I was at Navy Pier with some friends when the Andi discussion started again. “I’d be happy to invite anyone here to spend time with us - except Andi,” one person said. Another laughed. I was seeing red when they did impressions of her voice, high-pitched and repetitive.

I tried to stay quiet. I knew, from years of experience, that it was better for my own sake, especially when the person in question wasn’t even there. Andi would never know what people were saying about her in this particular instance. It wasn’t hurting her to hold my tongue and keep my friends happy.

But I just couldn’t, and I blurted out something I wondered weeks ago, but never quite had the courage to ask.

“What’s the difference between Andi and me?”

I hoped, somehow, this question would cow them into silence and maybe even make them think. Instead, I got a very quick answer: “You’re self-aware.”

My friend (I think) went on to say that I knew, when I got too excited about something, that it was too much. I knew how to stop and I knew how to give other people what they needed. “If you’re worried about being like her, you could think up some new topics to talk about,” he told me, trying to be helpful. His tone wasn’t mean, not like when he was talking about Andi. But it hurt all the same.

I know all too well how to stop. As an adult, I’m extremely aware of the fact that I can be excitable and repetitive just like Andi, and the only time I let myself enjoy conversations without thinking is when I’m with my friends.

I know how to stop because I used to not know.

I know now because, when I was a kid invited to a class party and asked the birthday kid’s parents to put the dog in another room due to my phobia, my former best friend asked, “Why did we have to invite her? I’d rather have the dog.”

I know because of the time I went to a bar mitzvah with my classmates and was told there was no room for me on a crowded bench, but there was room for the popular girl who came in later.

I know because of the time that girl asked me to go out for ice cream, and I was so thrilled someone had invited me to do something, only for her to sit with another kid and ignore me completely as my mom paid for her ice cream and drove her home.

I know because of the time my middle school principal yelled at my mom in front of the carpool line when I’d broken a minor rule - I’d played a computer game in class - that “I want this thing out of my school.”

And when my child psychologist tried to intervene, the principal excused her behavior by saying that I was “psychotic” and she was worried about my long-term survival as a person.

I survived, I learned, but this is one lesson I wish I didn’t have to follow.

I wish I could be freer with what I say, share memes like my friends do, make jokes about the things I enjoy. But I’ve learned too well how that behavior makes me a “freak” according to too many people, and the only way to survive was to hide in plain sight.

Even now, I wish I could let a remark like my friend’s go by, laugh it off, and go on with my day. Instead, I watched what I said. I got quiet even when chatter resumed. I realized I’d said a few times that I was really eager to catch a certain pokemon in Pokemon Go, and was calling out when I’d see one on the screen. I not only stopped talking about that, but I also barely responded to another person in the group who started calling them out for me.

Each time something like this happens, I feel a small chip in a budding friendship, creating cracks in what, I assume, for neurotypical people, is a strong foundation. But I always feel like I’m on thin ice, like one glimpse too deep into my true self and I’ll lose everything I’ve built so far. Even now, after years of trying to build my confidence of not only being a person with OCD but also being a person, I still feel the need to hide.

It’s why, even though I’m desperate to get a picture of myself in my new cosplay, I asked a stranger in the elevator who told me I looked pretty. It was easy to fall into the girlish conversations of beauty without going into the real reason I was wearing an elf dress.

It’s why I watched myself so carefully at my Pokemon trading meetup the next day, even though nearly everyone in the room has - and was eagerly talking about - a hyper-specific list of pokemon they want to fit their very rigid goals. I caught myself getting excited once and quickly plopped myself down in a chair. I made sure to only talk about normal things. I blushed deeply when I realized I let my guard down and was talking about my new cosplay to someone who I’d never even mentioned it to before.

As I hurriedly swiped past the photo, I could feel the stare of the friend who told me to find new topics as I quickly asked this girl what she did last weekend, how work was going, and other mundane things.

I was self-aware, and it may have saved me from more heartache like I experienced for years in school and beyond.

It’s sad that I have to be aware that, although I don’t see myself as a freak, other people can (and will) if I don’t keep my thoughts to myself. It’s sad to be aware that if I don’t, every one of my friendships could be in jeopardy.

When I heard that self-awareness was what distinguished me from Andi, I couldn’t help but think that I paid a heavy price to know that I was too much, and I never want to pay that price again. It also made me sad to think of someone else first learning how painful it is to be hated for who you are.

Sometimes, I wish I didn’t have to be so self-aware, that I could just interact with people without worrying about if I’m being normal enough. I hope that, as more time goes on and I make friends with kinder people, that I can also learn when it’s okay to let go, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Until then, I’ll live in the middle, navigating how and when I can show myself, and hoping this lesson will be less painful than the ones before.

