It Was Starting…

…The moment I had been waiting for months and months had finally arrived. The year was 2002 and I was finally about to see my favorite superhero on the big screen for the first time.  The lights dimmed and the screen brightened. I watched with all the fervor that an 11 year-old could possibly muster as Peter Parker slowly discovered his burgeoning powers and become the Spider-man that I knew and loved. My mind surged with happiness watching him don the suit for the first time and take his first, quite literal, “leap of faith.” Then, he met his arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin and I cheered for him between mouthfuls of popcorn and soda as they battled over the rooftops of New York City. It was around this time that I felt a call of nature and I immediately began to grow anxious. First of all, words cannot express the anguish that goes through an 11 year-old’s mind when they realize they might have to get up during a superhero movie. You seriously consider taking the hit and peeing right there in the theater seat. However, that wasn’t the reason for my particular apprehension. I turned to my dad and let him know that I was going to the bathroom. “Are you going to be alright?” he asked. I told him that I would be fine, but as I stood up to leave, he grabbed my shoulder and told me not to take too long. His voice was firm but concerned.

To the unsuspecting people sitting behind us, this exchange between me and my father might have seemed slightly excessive. They probably thought that I had been potty-trained a little late in life. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Otherwise, it might have been a fairly easy problem to solve. You see, there lived a demon of my own design that often lurked underneath the bathroom sink and followed me wherever I went. Its name was Doubt.  After finishing what I had come to do, I started washing my hands at the wash basin.  This was when Doubt would infest my mind, creating small trickles of anxiety. I began to scrub harder making sure I scrubbed every millimeter of skin several times with inordinate amounts of soap. I had to destroy every single germ that was there. Because I knew if I left even one malicious bacterium alive, it could potentially multiply and make me sick, making my family sick, making the other people in the theater sick. Eventually, this plague would sweep the community,  the state, and perhaps even the world.  And everyone’s suffering would be my fault. This is how my trickle of anxiety became a raging cascade of terror. Terror that cause the suffering of so many people.  This was my state of mind when I had obsessive compulsive disorder.

I know how this sounds. Crazy. That’s because it is. The very worst part of my condition was I knew that! I knew that even if I walked out of the bathroom without washing my hands, the chances of me becoming sick were minuscule much less me causing an epidemic that would wipe out humanity. However, Doubt is a vile thing. Every time I walked away from that sink, it would wrap its tentacles around my ankles and drag me back to repeat the entire ritual again. I would begin by just washing my hands several times. Then I would start washing up to my elbows. Then I would back away slowly making sure to not let my hands or arms make contact with anything else including my own body.  I dried my hands with extreme precision. But if I so much as felt a small patch of dampness on my finger as I left the bathroom, I returned to the sink. And all I wanted to do was watch Spider-man.

I spent forty minutes in that bathroom before my dad came to pull me away from the sink. If he hadn’t come, I might have the missed the rest of the movie entirely. I was almost ashamed to look him in the face when he came in. I knew I was causing him an enormous amount of worry. After the countless times this had happened at school and at home, I knew he was frustrated. When he told my mom at home, she would react with that same expression that I couldn’t bear to look at. And I was helpless.

Mental illness is not something that can be explained. Explanation means putting something in rational terms so that someone may understand it. But what the hell do you do when the subject you’re explaining is inherently irrational? This was my dilemma. I felt stupid  explaining to them my apocalyptic scenario that  Doubt had concocted.  I admitted that I knew it was crazy. However, one question continuously haunted me whenever Doubt crept into my mind. Was I willing to gamble with people’s well-being just because I didn’t want to wash my hands one more time? I suppose you could say I had taken Spider-man’s philosophy to its ultimate extreme. If something bad happened that I could have prevented, then it was my fault.  I  didn’t know how to tell them that.  And if I couldn’t even tell my parents, you can imagine how difficult it is to explain my predicament to my friends and teachers at school.  I couldn’t explain to my teachers why I spent so long in the bathroom. I couldn’t tell my friends why I was afraid of giving them a disease.  Doubt had imprisoned me in my own mind, laughed its diabolical laugh, and threw away the key.

