How does one tell a tale of undoing?
Mental illness runs in my family. None of it diagnosed, of course, but the signs have always been there.
From as early as the 4th or 5th grade, I knew something was… funny about me. Even earlier than that, I noticed the peculiar behaviors of my family members, mostly from my father’s side. My father was ritualistic, and he moved slowly. Before getting into bed, he’d always rub the soles of his feet together to brush off the dirt and grime. His actions, as I recall, were always deliberate. Slow, but firm. From the outside, nothing seemed to be amiss, but I had spent enough time around him to know he often had a period of thoughtful “frozenness” before he could proceed. He also slept frequently, or for unusually long periods of time, as I would become very familiar with. As for my father’s parents, I remember that they would bathe and wash dishes with scalding hot water. “To kill the bacteria,” they’d say. My paternal grandmother, in particular, organized the entire house in a very precise manner. I mean, if a bottle of dầu xanh (Eagle Brand Medicated Oil) was placed back on her nightstand at the wrong angle, you’d know that wouldn’t do it for her.
There are a lot of other things I came to notice and understand with time, indicating different meanings, but these were some of the first and most prominent observations I made as a child. In any case, if it was already in my blood, and I grew up observing it, then surprise, surprise: I found myself also exhibiting symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. The checking, the counting, the repeating, the cleaning, the whole shebang. I hated it all.
But somewhere along the line, I decided to quit. Wait, what?
Let’s pause here. 1) you can’t just get rid of an anxiety disorder by deciding to 2) my experience with OCD is not representative of others’ 3) I only vaguely remember figuratively exploding and willing myself to stop. For all I know, it could be a memory I’ve constructed.
Regardless, it happened and it was real. I… somehow violently shook off the worst of my OCD. Let me explain.
From what I could roughly recall, I had gotten so angry one day at how suffocated I felt by all the compulsive rituals and routines that in a storm of frustration, I had this explosive (or should it be implosive?) moment where I relinquished control, simultaneously realizing and deciding that I just couldn’t do it anymore.
I had had it up to here with feeling constantly constrained by this awful, invisible force inside me, and I was tired of witnessing myself involuntarily go through exhausting and time-consuming ritualistic motions in order to be released from the anxiety. So one day I just sorta let it consume me. I didn’t cave into the compulsions, but instead stayed a frozen, sweaty, tingling, anxious mess. And the anxiety gradually rose inside me like mercury in a heating thermometer, until eventually, the glass broke.
I guess once I experienced the worst of what the disorder could do to me, it lost some of its power. I think the reason for this is because my anxiety stemmed from the fear of horrible feelings/things that would happen (it felt like the world was going to fall apart) if I didn’t perform the compulsive acts. But once I actually waited long enough to see what would happen if I did nothing at all, I learned that it wasn’t all that bad. I mean, the meltdown was baddd, don’t get me wrong, but the world didn’t actually shatter to pieces. In fact, it went on just as usual.
Thus, as ridiculous as it may sound, after the incident, the OCD wasn’t taking over my life anymore. I traded in my pristine room for a messy one. I stopped perfecting, stopped cleaning, stopped being stuck/frozen until I performed my little rituals. But before we get all excited and even more skeptical of this miraculous victory, I will say that I still exhibit remnants of the disorder- a more manageable form of it. I still organize things, but now for stuff like the books on my shelf that I never read. Everywhere else is a mess. I’m still very precise; it shows up in my art, but that’s a good thing sometimes. And I still check, mostly for the important or higher pressure things like whether or not I have my keys or all the parts of a document, whether my desk at work is exactly the way it was before, etc.
I have no idea how OCD works. I’m not sure how it stopped (or greatly lessened) while at its peak. Looking back, I still can’t fathom it all. And while I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand what happened, I’m just grateful not to be in that shudder-inducing place anymore.
However, after years of thinking through possible reasons why the feat was possible, the story my brain likes to go with is that somehow my anxious need to not fail at school managed to overpower my anxious need to carry out compulsions. It became too unsustainable for me to keep living like that; I wouldn’t survive, and a part of me knew.
To give examples, I was often late to join the next lesson in class. While the other kids were pushing in their chairs to go to discussion time, I was stuck there making sure all my notebooks were stacked neatly and my pencil was laid straight. Testing was awful; for each answer, I had to make sure I bubbled in the correct letter multiple times, and neatly in the circles/rectangles. I still do this now, but to adapt I found smarter ways to deal with the anxiety: I cut it down to checking only once, and I broke up bubbling into 4 answers at at time so I don’t go back and forth between the test and answer sheet for every single question.
