‘I’ve been drowning for so long.’ I washed my hands until they bled and cleaned obsessively. My brain played tricks on me.’: Nurse becomes mental health advocate, ‘You’re NOT alone’

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Trigger Warning: This story contains mention of suicidal thoughts that may be triggering to some.

“I have told my testimony a thousand times. Anxiety, trauma-induced OCD, treatment, and healing. But there is a very dark side to this story I intentionally left out for a long time. Maybe it was shame, fear of judgment, or worry others would consider me fragile. Either way, it has become glaringly apparent altering my story was not my decision to make. Omission in this case isn’t benefiting anybody. So buckle in, because there is nothing highlight-worthy in these pages. I write these words from the other side of the darkness so know this story does end happily, but from rock bottom. I was certain I did not possess the strength to ever climb out.

Journal entry July 12, 2015:

‘I can feel my motivation to get better leaving me. Everything feels different. Like I’m not really even living anymore, just bracing for the next pain. I don’t care about anything, not even OCD. I’m scared of this feeling, but also I’m not. I’m all out of fight… I see peace in dying. I’m finally done just holding on. I’m not stupid, I know how much easier it would be for my parents and friends. They would think they missed me, and then life would go on. They would save money, time, and effort…and I could stop swimming against the current. I’ve been drowning for so long, I’m tired.’

I wrote the excerpt above in a journal I kept throughout 2015. I include them here because I want you to know how fully I understand what it means to feel hopeless. I am not just using this platform to exploit my mental illness: I ate, slept, and breathed it for many, many months… I know its all-consuming depths. These specific words are significant because they were written the night before I found myself in a psychiatric facility on a 4-day, mandatory suicide hold. How’s that for rock bottom? Let’s back up to years prior. I have suffered from anxiety my whole life. While most kids get a few jitters about tests or projects, I wouldn’t sleep for days prior. Many times, I would even get physically ill from the idea of a social gathering, sports performance, and even a dentist visit or wellness check-up.

Courtesy of Caroline Broadbent

I started therapy in high school and also began taking medication. This combination took the edge off of my restless mind, but the panic never left. It would lie dormant for many years, rearing its ugly head a few times but mostly managed. I went to college for nursing. My desire to help others, coupled with my love for science, made healthcare the ideal career path. I graduated with honors, a nearly perfect GPA, and glowing recommendations. Mostly because, as those of you with anxiety and perfectionism will know, anything less than the best just wouldn’t cut it. I stretched myself thin and piled the pressure onto my already fragile mind. After college, I began work as a floor nurse at a hospital in my hometown. I was an excited new nurse—eager to please and willing to do whatever it took to be the best. I graduated from training fairly quickly and jumped into taking a full patient load by myself. And all was well—until it wasn’t.

It began small, almost unnoticeable—doubting a decision I had made with a patient, or obsessively checking a medication dose I already knew was correct. But it escalated quickly from there. All of a sudden, my brain was playing tricks on me. I would do a procedure perfectly, but my mind would insist I had missed a step. That something was about to go horribly wrong. So, I tried to overcorrect. I arrived at my shifts very early and stayed for hours after everyone had left. I would check my charts obsessively, wash my hands until they bled, and clean everything I would come into contact with (pens, computers, doorknobs, elevator buttons…you name it). Other nurses laughed it off and joked I was just a ‘germophobe.’ My family and friends told me, ‘Calm down. Everybody gets stressed in their job.’ And then somewhere along the line, the intrusive thoughts got so loud they drowned me out altogether.

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By April 2015, I was a shell of a human being. The obsessive thought I was going to somehow harm someone or contaminate something had completely taken over. I had lost 20 pounds in one month and had not eaten anything at all for over 72 hours. I had not slept. I wouldn’t touch a patient without gloves—even to shake their hand. I wouldn’t use the hospital restrooms, sit in the break room, or walk into a clean patient room. I don’t remember much of this month, except for crushing fear. However, I remember May 5 with striking clarity. I was getting a report at the beginning of a shift when I broke. It was the most severe panic attack I had ever experienced—and I truly thought I was dying. I could not suck air into my lungs. I could feel my heartbeat in my ears and was seeing stars. I hyperventilated, screamed, sobbed… and didn’t stop.