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.



Crossing The Line

Compulsions, for me, were a blessing and a curse.

It was a pain to have to touch a thing a certain number of times, or whisper certain words under my breath, or cough when I was near a sick person. But it was easy. My brain told me exactly what I had to do to get the anxiety spike out of the way, and when I did it, it worked - at least until the next obsessive thought came around.

But when I started to grow out of my compulsions around the time I went to college, I didn’t quite know what to do.

For the most part, I didn’t have to do much of anything. I was enjoying life. Even the transition from living at home to living in a dorm when I’d never even been to sleepaway camp was going better than I thought. But then, Parents Weekend rolled around. I saw my parents for the first time in ten weeks, loved every minute with them - and then they left.

I sat alone in my room with no clue what to do. Anxious and sad, I started unpacking a few gifts my parents brought me. I found a large bag of Chex Mix and dug my hand in, enjoying the feeling of eating more than the taste. I wasn’t even hungry, but I finished the whole bag. And I felt better.

Food quickly became something that worked. Any tiny stressor became an instant excuse for heaping piles of pasta and ice cream cones. Even the fact that I was gaining weight didn’t bother me, because I had something that worked no matter what.

And then I got sick.

When it turned into depression, I was completely in over my head. Obsessions I’d long forgotten resurfaced, mutated, and grew into something truly horrible. Lost in this sea of desperation, I tried to use the coping mechanism that had worked since my first year of college, but my body wouldn’t even let me eat. I needed something new, and I needed it fast.

That summer, I learned how obsession can cross the line into addiction, how even the smallest and simplest things can spiral out of control when they become too much. I learned this when I tried to think of hobbies that made me happy in my youth, and returned to Pokemon cards.

I bought myself a pack of Pokemon cards that soon spiraled into buying cards constantly, ordering them to my campus and tearing into them with great hunger. When I was in the process of opening them, I was happy. It soon progressed to the point where I couldn’t be happy unless I was thinking about the next set of packs I’d open and the next cards I’d get.

When I managed to claw myself out of the depression thanks to therapy, medication, and CBT, I put the cards I’d bought in a box and hid it well. So well, in fact, that when I recently tried to inch my way back into the hobby with some new friends of mine in Chicago and asked my mom to bring me the box, she couldn’t find it in the maze I’d set up to protect my secret.

When I went home last weekend, I was determined to find it once and for all. I found a mountain of boxes that all looked the same, and started sifting through them. And, finally, there it was - a beat-up old Elite Trainer Box from the Plasma Storm set in 2013, placed carefully behind lookalike black boxes filled with common, inexpensive Magic: The Gathering cards that I’d hoped would be enough to fool my parents if they decided to go looking.

The box was so crammed full of cards that I could barely open it, and the first one to greet my eyes was the one I remembered most and was most ashamed of: Flareon gold star.

I’d bought that card after buying an extremely expensive booster box of a vintage set called EX Legend Maker, trying to get a card with a gold star on it. The odds were one in three boxes, and as I tore through the first box, I recall praying that any of the packs inside would contain what I was looking for and thus justify the huge expense, tossing all other cards aside. When I didn’t pull the card I wanted, I cried while ordering a second booster box, and I got no joy out of the second opening because there was no gold star card in there either. Eventually, I went online and bought that flareon card to stop myself from buying a third booster box and trying to even the odds.

Behind the flareon was a base set Charizard, the most valuable card from the first-ever set of pokemon cards. I had no recollection of buying it.

Nor did I remember buying the Japanese Dark Charizard behind it, a card that I’d missed ever since giving my collection to a “friend” who never gave it back. I was so desperate for friends, then, that I was willing to give away my favorite card, plus an almost-complete set of Base Set cards worth a great deal of money now. When I begged for the cards back, starting on the next day, she told me she had lost them.

That one, I wasn’t embarrassed about. I could justify that card. But as I continued to go through the box, I saw all over again why I’d hidden it so well. There was no way to justify a Jungle Jolteon or a first edition Fossil Articuno, expensive cards I had no emotional attachment to. There was no way to hide that I had spent a lot of money on a Japanese golden Reshiram and a crystal Ho-Oh. There was no avoiding the Ziploc baggie filled with rare and expensive packs that I wouldn’t dream of buying even one today, from EX Dragon Frontiers to Fire Red Leaf Green.

It was overwhelming, mind-blowing, how deep my addiction to purchasing Pokemon cards had become. I excused it at the time, considering the battle I was fighting in my head, but when I found the box, I discovered what it looked like to a clear mind. Without that battle, the heap of expensive cards looked scary. It looked like I was someone who had no self-control and no respect for money. There were also plenty of things in and around the box that didn’t make any sense no matter how I looked at them:

There were eleven theme decks that I never played, because I didn’t have any friends to play with.