After middle school (and the incident), things remained relatively manageable for the next couple of years. With time, I learned that some symptoms come and go, and others don’t. During one period of time, some behaviors may be more intense than others, and during another, they may be less frequent or subdued. In turn, I came to discover multiple family heirlooms tucked inside of me.
Let’s speed up to this past year, my 3rd year of undergrad. Here’s the context:
1st year: new environment. different demographics than I’m used to. stressed. lonely. purposeless. went to see a counselor on campus, was nice but ultimately unhelpful except for pointing me to other resources. found theatre, found friends, bye sadness (haha, if only)
2nd year: had a really good network of friends and support system, met lots of new people, was in too many organizations at once but it made me happy. Loved what I was learning, fueled to angrily succeed by the terrifically awful ending of my relationship the summer before; I did pretty well that year. One significance: my Spanish professor noticed that I did really good work, but at a slower pace than other students. On a couple of exams/labs, I finished just on time or a couple of minutes after, but I slid through like I’d been doing for years.
3rd year: ohoho. This is why this post exists. It went like this:
I came into the school year missing two of my good friends who had recently graduated. (Remember that nice support system I had? Good, cause I miss it too.) I had grown apart from the theatre organization I was in. I moved into an apartment after two years of dorm life- you could imagine the difference; having to suddenly cook for myself, do everlasting dishes, grocery shop, clean, drive again, and live with two more people than I was used to. On top of that, I was pre-grieving the departure of basically all the remaining people I loved in college, as it was their last year with me. Then, there were the organizations. I was only in two, but each was intense and required a lot of time and energy. I had little of both. The fatigue was so bad I was often breathing heavily getting from one meeting to another. The things I loved learning became emotionally taxing: in Sociology, you imagine good things happening in society, not study them. Welcome to burnout, Thanh.
During this year, I had my last course of Spanish in the sequence. Why is Spanish so significant? Because its structure is similar to math. That means, there are right and wrong answers. And when there’s the possibility of being just outright wrong,* the part of me that needs to be precisely right freaks out, regardless of whether or not I know my stuff. Essays are a breeze for me, and content is easy to learn, but something about the act of making important decisions (which in this case, e.g., choosing the correct conjugation of a word on an exam), overwhelms me. The more importance I put on something, the more anxious I get, and then it takes longer for me to make a decision as I have to go through every. single. possibility, its reasoning, and implications. I will say, though, that that type of deep, thorough thinking is how I came to love writing.
*I’m a liberal arts student, there are no right answers. You just cry, and with uncertainty.
Anyway, I do well, but freak out a lot in the process. You can see how easy it is to miss someone struggling when they’re high functioning and their grades look great on paper.
Except, when it peeks out during high-stress times/situations.
Closer to the end of the semester, I found myself once again at the end of a Spanish exam; one of the last students in the room, sweating to finish on time while trying to suppress feelings of inadequacy. This time, though, I couldn’t barely skirt by like I always do. I needed maybe 15 more minutes, and the next class was coming in. The professor asked me and the one other student left, bless her for existing so I wasn’t alone, to come finish our exams in her office. When I finished, my professor, very casually so, suggested accommodations as an option. I was surprised and wary, but she didn’t shame me, didn’t make a big deal out of it. In fact, she made it seem smaller, if not sort of even… common. My professor mentioned that lots of people have accommodations for various reasons: test anxiety, a difference in processing speed (that’s me!), difficulty concentrating, etc. And though I might not always need it, just having the option to receive more time, would be a huge safety net so that I’d panic less, which is a lot better for test performance… and life.
Sure, it all sounded very nice, but after leaving my professor’s office, I only had one word on my mind: disability. It’s in the name: ADA accommodations. The Americans with Disabilities Act. I was already feeling guilty and embarrassed for having to stay back to finish, but this, this stopped me. I felt weak in the knees and uncomfortable and confused and sad and a little angry all at once. My chest felt tight, and I was in that wants-to-cry-but-can’t-and-doesn’t-even-know-what-for state.
For the first time, it dawned on me that me taking a longer time than others to do certain tasks meant something. I looked back at all the times I had ever barely turned in an exam or assignment on time, the times I sat in my seat uncomfortably as I saw more and more people finish around me, and realized that these recurring instances are tied together with an actual reason that isn’t me.
