You Is Kind, You Is Smart, You Is Important.

Six years ago tomorrow, I got married. For a lot of people, most I dare say, this isn’t that big a deal. But it is for me.

I never wanted to get married. In fact, I said I was never getting married. Protested it. I was independent. Strong. A loner.

Truth is, though, I wasn’t. In reality, I was scared. Afraid of committing my entire life to someone and then being left or betrayed. Afraid of losing my independence, of relying on someone else and being let down. I think deep down, it wasn’t marriage that scared me, it was marrying the wrong person, and I didn’t trust my judgment to find the right person.

With good reason. Before my husband, I was in a terrible relationship. I’ve talked a bit about it before, but I didn’t tell the whole truth. The whole truth is terrifying, but I think I can finally say it. It’s hard to admit this, even now, nine years after I dumped the guy. Especially since I know my family reads my blog and there are things I haven’t told anyone except my husband and my brother. I think it needs to be said, though. There are people who need to hear it. Women, in a particular, who need to stand up for themselves. This isn’t directed at anyone specific, but at anyone who has ever let someone else take part of themselves.

The guy I dated for three years, the majority of my time in college, just about broke me. He was abusive. Mostly emotionally, telling me I was worthless and lucky to have him because no one else would ever want me. He would yell and cuss and threaten to leave. He threw things at me. Beer bottles and silverware. He’d kick his cat. He’d grab me hard enough to leave five oval bruises on each arm and shake me until I thought my head was going to fly off, until I became so dizzy I couldn’t stand.

He was an alcoholic. A couple years later I learned he’d developed a prescription drug addiction and went to rehab. I don’t know if it worked. He tried to kill himself a couple times. He always put it on me. His problems were my fault.

It suffocated me. I spent those years believing him. He ran off all of my friends. My parents thought I was just a bad roommate. I guess they thought I was selfish, that I chased my friends away. I never corrected them. It was better for them to think I was the bad person than to think I had terrible judgment. (Poor logic, I know). Part of me also feared my dad would kill the guy if he ever found out, and I didn’t want to put Daddy in that position.

I found freedom in a couple places. One, my friend Sam. We were in the same major. We started out studying together, then hanging out. I told my boyfriend I was studying, then Sam and I would go hear a band or something. Sam had this neighbor, this annoying, irritating neighbor who developed a crush on me. The guy drove me crazy, but later, I realized he sparked something within me. Confidence. Defiance. I learned my boyfriend was wrong. Other people would want me. Did want me.

I also found freedom in Paris.

My mother teaches high school and every couple years she’d take a group to Europe. For every x number of students who signed up (I don’t remember how many), the group got a free trip. So my senior year of college, a month after I turned 22, I got to go to Europe for free. It was there, in the piazzas in Florence, the train to Monaco, the shops of Nice, that I started to feel unbridled. One morning, winding through the streets of Paris, just outside Notre Dame, I realized I hadn’t bought my boyfriend a souvenir. I’d been in Europe almost ten days and hadn’t thought to get him anything. Hadn’t thought of him much at all, actually. I paid a couple Euro for a pen and ink drawing of the cathedral–one I wish I’d kept to be honest–and then forgot about the guy again. Until the plane ride home. Then the thick blanket came over my head again.

By the time I reunited with my boyfriend, the blanket became a plastic bag, killing me. Over the next month I tried to figure out a way to end it without destroying the guy. Even after all he’d put me through, I still worried about him. Isn’t that ridiculous? This was before his suicide attempts, before the pills and the rehab, but I knew how fragile he was. I still look back on that time and wonder if I should’ve said something to his family. There’s a twinge of guilt when I think I could have warned them. Not stopped it. Nothing could’ve stopped this guy’s path of destruction. But I could’ve warned his parents. His dad–who was a genuinely nice person. Realistically , though, I know it wouldn’t have mattered. They probably wouldn’t believe me. The guy had to hit bottom first, and, unfortunately, he still had a long way to fall.

Without me.

