There’s A Person Under Here

Trigger Warning: Suicide

Mom called me last week to ask my opinion about something: she’d been approached by some friends whose son, about my age, recently attempted suicide. The parents needed to leave the house but didn’t want to leave him alone, and asked my mom if she’d be willing to step in for a few hours.

My dad and grandma, she explained, were less than thrilled about the prospect. As a skinny person currently in a walking boot for a foot injury, they feared that she was susceptible to danger. They didn’t know this young man, but they believed that he might have an inclination towards violence to others after he harmed himself.

This is a misconception I’ve heard a lot about people with suicidal thoughts or who have made attempts. Research states - and I can agree after my own crisis several years ago - that the desire to end one’s life is not about trying to be harmful or destructive to other people. It’s about trying to end the constant pain in your head, a pain that takes over absolutely everything until you can’t eat or sleep or drink or have a single uninterrupted thought. In fact, I was so absorbed in my own world that I barely noticed other people, let alone wanted to harm them.

Mom turned to me, she said, because as someone who has a great deal of personal experience with mental illness both with myself and my friends, some of whom have also had suicidal thoughts, she thought I’d know which side was right. I couldn’t say for sure - I’ve never met this guy and don’t even know his name - but I thought of myself in a similar situation and told her to agree to the parents’ request.

I won’t lie and say I wasn’t a little nervous during the day, especially since I felt responsible for her safety when she left the decision to me. We had safety measures in place that I’d advise for going to anyone’s house if you don’t know them well - telling other people the address and having a certain word to text if you need help - but I was happy (and not surprised) to hear she didn’t need them.

She called me, tired but completely fine, a few hours later. She told me about the sweet, chatty young man who told her all about the things he’s interested in and asked her what she likes. He was a kind host who offered to make her lunch when he made some for himself and spent almost three hours talking to her. On the way out, she told his parents that he seems like a sweet boy who will get through this. They hugged her with tears in their eyes.

She told me that her time there reminded her of my interaction with the rabbi at my college, years ago. When I told her I was having suicidal thoughts - even though I clarified that I had no means to end my life nor did I plan or want to harm myself or anyone else - she became afraid of me. She went from someone happy to invite me over for Shabbat dinner and let me babysit her kids to someone unwilling to talk to me one-on-one or let me see her family.

When I tried to broach the subject to my rabbi and she was afraid, I felt like I’d done something wrong, perhaps even ungodly. And when my crisis was over and I saw her on campus the following year - even when I explicitly told her that “I’m fine now” - she was unwilling to interact with me. The relationship we’d built over two and a half years meant nothing anymore, and I felt like it was my fault.

I can’t say for sure what this guy was feeling, but I know if it was me, I would have loved to find kindness instead of fear and acceptance instead of rejection. By giving him the gift of a few hours of distraction and not feeling like a freak, she likely helped him immeasurably, as she helped me.

I couldn’t be prouder of her for making the right choice, even though it was hard and maybe even scary, and I can only hope that others will step in like she did. Whether it’s someone you’ve known for years or a stranger, people in a mental health crisis deserve the same love and respect as everyone else, and I appreciate that her impulse was to look for a way to be kind rather than a way to get out of the situation.

She admitted to me that she was afraid - she didn’t know this guy, and there is still that small chance he could have decided to hurt her - but she chose to trust him, unlike the rabbi who shunned me. Inside the scary story of a suicide attempt, she found a human where others were afraid to look. And that can make all the difference.

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.



The Outside Trickles In

I try as hard as I can to advocate for an end to the stigma against mental health. I try to be open about the fact that I have taken medicine for years and I believe medicine can be a valuable tool to help people live with a mental health condition. But sometimes, the stigma manages to slip through my guarded defenses and make me question things I believe and try to teach.

A couple of nights ago, I was at a friend’s apartment for game night. As our small group played Catan, we started getting silly - nicknaming the different tiles, rolling the dice in increasingly funny ways, and more. I don’t usually let myself get this silly around other people because I can sometimes get carried away or make people feel like I’ve been “too much.” And then it happened. I don’t remember exactly what it was that caused arguably my closest friend in the group to ask me if I’d taken my medicine.

