On the Road with Grief

The other day, I felt the whispers of adventure tickle my spirit, and decided to go for a long drive. It had been a long week, in a long month, in a year that seemed to have passed rather quickly, if not for the eternal grief that served as the hands of my internal clock. Still, I answered adventure’s call, eager to go forth and meet the stranger I had once known very well.

The drive started off as most of my days do- a well-intentioned to do list coupled with indecision and multiple course corrections.  I wanted to get some Chipotle, I needed to make a Sally’s run, and at some point I would need to get some water and eventually find a suitable restroom to use.  Ideally the route would also provide me a scenic, two hour drive and the chance to unwind and listen to one of my audio books.

I headed off towards town and immediately knocked a couple things off my list- Sally’s run check, bottle of water check, and continued driving south towards the desert plains. To my right, Colorado’s majestic mountains peaked over the horizon.  They called to me, nagging and taunting at me as I drove further away from them. An hour later I arrived in town, unsure if I should continue onward, stop and get some food or change my plans all together.

PuebloCliffs
Photo Credit: Regina Dawn Akers

I wasn’t quite hungry enough for food, and the route I was taking was mostly lackluster highway views mixed with powerlines and interstate signs.  This was not an adventure- this was a drive.  After two miles and another 10 minutes of indecision, I turned my car around and started driving again, this time towards the mountains. Twice I stopped and thought about grabbing some Chipotle for the road, but I knew I would need a bathroom in another hour or so, and I didn’t want to stop twice. Plus it was exactly noon on a sunny Saturday and there were bound to be a million people standing in line.

I drove past Chipotle, made another u turn and started back the way I came. Just as I suspected, I had to use the bathroom about an hour later. I could have just gone back home, but I still thirsted for adventure. Plus I know how vital it is that I get out and about and immerse myself in the contaminated world.  I suppose it also helped that I was getting hungry. So I settled for a small restaurant I was familiar with in a quiet city, just 10 minutes from home.

The food wasn’t particularly good, but the bathroom was clean enough. Not exactly what I wanted, but I have learned to be content with less. In my eyes getting through an okay meal without being triggered was just as good, if not better than eating an amazing meal while battling obsessions. OCD if anything, had taught me the subtle art of settling for less. Still, I had wasted a ¼ tank of gas and a good 2 hours of daylight. When I hit the road again and headed towards the mountains, I felt slightly irritated, but two steps ahead of defeat. As the city gave way to winding roads, the irritation gave way to a dull apathy, and then quiet contentment. The drive was beautiful, more so than I expected.

turkey pic
Photo Credit: John Hafner, RealTree.com

At first I am winding through dark canyons with red rocks jutting through the shadows of the foothills, and then I am immersed in evergreen trees. I feel the free floating anxiety that follows my shadow slink away as I drive deeper into the foothills. A group of wild turkeys gawks in a clearing to my right and there are deer tucked between small shrubs and rock ledges. My sense of adventure kicks in just as I turn right onto a route I’d never traveled.

After an hour or so, the winding canyons gave way to a wide open plain. Cows munch on dried grass and roaming buffalo stood strong in the afternoon Sun. Snowcapped mountains sat on the horizon like a tiara. The site of them, just floating at the end of the road, momentarily overwhelmed me. I felt grounded, then humbled, then fragile. I started to think about this long week, and this long month in this whirlwind of a year. Grief overcame me.

mountain pic 2

At first it was a jolt of grief, enough that I felt my throat tighten as I reflected on the narrow world my life has become. Having OCD just sucks the joy and life from every nook and cranny and fiber of my being. It’s paralyzing and agonizing doubting your thoughts and fears and future. I’ve lost more than my gumption for life, I’ve lost my mojo, my sense of adventure, my thirst for new experiences. I am exhausted with the never-ending cycle of routines. Shopping, showering, brushing my teeth, eating, drinking, running errands, and meeting friends have all become emotionally taxing. I feel stuck. My self esteem deteriorates daily. When I watch movies, or look at jobs or think about moving into a tiny home, I am plagued with anxious thoughts. So I don’t make plans unless I absolutely have to, and instead of dreaming, I play make-believe.

Usually when these thoughts come up, there is anger and a sense of betrayal. But today there were only tears and a profound type of misery, that was bleak but oddly beautiful.  I have carried this heavy burden of OCD and depression with me for the past 2 years. And despite the marked improvement I have felt from an intense vitamin regime, I have still yet to grieve for the beautiful, bold and carefree creature I once was.