Some of the most expensive cards were stuffed in sleeves too small for them, some in doubled-up sleeves that I hadn’t even noticed.

Most of the cards were thrown in the box haphazardly, not organized in my preferred system or any system at all.

Spreading the cards around me felt like a look inside a diseased mind - disorganized, frenzied, leaping from point to point and sticking to the smallest of things that could make me happy for the briefest of moments. It’s the closest I’ve come to seeing what I was like then, in the time when I felt I had no control over myself or anything at all.

It might be hard to comprehend why, years after my recovery from depression, I am occasionally buying packs again. It was a tough decision to make, and one that I didn’t make lightly as I bought myself a Detective Pikachu tin to celebrate seven years since my initial hospital stay. It was tempting, when I first saw the new cards, to start buying everything I missed out on from the years between when I didn’t play at all. But I knew myself, and I knew I needed to come up with a way to engage in this habit healthily.

Now, I have rules: I buy packs only at prerelease tournaments, which only happen a few times a year and have a set price point. If there’s something in particular that I really want outside of prerelease boxes, I allow myself only one product per month. I watch YouTube videos to see what the odds look like for different kinds of packs, so that I don’t repeat my EX Legend Maker mistake. For example, in April, I bought a $20 box of GX Ultra Shiny in Korean for 1/6 the price it would have been in Japanese, and only after determining that every single box has a minimum of two cards I wanted (I pulled three). I try to celebrate whichever cards I pull and actually use them in building decks, and I take care of the cards I pull no matter their rarity.

Most importantly, if I have a mistake or a moment of weakness and buy cards I shouldn’t, I tell myself that I’m not a bad person and it’s not a slippery slope to where I was. Whenever I resist buying cards I like at the store, I praise myself, which can be hard to do. I’m trying to be more open with people about what happened with my obsessive habit, and I’m working on finding new coping mechanisms like video games, reading, talking to friends, and more that don’t involve overeating or overspending.

Developing new coping mechanisms that don’t rely on my childhood compulsions has been one of the harder parts of moving into adulthood with OCD. It can be easy to have bad days and think everything is lost if I buy a few packs of cards or eat too much deep dish pizza.  But with proper precautions, I can enjoy these hobbies like anyone else - and I can be proud of my newest special card, a rainbow Eevee and Snorlax GX, as a sign that things can change and I can turn a weakness into a strength.

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.


Woman with tea cup .jpeg

A Mother’s Perspective…

My Failure to Relax

* This is our second contribution from Melissa, a Mom of two, dealing with her own anxiety as well as her children’s challenges. She is sharing her story to help others understand what it’s like to live and parent with mental illness.

It’s summer, my kids are away at camp, and I should be carefree... relaxed... having the time of my life. At least that’s what everyone tells me, and I’m trying. I’m really trying, but, quite honestly, I think I’m failing. It all came crashing down on me as we left on a long-awaited vacation and my anxiety really took control.

In recent weeks, I’ve taken advantage of most of my strategies to manage my mental illness. I’ve kept up my therapy and my meds. I’ve done yoga. I’ve walked with friends and talked with friends. I went out. I stayed home. I went to movies, dinners, and a party. I’ve volunteered, attended a professional conference, stepped up my networking, and completed some work projects.

I have squeezed every second out of every day, yet as my husband and I headed out of town, I was frantically attending to all of my “to dos.” While walking through the airport, I was emailing and downloading. Once we sat down at the gate, I still had not crossed off everything that was on my list. Then, I hit the proverbial wall. In this case, it was a technological wall. I got locked out of a website I was using for work. I could feel my blood begin to boil. Ooh... I was so mad. I sat with jaw clenched while we waited for our flight which, by the way, was more than three hours delayed. (That didn’t help my anxiety.)

By the time we boarded the plane, in a moment that should have been filled with happiness and excitement, I felt so overwhelmed and exhausted that I started to cry.

I thought I was managing my anxiety, but maybe I’ve just been avoiding it? In a year that’s been filled with non-stop challenges, I have powered through every moment telling myself and everyone around me that I’m good. I can handle it. I don’t need anything. It’s no big deal. I’m fine. I clean up the mess - emotional or literal - and I move on to the next thing thinking eventually things will slow down, and I’ll get a break.