It felt like someone poured a bucket of icy water over me. The silliness and smiles were instantly gone, even though the others carried on like nothing had happened. But I couldn’t help myself. “What did you just say to me?” I blurted out in the same tone as if someone had called me hideously ugly or disgusting in some way.

My friend was surprised - and even more so when I told her I’d interpreted her remark as an insult. She said she thought I might be having a hard time with something in my life (I honestly don’t even remember what we’d been talking about amidst the silliness of the game) and said that sometimes, when she or her husband forget to take their medication, these thoughts become more prevalent. She saw it as helping, not hurting.

But I saw one thing, and one thing only: I wasn’t good enough. I had displayed some sort of symptom that was abnormal. The next thoughts followed the pattern they have for years: I displayed, openly, that I was not normal. People like normal people. Therefore, people won’t like me or want to be my friend.

I knew this thought pattern from CBT. I knew how it worked and what I was supposed to do to combat it, just as I had when a dog scratched my skin open earlier in the day and I briefly remembered my worries from last week. But this was different. Somehow, I had failed. And all of that came from one simple offhand remark about mental health medicine.

Sitting at a table with friends, I felt the need to be reassured that they weren’t spending time with me because I trade them good pokemon in Pokemon Go or help them with chores and favors. I needed to be told - explicitly and multiple times - that I was invited to this group gathering because they liked me as a person.

“I like how you get passionate about things, even if I don’t understand it,” one person said. “I like hearing about your cosplays even if I’ve never done it before,” said another. My friend who made the remark said she appreciated when I asked her for feedback about a horse’s name in a new Tolkien fanfiction story I’m writing. It was reassuring, but still somehow I felt the remark about the medicine getting under my skin.

It struck me as we continued to play the game - my friends enjoying themselves, as I stayed brooding - that a few minutes earlier, a friend of mine who was allergic to cats like I am was petting our host’s cat as another cat brushed against my leg. When he asked if I remembered to take an antihistamine, I was unashamed to say I had. Why was this so different?

I felt like a hypocrite for going against what I usually believe. My first reaction was self-hatred and thinking no one liked me, rather than believing in myself and knowing that my friends liked me for who I am, medicine and all.

I didn’t question myself about the allergy medication because I knew that didn’t influence who I was, because it was common, and because people still liked me even though I had allergies, and could make accommodations (like putting the cats in a different room) for my comfort.

Mental health shouldn’t be any different. As I’ve learned after my worst crisis, real friends will stick by my side even if I’m the least normal version of myself (and, as my best friend always says, normal is just a setting on the washing machine). People can make simple accommodations like not asking why I’m not eating something I’m uncomfortable with. And it changes how I express myself, but I don’t think the entirety of who I am as a person comes from mental illness. Not to mention mental illness is more common than most people know, thanks to the prevalence of stigma.

I don’t usually fall prey to stigma. I try to fight it on the front lines, offering my experiences as support for others. But this experience made me realize that it still lurks inside me. As someone who is part of society, I grew up learning beliefs that were - and remain - prevalent. I’ve done my best to encourage friends to live their best lives, with or without medication, but I couldn’t see past the stigma when it was my own sanity in question.

In the past, when I’ve heard something like what my friend said to me, I withdraw. I don’t let myself trust this friend as much as I did before. And I trust myself even less. But now, I’m setting a new challenge: to love myself, medicine and all. The silly moments and the tough ones. The times I wax poetic about Tolkien and the times I worry about a scratch on my arm. It’s hard to do with the internalized stigma, but my fight against OCD has also made me incredibly stubborn in sticking to my goals. I’m not going to give up. And I decided to start that very night, no matter how uncertain I felt.

Shyly, I pulled up a picture on my phone. “This is the fabric for my new elf dress,” I explained. My friends smiled, and commented on the color. I couldn’t have been happier to be wrong.


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.



One Moment

Sometimes, when people wonder what it’s like to live with OCD, I explain it in moments.

As someone who can, after many years of therapy, make it through a day without having the negative kind of obsessive thoughts, OCD usually isn’t on my mind. But it can sneak up, sometimes in even just a single moment, and change the way my whole day is going.