I had known for a long time that I take longer to process things because I do it hyper-thoroughly. I’ve never been ashamed of it, though, despite all the stress it’s caused me. I understood that while other people see a path from point A to point B, I see that path too, but I also stand there looking around at paths 2, 3, 4, and 5 to make absolutely sure that path 1 is the best one, even if I already knew from the beginning. My anxiety demands that I back up my decision with solid proof, reasoning, and negation of all other options. Imagine doing math minutes and knowing the answer to a problem but a part of you won’t let yourself put it down unless you think through it multiple times to be sure. Yeah. It sucks. But that’s not the point of this paragraph. The point is, on the flip side, I also see value in this part of me: I always consider different angles to approach a problem, I have a keen eye for small details, I refrain from jumping to conclusions, and I’m always cautious/careful. With most things, I want to know other points of view so I can avoid rash decisions and make final choices that benefit the most people.
Returning to the story, after thinking about my chat with the professor and what it really meant, the conception I had of myself was cracking. All of a sudden, I’m looking at things differently. On the one hand, it was a relief to know that I’m not just slow without a reason. On the other, it means that I’m different. Not normal. Of course, I’ve been long-aware of the things that I do differently, but I had always normalized them in the context of myself. It was just me. Now, it’s me being set apart from others.
I took a couple of days to work through the internalized stigma, pried my pride from my anxiety so I don’t equate my mental illness with me, talked to peers about mental health and accommodations, and actively tried to reframe and unlearn my notions of what “disability” meant.
Finally, I got to a place where I recognized that having accommodations would be so incredibly relieving. Extended due dates would allow me to do assignments that I know I’d do well on but just don’t have enough time for (since I operate differently than the people for whom these due dates were designed). More time on exams meant I CAN BREATHE NOW. And importantly, I forced myself to come face to face with the truth: I have this thing that’s kind of debilitating, it’s affecting my life, and maybe I should do something about it. It doesn’t mean I am less, it doesn’t mean something’s wrong with me, it just means there’s something different with me that requires the restructuring of things to level out the playing field for me sometimes.
The next step was to find out how to get accommodations. Filling out paperwork is easy, proving that you have a mental illness/disability, is another. Documentation was required. When they suggested taking tests I couldn’t afford to provide the proof, I got a little hopeless. But then I sought out a friend to ask about their process of acquiring documentation- a friend who I appreciate so, so much- because they offered alternative solutions and even ended up helping me throughout the entire process.
And that’s how I decided to try counseling again after two years. My counselor would be able to give documentation of my anxiety and depression, and at a much lower cost.
The spring semester arrives, I had been going to counseling, and by then I was able to receive accommodations. Cool. So why was I still doing so poorly? I had already gotten more time to finish assignments; I should be able to get back on track now.
It was only a couple of weeks into the semester, surely I can suck it up and do these assignments. I got by for a little bit, pushing myself through one assignment at a time. Until, I opened up my laptop one day, ready to write this very simple paper, and I just… couldn’t. I couldn’t understand it. I’ve written harder, longer papers. This should be simple. So why is nothing coming out? I knew what to write, too. The content of my argument and the structure of my paper was all there in my head like normal. But the due date got closer and closer, and I still didn’t have anything. I was frustrated, guilt-ridden, ashamed, but also extremely apathetic. I was fighting with myself. I knew that a part of me was adamantly refusing to write this paper. It couldn’t imagine going through the rest of the semester like this.
So I didn’t. I couldn’t push through the paper, and I dropped the class; something I had never done before. It was the first time I had ever really given up on something. If my conception of myself was cracking before, it’s shattered and scattered to the wind now. I had always prided myself on my ability to persevere. Even if everything else was terrible, I could always count on myself to make good grades. After all, I loved learning.
But here I was, the one thing I was good at, I wasn’t anymore. And along with that, was the feeling that I wasn’t anymore.
(This was when I realized how much I had based my identity on being able to do well academically and proceeded to reflect and melt into a pool of water.)
Turns out, that wasn’t going to be an isolated incident. I was slippin up everywhere- I couldn’t get out of bed, I was missing meetings left and right, slept a huge amount, and just barely dragged myself to class. I was behind on assignments from other classes, and I felt more drained than I ever had before. Yet I kept fighting it, stubbornly trucking along until I couldn’t. I thought things like: Well, now that you’re taking fewer hours, there are no excuses not to do well. Just put in a little more effort, grit your teeth and toughen up. It’s not even that difficult, you’ve gone through so much worse. Some people are juggling twice as many things as you are, your situation really isn’t that bad. Maybe you just need a little break, some self-care, and you can power through like you always do.