I read somewhere that you shouldn’t hold onto emotions for longer than 90 seconds because they can become trapped into your energetic field and eventually manifest as illness and disease in your body.  I wonder if that’s why I eventually came down with an autoimmune disorder and strange food allergies. Either way, it makes sense to me intuitively. The thoughts are almost always the same, as are the sensations in my fleshy being.

I feel the knot in my throat that comes when I think about all that I have lost. I feel the tension in my shoulders and neck when I think about how it has impacted my family, friends and those I care about most. Finally, I feel the rot in the space where my rambunctious spirit once lived. My chest quakes and I heave. The grief rolls out me of me like hot air from a fire breathing dragon. It does not belong inside of me. It wants to be felt, witnessed and freed.

By now the tears are flowing and I am sobbing. Tiny wails escape my lips as my shoulders fall and relax. It comes and goes like a riptide, only I don’t fight it, I let it carry me out to the big wide ocean where I can be purged from the shame of it. Eventually the tension gives way to surrender and my body relaxes into the weight of the car seat.  My breathing returns to normal and the muscles in my face relax as the last of the tears falls from my cheeks.

I go through this grieving process three or four times in the course of my 2 and a half hour drive. Each time grieving for a bite-size portion of my quiet misery. I go from the general to the specific, thinking about the last couple years of my life, to the most impactful moments- giving up my dog, going to bed hungry because I didn’t want to wash my hands, watching my relationships crumble. And each time, I sing to the grief and call to it with sweet, deliberate intention. I do not judge it or fight it, but invite it to flow out of me into every corner of the universe until it’s essence dissipates across the vastness of space and time.

Eventually, the moments between heaves and tears becomes further and farther between. Just as I sense I have done enough grieving, I come to a literal fork in the road. I decide to turn my car around and head back home-racing against the setting sun.

buffaloranch2
Photo Credit: Steve Garufi

On the way back home, I let my mind wander.  As I watch the cows, and the buffalo and the wild turkeys and several groups of deer, I  am still the same person, plagued with the same afflictions, but I am somehow lighter and freer. I see them deeper and truer than I previously did. I see myself deeper and truer than I previously did and so I am grateful. As I drive further into the canyons, away from the mountains, I feel the anxious energy of the rolling plains and lowlands greet me. I resist the urge to tense, and instead let it rest alongside the spoils of today’s adventure.

Grief is a dark and heavy blanket. It covers me in heavy shrouds of sorrow, offering shelter and protection from the world of woes. When I am blinded by the light of eternal optimists, I find shade and refuge in it’s dark crevices. When I am tired from the muck of the day, I disappear into the folds of its curved hammock. When I am too ashamed to enter the home of my heart, it is the mat where I rest my head and cry my worries to sleep.

florence pic

Tiny Miracles in the Making

I did it. I quit my job and moved back to CO. What once seemed an impossible dream, is now an overwhelming reality.

You’d think that the road from DC to Colorado was paved in effortless intention. But in reality, it was a hot mess of frustration, exhaustion and desperation. Shortly after writing my last post, I discovered mold growing on my shoes and along the baseboards in my unit.  I had already been considering transitioning back to Colorado in November or October, but decided to speed up my timeline when my landlord refused to test the mold for toxicity. After dealing with night sweats, eye pain, bloody noses, lethargy, bulging veins, allergic reactions to every day foods and a full body itch that burned and caused bruises, I assumed the mold was making me sick and figured that this was the universe’s cruel way of kicking me out of the nest. So I stowed some of my things at a friend’s place, and moved out 48 hours later.

I spent the next three weeks hopping from Air BnB’s to hotels throughout Virginia, Takoma Park and Chevy Chase. This included booking a super Air BnB steal, only to find the unit infested with cockroaches. Needless to say, I didn’t last five minutes there and opted to sleep in my car outside the Arboretum after discovering every hotel in DC was booked.

Every Air BnB brought a unique challenge. There was mildew in the wash machine of the first unit I stayed in, spots that looked like body fluids on the comforter in one unit, water damage and the musty smell of mold in another unit and visible mold growing on the shower curtain, coupled with a slow draining sink in the final unit.  It was too difficult to keep moving my things back and forth so I left my pots and pans at work and tried to maintain my low histamine, organic diet by eating out every day. I kept myself to a strict $20 a day food budget, which meant I spent more like $23 dollars a day on food, and ate poorly when I got off my second job at 10 pm and all the good food options were limited.  I had to navigate overcrowded metro rides every morning at the unit in Arlington, and a bird that pooped on me during my walk to the Chevy Chase metro.  I tried to dry out my shoes during the hot sun at one unit, only to throw them away after returning to find them infested with tiny bugs.