Here’s an example: This week, I went out on a short walk with my coworker. We sometimes do this during the afternoons to clear our heads and get some fresh air, if it’s not raining or snowing. Sometimes, we even manage to fit in a Pokemon Go raid if there’s one nearby.

On this particular stroll around the block, we found a dragonfly on the ground acting strangely. My coworker commented to me that it may have flown into something like the birds and bats sometimes do with this building.

“Bats?” I asked, thinking of a book I read recently. In this book - Stephen King’s Cujo - a friendly St. Bernard is bitten by a rabid bat and kills several people.

She informed me that she’s seen bats crashing into the glass windows of our building before, and in one instance, Animal Control had to come and pick up the bat. She pointed to the rafters we were currently walking under, and said that bats nest there.

She changed the topic then, but I couldn’t.

Thoughts instantly flooded my head: “That bat must have had rabies, or Animal Control wouldn’t have been called. What if this dragonfly has something similar? At least it didn’t touch me. But a bat could have. What if a bat did touch me? In the book, the bites are small enough to not be noticeable. I could get bitten by a bat… I could have been bitten already.”

Forget the fact that it was a nice, sunny day with no bats in sight. Forget the fact that I saw a strangely-acting dragonfly, not a bat, and dragonflies can’t even transmit rabies to humans because they’re not mammals - not to mention, I don’t even think they can get rabies at all. Forget the fact that the bat incident this co-worker was talking about might have happened years ago. These things only occurred to me later, when I had calmed myself down.

It’s a strange feeling to be fine one moment and going down that rabbit hole of thoughts a moment later. It’s been the work of my lifetime to learn how to recognize the thoughts for what they are and stop them, which I learned primarily through cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). I know now that my most common thought patterns involve thinking many steps into the future, and a good way to solve this is to try to walk back the steps.

Like this: It would take a lot for me to get rabies. There would need to be a bat there, in broad daylight, and I would need to somehow not see it even though I’m looking up and bats have dark colors. It wouldn’t come out in the sun in the first place, and even if it did, I would notice it immediately, and so would my co-worker. I work right near a hospital, and treatments are effective if they happen soon after the encounter. Just because I’m near the rafters doesn’t guarantee I’ve got a fatal disease.

Thinking through this helps me slow down and get off the runaway train of thought before I descend into a true panic.

I don’t know why my brain chooses to panic like this about some things but not others. I can watch the trailer for “It” without worrying about a clown coming to attack me, but this book stuck with me for some reason. It didn’t stop me from hugging dogs at the park or dread the visit of my own sweet dog, who is currently on his first visit to Chicago since I moved. But it did make me jump just a little when I saw a big St. Bernard in my neighborhood, until I saw his tail was wagging. And it caused that same response at even the mention of a bat.

As an adult who hasn’t done compulsions for years, this is usually the main way my OCD manifests. It can be over the simplest things, and if it’s bad enough, I need to rely on others for help. For instance, I needed my friends to stick up for me at a restaurant when a waitress made fun of my reaction after she served me a meal with ground-up meat and I didn’t notice, and as a vegetarian, I was convinced the amount I ate before I realized would make me throw up. It wasn’t until I got some over-the-counter medicine for nausea and took it - even before I felt nausea - that I really felt better.

Most days, I don’t have an incident like this, but I try to be prepared for when I do. If something affects me like the book, I mention it to the people closest to me in case I need help later on. I have an app on my phone with CBT refresher lessons. And I do my best to fill my days with happy things that don’t leave room for other stuff to creep in.

Most importantly, I try to love myself even when these thoughts do come in. As a child, I used to hate my brain - and consequently, myself - when I’d lose myself in obsessions. It’s still a hard process to love myself even in these darker moments, but I try to tell myself that my OCD is where my creativity comes from, and turn my attention to one of the many fandoms and other forms of creative expression that I love.

In the grand scheme of things, after all, it’s just one moment. And I can choose for my next moment to be positive, breaking that cycle and taking control back into my own hands. Another battle won, I can return to a life of peace.


