my brother-- nightmares of my family being killed, etc. I simply chalked it off as typical fear reaction to a tragedy, but apparently there was a noticeable pattern that made it a little different: I could barely let my wife take the kids anywhere without me. In my mind, there was almost absolute certainty that the odds of them getting killed or kidnapped were more than 50%. "Get help"--- that was the doctor's order. I didn't.
It started to affect my being out in public as an artist. I began fearing some bad thing was going to happen, cancel convention appearances, etc. But then it became more noticeable at home… I could not go out of the house without checking everything. The doors. The locks. The windows. What if I leave and someone breaks in and steals sensitive work related information? I would hide all of my hard drives and laptop, etc. I would constantly check the stove to make sure nothing could start a fire… ;
Nobody knew this was going on. Only my wife and kids. Outwardly, I was was functioning normal as far as anyone could tell.
Somewhere around 2006, I finally relented and went on the meds (specifically, Lexapro) to calm down this anxiety. It worked for the most part, but I noticed it really made me kind of zombie-like. So, whatever the doctor prescribed, I would cut it in half. And as years went on, I would try to ween myself down, and decided I was fine and tried to slowly quit. Over the course of 12 years, I think I quit about 4 times, only to have severe withdrawal. Finally, a few years ago— I quit completely . I regained my energy and thought I felt great. Seemed like it was going good, until all of those fear traits intensified to a level higher than ever before. I was worse than before. Mind you, they never went away to begin with, but I was taking the meds they were more subdued… And as I was slowly weening myself, they were creeping back in and I did not even notice. It was so gradual.
The most noticeable trait that finally caught my attention was when I began thinking that I may have accidentally hit or ran over someone with my car. Constantly. I would either hit a bump, or it would simply be a lapse of time where I would daydream while driving, and suddenly realized that I didn't remember driving through a specific area, and wonder, “what if I blacked out and ran someone over or caused a huge accident ?’” So I would go back and check. Sometimes, several times. It was ridiculous. Silly, even. At that point, I was so scared I was losing my mind, I did what most people do— turn to google, and looked up my symptoms. And, lo and behold— what was the one thing all of this pointed to? OCD. I remembered what the doctor had said all those years ago, and it all came into light. After a 3 month long anxiety/panic attack (really, a mental breakdown) I returned to my meds. It took a while for me to come back down to what would be considered normal for me. But now that I knew what was afflicting me (I finally went to the right doctors, therapists, got an official diagnosis etc) I could begin to live in some sort of new version of normal... My normal.
I have been constantly educating myself about this condition… I have joined groups with other people of the same disorder and now have a completely different perspective and perception in my everyday life. I used to be so neurotic and easily agitated to some form of temperamental reaction, but now that is all seemingly gone. It makes a huge difference when you know what is wrong with you. They say the first step in dealing with a problem is admitting you have one.
It doesn’t do much good to talk about it around people who dont know the truth about this condition. Most people (including myself before all of this) have a different perception of what OCD really is, and they definitely look at you weird when you say you suffer from it. Or, they claim they are a little OCD as well, and begin to explain how they sometimes need things in a certain order, and describe the TV "glamorized" version of what everyone thinks OCD is.. I saw this video from this woman on YouTube where she tells of her daughter going through the rituals similar to one of my struggles and it really hits home :
It’s hard to allow people to know about a condition like this. Either, they dont take it seriously enough, or they over react to it and think there is some reason they should not be around you. In the end, OCD is harmless to everyone else but the person who suffers from it.
Three of my kids have it, and it helps me to have it alongside them to be able to help them though it. My poor wife— living with four OCD people and one autistic in the household, She is a strong one!
You also dont want people to think you are so weird, that they cant hire you, or that you are somehow some sort of mental illness risk. In my line of work, OCD has zero effect on my work, but actually helps it. As an artist, it presses my obsessiveness to wanting to fulfill others’ acceptance of my work and tends to make me excel at getting the job done. It’s not always comfortable for me, but from their point of view, all they see is me working hard, and fast and getting it done. Also causes me to be extra protective of my client confidentiality.
It is also because of this condition, that I have an extreme discomfort in social settings, or public forums. I hated being on Facebook for the years I was on there, and also struggled with having a YouTube channel, eventually letting it die down years ago. As an artist who has to support a family, it is necessary for me to put my art out there, so I have quite a struggle trying to find balance in the middle of all of this. I typically enjoy secluded jobs (working with ad agencies on work that is never credited) and quietly existing with my family.
The science behind OCD describes it as something in the way of the “fight or flight” part of your brain misfiring all the time, when there really is no real danger. Kind of like a gate going down constantly at a railroad crossing when no train is coming. The obsession part comes when it consumes our every thought, and you spend all of your time in fear, checking— worrying.. The compulsion comes in the form of whatever it is you need to do to satisfy that part of your brain that is misfiring. It could be checking that stove over and over again It could be constantly looking things up on the internet to relieve your fears… It could be going back over and over again checking and checking to make sure you didn't hit someone with your car.
The recommended therapy to OCD is to do the opposite of what the compulsions cause you to do. Live with the uncertainty. Even agree with fears and accept, "Yep. that MIGHT happen". (known as ERP therapy)
Having finally conceded to realizing I have this problem has caused me to be more aware and supportive of others who suffer other mental health issues. I now understand the importance of the awareness factor, and really sympathize/emphathize with some many out there who suffer various forms of anxiety, depression and mental health obstacles.
It's also time for me to stop hiding in fear. I need to get out there, be productive, I not only have 4 kids, but one of them has autism and will never be able to live on her own. It is my responsibility to stand up, work hard at success and make sure that when I am gone, she is taken care of.