Every day seemed an impossible struggle. After showering and snuggling into my strange bed each night, I cried and thanked God for the tiny miracle of having survived another day. Then I prayed that tomorrow would be better, or that I would at least be a little stronger.

As I approached my last day of work, I made final preparations for the big move. I cleaned up my desk and packed my things at work. I obsessed as to whether or not the belongings I stored at work from my year of carliving, would fit in my car with the remaining items I had moved into my apartment. I also obsessed over how I would move my computer and guitar and vitamins and laptop from my car to the hotel each night while on the road, so as not to have my car broken into. I called friends in Tennessee, Texas and Missouri to see if I could stay with them instead of paying for hotels. No luck. One friend was graduating and had her family in town, another would be finishing Ramadan and the last was throwing a massive pool party that night. At this point I was used to disappointment and figured that the roadtrip home would be another tiny miracle to look forward to.

I bought two boxes, hoping they would fit my desktop and some plates and pots. I couldn’t measure my laptop, since it was at a friend’s house, so I guessed the size and hoped that if I packed it with clothes and labeled it pots and pans, it would be safe to leave in my car overnight, and save me the pain of moving it to a hotel after a long day of driving. I had no idea if the boxes would fit in the back of my car on top of the large plastic  bins, which were also stowed at my friend’s house. I measured my car from memory and prayed they would fit- less I would have to un-pack and re-pack the two boxes the same day I hit the road.

When I wasn’t obsessing about the move, I tried to complete some of the more formal parts of my transition. I visited every doctor I could, in anticipation of losing my health insurance. I picked up the deposit for my rental unit and forwarded my mail. I picked up the last few things I stored at my sister’s house- some paintings, wall hangings and remaining mail. One of my favorite hangings- a mid century world map  I scored from a second hand store in college, was in the basement with dead birds. As you can imagine, I decided to leave that. I also took my car in for the repair I had been putting off, only to find I needed a new timing belt and water pump, in addition to extensive repair to my exhaust pipe. Then I gave notice to my co-workers, asked that they didn’t try to organize a going away happy hour and prayed they wouldn’t try to hug me when I left.

Finally, I said what would probably be my final goodbye to my dog Prudence, before she died of old age. I spent $80 dollars I didn’t have to buy her expensive, but all organic mushroom based medicine to ail her aging joints. I told her mom that when her health started to fail, she should make a list of her favorite five activities, including eating food and that when she could no longer do three of those five things, it would be okay to put her down. I told her that the decision was hers alone and asked that she just let me know before it happens. She had at least a couple years in her, but I knew I may not make it back to DC and I wanted to say what needed to be said, in person. We prayed before I left, and she gifted me Prudence’s dog chain, which I made a mental note of never to clean. We both cried. I gave Prudence a belly rub, told her she was a good girl in the sweetest, strongest voice I could muster, and then washed my hands before leaving. Her mom insisted upon taking a final picture, so I put my hands up in a stay command and gently rubbed her head. She took a quick photo and I walked to my car in tears, before sanitizing my hands and driving 40 minutes to the Air BnB I was staying at in Arlington, Virginia.

I took the bad with tiny miracles the universe gifted me throughout the remaining days of June.  By the end of the month, I had spent nearly $2,300 dollars on housing, $1,140 on car repairs and only God knows how much on food and metro fare.  But that wasn’t the worse of it. Without cleaning supplies and a limited ability both financially and otherwise to stay in places that met my rigid OCD standards, every dirty shower and mystery spot turned into a snowball of avoidance, rituals and stress.

I had to cut corners in order to stave of depression and panic. Changing my routine increased my anticipatory anxiety and reduced my ability to resist compulsions. As a result, the intensity of the OCD doubled almost overnight. It was the second most exhausting and soul sucking time of my entire life- the first being when I first came down with OCD after going cold turkey off a cocktail of psychiatric medication, giving up my dog and taking a 3 month leave of absence to complete ERP treatment at an inpatient facility in Massachusetts. On the plus side, I made it to the Museum of African-American history without an entrance ticket by chance, and somehow by magic, everything fit perfectly into my car.

Unfortunately, the drive to Colorado was paved in obsessions- from the moment I left the Whole Foods in Chevy Chase, to the time I drove up the unpaved road that led to my parent’s house. I worried about contamination from the street, and later had a false memory about an interaction with roadkill that left my face contaminated for the entire 27 hour drive. I spent a night sleeping upright in my car, so I wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel, or move anything. Somewhere outside of Indianapolis, I ran into some bugs (I think) that splattered blood all over my windshield, contaminating the entire shell of my car. As a result, I almost ran out of gas while driving through Kansas. When I finally arrived at a gas station to fill up and deal with the blood splatter on my car, the restroom had no soap in it. I waited patiently for the attendant to fill up the soap in the women’s restroom and then decided to drive straight through to Colorado without stopping.