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.

A MOTHER'S PERSPECTIVE… Managing Bar Mitzvah Anxiety, Mine & His


A Mother’s Perspective…

Managing Bar Mitzvah Anxiety, Mine & His

*Our blog is pleased to welcome new voices to add to the mix, beginning with 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.

My son’s Bar Mitzvah is in less than a year, and we’ve made no plans.  I’m not kidding.  We really have no idea what we are doing.  While everyone else has been busy booking venues, djs, and photographers, I’ve been wrestling with the anxiety that comes with this milestone.  Quite frankly, it’s been paralyzing, which is why there’s no plan.  For many months, I thought we were on hold because of my son’s anxiety, but I’m starting to realize this has more to do with my worries and fears than it does with his.  You see, I’m a mother with anxiety who is parenting a child with anxiety and depression, and it’s a tough combination.

Every Bar/Bat Mitzvah we have attended as a family has been miserable for my son, and in turn, for me.  He hates getting dressed up in nice clothes, has no patience for the service, finds the party overwhelming, and usually spends the majority of the time sitting alone in a quiet area away from the crowd.  If my son didn’t suffer from anxiety and depression, we’d think he was just acting like a jerk, but we know that’s not the case.  Instead, we know he’s anxious about socializing, and seeking control to manage his emotions makes him rigid and angry.  So we try to engage him in small doses, but that takes a lot of energy and patience.  Once we get him to mingle a bit, then he’s ready to leave… and not in 10 minutes.  He wants to go NOW and has tried to drag me out the door on more than one occasion.  It’s hard to enjoy someone else’s simcha when your child is distressed.

So now it’s his turn.

If it were up to my son, we would do nothing for his Bar Mitzvah.  No service, no party, nothing.  Cue MY anxiety.  How can we not have a Bar Mitzvah for him?  What will my parents think?  My friends?  How can I face the Rabbi whom I admire and respect?  And what was the point of four years of Hebrew School? 

At one point last summer, we brought up the topic of the Bar Mitzvah plan, and in minutes he was hysterical crying.  Ok, so clearly, we aren’t having a blowout.  I’m actually more than happy to skip the big, fancy bash.  Talk about anxiety provoking!  The guest list!  The food!  The clothes!  I’m relieved to be able to set that all aside and focus on the service, have lox and bagels with our nearest and dearest, and call it a mitzvah.  So let’s assume that’s the party plan.  We will keep it small and simple.  Fine.  No problem.

But what about the service?  When forced to discuss it, my son says he’s willing to do something short and private with just our closest family.  At first, that seemed reasonable.  Maybe standing on the bimah leading a service is just too much for this kid to handle?  We could talk to the Rabbi and tell him this anxious child needs some special accommodations.  That seems fair, right?  But perhaps a modified service is actually a disservice?  How will he learn to cope with the things he doesn’t want to do if I let him cut corners and take the easy way out? 

But is his anxiety still really the issue here?  Once we set aside the elaborate social event, why all the opposition?  Stage fright?  I don’t think so.  This is a kid who has performed in plays since second grade.  The truth is he doesn’t see the point in all of this and doesn’t want to do the work, and it is going to take a lot of work.  He has not exactly been the most diligent Hebrew School student.   But isn’t that a reason to force him to do it?  Don’t we find growth in facing our challenges head on?  Shouldn’t I ensure he experiences hard work and the joy of success that comes as a result?

So I guess that brings the decision down to me, the anxious mother.  What can I handle?  Can I keep my anxiety in check to tolerate the anger of a 12-year-old who is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah under protest?  Can I tune out all the chatter from everyone else who is having an elaborate party for their super excited kid without feeling inadequate and apologetic?  Can I just focus on my child and my family and plan what makes sense for us?  So much easier said than done, but I know from past experience, making a commitment to something, and taking that first step makes the rest of it much easier.  So as I head down this road, I’ll keep reminding myself that requiring him to manage his responsibilities is no different than me doing the same and making the responsible parenting decision.  I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

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.



The Rule of Interest

My best friend and I have a rule of interest.