The end came one night when Sam and I were listening to a band downtown. I couldn’t stand it anymore and blurted “I’m single.” I wasn’t. Not yet. But saying it aloud meant I had to do it. Sam’s neighbor had showed up, and soon as he heard I was single, he attached himself to me like a leach. Badgered me into a date. I finally agreed so he’d leave me alone, and because I felt bad saying no. Dude was irritating, but sweet. And the date actually was amazing. Awkward and uncomfortable at times–seeing as how I still had a boyfriend–but amazing.

Something clicked. For the first time in years, a guy was enamored by me. He treated me with respect and deference and made me feel special. It’s like I’d been trying to unlock a door with the wrong key and suddenly all the tumblers fell into place.

I dumped my boyfriend. It took two days. He mostly cried. Squalled like a little girl. He’d been planning to propose after my college graduation ceremony–the next day. While it hurt him terribly, I felt a rush of relief. The bag had been removed from my head and I could breathe fresh air again.

Three years later, the neighbor and I got married. He loves me and respects me and honors me more and more every day. He is the reason I’m a writer. I recently realized, with some measure of shock, that I didn’t write a single word while I dated the other guy. I’d been writing all my life and he killed the words. My husband brought them out of me again. He pushes me to be a better version of myself, but loves me where I am. He patiently discusses plot ideas and character development and sits across from me at coffee shops when I know he’d rather do something else, just so he can spend time with me while I write.

Marriage is nothing like I’d feared. It’s not always easy, but it isn’t the smothering loss of self I thought it would be.

We have this tree in our front yard, a crepe myrtle. It was huge! Way bigger than a crepe myrtle is supposed to be. In the spring, the branches would get so heavy with leaves and flowers they’d almost touch the ground. The leaves were so thick, they formed a canopy across part of the yard, almost completely blocking the sun. Last summer, Hubs and I got tired of it. We attacked the branches, hacking them with saws until only the very top remained. Air can swirl through the yard again. The sun can reach the grass. It had been stifled for years, but now it’s finally growing again.

I’m growing. And I have a wonderful man growing with me.

I’m writing all this now for a couple reasons. The ex popped up on LinkedIn the other day. I saw his profile on my screen and felt…nothing. Not the anger and pain and sadness I’ve felt for years. Not the reminder of the time I wasted on him. Just nothing. I have finally healed. The wounds he caused are still there. That pain and hurt changed me, and I will never regain the innocence and naivety that he stole. But the wounds no longer bleed, they no longer hurt. They’re scars. So small now, they’re barely visible. I still know they’re there, but you have to look closely to see them. Like the tiny white line on my knee where I gouged it on a metal ladder in middle school.

The other reason is because there are others like me. Those who let other people dictate their self-worth, who tell them they’re not good enough, that they aren’t worth love. I’m not better because my husband loves me. I’m better because he helped me learn how to love myself. Self-loathing and depression runs high in writers. I struggle with self-deprecating thoughts every day. It’s easy to let others define your sense of self-worth, especially in this business. But it’s important to distance yourself.

I am not defined by my rejection. I am not defined by my success. Other people’s opinions don’t dictate who I am inside. Even when I get down on myself, I remember, I am worth something. You are worth something. Whether you’re in an abusive situation, or you’re just depressed, or you’re drowning under the weight of rejection or criticism or bad reviews, don’t forget that. And if you’re in a bad situation: get out. Now. Don’t think about it. Free yourself. Find a support system, a kind shoulder, a group, a therapist, a friend, someone and get out. Trust me, it won’t hurt as much as you think it will, and you deserve better.

I leave you with the words of Kathryn Stockett, from the mouth of her character Aibileen Clark in “The Help”: You is kind. You is smart. You is important. 

Don’t forget that.

Confession Time: I Might Be Crazy

A few weeks ago, I wrote about fear. It’s a funny thing, fear. It, and that lovely fight or flight response that comes with it. Personally, I’m a big fan of flight. For example, (I might have mentioned this before) I’m a bit afraid of the dark. Yes, I’m almost 31. Don’t judge. It’s creepy when I’m home alone and the house is all dark and something could be lurking in the other room waiting for me to pop my head out so it can chop it off. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been that person who clicks off the light and leaps into bed. Literally. I scurry across the room as fast as possible.

