Deborah: Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

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Please note: This piece describes experiences with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and trichotillomania.

I’m no stranger to mental illness and the importance of mental well-being. I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in social work from Columbia. My work enables leaders and professionals to tackle mental health challenges in the workplace. 

Beyond that, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder when I was a child. And for a significant chunk of my life, I was convinced my mental illness was my superpower. It seemed like the dread of failure or getting caught not knowing something had propelled me to academic and professional success.

But it wasn’t until my early forties that I realized my anxiety also produced a lot of misery for me growing up. 

I was a kid in the 1970s –– a time when you didn’t talk about your mental health. 

If someone asked how things were going, the only acceptable response was, “I’m having a great day!” Or, if you were close to the person asking, “Eh, it’s an OK day, but I’ll be fine.” It didn’t matter if your world was being held together by a single, frayed thread. 

So, as you can imagine, there weren’t many options for treating mental health. But I was, as they say, born on third base. I’m a white, upper middle class New Yorker with an awful lot of privilege. And as I reflect on the way my family approached mental health, I realize it was pretty sophisticated for the time. 

My mother would often say I was waiting for the other shoe to drop –– waiting for the universe to serve me something bad to balance the good. She, on the other hand, had a positive outlook on everything, assuming that good things were always around the corner. From her perspective, my anxiety was a choice. 

Despite the tension and confusion caused by my mental illness, my parents sent me to a therapist. Along the way, my father would strap those old-fashioned barber massagers to his hands and attempt to relieve the severe neck pain I had developed. What started as a nervous tic from my anxiety, had eventually become an injury. 

Recalling the experience still gives me nausea and goosebumps. At the same time, I recognize it was a different time and place. No one — and I mean absolutely no one — around me would have known what I know now: I was underdiagnosed. 

Looking back, the signs were glaringly obvious. But I wasn’t formally diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) until much later in life.

In high school, I competed on the speech and debate team. My weekends were spent traveling to different cities for competitions. And my summers were spent at speech camp, where I prepared for the school year ahead. Senior year of high school I won the national championship in a category called Original Oratory — one year after Ketanji Brown Jackson won. 

The possibility of failure drove me to practice, practice, practice. I realize now this was both obsessive and compulsive. But for most of my life, I never considered the fact that I should be doing anything about my behavior. From my perspective, my obsessions and compulsions were as much a part of me as the hair on my head. 

My self-actualization wouldn’t occur until much, much later in life — when I was married to an amazing man and had two beautiful children. 

I’m well aware now that everyone’s OCD manifests differently. Some people, for example, can’t stop themselves from cleaning. That’s not me. I can’t stop myself from thinking. And, as my husband Michael would finally tell me, I also had a problem with oversharing the intrusive catastrophic thoughts that frequently crossed my mind. 

If I called my husband and he didn’t answer, I’d fear the worst. On the way home from vacation, I’d fixate on whether the house had gone up in flames or been broken into while we were gone. 

My husband told me it was unfair of me to unload these things — things no one could control and that were unlikely to happen –– and expect him to do something about them. I accused him of not listening to me and suggested we see a marriage counselor. In my mind, this therapist would vindicate me by finally telling my husband he just lacked empathy. 

That’s not how the conversation went. Apparently, the problem was me. This was a huge wake-up moment. 

“I have some work to do,” I said to Michael as we walked out of that first session. Everything hit me all at once. Not only had I gone this long with an undiagnosed mental illness, my behavior was also hurting the people around me, people I loved. 

Still, I tucked this new knowledge away and just stopped sharing my inner monologue altogether.

Some years later, my daughter was diagnosed with four mental illnesses: generalized anxiety disorder, OCD, panic disorder, and trichotillomania (the compulsive desire to pull out one's hair). 

“It’s not the end of the world,” I told her, “I have some of those same illnesses, and look at me.” She looked at me in disbelief. Why hadn’t I mentioned this to her before, she asked. The thought honestly hadn’t occurred to me. It just didn’t seem like something that needed to be talked about. 

“What matters,” I told her, “is that I won’t let you suffer.” She looked me straight in the eye: “Um, and what about you? You seem to be suffering as well. Why don’t we get you some help?”

It took an intervention from a teenager and one of my best friends, Wendy, to face the facts. Part of me believed my professional and personal successes were directly linked to anxiety. I thought I had the kind of anxiety you could or should live with. I would have had a completely different point of view for a client or one of my kids. For them, I’d suggest there might be options. But it never really occurred to me to help myself.

That was the moment I began to turn things around. 

I remember coming home from vacation after seeking treatment and noticing I wasn’t having those recurring debates with myself on whether or not we were adequately insured for whatever damages had almost certainly been done to the house. I wasn’t waiting for the universe to even itself out for me –– to punish me because I’d had a great trip. The absence of that feeling was worth celebrating. 

Today, I’m sad about the time I missed. I think about how I might have parented my kids differently had I addressed my mental health diagnosis earlier. I was a mother with untreated OCD and I have no doubt that impacted my kids’ lives. I have a pretty easy marriage but I think about how much easier it would have been — how I could have approached my relationship differently along the way.

While I regret not knowing what I didn’t know, I’m also grateful to have still found great success through all of that –– to have lived the life I’ve lived and experienced the outcomes I’ve experienced despite these mental health challenges. And now I feel better every day. 

When it comes to mental health, a lot has changed since my journey began. It’s wonderful to see. But this awakening has been a long time coming and it’s only the beginning of what we can accomplish. 

The pandemic brought mental health out from the shadows and into our public discourse. Over the last three years, if you told someone everything’s fine, they likely didn’t believe you. We all had something going on, and lockdown forced us to acknowledge a harsh reality –– the same way my daughter had forced me to come to terms with my truth that day. 

Managers and business leaders who never considered asking their employees about their mental well-being are being confronted with the answers, whether they have the skills, interest, and comfort –– or not. Entire programs have been created to fill the gap and meet the demand for open, honest conversation. 

I believe the next big leap will be when leaders understand that allowing people to take care of their needs isn’t just a nice-to-have –– it’s a non-negotiable for a successful business. After all, focusing on well-being doesn’t just have an impact on interpersonal relationships and employee retention –– it drives positive business outcomes

Read more about this series, We're All Human: Mental Health Stories From Real Professionals.

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