Never Giving Up Noveling

This week, I’ve begun a challenge that takes up nearly all of my free time in the month of November for the past nine years – National Novel Writing Month!

As part of National Novel Writing Month (usually abbreviated to NaNoWriMo), participants write a novel containing a minimum of 50,000 words solely during the month of November. You’re allowed to do as much planning as you want ahead of time, but you can’t actually start writing – or counting your words – until midnight on November 1.

I discovered the challenge in high school, and quickly latched on. I started November with a vague science fiction idea about a disease spread by mushrooms. Mushrooms and disease make for a typical Ellie OCD idea, but I had no idea how much the challenge would shake up my typical routine.

I’ve always felt most comfortable as a creature of habit. I know when I wake up, how my mornings go, my routine for my school – and later, work – day, evenings, and bedtime. I, thankfully, don’t have any obsessive thoughts about following this routine (especially bedtime, which tends to fall by the wayside if I get engrossed in a video game, book, or conversation with a friend), but I always feel best when I know what’s happening next.

Changes to my routine can make my anxiety skyrocket, so planning for something like NaNoWriMo can involve a lot more than just brainstorming ideas for my new novel.

The basic plan for completing NaNoWriMo on time is writing 1,667 words every day, but in practice, it rarely happens that way. I always try to go ahead, planning for fewer words around Thanksgiving if I have plans with family and keeping a buffer of at least one day in case something happens. It stresses me out a lot if I fall behind, because I’ve never lost.

No matter what’s been going on in my life, I take the commitment to write a novel in November very seriously. I think about the timing and the schedules ahead of time and if I sign up on the website, I don’t quit for any reason. I didn’t even quit last year, when I had just moved to Chicago a few days before November started, had just started working at my new job, and was just informed that my dog had cancer (thankfully, he beat it, and is doing very well!). It took a lot of frustration, tears, and long walks in the cold, but I didn’t give up.

NaNoWriMo, for me, is a path to the dream I’ve known as long as I’ve had OCD – to be a published author. I’d love to walk into a bookstore and find my own book there, perhaps even find someone buying or reading it, and feel like my ideas are changing the world. It’s what inspires me to write every day in November, even if it’s cold, I’m tired, I’m busy at work, or any other excuse.

Most of all, I’d love to use some content I create during NaNoWriMo to help people. I originally started this blog to help reduce the stigma of mental illness by sharing my everyday experiences, and through conversations with my friends and family who read my blog every week, I feel like I’m helping to change perspectives.

I don’t always write mental health-related content on purpose during NaNoWriMo. Sometimes, I’ve written stories to help me deal with things – it’s my favorite way to release anxiety from trauma – and other times, it creeps into my narratives no matter what I’m writing. After all, it’d be great to see more characters with mental illness in fantasy, science fiction, and other genres where representation is rare.

Over the years, I’ve written novel-length stories about a medieval woman suspected to be a witch living with PTSD, a knight with paranoid delusions, a milkmaid-turned-revolutionary who learns how to overcome her anxiety, and more. In all these stories, I also tell mine – the story of someone whose mind is made for obsessions but also for stories, and who uses both of those to create something positive.

Thanks to my OCD and a healthy dose of competitiveness, I’ve written six 50,000-word novels in past Novembers and had another two years with over 100,000 words in the month. The sense of accomplishment is well worth changing my routine, no matter how much overthinking I do before November starts – and by this time in the month, I’m settled in a different routine where I can do what needs to get done every day while working on my long-term goals.

This year, as I write the tale of an exiled priestess learning her way around the world, I hope to add a ninth notch to my belt as well as stick to my philosophy about living with OCD: never give up!

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.



Why Medical Professionals Need Mental Health Training

 This week, I went to a new vascular surgeon. As usual, I was nervous, even though I knew the appointment was going to be minor - but this time, I had nothing to be nervous about. The doctor and nurse were both kind and understanding, and made me feel at ease both before and after they learned my history.

Learning about the medical reason that brought me in was one thing, but I’ve experienced mixed reactions when medical professionals see that I take psychiatric medication. Sometimes, it changes the tone of the whole conversation. I’ve had times where it’s clear that the people treating me believe that the only thing wrong with me is my head, even when I come in for something completely different.

I’ve even had doctors and nurses question if I’m making decisions about my health solely based on OCD, or if I’m even capable of making decisions – and then they look to others to speak for me.