It started when I realized that, although we shared many common interests, the biggest of which being the Pokemon video games, there were some things that we didn’t have in common. My best friend, who speaks Japanese, is a big fan of anime and Japanese video games in the original language, which I can’t play. And they’re not a particularly big fan of Tolkien and other fantasy writers.

Both of us love talking about our interests, but after a childhood of learning from my therapist how to gauge if I was going overboard and if my conversation partner was interested in the topic at hand, I didn’t want to risk letting my guard down and messing up the best friendship I’d ever had.

Then, we came to an agreement. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but we agreed that we’re free to share with each other whatever might be on our minds, whatever’s piquing our interest at the time, even if the other person has no idea what to say back. We can say whatever we want, however much we want, and at the end, we’ll still be friends.

It felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I could share things with my best friend that I wanted to share for such a long time, that might not mean anything to them, but would mean the world to me that they would still care to be my friend afterwards.

They tell me about the games they play, the shows they watch, and the jokes I’d never understand because of the language barrier. And in return, I tell them about the story ideas I’m tossing around for the latest Tolkien writing challenge, the fanfiction I read with a new theory about a favorite character, and my cosplay progress.

Even if their response is just a smiley face or a thumbs up, it makes me feel like I’m not being a burden as a friend, like I’m not my childhood self who would ramble about whatever held my interest until the other person could escape.

I’d always feel terribly guilty after this was pointed out to me. What was wrong with me, I wondered, that even my happiness was too much to handle? Was that why I had so much trouble making friends, or was it that I wasn’t hiding my childhood compulsions well enough? As an adult, I think it’s a combination of both, but either way, it made me feel like I had to hide who I was and what I enjoyed in order to fit in.

Nowadays, most people know that, at the very least, I’m a Tolkien fan. Some people see my phone case with my favorite elf on the back or notice the special New Zealand envelopes and stamps I hung up in my office with characters from The Hobbit. Others have seen my collection of badges from conventions across four states that I’ve attended since my best friend introduced me to anime conventions - their favorite kind - in 2015.

But there’s always a line. It’s normal to express some interest, but it’s far harder to express a deeper interest. At minimum, I’d be weird. Some people might even consider it creepy.

This week, I was really excited about the sign-ups for the art prompts for the Tolkien Reverse Summer Bang. This will be my second year participating in the challenge, where I’ll work with an artist to write a story 5,000 words or longer about a piece of art they’ve made. For me, that was something I was thrilled to wake up to on Sunday morning, something that got me out of bed unusually early on a weekend and had me running over to my computer before I could even think of anything else. I started a Word document where I began to document my favorite prompts. I was so thrilled to go through all the slides of options and form my opinions.

But then, I realized I had very few people to share my happiness with.

My joy is as intense as the negative obsessions that plagued my childhood. Sometimes, it’s something that I feel the need to share just bursting out of me and I can barely wait to find the closest person who I think might care. Sometimes, I feel the need to share it more than once. Sometimes, it comes out in a rush of words and happiness and it takes all my training to notice if the other person might not care.

Sometimes, I’m faced with a blunt “I don’t care.” My interactions with that person are never quite the same afterwards, even if I can outwardly pretend like nothing’s happened.

Sometimes, it’s the opposite - at a convention last year, I had the immense pleasure of spending a day with other people who loved Tolkien and other high fantasy writers as much as me, and everything seemed to make me smile bigger, whether it was someone understanding a joke in my cosplay or even just knowing the name of my favorite character.

I’d love to have this “rule of interest” with more people. It’s such a great feeling to share the things I care about and learn more about what my friends care about, and I find that it makes for a deeper and more fulfilling friendship if neither of us have to censor ourselves. Everyone has things they love, and for some people, it’s a way to get through harder times. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be functioning like I am today - I might not even be alive - if not for the strength and enjoyment I drew from my positive obsessions.

Talking about my interests helps me beyond measure, and I never know when the same can be said of anyone I interact with in my daily life. Even if it’s someone I don’t know well, I try to follow the rule of interest - even if I know it isn’t mutual. It’s a small and easy way to be an ally to people living with mental illness, and it’s appreciated more than you’ll know.


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.