Misconceptions of Mental Illness

By Jordan Heide

Recall a time when you encountered your greatest fear. Now imagine reliving that experience daily, hourly, terror pulsating through your veins, dread throttling your heart, despair materializing in tremors and trickles of glacial sweat. Oxygen escapes from your body in frantic dash, the shock of which antagonizes the belligerent thumping of your heart. Myopia freezes your functionality, paralyzing your psyche with suspicions of gruesome nightmares materializing into horrific actualities. Frightened and exasperated, you flock to comfort, to safety, to familiarity. However, your fear is not so forgiving; it confronts you suddenly, uninhibitedly, and panoramically seizes your agency. Immobilized in a blazing inferno, the unrelenting grasp of horror consumes every laborious breath, propelling you into a delusory realm of persistent cataclysm. Terror menacingly unravels rationality, suspending existence under the immensity of paranoia; each successive moment contracts a greater degree of uncertainty, such that you nearly cease to exist amongst the soothing tranquility of realism.

This has been the nature of my existence thus far. I am a sufferer of three anxiety disorders; Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Body Dysmorphic Disorder, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The immensity of these struggles is profound, requiring consistent resiliency to maintain a substantial quality of life.

OCD is defined by troubling, intrusive thoughts that are both irrational and persistent. It is a neurological disorder that is a result of a malfunctioning filter, known as the striatum. The prefrontal cortex, the striatum, and the orbital cortex work in unison to dismiss signals that are irrational, inane, and unreliable; however, OCD sufferers experience a neurochemical lapse in the striatum that causes a defect in the orbital cortex, as well. The striatum is composed of two primary elements - the caudate nucleus and the putamen. The caudate nucleus is responsible for filtering the logical from the unsubstantiated, the analytical from the disjointed; the putamen bears the task of discarding those messages deemed untenable by the caudate nucleus. Serotonergic and dopaminergic deficiencies cause tremendous impairment in these intermediaries of the striatum; essentially, the caudate nucleus overproduces erroneous and invalid messages, while the putamen experiences a diminished capacity to rid the brain of such absurdities. These glitches persist and disseminate, ultimately infecting the orbital cortex, the section of the brain responsible for detecting errors in circuitry. As a result, cognitive hypervigilance ensues and adrenal hormones are bred in excess. The product is a mind imprisoned by anxiety-provoking notions that are baseless in nature. Due to neurological inefficiency, the brain is relentlessly bombarded with such thoughts, causing unbearable distress. A unique and sadistic characteristic of the disorder is that the sufferer is often capable of recognizing the illegitimacy inherent to intrusive thoughts; however, such acknowledgement does ward off the stifling effects of the disease. The astronomical despair experienced by the sufferer compels him or her to perform rituals, which are done so to diminish anxiety and reclaim authority over those fears that so incapacitate the individual. Rituals can assume either a mental or physical manifestation and are incredibly time-consuming; ironically, they also reinforce the disease, adding gravity to the obsession and strengthening the urge to perform a compulsion.

The proper treatment for OCD is called "Exposure and Response Prevention," which requires the sufferer to purposely incite his or her anxiety and resist the compulsion to ritualize. Over time, the mind habituates to enduring anxiety and the individual is relieved of paralyzing fear. The OCD will never completely disappear; I must continually practice ERP to remain functional and overcome my anxiety.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a subset of OCD. It is essentially a parallelism to anorexia; the sufferer perceives his or her appearance to be deformed, even though such perceptions are deceptive and inaccurate. Great distress is derived from illusory defects that the sufferer believes are inescapably apparent. Exposure and Response Prevention is also the appropriate treatment for BDD.

My Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is derived from two separate sexual assaults. Flashbacks are common; even more prolific is the sensitivity of my fight-or-flight response. Triggers that resemble the victimization I endured often erroneously incite my survival instincts. I am subconsciously compelled to preserve my safety in an indiscriminant manner; any potential for trauma induces an anxious response to secure safety. Horrendous insomnia also developed as a result. Once again, Exposure and Response Prevention is the required course of treatment; this is particularly difficult in cases of sexual assault. The sufferer must achieve desensitization to antagonizing intrusive images that are drawn from the trauma experienced. 

The encumbrance of sustaining multiple anxiety disorders is extraordinary. Consistent and continuous practice of Exposure and Response Prevention is essential to preventing relapse and ensuring relief. 

Every day, I awake to a world that couldn't be more indifferent to my struggles. It is incredibly difficult to function with perpetual anxiety; it may not be as tangible as cancer, but it is certainly more difficult to cope with than any physical ailment that could befall upon me. Join me in spreading knowledge about anxiety disorders; it could very well save a life.