Thankfully, my doctor visit this week was different, but thinking about some of these previous experiences reminded me of a scenario from an episode of Grey’s Anatomy (spoilers for season 14, episode 11): Dr. Miranda Bailey, a Chief of Surgery in her 40s, goes to a nearby hospital and claims that she is having a heart attack.

On the surface, it may seem like we have nothing in common – I’m in my 20s, not a medical professional, and I’ve never had any cardiovascular problems. But what ties us together is the experience we have both had in doctors’ offices and hospitals, something that allowed me to predict her lines before she could speak them, to believe in her from the very first moment.

Dr. Bailey and I both have OCD, and it is this shared experience that made me feel seen, heard and understood over the course of the episode.

The tests come back negative, at first, and rather than feeling relief, I, like Dr. Bailey, feel stress. It’s what I feel when I go into a doctor’s office. In my mind, I’m still the hypochondriac I was as a child, and I feel deeply ashamed if I go to the doctor and everything turns out fine. It may sound counter-intuitive, but I couldn’t remember the last time I went to a doctor for anything other than a routine visit and didn’t want there to be something small but fixable wrong with me, so that I wouldn’t be seen as just another person with OCD seeing things that aren’t there.

Dr. Bailey, like me, thinks of everything her symptoms could lead to, every possibility that won’t end with her going home in shame, with a bill and a sinking feeling of losing a battle to mental illness. She asks for more tests, her voice sounding desperate as her doctor refuses. She even asks for a second opinion, but before her doctor will agree, he asks more detailed questions about her medication list. He finds out that she has OCD.

And he summons a psychiatrist instead of the doctor she had asked for, assuming her symptoms are nothing more than the product of a delusional mind. This leads to a session of humiliation where she has to stand her ground against someone questioning everything that brought her to this point.

And then, she has a heart attack.

I didn’t want one of my favorite characters on the show to have a heart attack, but part of me knew if I was in her shoes, I would feel vindicated. I cheered when the doctor who blew her off was asked if he had
performed the test she had asked for, finally showing him that she had been right all along, and his prejudice got in the way of his patient care. I also cheered when other doctors believed in her and treated her properly, ensuring that she would have a full recovery.

There may have been some viewers who thought she was exaggerating her symptoms, or simply crazy. But I believed her from her first words, because I have lived her story more times than I’d like to think. And I can only hope that doctors treat me like the good ones on the show, rather than the one who almost cost Dr. Bailey her life.

Training and tolerance can make the difference between an experience like mine this week, and the plenty of times I have been belittled, disbelieved, and more simply for an unrelated mental health diagnosis.

When I watched that episode, I knew it shouldn’t have mattered that Dr. Bailey has OCD. What mattered was that she was in the emergency room complaining of chest pain. Not everything can be traced back to mental illness, and even if symptoms turn out to be a false alarm or an obsession gone wrong, a patient with OCD still deserves to be heard and respected, just like anyone else.

And contrary to what I’ve heard from some medical professionals, Dr. Bailey and I are not unintelligent because of our OCD. We have past medical experiences that inform us of what is dangerous and doctor-worthy, and because of our OCD, we put a lot of thought into weighing the pros and cons of going to see a doctor. Our mental illness should not provide an excuse for not looking into everything our physical symptoms could be. What seems fake may be completely real either in my head, my body, or both.

I still remember the names and faces of doctors and nurses who blew me off, didn’t believe in my symptoms and just heard shallow breathing or saw fidgety fingers flying across the screen of my phone. These reactions are why I Google my symptoms, or consult a friend, so that the decision to go to the doctor is not mine alone. It’s also why I bring a friend if I go to the hospital, in case I need someone else to speak for me once my medical history is out in the open.

Even tolerant people aren’t immune to this kind of thinking – even my mom, an incredible advocate whose quick notice of my OCD in early childhood helped me become the person who I am today, didn’t believe that I had a severe nut allergy even after I had reactions, because it looked like OCD on the surface. When I had my first life-threatening allergic reaction at 18, I wheezed into the nebulizer with relief, because then, perceptions of OCD couldn’t get in the way.

I also remember the good just as much as I remember the bad. I still have a scribbled message of hope and drawing of a butterfly from a nurse that I carried through my three procedures that still hangs on my fridge seven years later. And without the incredible support from the doctor at my college, there is a good chance I would have had to forfeit a semester in my freshman year for medical problems. Doctors and nurses have been some of my strongest allies in my fight against both physical and mental illness, and they have the power to make my fight as well as that of many other people so much easier. All it takes is compassion and belief.