Lately, I’ve also been afraid of posting this post. I’ve had it written for a while. Just sitting here in my draft box. Judging me every time I click on my blog. I’ve been running from it. But now it’s time to face it. To put this very personal piece of myself out there. By the end of it, you may think I’m crazy. It’s okay. I feel crazy every single day of my life. Crazy and depressed and neurotic and anxious and…obsessed.

Have you ever heard someone say “Oh my gosh, I’m so OCD. I hate it when my *insert item* is messy, or things aren’t organized.”? Or something along those lines? I hear it constantly, and every time I do I want to scream. But I’m too introverted for that. Instead, I quietly yell in my head “You have no idea what you’re talking about!!!” Because that’s not OCD. Not even close.

People throw that term around way too often, but most fail to realize it’s not just a case of being neat freak. It’s a mental disorder. You don’t hear people casually remarking “Oh my gosh I’m such a Lupus freak,” when they don’t have Lupus. (No, that sentence doesn’t really make sense. Cut me some slack, I’m terrified right now. And yes, I might have thought of Mitch Hedberg when I picked a disease to put there). It’s a failure of our society that mental disorders are not put on the same level with physical. Just because you can’t see something, doesn’t mean a person isn’t suffering. It doesn’t mean they aren’t waging a battle every single day.

Although sometimes, if you look close enough, you can see it. You just have to pay attention.

Attention is one of the things I avoid. I hide in corners and beside walls. I work to blend in, for people to glance over me like I’m a ghost and keep moving. Because I’m afraid of what they’ll see if they look too hard.

My OCD. Real OCD.

Not like the stereotypical OCD they put in pop culture like “Monk” or “As Good As It Gets.” It’s not all hand-washing and flicking light switches, although those are some people’s obsessions. OCD is way more than that. It can be crippling. It can reduce someone into a ball of anxiety and fear and nausea and tears. And everyone isn’t the same. In fact, I finally got the strength to post this thanks to another YA writer who wrote about her struggle, which is different from mine, but yet, kind of the same. (I still can’t believe I’m doing this, and I’ll admit, even now I’m tempted to turn back.)

See, like I mentioned, it’s a lot about anxiety as well as compulsions. A lot of my anxiety stems from social interaction. I’m a natural introvert, but it’s worsened by OCD. I’m always afraid of being a bother, of putting people out. Growing up, I used to write “thanks for putting up with me” on every birthday card to my best friend. For like 14 years. I even said it at my wedding. (She was my maid of honor). I get nervous just being around a lot of people (not so much concerts and festivals, but places like malls. I cannot do Black Friday. The one time I did, I was reduced to tears within minutes. In the parking lot. Of the first store. Yeah.) I also get really nervous around people period (small talk is horrible), because I’m afraid I won’t say the right thing because I never say the right thing and they’ll look at me like I’m crazy, which I am, which means they’ll see me, and they’ll notice my compulsions, and then they’ll know I’m crazy, and they’ll be afraid of me and I’ll turn into that rambling lunatic on the street who doesn’t bathe and thinks the world is ending. These thoughts are irrational, and I know they’re irrational, but it’s what goes through my head pretty much whenever I talk to people. So, yeah. Hello, I’m awkward!

I’ve never been one to care what people think of me. I don’t give in to peer pressure. I’m not “cool” or “fun.” People don’t clamor to sit at my table. In online forums and on Twitter, I’m kind of a thread-killer. That’s okay. I do my own thing. But that’s on my terms. OCD isn’t. OCD is on my brain’s terms. There’s a difference between wearing hoodies and tennis shoes when everyone else is wearing dresses and pointy toed heels, and turning in a circle before I can get in the car. One makes me feel comfortable in my own skin, the other makes me feel crazy. And when I feel crazy, I get anxious. Which is all the time.

