#WriteOnSarah: The MHA-NYC Gala
Sarah Vander Schaaff is a writer, blogger and a mother of two from New Jersey, who has struggled with Obsessive-compulsive disorder for as long as she can remember. Her courageous column in the Washington Post (“Obsessive –compulsive disorder nearly ruined her life”, January 4th) received international attention for its honesty and openness. This is the first blog in a regular series for Sarah who will write about the mental health challenges we all face in day to day life.
When I was asked to speak at the MHA-NYC spring gala, I said, “Absolutely. Public speaking is the one thing about which I have no anxiety.”
It was a joke, of course, but it was grounded in truth. I had been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and I’d written about both in an essay for The Washington Post this past January. But I had also been the 10-year-old kid who read the Yellow Pages into a tape recorder just for fun, and spent my college years pursuing what might be called “Cognitive Behavior Therapy” for public speaking: I was a theatre major.
The hard part and the true test of my progress would be everything that led up to the speech: leaving the kids in the hands of a sitter, traveling under the tunnel to get into Manhattan, entering the full force of a city with palpable energy and chaos, and, in a nod to the particular type of worry that defined my OCD hell, wearing a dress that exposed my skin.
To do those things and not be seized by panic or sabotaged by the loop of obsessive worry that drove me to check and recheck funny looking spots on my fair epidermis would be to stand in the middle of progress and illness at the same time—to hold both in the balance of who I truly am.
To paraphrase the psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach, the process of facing my Anxiety and OCD had not been a climb up a mountain, a trajectory of success that leads to a pinnacle of accomplishment. It had been more like an embrace, a hug, you might say, around the good and the bad expanding layers of experience.
And so as I wrote about my journey in the essay for the Post, or contemplated speaking publically about it at the MHA-NYC gala, I held great compassion and empathy for others who might be somewhere along this layered trek. The move outward towards mental health can be bound by what feels like impenetrable walls. And there is great fear of what lay outside those boundaries, because even when they impede freedom, they offer a type of security.
After my essay, I heard from many who knew this first hand:
There was the teenager in Shanghai who left boarding school in California and now ran his own OCD Acceptance group online; the reader who confessed that until she read the essay, she had not fully believed the grip of her granddaughter’s OCD; another who still harbored resentment that his parents had accommodated one parent’s mental illness to the detriment of the kids; and one who wrote to me from an airplane, asking for recommendations for doctors.
I felt a deep connection with those who wrote. We may not have shared the same type of mental illness, and even those who describe Generalized Anxiety Disorder or OCD probably experienced it in different ways and with different effects on their lives and loved ones than I did. But at the core, our common thread was the nature of our struggle. It was one that was not visible to the outside world, and one we imagined no one else would understand.
In my case, I had channeled my propensity for worry, catastrophic thinking, and episodes of obsessive “checking” behavior into concerns about my own health, namely that of my skin. But that was just the card I’d been dealt. When it comes to anxiety, my fears might as well be yours, and yours mine. It is the power they have over us, not what they are, that makes them real.
And so, the day before the gala, I did what any mom would do. I headed to the mall to get a dress. I grabbed a sleeveless navy one with some sparkles and found a dressing room.
“I’ve got arms,” I said to myself, looking in the mirror.
Not long ago, my mom mentioned that she’d forgotten I had them. I hadn’t exposed my skin for the past several years. Family photos show me standing in the summer heat, clad in long sleeves, under a hat, sunscreen, and perhaps a SPF sweatshirt.
“We humans are complicated things,” a wise woman wrote to me recently, after she shared the story of her own family’s private mental health challenge.
And, throughout the night, the dress was a reminder of that very simple truth, and the idea that I had learned to forgive myself for not being perfectly strong, perfectly fearless, and perfectly cured.
“I’ve got arms,” I said to myself. And I hope to use them to embrace each layer that comes my way.
I hope you’ll join me and share your own experiences or questions using the hashtag #WriteOnSarah or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s time to have an authentic conversation about mental health challenges-a topic that touches 1-4 adults in this country. That doesn’t even include their family, friends, neighbors and colleagues. It touches all of us.
So let’s talk about it.
The thoughts expressed in the column are those of the writer alone and not meant to offer any medical judgments or opinions.