But in order to get to that point, doctors need to act like the vascular surgeon I met this week and find a balance between putting an anxious patient at ease and relying too much on anxiety as a diagnosis rather than looking for physical problems.

As Dr. Bailey said, “I am not ashamed of [my OCD]. But it’s not my story. It’s just one piece. And if you check the ‘mental illness’ box and refuse to look at anything else, then I’m not going to live long enough to finish the rest of my story.” With proper training to help medical professionals find the balance, I hope that one day, people like me won’t have to worry about seeing a new doctor. They’ll simply be another ally in our quest to finish our life stories that are altered by OCD, but also composed of a great many other things.

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.



Fighting the Flood

My heart was pounding from the second I woke up in my hotel room in Orlando.

I knew it was the day I’d be doing something I rarely ever do - flooding exposure - and like the name suggests, I was adrift in a sea of anxiety.

As a person with OCD, exposure therapy is a technique I’ve used to help me through many fears. It’s typically a long process - to get over a fear of hospitals, for example, I started by listening to sounds I might encounter in a hospital, like beeping machines; read stories in newspapers and online; watched documentaries; and finally, traveled to an actual hospital. The idea is that by working through these small steps, the end product doesn’t seem quite so scary.

Flooding exposure is an entirely different beast. It involves starting at the end, doing the scariest thing first, and allowing the anxiety to overflow - to flood - until you realize it’s not that bad after all.

Needless to say, flooding exposures are far more difficult to handle than regular exposures. Starting at the end of what’s supposed to be a long process for a reason can be traumatizing, and the experience isn’t for everyone, or every fear. Sometimes, it can even make things worse - and yet, I decided to do a flooding exposure on a recent family vacation.

I’ve been an emetophobe for as long as I can remember. Just the thought of vomiting makes me on edge. If my stomach does anything remotely abnormal, it can send me into a tailspin, even after over two decades of working on the fear in whatever ways I could come up with. 

For many years, this fear has restricted what foods I feel I can eat, what activities I prefer to do, and more - but this vacation, I decided to take the plunge and do something I’ve never done before: go on a roller coaster.

And, oh yeah, did I mention I’ve also been afraid of heights ever since an ill-fated encounter with a zipline in my early teens?

It’s basically a recipe for disaster: going up and up and up until you can’t go up anymore, then having that sinking feeling in your gut (the same one that happens right before you throw up) and then your gut plummets for real, and fears can quickly turn into reality…

And yet, some part of me wanted to do it. I was terrified, sure, but it seemed to me like if I could do an exposure like this, I’d be dealing a significant blow to a fear that’s held me in its clutches for far too long. Not to mention, I had a bet with Dad that if I did it, he’d treat me to a fun souvenir. If I chickened out, I’d owe him the money for it instead. Unwilling to lose, I dove into my research.

I picked the coaster carefully - not the giant one that Dad claimed was the only “real” roller coaster in the park, but an indoor one where I wouldn’t be able to see the big drops and might be able to imagine something else. I tried to pick one with a good story, hoping that might jolt me out of my fear for even a moment.

And before, I did what I could to plan. I told my family and friends - my support system - what I was going to do. Some were helpful, and others - who told me that this specific ride made them nauseous - set me off again and again. I began to debate if this was more trouble than it’s worth.

I took a long time debating whether I should eat or drink anything beforehand, and eventually ended up listening to a friend who told me that an empty stomach would be as bad as a full one. I nibbled on a little bread and a protein bar, and added an anti-nausea pill for good measure.

And then, the moment finally arrived. The park was just opening - I was determined to do this first so I wouldn’t be thinking about it all day - and there was barely any line. Dad and I moved quickly, only pausing to read a sign by the actual entrance.

“WARNING,” the sign blared in huge letters. “This ride is a high-speed roller coaster” said the sign, and oh good Lord, am I really doing this?

 “that has sudden and dramatic acceleration and dropping.” ... Yeeeep, Dad was lying, this is a real roller coaster

“The movement of the vehicle also includes spinning” like that ride I went on once as a kid with my dad and uncle and I was nauseous and terrified all afternoon

“sudden stops, and strong tilting and jarring actions.” Yes, part of me knows this language is legally required, but they wouldn’t say it if they don’t mean it…

And before I knew it, I was walking past the sign, past the exhibits that told you the story, and then a car (an honest to God roller coaster car on actual tracks) rolled up.