Not that you would know it just from meeting me. Or even hanging out with me for a while. That’s what scares me so much about posting this. The only person who really knows the extent of my compulsions is my husband. We’ve been together almost nine years counting dating, and he didn’t even know until a few years ago. That’s how good I am at hiding it. Most of my friends just think I’m “quirky” or “particular.” Some think I’m selfish because I have to have things a certain way, and I talk about myself more than I ask about them (which is really because I have no idea what to say to people, or how to relate to them except through my own experiences. Social anxiety, remember?) Some may even think I’m being difficult when I insist on sitting in a certain spot. They have no idea what’s going on inside my head. They don’t know that if if I don’t sit against the wall in a restaurant, facing the door, that my heart becomes an angry caged gorilla trying to get out of my chest. Or that I almost come out of my skin every time I hear a noise behind me because I’m afraid of being attacked. They don’t know that if I have to sit somewhere beside my spot, that fight or flight response kicks in with a spiteful burst of adrenaline. Those tears aren’t from me being a whiny baby who isn’t getting her way. They’re because my body is literally in a panic that I can’t control.

Yes. It’s silly. It’s irrational. It makes no sense. I know this. I know someone isn’t going to attack me from behind at a restaurant. I know that I’m not going to fall apart if I turn in a complete circle, or if I don’t even the pressure on the other side of my body after I’m touched or poked. I know. But my brain doesn’t. My body doesn’t .I can’t remember I time when I wasn’t this way. It’s gotten worse over time, and much worse after my dad died. Apparently, stress amplifies OCD. At least that’s what the psychiatrist I saw said. I’m not sure how much I believe her, though, to be honest. She tried to medicate me. I forget now what the drug was called–I tried to put it out of my head–because I wanted to kill myself while I was taking it. I mean that quite literally. I smiled and looked happy, but all I could do was lie on the couch and think of ways to end my life in order to stop feeling so miserable. The psychiatrist told me to stick with it a few weeks so it could get in my system. I didn’t think I’d be around a few weeks at the rate I was going. So I quit taking it, and I quit seeing her.

Other friends who suffer from anxiety, friends who are in med school, have told me about different therapies that help OCD, but I’m scared to try them. OCD can be debilitating. I had to leave church one Sunday because my seat was taken, and the only open pew made me feel constricted, like my skin was too tight. I couldn’t sit still, my foot started bouncing, then my knees, then my whole body shook. I thought I was going to throw up on the nice lady’s hair in front of me. Then the tears came. I was close to a full blown panic attack (yeah, if all that wasn’t full blown, imagine what it would be like), when Hubby took my hand and led me outside. As debilitating as it is, though, I don’t know who I am without it.

And that sounds craziest at all. What it boils down to, is I’m terrified of what would happen if I didn’t carry through with my compulsions. I guess therapy would address that, but I’m not there yet. The last lady who tried to “help” is still too fresh. Besides, I’m coming to discover that once people are educated about OCD and my compulsions, it gets a little better. I don’t have to hide. I’ve let little pieces of it out to friends over the last few years and instead of chasing me away with pitchforks and crosses, they actually, kind of, accept me a little more. They’ve tried to understand what I go through, and if I can shed some light on OCD and the problems sufferers can face, then it’s worth opening up about, I suppose. Even though as I type I have this a ball of panic in my stomach and my brain keeps yelling “no, no! shhhhh!”

So, here’s a run down of some of my compulsions:

  • My biggest thing is evenness. Even numbers, even feelings, even everything. The radio/tv, etc volume has to be on an even number. You’ll notice I only tag my blog in even numbers. I eat food in even numbers, for example two M&Ms at a time. If I can’t have two, then I don’t have any. Or, if I have no choice but to eat one of something, then I keep track in my head and I’ll eat one of something else to make it balance. Most people I know who have OCD are pretty good at rationalizations like that. Part of this is that I can’t turn in a complete circle, or my equilibrium is off–which makes slow dancing kind of hard. If someone touches me on one side of my body, or if I bump something with one arm, I have to even the feeling on the other side. Even if I hurt myself. A lot of it has to do with pressure. I don’t have to injure my other side, but I have to create the same amount of pressure. I hate being poked. Because then I have to slyly poke my other arm, etc in the same place, for the same amount of time, with the same amount of pressure. It’s incredibly frustrating, and can be hard to get it right. Often times, I’ll have to go back and forth between sides until I feel even. The hardest part is I have to touch each side the same number, an even number, of times.
  • I hate being touched. A quick way to make me panic and cry? Hug me. Constrict me. Being constricted is the worst. Next to someone touching my ears. I knew I loved my husband when his touches and hugs didn’t bother me. Of course, my OCD wasn’t as bad back when we met. He still can’t touch my ears, though. Not ever. *shudders* *shudders again*
  • I have a thing with counting. This is one I’ve worked to break. Really “not think about” is more accurate. It goes hand in hand with the evenness thing. I used to count words, and kisses, and steps. I knew how many steps it took to get everywhere. I also counted stairs. My grandfather worked in different courthouses doing title research. I’d count stairs while he worked. I knew the number of stairs in every courthouse in Northeast Alabama.
  • Test anxiety. I don’t mean I got nervous before tests. I mean if I didn’t go through my routine before an exam, I’d have a panic attack. The routine started by having to use my lucky pen–a Pilot Dr. Grip that my dad bought me in ninth grade. By law school it had gotten much worse. Law school has one exam for each class. Think about it, each class lasts a semester and you get one grade. That’s enough to give anyone anxiety, but for me it was almost debilitating. Here’s the process: Arrive at the classroom two hours before the exam. Sit in the same seat (four rows up, four seats over). Study until fifteen minutes before the test, not talking to anyone. Go to the break room and get a Reese’s cup and a Diet Dr. Pepper from the vending machines. The exams were all essay, and I typed mine, so there was no writing on them with my lucky pen–yes, the same one from the ninth grade; I kept it for twelve years of schooling. We were, however, given scratch paper, which had to be turned in. At the top of the first page I’d write, with my pen, “Please God let me pass.” Every time. I even did this on the Bar exam. Once the vending machine ran out of Reese’s cups and I freaked out. Cold sweat, tears, shaking. For the Bar, I had to pack my own Reese’s and Diet Dr. Pepper. One for each of four sessions. For three days.

There’s more. So much more. But I can’t type them, because that would be more than four points, and I can’t end on an odd number. Fours are great, because they break down into twos. Six is terrible, because it breaks into threes. Yeah, it can break into twos, but it’s three twos, which doesn’t work.

OCD is exhausting because my mind is constantly going, thinking about everything. The only time I can get a break is when I let my mind wander. I focus on not focusing, which sounds like an oxymoron. When my mind wanders, though, I don’t think about alternating which foot steps over sidewalk cracks and parking lot paint lines. I don’t count the number of times I kiss my husband. I don’t realize he’s been holding my right hand without holding my left.

I think of stories.

And in these stories, my characters are free. They don’t have compulsions. They don’t suffer anxiety. And when they do, I’m in control. For the first time in my life, I’m truly in control.

It’s one reason I love writing so freaking much. Unlike conversations in real life, or even on Twitter, where I have to think of something quick, I have time to mull over what I want to say, how I want to phrase things. I can’t delete my words once I say them aloud, but I can delete them on the page and rewrite it until I’ve said it just right. (Off the cuff I’m not so hot, but believe it or not, I rock speeches! Once I get past the initial nerves that is. I was even on the mock trial team in law school. Because I got to plan what I was going to say ahead of time. Trust me, I was always the most prepared person in the courtroom. I planned every question, and every single possible answer so that I wouldn’t be caught off guard. Yes, it took forever, haha, but no, I didn’t lose).

Writing is my release. My outlet.

I’m not entirely sure why I’m letting all this out now. I guess partially because I’ve heard so many people claim to be OCD lately that I had to speak up, partially because other writers have come forward about their OCD and anxiety issues (there’s even a support Tumblr called Shrinking Violets), and partially so that if I ever meet any of you in real life–if the dream comes true and a book of mine is published and I go to a conference or whatever–you’ll know why I’m standing in the corner, trying to look small, and why I absolutely suck at talking, and maybe you’ll give me, and others like me, a chance.

A big reason I’m writing this, though, is because I’m learning that putting myself out there can only help.

As I’ve mentioned before, I help lead youth at church. At first, I was, as always, terrified of them. New people. Eek! But once they figured me out, learned about my “quirks” and understood that I’m just awkward and OCD, we all clicked together. I even had one of them tell me not too long ago that I’m “fun.” Me. Fun. Ha!

