Confronting Your Mental Health

04/13/2015 01:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

It's all inside my head. But that doesn't make it any less real.

In the sixth grade I faced my first bout of depression. I became obsessed with the idea that time was moving too fast, and I was victim to it. Even at the age of 11 I yearned to stay a kid -- to never have to face the challenges of growing older. I was told my concerns were valid and normal, but I continued dealing with an unshakeable sadness. I no longer found joy in what I used to. I couldn't bring myself to eat. I couldn't bring myself to face reality. Therapy helped, and soon I overcame my depression. Yet I knew I wasn't living my life at 100 percent.

My intellectual capacity was not questioned. I am a native born and raised Puerto Rican whose first language is and always will be Spanish. As a child, I used television as a tool to learn English. I could sit myself in front of the television and absorb what I saw and heard, slowly picking up a second language before I was in Kindergarten. I then turned to books. Books both fomented my learning and served as an escape. I clung to Harry Potter and others and longed for a world in which I could live away from my thoughts. The fact I did not have to dedicate myself to my studies as much as other students in order to excel only aggravated obtrusive thoughts. I dedicated my time to rumination instead.

By 13 I began to compartmentalize my problems. My self-esteem continued to plummet, but I wouldn't show it. That was a private struggle, and on the outside I appeared rather happy -- even jocular at my least insecure. I played sports, ran for student council and participated in school assemblies and pep rallies. However, I was never fully committed. Again, I realized I could achieve above average results while giving about 30 percent of my best. I carried this lesson with me, and began to live life on autopilot. I lived for the moments of small pleasures -- most of them that I found on screens away from other people, so be it on television screens, computer screens or film screens.

High school is nobody's best friend. We're all told to enjoy high school, but not too much, because those cannot be your best years. The best is always yet to come. I interpreted this motto in a hopeful manner. I derived pleasure from the thought of graduating and moving to another city. I believed the insecurities I faced were a product of my surroundings, but this was only half true. I was able to package myself well enough to make it to New York City and the Ivy League. Columbia was calling, and I answered fervently.

I sunk. Fast. My first semester at Columbia was both my worst academic performance and my greatest learning experience. Away from home I knew I would thrive, yet ironically I never fared worse. I had no idea how to establish a studying rhythm because I always relied on my raw intelligence to be enough, and for the first time in years it wasn't. I couldn't balance academics and my racing thoughts. I completely shut down. I stopped going to class and doing my readings. I lay myself in front of a moving train and stayed there. Eventually I found material that I was passionate about and began to do better in school, but my mental health worsened as my denial grew.

From my second semester on I began to self-medicate. I did anything I could do to shut off my brain. I found respite from constant inner turmoil, but was so burnt out I couldn't be productive either. I told myself that I was fine because I was doing much better than my first semester, but never truly took into account how low I had set the performance bar. Years passed and I continued living in a haze. I felt safe within the buzz as the outside world faded further and further away. However, as senior year loomed I stood on the precipice of adulthood with no concrete sense of direction. I yearned for ambition, but did not want to pay the price of reactivating my brain. Eventually I broke down and escaped back to Puerto Rico. Through it all, I had maintained a close and loving relationship with my family that only improved through the years as I became more comfortable with whom I am. It was back home where I realized that my anxieties were not a product of where I was raised, but instead my own struggles with a mental health disorder.

I was recently diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. For over a decade it went unchecked because my particular brand of OCD is primarily obsessive and involves compulsions that are mostly covert or mental. A child can be a worrier, but what happens when the child cannot stop worrying, regardless of how many behaviors he performs to alleviate his racing thoughts? I bawled when I was diagnosed. I was not crying because I was sad, but because I had finally reached a point of understanding. That boy that felt helpless, who battled mental demons he thought would never subside, now could attach a face and name to the monsters in his mind. I understood the boy who could not rest because he feared a home invasion, constantly sitting up in bed to survey his front yard for intruders. I understood the boy who had an aversion to the letter "y" because it ruined the symmetry of his words. I understood the boy who could not physically bring himself to use public toilets. I understood the boy who unraveled his very being day after day, unaware that what he was dealing with was both common and uncommon.

I, too, fell victim to the societal stigma attached to mental health disorders and illnesses. I could never be diagnosed because I was too intelligent, too normal. But there is the lie. There is no normal. There is no too intelligent. In America, around 46 percent percent of the population will face a similar illness at some point in their life. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder occurs in about 3 percent of children and adults. At this point it is important to note what OCD is not -- that is to say, OCD is not the need to obsessively clean. John needs to keep his desk so tidy, he is SO OCD! Perhaps "John" has OCD, but it would extend beyond his need to clean. My OCD convinced me of my inferiority. That I was lying to myself about everything I knew to be true. That impending dangers would soon become realities. My OCD convinced me that when I walked into a room, those people were talking about me, and I knew it. It forces me to revisit the same distressing ideas day after day with no reprieve. It isolated me and made me irritable. I lashed out at those I loved, oftentimes irreparably so. The spread of misinformation is harmful to us all, and we should seek to understand before we label. For years I felt so alone, receding within my own brain to try to understand why it worked the way it did. Why my greatest asset was also my greatest enemy.

I am now back in New York City. I am determined to finish my final semester at Columbia to the best of my ability. I am focused on moving forward through therapy and building a life where I no longer allow my OCD to deter me. And that's living at one hundred percent.

You are not alone.


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.