Dad and I were placed in the first row. Was that good? Bad? I had no idea whatsoever. I just clambered in as best as I could, clutching my phone for dear life, wishing I could hold something more substantial (like the teddy bear I brought, who was sitting in the purse I had to leave in a locker by the entrance).

Only real roller coasters have lockers, I whispered to Dad as a lap bar came down. Only real roller coasters have lap bars. The selfie we took before the ride started showed a huge smile from him and a terrified face for me.

I wished, in that moment, that I could stop the ride, go to YouTube and listen to sounds of roller coasters and watch some videos and not have it be me on that ride at that moment, but the car kept rolling, and we slowly began to go up.

The ride came in flashes: the car spinning so I can see the one behind me; the shouts of jubilation mixed with screams and at least some of those are mine; the way my hand tightens on my phone and the other tightens in Dad’s hand, which he will later joke went purple from the pressure; those blessed few moments where the car would slow down or even stop for a bit of story before hurtling off again. The time when the ride goes dark and the car just drops and I can feel it in my whole body and question everything, was my preparation enough, was I about to…

Eventually, the ride slowed, and the car re-emerged into the space where more riders waited. I unclenched my hand from Dad’s as the lap bar raised, and my shaky legs stood. My steps grew more confident. I’d been thinking, worrying, planning, fretting, everything for weeks and I’d finally done it!

I grabbed my purse back out of the locker, making for the souvenir shop as I stepped back out into the sunshine. I walked right past the conveniently-placed trash can, not feeling the need to throw up that morning, or any other time that day. I smiled as if I knew I could have done it all along, as if my bravery was more than the need for competition and the determination to prove that I could be the winner.

Souvenir in hand, I knew the day’s score - Ellie: 1, OCD: 0!

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.

Choosing to Love Myself, OCD and All


Choosing to Love Myself, OCD and All

The other day, my mom said something that completely stunned me: “I love the way your brain works.”

It’s not something I think often. In fact, when I think about my brain, I tend to think negatively. I think of OCD as something that sets me apart from other people, and not in a good way. It makes me doubt whether my friends and family really want to spend time with me; it makes me wonder if I can ever live a “normal” life; and it makes me imagine what life might have been like if I never lived with mental illness.

I don’t remember a time before my diagnosis. Every memory of mine is somehow etched with OCD, whether for good or bad. Most of my childhood, it was negative, and now, even after conquering so much, challenges still rear their ugly heads at me and make me question all the progress I’ve made.

But Mom, who’s had to deal with the brunt of it, especially when I was too young to know what to do with my obsessive thoughts, saw it otherwise.

She said this when I was explaining a new story idea to her. It’s something I love to do - call my family when inspiration strikes, and guide them through whatever world my head is in at the moment. I don’t do it every time I’m inspired - the idea of bothering people still lingers in the back of my mind - but it’s always a thrill.

I asked her what, specifically, she loved about my brain. Her response was the actual way I think - the way I connect all sorts of unrelated things and weave them together into stories and more.

I know exactly where that came from. It’s how I made the connection, in my childhood, between touching a Snoopy figurine in my room a certain number of times in my room and throwing up. It’s how I reasoned my way through every one of my compulsions, putting things together that didn’t go together. And, at the same time, this thought process has been the driving force behind every one of my stories.

“What if?” is a common beginning for story ideas, the seed that allows creativity to grow, and yet, it’s the same thing that’s caused so much trouble in my life.

One comes with the other. My conversation with Mom made me think: what if someone could choose between getting some sort of talent that also came with a hindrance, or if they could simply choose to be like everyone else?

I wondered, if a choice like this was possible, what my “normal” life might be like. I imagined the things I saw other people experience: summers at camp, arms around friends who would stay for life; long days at amusement parks and cookouts; enjoying a variety of extracurricular activities and growing up with pets and a thousand other things that I never got to experience as many other kids did.

But at the same time, it’d mean giving up the exhilaration of a new story idea; the way I love to live in my head and explore countless stories in worlds far beyond this one; the pride I feel when I manage to get words on a page and someone likes them.

I didn’t quite know how to reason through this can of worms I’d opened, so (in true Ellie fashion) I wrote it out in a story. In the tale, a character with a talent as a blacksmith and jeweler has a dream where he is faced with the choice between a life with that talent but also with significant trauma in his past, and a life with none of that.

The more I wrote, the more puzzled I became. What was the right choice for him? And what would I do, if given a similar choice? Would I choose a mind I could love under any circumstances, or would I stick to what I know and have learned to live with?