After two days of driving, the second day of which consisted of over 14 hours, and a brief stop at Taco Bell that left my mouth contaminated, I arrived at my parents’ house at 2 am the next morning. Too tired for a full body shower, I moved the expensive items out of my car and fell asleep on the couch in the clothes I had been wearing for 3 days. That next morning I unpacked my car for the first time in a year in a half, and washed my body from head to toe. It took me 40 minutes. By the time I was done, I was utterly exhausted.

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Photo Credit: Nic Oatridge, 2015

I’ve been back for three weeks, and I wish I could tell you that a load has been lifted off my shoulders-  that the weight of the world, my obsessions and limiting beliefs is lighter, more manageable. But they’re not. Instead, the exhaustion of working two jobs in the soulless city of DC has been replaced by the emptiness of space and time in quaint southern Colorado. Now there is space for shifting obsessions and time for my fragile consciousness to wander.  So I sleep and dream, and obsess and cry, and pray and scheme- in that order.

Most days I search for jobs, in hopes of securing a low key telework position that will afford me time and space to write and pay off the rest of my student loans. In between applications, I knock off my never ending to do list- transferring bills to my new address, trying to find a new behavioral therapist, doing exposures and waiting for the results of my blood work in hopes that the mystery of my chronic depression, anxiety and allergic reactions will be discovered.  I have a hankering that I am undermethylated, and that the results from Walsh testing, will prove that a vitamin deficiency is wreaking havoc on my body. Unfortunately, those tests aren’t covered by insurance, will cost me another $800 dollars (including out of pocket doctors visits), and require even more blood tests (I had my blood drawn three times in June already, and all those test came back normal). And if you don’t know from previous posts, visiting the doctor’s office is one of OCD’s favorite activities.

But I still obsess about each and every little thing- like the lizard that crawled into the window seal of the room I am staying in, for instance. After two hours of obsessing, I stuffed the crevice with several objects, before settling on a plastic bag. I’m unsure if the lizard made its way out or if its slowly dying  there, leaving me to inhale bacteria or a virus from it’s decaying body. The window curtain is smudged with lizard poop and so the entire room I am staying in is somehow contaminated. Moreover, I don’t have a safe place to escape the contaminated world after a stressful day. So I struggle to unpack my things, and find places in common spaces where they won’t be moved.

Mostly, I know my mom went out of her way to make me feel comfortable, and I feel embarrassed and angry that her efforts aren’t good enough- they never are. It’s one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced in my life-seeing the look on her face when she goes to extraordinary lengths to ease my suffering, only for me find something she missed.

But it’s not just the lizard-the door handles are stained with paint, the light switches with random smudges, the cabinet walls, sink handles, wash machine, dish washer, refrigerator along with all the table tops and towels are tainted  with mystery marks. To the non-obsessive mind, the house is clean, fully stocked and orderly. But for me, nothing is up to my OCD level of cleanliness.  And of course my parents don’t adhere to my OCD rules, because they are exaggerations of my troubled mind and pretty much impossible to adhere to.

So here I am. Finally in Colorado- free to heal, but lost in my mind. By day, I consider the incalculable odds of a future full of obsessions, shame and the agony of self-defeat. By night, I let dreams of triumph, faith, and the prospects of complete remission tickle my tormented soul. I think about my past and the sum of choices and happenstance that led to this moment- the depression and suicidal ideation that consumed me on and off from the age of 15. How that depression led me to leave high school a year early and enroll at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I fell in love with the Earth. The sense of invincibility, independence and adventure that compelled me to move from state to state after graduation, in search of a perfect job.  Getting my master’s degree and moving to DC with no job, then finding a job and living in my car to pay off my student loans only to leave five years later out of desperation.  To loosing almost 3 hours today to rituals, and finally to this moment, writing to you as the movie Interstellar plays in the background- echoing the ironic play of time and space in my mind.

I am lost in my mind, trapped in a misery of my own making. Yet still, I hold on fast to faith whenever it finds me- though it be with fingers slippery from hand sanitizer. These days, my life is a series of tiny miracles in the making, so small and seemingly insignificant that even I forget they’ve come to pass.

I do not know how this ends- if I will suffer like this for months and years to come, or if I will eventually overcome OCD and experience happiness and joy and confidence again. But what I do know is this: after posting this blog, I will crawl into my strange bed and thank God for having made it another day. And then I will close my eyes and try not to cry as I pray that tomorrow will be better, or that at the very least, I will be stronger.

If you’re reading this, please pray for me.