Well, now I have a break, and I’ve replaced the pressures of parenting with the pressures of a break from parenting. I’ve been running at a break-neck pace to take advantage of this time by filling it with everything that I need and want to do... making sure I have a laundry list of accomplishments to show for myself. My anxious brain is telling me to keep up the Energizer Bunny routine, lest the kids come home, and I haven’t cleaned every corner of their rooms.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining that my kids are at camp, and I’m going on vacation. I’m simply wishing I could enjoy it more, but anyone with anxiety knows it’s not that easy. And that just stirs up more distress: how embarrassing to struggle to enjoy the good things in life. And isn’t that the heart of living with a mental illness?

P.S. I did manage to relax while on vacation. I let go of my “to dos” and my “shoulds” and just existed in each moment as much as I could. It all paid off on our way home when it appeared our luggage might not make the flight. Rather than panic with worry and aggravation, I thought to myself, oh well... the dirty laundry will get washed whenever it arrives.

Melissa is a married mother of two, dealing with her own anxiety as well as her children’s challenges. She is sharing her story to help others understand what it’s like to live and parent with mental illness.



AMA: When You Say The Wrong Thing

Question: “What should a person do if they realize they said the ‘wrong thing’ and set someone off?”

Thanks for the question, Anonymous Reader!

It can be easy to accidentally say something triggering to a person with OCD, especially considering people like me can be triggered by something innocuous that comes up in everyday conversation. For example, for many years - and even now, to an extent - I couldn’t handle when people would say that they were sick, especially if they gave details. I could just picture the germs in the air wafting towards me, sucked into my lungs with every breath, as they carried on with their conversation.

The first thing to understand is that you can’t “take back” what you said, even if you qualify your statements with reasons why they might not happen. To use the example of someone saying they threw up last night, saying “I feel a lot better now” doesn’t erase the fact that you were sick and I know about it. Same thing for my post about the bats a few weeks ago - even if my friend said that the incident happened some time ago, it wouldn’t erase that there had been bats in the rafters at some point and there could be one there now. Rather than try to fix the thought, try to fix the aftermath - move from prevention to triage in the moment, and see what your friend needs.

I find it most helpful, if someone knows I’m having an obsessive thought, whether or not they “started it,” to have a distraction. I can use this to crowd out the negative thoughts pouring in and buy myself time to figure out what to do, all the while doing something fun with a friend, which never fails to cheer me up.

Here’s an example where that worked very well: I was at an anime convention with my best friend and their sister and brother-in-law. We ate at a nearby Italian restaurant - my favorite - and a few bites into my meal, I discovered there was meat in my food, and I’d eaten some. As a vegetarian, I firmly believe that eating meat will cause me to throw up, and when my best friend’s sister said it out loud, confirming my thought, I started to cry in the restaurant.

All three of my friends asked me how they could help and what I needed. First, I needed someone to help me deal with the waitress and figure out the bill - in other words, the practical things that fly out of my mind when I’m having a bad moment. They led me back to the convention, and one friend suggested a trivia game that I hadn’t thought of attending, but the start time was soon enough that we would need to get in line - a concrete goal - and then I could distract myself by trying to solve the questions. It wasn’t long until I was laughing at the game - I might not have eaten dinner that night, but when I think back, I have more memories of my friends helping me and the trivia questions than the worry about throwing up. 

Also, it’s important to note that you don’t need to beat yourself up over it. Maybe keep your friend’s triggers in mind for future conversations, but a lot of obsessive thoughts come in with no triggers from other people, or things that are so common they’re practically impossible to avoid. Just show them that you care in whatever ways you can, and they’ll trust you to be a friend in both good times and bad.

Readers, what questions do you have about living with OCD? Feel free to send them to No Shame On U and I’ll answer them!

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.



Looking In The Mirror

It didn’t take me long to learn there were two people named Andi (pseudonym for privacy) in my Pokemon Go group. It also didn’t take me long to hear the two referred to as “the Andi people like” and “the Andi people don’t like.”

When I asked about “Andi people don’t like,” I was greeted with eye rolls, fallen faces, and sighs. People couldn’t describe what they didn’t like about her in specifics, only that she was annoying. The topic of conversation changed.

I soon learned that people would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid her. One week, after a Community Day event, she asked if people would be trading pokemon at a certain location. Responses poured in that everyone was busy. Literally everyone, even the people I knew were looking forward to trading. Then, I heard about another meeting going on in another location, from a private chat, kept from her so she wouldn’t show up.

I’d never seen anything like that from my group that I generally consider nice. When I moved to Chicago, they were quick to welcome me in, and I’ve made most of my local friends from this crowd. I talk daily with many of the people, and didn’t know what in the world could make such nice people turn against someone so strongly.