So, hi! I’m Sarah. I have pretty bad OCD. Not as severe as some, worse than others. It’s real. It’s a disorder that I can’t control. But I’m learning to deal with it. After almost 31 years. Maybe you have friends with it. Hiding in the shadows, seeming “difficult” or “selfish.” Maybe you’ll look at them in a new light. Maybe you’ll talk to them about it. If you do, approach with caution, and love, and let them know they’re not alone or crazy.

And if you have OCD? Welcome! Come sit somewhere in my vicinity and chat. Just please, don’t touch. : )

Be a Chicken

There is one person I have seen almost daily for about the past year who inspires me to do things.  His energy, excitement, and great attitude are something I think everyone could use a piece of.  Who is this person?  Why, it’s a guy in a chicken costume of course!  Yes, you read that correctly. A guy in a chicken costume.  Well, sometimes he’s dressed like the Statue of Liberty.  No, I haven’t lost my mind.

I’m a creature of habit.  Okay, let’s be honest, I have OCD, so I like routine.  Pattern.  When I go out to lunch during the week, I go to the same three restaurants and have my usual meal at each.  Two of these restaurants are on the same road and my route takes me past a small strip of stores.  Almost every day a guy stands near the road promoting the chicken place, or, during tax season, Liberty Tax Accounting (hence the Statue of Liberty).

I say he stands, but jumps, dances, runs, and does jumping jacks and push-ups would be more apt.  This guy has crazy energy.  I’ve never seen someone so happy to be doing his job.  Usually, I feel sorry for the bored teenagers or early twenty somethings standing in the muggy heat on the side of the road holding signs proclaiming “Pizza! $5.99!” or “Liquidation Sale!”.  Chicken Guy, though? Not only do I not have pity for him, I find myself envious of him.  I wish I loved my job as much as that guy loves his.  Heck, I wish I loved everything as much as he loves his job!

Every time I pass him I can’t help but smile.  I sit in the turn lane waiting for the light to flick to green and watch Chicken Guy dance around waving at cars and, honestly, it brightens my day.  I’d love to sit and talk to this dude, what makes him so happy?  What is his outlook on life?  How does he have the courage to make an idiot of himself on a daily basis?  I want to tell him that his energy and general jolly-ness make me want to have a better outlook.  I’m pretty certain that would be weird though.

Of course he could be a total Debbie Downer in real life, or just a weirdo, so maybe it’s better these thoughts stay in my head (and across the interwebs).  That doesn’t change the fact that his attitude inspires me.  I’ve also been inspired by another creature, a real animal this time. 

I just started reading a book called “Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned about Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat” by Gwen Cooper.  It’s about a cat who, due to a serious infection, had his eyes removed at just four weeks of age.  Instead of sitting on his laurels afraid to interact with a world he can’t see, Homer fearlessly plunges into the world around him.  Here is an excerpt that I found escpecially inspiring:

“Every leap from a chair back or table-top is taken on faith, a potential leap into the abyss.  Every ball chased down a hallway is an act of implicit bravery.  Every curtain or countertop climbed, every overature of friendship to a new person, every step forward taken without guidance into the dark void of the world around him is a miracle of courage.  He has no guide dog, no cane, no language in which he can be reassured or made to understand the shape and nature of the hurdles he encounters.  My other cats see out of the windows of our home, and so they know the boundaries of the world they inhabit.  But Homer’s world is boundless and ultimately unknowable; whatever room he’s in contains all there is to contain, and is therefore infinite.  Having only the most glancing of relationships with time and space, he transcends them both.”

I’ve read that particular passage three times now (once when reading chapters, a second time aloud to my husband, and a third here) and every time I am moved by it.  Call me a sap, or a weirdo, or whatever you will, but the faith and courage of this blind creature astound and inspire me. 

So what’s the point of all this?  The point is, we should all be chickens.  Rather, be like Chicken Guy and Homer the Wonder Cat.  We should approach life with the attitude they have.  Fearless, happy, courageous, boundless.  You may think I’m crazy, but every time I see that happy bouncing chicken on the roadside, it makes me happy.  Every time I read that piece about Homer, I want his courage.  So, my friends, go!  Go and be chickens!