I am one of many people who uses creative expression to work through the problems presented by mental illness. Everywhere from online writing forums to Tumblr, Deviantart and more, I see countless examples of people turning struggles into triumphs and navigating the complexity of their thought patterns. For me, it’s always been writing. Losing myself in a story is a great way to get past the tough times, whether it’s difficult times in my head or simply a boring day - and I’ve also managed to find a good deal about myself in the stories I write.
One pattern I’ve noticed over the years is that my stories tend to have a character nicknamed Ellie. It wasn’t something I planned, but somehow, some of my most involved stories over the years have focused on a series of women all bearing the same name - and the same mental illness. The differences in how each story plays out has helped me map a course through my own journey.
The first Ellie’s story came to me when I was in high school. Sitting in the bleachers at a pep rally, I was captivated by the performance of a gymnast wearing a red ribbon in her hair. I named her Scarlett for the ribbon, but in brainstorming the piece, I soon discovered that it was the story of her mother that I truly wanted to write. I called her mother Eleanor, and the first Ellie quickly took shape.
She was the first Ellie to have OCD, which expressed itself as both perfectionism and hyperfocusing. She had compulsions too, at the beginning, mostly involving certain rituals influencing her luck in competitions. And yet, her focus was seen as something amazing, since it was fueling her drive to compete and make her way to the Olympics. No one would ever think someone like her was weird, unlike me.
The story changed when I faced a nearly-fatal illness a few years later during my freshman year in college. Ellie lost everything, including her ability to walk, and as I limped around campus, both she and I lost a great deal of our old selves. Where was her confidence, her drive, her need to succeed? She seemed to lose it all, and tried to navigate her way back to her old self just as I did.
A second Ellie worked in a hospital as I tried to overcome my fear of hospitals after my surgeries with all sorts of techniques including writing out hospital scenarios, watching documentaries and soap operas about hospitals, and listening to hospital sounds like ambulances and machines beeping. The noises made her nervous too, and in her story, she befriended someone who she had previously hated on principle and they worked through problems together. Her heart raced slower in the presence of a friend.
When I was sick, another Ellie was sick too. But unlike the first, she didn’t stay sick for long. She bounced back quickly, and sometimes even literally, because she embodied the part of OCD that makes me so overexcited about things that I can seem like a hyper kid. I could talk about things forever, even as a kid, and I had to learn that conversation is like a tennis match and you have to let the other person play too. This Ellie was annoying at first as I tried to see my own flaws, but she also plays into my excitement, considering that I’ve written her into a Tolkien fanfiction. His works are my biggest obsession, and after years of being too ashamed to share anything, I finally began spreading my wings on fanfiction sites. This Ellie hasn’t made an appearance online yet - in my story, she isn’t even the main character - but she grew on me, enough for me to want to write her the happiest of endings.
Probably the greatest Ellie was the one who inhabited my college thesis. Helena was her proper name, but she was a true Ellie from the moment she stepped onto the pages of the story. Her tale began with a list of steps she used to go through traveling, a process that was filled with anxiety for her. As I listed out the steps, I fell into her voice all too easily, and I heard from several professors and classmates that I really, truly understood her.
Of course I do, I wanted to tell them. She’s me.
Specifically, the me of my childhood, the one who was facing near-constant obsessions and compulsions until I could barely function. I imagined that girl who had to ask the same question ten times or touch things in a certain order as an adult, and wondered what would have happened without the love and support and therapeutic help that I was fortunate enough to have. It was scarily easy to put myself in her place, even when she made decisions I would never consider making.
Her ultimate downfall could have been prevented by anyone from her husband (if he’d cared to listen) to her friends (if they had been around) to the strangers she interacted with every day, but as each scene went by, she spiraled down more and more. I learned from her to share and be open, even if it’s something I’m afraid of, even if it’s something I’m afraid will scare other people. Even if I’m afraid of where I’d be if I was too much like this Ellie.
I never intended to give the characters the same names when I was first writing each story, but over time, I came to realize that perhaps my group of Ellies from diverse backgrounds, personalities, and even universes was telling me something. I don’t always have a character named Ellie in a story, but my OCD always informs my writing, whether serving as a hyperactive muse or showing me the way through a plot hole by giving me a thousand “what ifs,” and my stories inform my own life and have helped me get through phobias and panic attacks and everything in-between.
I’ve chosen to call myself Ellie here because I, too, am a work in progress. Every day is like another chapter of a story where I decide how to overcome my challenges. I’ve learned from the advice I give my own characters to seek help when needed, to form a supportive community around me to the best of my ability, and to face issues of mental health where they are rather than shying away. Every Ellie has taught me something, and I hope my stories here can serve as an Ellie in some way for someone else, forging a way into a world where conversations about mental health can be as open as the pages of a book.
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.