But the fact of the matter is that I hadn’t gotten any real work done in days. I would only wake up to go to class, and that was the most I could muster. And I acted so much. I pretended I was doing fine, made up a lot of excuses for tardiness, and hid behind “Don’t worry, I’m just tired.” I laughed when I was supposed to, pretended to be interested in things, and talked to people when all I wanted to do was not be there, wherever I was. The worst part was, a lot of this wasn’t conscious. It was a mode I automatically switched to: to conceal.
More thoughts I had during this period of time:
Am I victimizing myself? Is my status as having mental health difficulties/disabilities even legitimate? Is this real depression or a placebo? I mean, I’ve never been officially diagnosed, right? What if I just psyched myself out and created a self-fulfilling prophecy? It’s not that bad compared to other people, not that serious. Am I using mental illness as an excuse for being weak-willed? What if I’m just lazy and need coffee and motivation? Can I really claim having anxiety/depression? What if I’m just in a slump, or my anemia had worsened somehow?
My problems are so minor, it still feels like lying whenever I have to discuss my accommodations. I can will myself out of this. I mean, I’ve done it before with OCD years ago, didn’t I? And people can overcome burnout- remember Senioritis in high school? What if you’re having Junioritis? Surely this is the same thing.
Your family survived famine, and a war; your mother left the familiar, traveled across the ocean to come to a half home, and you have the AUDACITY to be depressed? Resilience is in our blood, so why can’t you just get through this semester?
In reality, I had run out of energy. Turning in an assignment on time would sometimes mean I wouldn’t get to eat or sleep the night before. I was constantly out of time, my organizations were getting more demanding as the semester progressed, and after a while, the amount of things I had to do to catch up was so humungous that in order to just get back on track where the rest of the class was, it would take everything and more that I couldn’t offer.
Around this time, I had realized a couple of things from counseling:
1) I hated the classes I was taking that semester. That paper I couldn’t write, along with some other assignments, were so simple that I felt no desire to do them. They weren’t stimulating. For example, some of the content from my psych class was so Eurocentric and outdated that I couldn’t relate to it. I mean I could, but these were things I had already figured out as a child. As someone who has to navigate race, gender, opposing Eastern and Western philosophies, generational differences, and more, reading about how Erik Erikson had to negotiate different identities as he was a German immigrant in the United States was possibly the least stimulating thing I could’ve been doing. He did important work, I won’t discredit that, but surely we must have some literature that’s a little more intersectional by now to at least supplement the original theories.
2) Because I was slipping and a ball of guilt for not living up to others’ and my own expectations, I focused all my energy even harder on school, organizational responsibilities, and just trying to stay afloat. This left absolutely no space for me to do anything just for myself. The entire year, almost every single waking moment of my life, I was doing something for other people or out of some obligation. Evidently, that’s bad for humans. Forgetting that I have needs too, was kinda terrifying to realize.
3) I was structurally limited in a lot of ways. My friend circle was shrinking because in dealing with all of the above, I never had the time or energy to keep up with people, even if I really enjoyed them. In addition, I hit a wall with my majors. I had problems with both of them and the way the programs are; please refer to #1. My health was kinda awful, I had an internship that semester, was lacking fulfillment of some basic needs, and I wasn’t really interacting with other people that often, which is good for you or whatever. Apartment life got so stressful we started using paper plates and plasticware to save time doing the dishes. And lastly, the really big one, was that I hated the city I was/am living in. (I’m pretty sure being here has shortened my life expectancy.) It took me a couple of years to be able to articulate it, but I deeply disliked the social environment I was in.
There were just too many things out of my control, and a lack of agency can do a lot of damage to a person. By now, with all of the reasons above in mind, I was getting pretty desperate/hopeless. So for the sake of my health, I switched two of my classes to pass/fail, and dropped one organization, a musical revue, and another class. I found out I could request a course load reduction, which is basically a non-academic drop, which means it was due to reasons not within the student’s control. Then, I filled out more paperwork, all the while wondering if I really deserved a course load reduction and then negating that with the fact that it wasn’t feasible for me to take the number of hours I was taking and still be alive. I actually counted up the numbers, and the amount of things I needed to do on a daily basis didn’t fit into 24 hours. It wasn’t just within the context of me and my abilities anymore, it was a lot for anyone.
I’ve decided to stop here because I realized I can’t fit everything into one post without it becoming overwhelming for you and for me. The second half will be shorter and hopefully will add to the fullness of the first.
This is a personal narrative, and not meant to be representative of anyone’s experiences except mine. I also do not claim to have scientifically sound or objectively accurate knowledge of psychology. Readers may find what’s written to be challenging, boring, relatable, contentious, resonating, uninformed, interesting, validating, or maybe even offensive. The important part is that it elicits a reaction.