Now, we’ve all heard stories about prisoners spending years and years planning their escape or painstakingly spooning their way through concrete to taste the sweet air of liberty on the outside.  Sometimes, they’re caught and have to start all over. Sometimes the spoon breaks. Sometimes they lose hope. I would like to think the difference between those who succeed in this venture and those who don’t, is not just force of will and sheer persistence. I would like to think it’s because they have someone who is waiting for them on the other side.  For me, this was my parents. You see, my OCD came in crashing waves. Sometimes Doubt would go on vacation and I could breath free for several months before the bastard resurfaced. However, in the 7th grade, I entered a dark period where it seemed I would not recover. My episodes became worse. This time, I was no longer sure that I could extricate myself from its clutches. Going to school was a constant battle, where each second seemed interminable. I did not attempt to make friends. I failed classes. Food lost its taste and I began to lose weight. A crushing loneliness and melancholy settled in and the walls of my cage seemed to be growing thicker and stronger every day in contrast to my attempts to escape which seemed feebler and futile.

One morning, on the way to school, I noticed my father taking the wrong turn. “We’re going the wrong way,” I told him. He said that he knew and resumed his silence. Finally, we turned into the parking lot of the DFW Hindu Temple. He got out of the car and opened the backdoor. However, instead of letting me out he climbed in and sat in the seat beside me. That was the first time I saw tears in his eyes. He wrapped me in a very tight hug and whispered that in the light of God, we would overcome this. We did not enter the temple that day. He just held me very tight for sometime. I don’t know how long. Could have been five minutes. Could have been ten. I just remember that during that time, I suddenly felt my weight growing lighter…or maybe I had grown stronger. Although the battle was far from over, I think this moment was the beginning of the end for Doubt.  I decided at that moment that enough was enough. It was time to end it.

I would like to say that after that, my parent’s love gave me the strength to explode out of that cage like a superhero, vanquish my archnemesis, and find the love of my life the next day. Alas…life is never that simple. It took me many more months to overcome my OCD completely. However, my parents’ support did give me the strength to never give up on myself. To pound and scrape and clash and slash against the walls of my mind’s dungeon until something gave. I learned to fight against my own compulsions. To fight Doubt. When I found myself suddenly overtaken by a line of thought that would lead me to anxiety, I learned to distract myself with positivity. Focusing on memories that gave me comfort or ideas that interested me, rather than my fears.  I learned to ignore my worries until they slowly began to wane. Although Doubt continued to yank me back towards that sink, I began to crawl away even though my anxiety tormented me. However, each time I did this, it became  a little easier. I lost many fights, but I learned to take each new day as a new opportunity. And each hard won battle gave me more confidence.

It has been many years now since my last episode of OCD. I am now a medical student. I work in a hospital and everyday, I work with people who are ill and are laden with bacteria and viruses. Last summer, I organized a trip to India to allow my classmates to observe how medical care is different in my homeland. We visited village care centers, public hospitals, an HIV clinic, and even a leprosy home. We were surrounded by cases of dengue fever, tuberculosis, and typhoid. My work now represents how far I’ve come in conquering my inner demon. Looking back, I thank god I was born to my mother and father, who never gave up on me. Without them, I would never have been able to defeat Doubt on my own. That is why I’m so proud to offer my testimony to this cause. Because anyone who is facing mental illnesses of their own deserves to know that Doubt is a sniveling little creature that is not worthy of dictating our lives. That there is always hope. That someone is still reaching out for them.


In alignment with our mission to encourage others to #SpeakUp about mental health, we’ve created this blog – a passion project highlighting those who wish to share their stories with the world.

Open to anyone, the series features personal anecdotes from members of the South Asian community who have struggled with mental illness – and the stigma that comes along with it.

To submit your story, click here.

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