Recently I tweeted about a nurse who helped me start a dialogue with myself about the origins of my low self-worth, and why I was so prone to self-harm and suicidal ideation. My self-esteem has been up and down my entire life, though I didn’t realize it until recently. Often people will tell you to not take stock in what other’s think of you, and if you’re religious, to only care what God thinks. But that’s such a challenge when your brain is sending you destructive messages on a regular basis. Sometimes these messages are innate, and sometimes they are based on events that have happened in your life.
When I was in 3rd grade and my sister was in 1st, we transferred to a new school in my neighborhood. I remember the feeling of not knowing any of the new kids. Being shy didn’t help me make friends quickly. Looking back on it I was experiencing social anxiety at having to talk to people I didn’t know, and feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. But, of course I didn’t tell anyone this. Nor I didn’t recognize this fully for what it was. I just knew I felt strange without the warmth and familiarity of my old school setting. Talking to people I didn’t know was scary and I was worried I’d say the wrong thing. Also, even back then, I was scared that I’d fall or trip in front of people. Social anxiety makes you feel like Amelia Bedelia, except no one thinks your foibles are cute.
One day at recess, I saw my sister playing with a few girls and I felt a sigh of relief. Phew! I wouldn’t have to play alone. I ran up to her and the other girls in a fit of excitement. I quickly asked if I could play with them. To me, it was a rhetorical question, just to be polite. I didn’t want to barge in on their game, though I was fully expecting to be included in on the fun. One of the girls looked up with a scowl and curtly said she didn’t want me to play with them. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. This was not the answer I was looking for and I didn’t have a response. I quietly said it was fine or something like that, so my sister wouldn’t have to choose between me and her new friends. Then I ran off, so no one would see me crying.
This has always been one of the incidents that has replayed in my head repeatedly during my life. I’ve only just now gotten to the point where it doesn’t flash in my mind uncontrollably anymore. After all these years, that memory has finally faded. I have to intentionally recall it to ‘remember’ it. People often ask me why I hold on to things that hurt me and why I don’t just move on with my life. So, here’s the thing about OCD, anxiety and rumination. Academically, things that have hurt me don’t have an impact on me and I don’t hang on to things for very long. In fact, sometimes, due to memory problems brought on my medications and illness, I don’t actively remember things that have happened and I need to be reminded of certain events. However, OCD and anxiety provide the brain with a constant loop, if you will. It’s uncontrollable and it happens without warning. Thoughts and memories play on repeat and can sometimes turn into obsessions if one is not careful.
For this event I described, my mind used to conjure up this memory often throughout my life. It was the basis of my fear of rejection; though I had other more dramatic instances of being rejected. But often, I found, my mind would tell me I wasn’t good enough during my life because of that one incident. Anytime something went wrong, my mind went back to the blacktop that day. My entire body would recall how I felt at that moment. It was such a strong memory that sometimes I’d find myself fighting back tears at the feeling of rejection. Often, alone in my room, the memory would replay constantly and I couldn’t stop it. I’d see a faint image of a child telling me I couldn’t play with the other kids and I’d get so depressed. I’d even feel butterflies and nausea on many occasions as the memory ran through my mind.
No matter what I did to put it out of my head, this memory wouldn’t go away. As an adult, I have no real feelings toward that childhood event, yet my mind would not let it go until a few months ago. I used to try to force the thoughts out of my head and make myself stop thinking about many things I didn’t like. But with OCD, that doesn’t seem to be effective. I’ve found that in addition to medication, the best thing for thoughts that play on a loop is not to fight them. It’s easier to relax and try thinking about something else. Eventually, the brain moves on.
For this story, this tactic worked well. I stopped fighting the errant thoughts and I ignored them whenever they came into my head. After a long time, they finally stopped. I realized a few nights ago that I hadn’t thought about that day and recess for a few months. I hadn’t felt the anxiety and the feeling of rejection. My mind wasn’t on a loop telling me I couldn’t play with the other kids and that I wasn’t ever going to be good enough. Slowly my self-esteem has been improving. I believe it’s due to many factors. Medication, prayer, Iman, and not fighting with my brain so much. I’m letting things take their course. I probably will always be learning how my illnesses affect my life. These are complex disorders. But I’m grateful for the clarity and help that continues to come my way. It’s been a blessing.