I imagined different scenarios. There are certain faux pas in the game that she might have committed. Maybe she bragged too much or was obnoxious in some other way. But it took me almost nine months of living in Chicago to meet her for the first time and assess her for myself.

She ventured out to a meeting we had on Sunday, one of our weekly trade nights. Since this was the one right after Go Fest, I was thrilled to come and trade pokemon with a lot of people. After trading once each with everyone I knew to build friendship in the game, I found myself sitting next to a girl who I didn’t know, who loved my cosplaying pikachu plushie I bought at Go Fest and eagerly asked me what I had to trade. I didn’t have her information in the game - we weren’t friends yet - but when she gave me her username, I immediately recognized her.

It surprised me that this girl, who was so nice and welcoming to me even when I wasn’t in a great mood, was “Andi people don’t like.” Sure, she was eager to ask about what I had for trade, and happily chattered away as we swapped pokemon with each other. She often repeated herself when asking for certain pokemon and expressing her likes and dislikes. When we achieved our goals - twice - she was thrilled to talk about it.

It didn’t take me long to notice that people were treating her differently. When she got up to move to a different chair, and forgot her drink - something many people had done over the course of the night - she was publicly scolded. No one thanked her for the special lures she put up to attract pokemon, which cost real money and would usually lead to a good deal of gratitude. Many people talked over her like she wasn’t even there. And as far as I could see, no one but me took the time to help her meet her goals in the game.

Long story short, I didn’t see anything in her that would cause such a visceral reaction. I didn’t understand why people would go so far to avoid her and exclude her. It reminded me of all the years I spent desperate for a single friend - and then it came to me.

I recognized a lot of her behaviors - repetitive speech, overexcitement, fixation on one thing above all others - in how I play Pokemon Go. I screamed when I found a special pokemon only the day before, but my friends - these same people - were amused rather than turned off. Maybe it’s because I spend a good deal of time trying to act “normal” no matter what’s going on on the inside, or maybe it’s because my first impression was “normal” and I only reveal my true self in bits and pieces as time goes on.

I spent years in therapy trying to be “normal,” to hide the things I was obsessing about, whether positive or negative. Some people are even surprised when I admit to being phobic about things, because I can keep even my most visceral reactions on the inside for months. Even with close friends, it takes me a while to be annoying, to squeal with joy and reveal exactly how deep my hobbies go. Few people know I have the Lord of the Rings movies memorized. Few people have the link to the archive where I post my fanfiction for LotR and other franchises. Few people are treated to my thought process when I try to figure out which pokemon to evolve or what I should name it.

As I sat and traded with Andi, I felt like I was looking in a mirror and seeing my younger self. Not to imply that I’ve advanced or grown in some way to the point where I don’t act like this anymore, but I have had enough experiences like Andi’s to be cynical of new friends. I take a very long time to trust people enough to show my real self out of fear that I’ll be seen as annoying or “too much,” out of fear that it’ll be me asking when we’re meeting and everyone else says they’re busy to avoid me.

I think Andi was incredibly brave to come to the gathering on Sunday, where she probably knew people wouldn’t treat her well. She was still optimistic and genuinely happy, especially while she was trading with people. It was truly nice to meet her. She wasn’t repulsive in any way I could see. She was just someone being herself and trying to make friends in her own way, trusting in a way I learned not to after I was on the receiving end of cruelty so many times beginning in my childhood.

I withdrew after years of bullying, not trusting even my closest friends to know everything in my head that I’d love to share. I hide in plain sight, using all the techniques my therapist gave me to not become the annoying one. I shower my friends with gifts and care and love, even if I don’t get those things in return. I do whatever I can to balance on that precarious wire of being normal and being myself.

I’m sure that, out of the two Ellies in my grade, I was the “Ellie people don’t like.” I know there were plenty of parties, events, lunches, and more that I’ve been excluded from since grade school. I know that a lot of it likely comes from the fact that I had very visible compulsions back then, and people were scared or disgusted by that. It also probably had to do with my very visible passions that didn’t match what the other kids were interested in, from fantasy novels to video games.

Now, I was on the other side of the mirror, the side I always wanted to be, but it was impossible to enjoy it knowing that someone else had taken my place at the bottom - and that the people who had put her there were my friends who treated me so kindly when I didn’t act like that.

I don’t blame Andi for not coming to many of our meetings, if she even knows they exist, but I do hope she comes to more. Whether or not we end up being the best of friends, I firmly believe she deserves to have a chance to experience friendship and kindness like anyone else. In the meantime, I’ll send her gifts in Pokemon Go, where I’ve labeled her as simply “Andi.” As a human being, it’s the respect she deserves, and I can only hope the rest of the group will see that one day. 

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.