Pumpkin spice latte and Prozac

I worried about the summer slowly giving way to autumn. Long, bright days make life’s challenges easier to face at the best of times — and this is not the best of times. But I’m recovering. Slowly.

I’ve been back on fluoxetine (Prozac) for five weeks. I took the drug for about eight years up until last autumn. It’s most commonly used as an antidepressant, but also to help treat OCD. It took the edge off my anxiety when I first took it, but last year I wasn’t sure it was doing enough to be worth staying on it. This time around it has been transformative for my mood. I’m not exactly in that dark hole any longer — I’m sitting on the edge of it dangling my legs over. When I fall, the lows aren’t as deep and they don’t last as long. Despite writing a month ago about that dark place, I didn’t realise quite how much of a depression I was in. Fluoxetine has touched the anxiety too. Not as significantly as my mood, but it’s nonetheless making things a little easier. Together these two changes are allowing me to work hard on the things I’ve been doing with my psychologist, and to draw on the wealth of things I learned with my counsellor last year. Fluoxetine helps, but only in so much as it affords me the breathing space to do the real work.

The other day I wrapped both hands around my warm Starbucks mug, rested my elbows on the table and looked out at the changing seasons. I managed to not baby-wipe the mug or the furniture. The year’s first sip of pumpkin spice latte brought last autumn flooding back — me and my life flooding back. For the eight months since Dad died and my OCD worsened, enough of my life has been on hold that I’d forgotten what it feels like to be me. The taste of cinnamon and the orange of pumpkins above the counter reminded me of being bundled in a woollen scarf, long coat and warm boots last November. Getting used to people calling me Laura. Working: being capable.

I wore perfume yesterday for the first time this year. My getting-up-and-out-the-house OCD routine can easily be three hours without the nice little extras, so things like making sure I smell any better than acceptably clean have tended to fall by the wayside. But I’m gradually finding the pieces that make me who I am and putting them back together again. I’m returning to photography. It’s something that is an intrinsic part of who I am. Yet I haven’t become good at it because poor mental health has repeatedly taken it away from me over the years. I think it’s no coincidence that I’m turning to something which can offer me a different way of seeing, when I’m trying to correct the skewed perception of the world that OCD has left behind. I’ve not yet shot anything that’s going to make it into a frame on the wall. But it’s helping me to appreciate the burnt oranges of autumn trees again.

Opening my mind to recovery is scary. Writing about pain is easy: prod at any of my wounds and the hurt pours out onto the screen. But it’s taken over two weeks of procrastinating for me to write this post, because looking towards recovery brings a vulnerability that wallowing in pain strangely does not. The OCD feels like chain mail, protecting me from the outside world. But really it’s keeping me in chains. That’s the paradox of OCD — things I do to make me feel safe are harming me more than the feelings I’m running from. I’ve known that all along. But I’m beginning to be able to do something about it again. It’s time to shake off the chains. Time to look through a new lens, spray a little perfume and put my autumn scarf back on.

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Header photo: Laura Smith

A year to change my life

I’m in a hole. It’s at least three times my height and wide enough for me to pace anxiously around in circles. The walls are made of dry, crumbling soil. On a good day I can get a footing and a handhold, and climb towards the blue sky. On a bad day the soil crumbles beneath my fingertips and toes, sending me sliding downward towards the damp ground below.

The hole is in my head of course, just a way for me to explain to you how I feel. But the darkness it casts is real. Dad died in January. I didn’t expect it to be this hard. That’s not true — I didn’t expect anything. I’m making it up as I go along. If that were the only thing I was coping with, perhaps the hole wouldn’t be so deep. Except I have obsessive compulsive disorder, which was on a familiar steep sliding slope by the end of last year and came crashing down around me when Dad went. Then there’s the not insignificant matter of me going through a gender transition.

I feel a responsibility towards Mum. We’re close. She’s going through the hell of losing her partner of 45 years. But she also suffers from debilitating arthritis in her back, which has become all the more debilitating without Dad and his car. Layered on that is the challenge of living with someone with OCD. I moved back here when my mental health was last at its worst, and a decade on I haven’t recovered enough to move. I’m here to support Mum emotionally when I’m not screaming the place down, but when it comes to practical support I can barely support myself.

On Monday I sat on the edge of my hole eating mango, bathing in the bank holiday sunshine. In reality, the edge of the hole was a wall in Asda’s car park. Practising putting myself and my bag on that particular bird-shit covered wall is one of many new routines I rehearse as part of my therapy. Success. But I still baby-wiped the plastic mango container before opening it. The moment was glorious nonetheless and offered a taste of the freedom that recovery brings.

On other days I frantically scramble up the sides of the hole, trying to catch a glimpse of the outside world beyond. I make enough progress to see the sun over the horizon but not to feel its warmth. Then the earth gives way and I slide down, kicking and lashing out until I get a hold on something secure. I’ve dropped enough to make me question whether the day’s climb happened at all, or if it was in my imagination.

My sense of self is all over the place. It took the last couple of years for me to slowly come out to myself and accept that I’m transgender. I had to collect up lots of the things that I — and the people who love me — take for granted about me, throw them up in the air and see which ones land back at my feet and which ones I’d rather walk away from. I’ve been gathering up the parts of the new me, the one I want to spend the rest of my life loving. The OCD seems to have other plans though, and takes away much of what makes me feel like myself; what makes me feel human. Independence. Friends. Work. Fun.

I talk about the OCD as if it’s an autonomous being, taking over my mind. Yet it’s inextricably part of me: a creation of my subconscious that gets nurtured by my conscious mind. I’m simultaneously in a fight with a disorder and a fight with myself. I crave a future free from the painful claustrophobic restrictions of obsessive thought and compulsive behaviour. Yet the lure of complying with the OCD somehow feels so comfortable and safe. My hole feels familiar.

It’s not enough for me though, living in this darkness. I’ve learned who I am and I know the life I want to live. I told myself this summer I’m going to take a year to change my life and another year to make it the life I dream of. I’m going to write myself to health and recovery. I’m going to write the new version of myself into existence. I hope you’ll join me.

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