Friday 29 January 2021

Taking back control

Ashley talks about her experience living with OCD and the benefit of journaling.

- Ashley Cottrell

Trigger Warning - Discussions of energy drinks and after effects.

I thought I was losing my mind. 

It started with small, simple things, such as what I had for dinner the night before or which street I parked my car. I was in my second year and my first year living in an apartment off-campus. Everything was normal, or so I thought.

I have always excelled academically, ever since primary school. What began as a fear of failure transformed into a bit of an obsession for excellent grades (both can be early signs of OCD, but I didn’t understand this until adulthood). I was the 11-year-old stressed out at midnight over a class project, the 15-year-old finishing an essay at 1 AM, and now, the 19-year-old pulling an all-nighter for midterm exams. My friends would joke that I had no problem sacrificing sleep and social life for an "A." 

This was true. 

Since I was also working full-time as a student, journaling helped me stick to my daily goals: classes in the mornings, work from noon to evening, and homework or studying at night. Weekends were reserved for resting, which for 19-year-old me meant extra work hours. 

One afternoon, however, something changed. As I was driving to work, I felt myself drifting out of consciousness. My eyes were heavy, my vision blurring, breath slowing. Suddenly, I snapped awake. I was sitting at a green light in the middle of the street, my foot miraculously still on the brake. An immense amount of fear immediately swept over me. 

I started relying on Red Bull energy drinks, convinced they would keep me focused if it ever happened again. I needed to study. I needed to work. I needed to make the Dean’s List again. I rocked back and forth at my bedroom desk as the obsessive thoughts intruded my mind. I began to experience a shortness of breath, my heart thumped loudly, the room blurring. I fell from my desk and dug my fingers hard into the floor, clenching the carpet between my nails. What is happening to me? 

Convinced I had some form of illness, I decided to make a walk-in appointment at the campus medical centre that following morning. The doctor performed the usual check-up: temperature, blood pressure, review of medical history, etc. She said everything was normal, and I assured her it was not. I insisted that something must be wrong.  

The doctor sat back in her chair for a moment, thinking, and suddenly asked how many hours of sleep I get each night. I replied nonchalantly, “The usual, three to four.” She nodded, understandingly, and gently responded, “My dear, you need to sleep more. That’s all.” With a sigh of relief, I explained that more sleep wasn’t an option for me. “Can you just prescribe me some medication?” 

Instead, she sent me home with a doctor's note for my job and a pamphlet on the importance of sleep. I managed to grab a few more pamphlets that caught my eye before leaving, most of them on mental health. It wasn't until the following semester that I learned about OCD, and that it was indeed an anxiety disorder. My late-night study urges and fears of failing, as well as with other childhood quirks that went ignored, most likely stemmed from it. My shortness of breath and heart palpitations were anxiety attacks. Yet, even after becoming informed and conscious of triggers for the remainder of university, I didn’t seek professional therapy for it until well after graduation. 

For any student suffering from anxiety and stress, you’re not alone. I encourage you to share your struggles with someone. Finally telling my close friends and therapist made all the difference for me. Since my experience in the U.S. might differ from a British university, seeking an off-campus therapist is another option. Also, past time activities, especially journaling, can be an excellent outlet when feeling overwhelmed and drained. The University of St. Augustine has a great visual on the benefits of journaling for students, many of which I've noticed help me. I found writing to be very therapeutic when processing my thoughts, reminding anxiety that I’m in control, not the other way around. 

Find out more about O​CD​ and how to support someone.

Looking after your wellbeing: Read more about the small steps you can take to ​look

Hey! I'm Ashley and an alumna of Virginia Commonwealth University.
I enjoy sharing my personal experiences with others to advocate for mental health awareness. Writing always helped me manage my OCD and anxiety, which is what led me to pursuing a career in it. I'm currently a freelance writer and Content Marketing Coordinator for Siege Media.

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