Housecleaning makes me happy. I can usually gauge my overall mental health by my level of tidiness. Clean clothes, bed made, light in the windows, mugs in the cupboard. Good, I’m good. Ready to face what comes. But if I find myself stockpiling rags and detergent, I need to pause and question why. I haven’t forgotten to do the laundry or scrub the tub. In fact, I may have done so repeatedly, if my abraded knuckles are any indication. Embarrassed, I keep this to myself. I live alone, but I hide the receipt.
When I’m aware of my secretive behavior, I write a note to share with my therapist. In the first few minutes of our session, I’ll recount the activity, no matter how trivial. She might detect something that I’ve overlooked. For instance, if I haven’t cleaned house in weeks, and the kitchen is uninhabitable, it’s a clear indicator that something’s amiss. Balance is jeopardized. Self-esteem tanks.
Without a sense of accomplishment or purpose, reaction takes over. I can’t leave the house. I stay inside. And I hate it. I clean everything. I fold and unfold my socks. I organize the cereal boxes and soup cans. I count the number of straws in the pack. I recount the number of straws. I organize the cans and boxes. I fold and unfold the socks again. I clean everything. And I hate myself. I take all the food I just organized and chuck it. Flush the milk down the toilet. Scrub away the evidence. Housecleaning makes me normal.
Schizophrenia is perplexing enough without the comorbidity of obsessive compulsive symptoms. Yet here I am, up to my elbows in secrets and bleach, trying to make sense of a world gone troppo.
It is the way my brain interprets data, therefore it must be me. And although I don’t want to believe it, by that logic I am my illness. To quote Winston Churchill, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.” Psychiatry named that key the overvalued idea.
The DSM-IV defines an overvalued idea as “an unreasonable and sustained belief that is maintained with less than delusional intensity (i.e. the person is able is to acknowledge the possibility that the belief may or may not be true). The belief is not of one that is ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture.” As challenging a concept as this is for me, if I can hang on to it long enough, I might return to the tenet of advocacy that I am not my mental illness after all.
An intrusive thought can derail my calm. A series of them can induce anxiety. These thoughts are not consciously generated. They show up on their own. Having a single frame from a different movie wind up in the main feature of your everyday life is disorienting. Experiencing it as reality is debilitating. Thought disorders do precisely what they are meant to do: disorder one’s thoughts. Conceding to this truth is essential to mental health. The next, and more daunting step, is imperative: talk about it.
We live in a culture where control is everything and to be out of control is unthinkable. I am stronger than my culture when I can acknowledge to myself that those single frames are simply out of place. I am not in control of the overvalued idea or how it presents itself, but when I can resist my rococo solutions to the finger trap puzzle presented by my neurology, I can get my game on and go straight to the note pad. My sessions can help me understand my diagnosis and its multifaceted nuances, but the opening bid is on me. Do I keep my secrets? Do I hide in shame? Do I benefit in any way from the gag order my self-stigma places on me? No. I do not. And because this is my life, I do what I need to survive.
I start by being honest. I write the first thought that comes into my head, no matter how embarrassing. I read it to my therapist and let her be my guide. It’s our movie now, and we’re past the opening credits. Past the back-story, the action sequence, and the nostalgic montage. It’s our alliance and it’s my recovery. I organize the cans and boxes. I count the number of straws in the pack.
I open the drawer and show her the receipt. I wash the windows of my soul, clean the corners of my heart. I get down and dirty not because I’m ashamed, but because this kind of housecleaning sets me free.