My symptoms began with worries that crept in surreptitiously. Double-checking statistics? Normal. Triple-checking statistics? Normal. Being convinced that I may have committed academic fraud by falsifying data because I could not find concrete evidence that I didn't falsify data? Not ideal. Sitting at home trying to block out the thoughts in my head that a girl who fell down under my supervision had appeared fine but died in her sleep from a brain hemorrhage? Not OK.
I called Yale's Mental Health Department. When I first explained my obsessive worrying to my assigned therapist, he seemed genuinely concerned.
One night, I was struck by the fear that I had hit someone with my car. I would call it a "realization," except for the fact that it wasn't real. I contacted a friend, who advised me to call Yale Mental Health. My therapist was away, so I called the emergency line.
After establishing that I wasn't suicidal, the emergency responder replied with "Well, what do you want me to do?"
So I wasn't going to kill myself, but what was I supposed to do about the fact that I might have killed someone else? While browsing the Internet for news of local car accidents, I learned that I was experiencing common symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
The recommended treatment for OCD is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which includes planned exposures to anxiety-inducing situations and homework assignments in which patients record their worrying thoughts. Guidelines for treatment of OCD suggest CBT and medications such as Prozac as first-line treatments.
After a long run of therapy that was not, fast-forward to me causing a real car accident. While leaving a gas station, my car was hit from behind, coming to a full stop as it hit a telephone pole. My parents came from New York to pick me up. My lethargic, silent ruminations seemed to them like a normal reaction to the accident. I didn't tell them that that was how I had spent the last several months of my life.
In the back of a book on my nightstand, I wrote a list: "For when I die." It included where to scatter my ashes and how to tell people I died: "If I kill myself, don't tell [my students], make up some other cause of death PLEASE." Desperate, I told a consulting psychiatrist I wanted to try medication.
Many, many milligrams of Prozac later, I began to feel like a normal person again. Actually, that's not true. I felt completely abnormal. I lost 25 pounds. I slept through most of the day. Occasionally at night, I would wake up with nausea that felt like food poisoning. But Prozac helped the worries. I still thought about car accidents, but now this worry could be pacified by carefully checking my car for scratches. My Yale Mental Health therapist finally gave me an assignment to get a notebook to record my worries.