At the end of the story, the character is glad that it was just a dream and he doesn’t have to choose. It’s an impossible choice, after all - and it’s the sort of quandary that can distract from living the best life possible with the cards you’ve been dealt.

For me, hearing things like what Mom said to me makes my lack of choice easier too. I know she wouldn’t have chosen for her only child to have to struggle so much, but she can love me anyway, mental illness and all. And it only makes sense for me to do the best with what I’ve got, and also help other people along the way.

Loving myself, OCD and all, means accepting that some things I imagined might never happen, and that’s okay because other wonderful things will take their place. I might be imaginative instead of adventurous, and have three close friends instead of thirty, and neither of those things are problems. I’m inspired by how Mom sees me to try to see things in that way, especially after a week when I’ve come down harshly on myself for experiencing negative thoughts regarding myself and my friends.

After all, in the absence of that fantastical choice, the best I can do is choose to be happy with what I have, knowing that I’ve got what I need to make a different, yet equally meaningful, life.

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.



Lessons of Anxiety Mode

Last week, I started playing Dragon Quest XI, a new game in a series I’ve loved for years. I started a new save file, only to see options for several challenges to add to the difficulty of the game. Most of them involved not being able to use items, or other gameplay-related things, but one of them was far from anything I expected.

“Shypox,” as the challenge is called, was described this way: “Uncontrollable embarrassment will plague you on every step of your adventure. There’s no telling when this crippling affliction might flare up next!”

To me, this sounded like the game had an anxiety mode specifically focused around social anxiety. Even though I don’t personally experience social anxiety, I was curious to see what playing this mode would be like and if the representation was accurate from what I know as a friend to several people who live with it.

It didn’t take me long to realize the two main aspects of this new mode of gameplay:

First, every time the player character tries to speak with another character, from a farmer to a king, there is a chance that you will be unable to get the words out. The game specifies a reason for each time, a specific negative thought that got in the way of saying hello. It could be anything from wondering where you’re supposed to look during a conversation to remembering an embarrassing incident that distracts you. In each instance, you shy away from the other person, and a small depressing jingle plays. You then have to attempt to talk to the person again, at which point it could work or a different negative thought could come.

Second, these thoughts aren’t limited to conversations - they’ll pop up in battle, sometimes in the most important moments, and make it so that the player character can’t do anything that turn. It didn’t take me long to lose a major battle thanks to this, and I soon realized that playing in this mode would require an entirely different strategy than “normal” mode.

Although I’ve seen mental health conditions portrayed in video games before, I’ve never seen a game portray it so pervasively. The “shypox” affects everything about gameplay, from the life-changing moments for the character to the everyday interactions with passersby. It’s the only game I’ve encountered that doesn’t “turn off” the anxiety at key moments so the character can do what needs to be done - sometimes, you will fail at a challenge because of anxiety, even if it’s the worst timing. That makes this feels the most real out of the games I’ve played that attempt to give the player an experience of anxiety.

As a player of real life’s Anxiety Mode for over a quarter of a century, here are some lessons from the game that also work quite well in real life:

Some things that may seem easy to you are not easy for other people. Everyone’s anxiety manifests differently, and it’s important to consider that when someone seems hesitant to do something you consider easy.

Each individual incident of anxiety is different. Just because someone has worked through one thought or one stressful idea doesn’t mean that will help with any others. Not all are of equal strength, either - some thoughts are easier to dispel than others, and the ease of dispelling them may not make much sense.

Patience, and the willingness to let the person try again at a task they’ve failed, is huge, and can lead to great success.

Negative thoughts can and will come at the worst times, and people living with anxiety have to be resourceful and come up with other ways to beat the “boss battle” or current life circumstance.

These thoughts also don’t make sense all the time - they can be really inappropriate and come at the worst moments. If someone appears to be zoning out, consider that they might be dealing with thoughts like this, and deal with them tolerantly.

In real life, there won’t be indicative music that plays when someone is anxious. If you think someone around you may be experiencing an anxious episode, consider reaching out to see if they want help. This might take the form of actively helping them with something or distracting others around them so they don’t feel like the center of attention during a tough time.

People who fail to do a specific task once, or even more than once, are not failures as people. Trying again is key to living with anxiety, and supporting people who may need multiple tries at something can be really helpful.

And, most importantly, even if anxiety is in your programming, you can still reach incredible heights. Just ask the protagonist of my game, who I’ve named Elian (another member of the Ellie squad) - anyone can be a hero!

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.