Recovery Story: Toni Lupro (Part II)

Toni_Lupro
What made you decide to get help?

This past spring, OCD had taken over my life. I found myself spending far too many hours a day doing compulsions. For example, there were days when I took two to four showers, and each of those showers would take two to four hours to perfect my rituals. I started to experience OCD even in my dreams, so I would fall asleep and wake up with the obsessions. I had no relief.

I was completely overwhelmed, and found myself in the midst of a major depressive episode. I just felt so completely hopeless against my OCD. I had also started to have panic attacks again. I’ve dealt with the occasional panic attack since junior high school, but this was something new: I was having like four panic attacks daily. If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, you can relate to the all-encompassing sense of doom. It was soul crushing.

Obviously, I was in no condition to gracefully balance all of the obligations of modern life, so over the years, I had tried to seek help multiple times. Even in the spring, I was taking medication for my anxiety, but nothing ever helped, so for a long time, I became complacent and accepted my reality as my fate… Until something clicked.

I think what finally pushed me to finally commit to recovery was realization that life was going to march forward regardless: my future could either be full of the same anxiety and depression, if nothing changed, or my future could possibly be better, if something big changed. For so long, I couldn’t imagine a better future, because nothing seemed to help, but at that point, I had had enough.

I didn’t like washing my hands again and again because I couldn’t get ritual right; I didn’t like the counting, the checking, the ruminating. Performing compulsions was emotionally draining and physically exhausting, and often painful, and even depressing. But I was doing it despite all that, because for some reason, my brain believed the consequences of not doing the compulsions were somehow worse. Even though deep inside, I knew it was irrational. Weird, right?

It was like I didn’t fully have control of the thoughts, like being forced to do random and pointless tasks that I knew wouldn’t actually bring me any comfort, like when you compulsively scratch a mosquito bite, but it only brings a fleeting relief. I was losing time, entire blocks of time. Those times when my entire day was spent engaging in rituals? That was my life passing by… And I was done.

I figured if I was spending every waking moment victim to my anxiety, I might as well try spending every waking moment doing something more proactive: fighting for recovery. Luckily, if you can call it lucky, my anxiety peaked at around the same that a gastrointestinal disorder was wreaking havoc on my body. I could barely eat without becoming extremely ill and had lost more than 20 pounds, which led me to a medical leave from school. With my biggest commitment out of the way, I was able to completely dictate my life to regaining my health from all angles, and that’s exactly what I did.

What was your experience in seeking recovery? What experiences have you had with accessing or receiving care or treatment? What was most helpful in supporting your work toward recovery?

During my time away from school, I saw specialists for my GI condition, of course, but I also scored a referral to a world-renowned health care system for my psychiatric care. It was there that I finally started my true recovery journey.

Previously, I had seen multiple primary care providers for treatment, and even a psychiatrist, but unfortunately, I found my recovery limited by the stigma surrounding mental illness… Yes, even mental health providers can internalize those beliefs. I had one doctor tell me that because I was a medical student, I seemed too well functioning to be treated, but what he failed to do was compare my current performance to my actual capabilities. Unfortunately, though, I’ve always been fairly timid, and it wasn’t until I gained more and more knowledge through my own experiences in medicine that I learned to be my own advocate.

My recovery was hard, and it was time consuming. Actually, it still is time consuming, even after 6 months. The first challenge was finding the right medications to managed my anxiety. SSRI’s are the first-line drugs for OCD, and because I was managing my current regimen fine, we decided to increase the dose. Medication adjustments are always a long process, full of unwanted side effects and waiting to see if anything changes, and, for me, it turned out that the optimum dose was 6 times the original amount! Then, my psychiatrist prescribed me something else for my anxiety attacks and even more for my insomnia. I barely need the last two these days, but when the medications finally took effect at the magical 4-6 week mark, I felt the greatest weight lift from my body. Even now, looking back, I still find it miraculous how much better I felt; I truly felt like a new person.

Next, the hard part: therapy. I was assigned to a new therapist, one who seemed genuinely invested in my story and my recovery, and we started the never-ending work toward mental health and wellness. There was a time when I was at the outpatient center every day of the week; a psychiatrist appointment one day, a therapy appointment one day, and groups the other three days.
I enrolled in every class and support group available to me: Basic CBT for Anxiety, Cognitive Therapy for Anxiety, Mindfulness for Anxiety, and Exposure for Anxiety. Through these groups, I learned new ways to think about and handle my anxiety, and I also got to meet other people also dealing with severe anxiety disorders and learn from them and their experiences, which is one of my favorite things about attending groups.

And, then, the most important step: I started Exposure and Response prevention (ERP), the mainstay of treatment for OCD. ERP is a form of CBT and works like the name suggests: with the help of a mental health professional, the person is exposed to thoughts and situations that cause anxiety (their obsessions) and then prevented from responding to their fears (doing their compulsions). In the beginning, this will cause a spike in anxiety — who likes having to face their deepest fears? — but by making a commitment not to give in to that anxiety, eventually, you will start to feel your stress levels fall. I’ll have to admit, ERP was miserable at first, but slowly but surely, my anxiety lifted.

Now, there’s no cure for OCD, and those of us with the disorder will likely experience obsessions for the rest of our lives, albeit not as frequently. Even today, months later, I still attend one therapy session per week, as well as two groups. I also found some local mindfulness and meditation groups that I try to attend weekly. Finally, twice a month, I participate in an OCD support group open to the public. It’s a lifelong commitment, but it’s so worth it.

Lastly, I also want to mention my truly amazing support system, especially my dear husband, Ahmed, who is dedicated to learning about my disorder and the best ways to help me in my recovery. He was truly my rock through everything.

Why is it so important to have an open dialogue about mental illness, health, and wellness?
Oh gosh, where to start? I’ve already shared so much, so I’ll leave it with this: Mental illness exists. It’s a fact, and we as a society must accept the truth so we can then find ways to support those suffering from mental health disorders. Far too many people live in pain because they’re afraid to get the help they desperately need and nobody — nobody — deserves to live with that all-consuming mental discomfort.

I’m telling my story, and dedicating my career to mental health and wellness, because I don’t want anybody else to go through what I did… I don’t want anybody else to reach out for help only to be invalidated. I don’t want anybody else to suffer for years, when relief is a short 4-6 weeks on the right medications away, nor do I don’t want them to feel embarrassed about needing that intervention. And I don’t want anybody else to feel ashamed for talking about it.

Because mental illness is real, and it deserves to be addressed with the same respect that surrounds conversations about cancer, or heart disease, or anything else. Because we must end the stigma.
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As a mental health advocate, I’m committed to ending the stigma around OCD and other mental health disorders and am more than happy to answer any questions you may have: either leave them below or send me an email at tonilupro@gmail.com.

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