From here I was put on medical leave for 2 weeks. I just wasn’t getting better. It was during this time I was diagnosed officially with trauma-induced OCD. I thought there would be peace in diagnosis, but that’s the thing about mental illness: nobody talks about it, most don’t understand it, and those suffering are many times left to fend for themselves. In those 2 weeks, I would lay on my bed in a fear paralysis—my mom would have to pull me out to eat or sit outside for a few minutes. I even tried to go out with my friends one night. It ended with me watching my parents Lysol my whole car, shaking on the ground and unable to move. That night, my mom had to physically bathe me, as I was stuck in a ball on the bathroom floor. I quit work the next day, knowing I couldn’t step foot in the hospital again in this state. Something had to change.

Courtesy of Caroline Broadbent

Partial hospitalization for OCD was exactly what I needed. It was intensive, all-day treatment for OCD symptoms, including obsessive thoughts and cleaning compulsions. I fully believed this rehabilitation would ‘cure’ me completely, and quickly… and fully underestimated the power of OCD when it’s being focused on 24 hours a day. My psychiatrists had warned me it would get worse before it got better. Looking back, I had no idea what this meant. How in the world could it get any worse? Surely treatment would not make me sicker. I was wrong. OCD is marked by obsessive thoughts that get stuck in a crippling loop inside the mind. A thought like, ‘Touching this doorknob will make me sick,’ latches on and sucks the life right out of you. The looming feeling of ‘impending doom,’ whatever this may be, is absolutely soul-crushing. So, coming face-to-face with each of my obsessive thoughts in succession quickly made me hyper-aware of the presence of my mental illness… and the inability to escape it.

Depression set in quickly and with a vengeance. Panic attacks became worse and would debilitate me for the entire day. After roughly 3 weeks in treatment, OCD was all I knew. There was no life outside of it. This condition robbed me of all joy, all relationships, and all life as I knew it. Something inside of me snapped on July 12. I knew I could no longer live this way, but I just couldn’t see a way out. This was not a cry for attention, and it wasn’t an intentionally selfish act. My decision to leave this earth stemmed from the constant turmoil which defined my existence at the time. I truly believed dying was the only way to find rest, and I was at peace with this decision.

Courtesy of Caroline Broadbent

I called in ‘sick’ to treatment first thing in the morning. Lying in my bed at my parents’ house, staring at the ceiling fan, I felt nothing at all. I was absolutely defeated, and painfully numb. Something in my voice during that initial phone call must have triggered the therapists at my treatment facility because when I finally got up to execute my plan, I was met at the top of the stairs by my mom. She was frantic and immediately grabbed hold of me. We struggled. I was in such a bad place I could not be thwarted: I just knew I had to get out of this house and away from this life. Turns out my mom is stronger than I anticipated, and I could not wrestle out of her grasp. About this time, the police showed up. There was a debate for roughly an hour about whether or not to take me to the hospital. Apparently, when a mental health professional deems you unsafe to yourself, it is nearly impossible to escape the system. I ended up in the back of an ambulance with handcuffs, no shoes, and absolutely no hope.

Being on the other side of healthcare, finding myself as the patient everyone assumed was ‘crazy,’ felt absolutely surreal. Even the physician who was supposed to be conducting my mental evaluation was vague, quick, and cold. I’m not saying anyone needed to feel my emotions were justified, but to be treated like an ‘untouchable’ when you are already void of all hope is especially damaging. I still remember lying in my hospital bed, with a police officer guarding my door and feeling like I was floating. Like all of this was happening in front of me, not to me. At the same time, I was utterly indifferent to my fate. Lock me up, let me go… it made no difference. I was so very lost. Unbeknownst to me, an officer was called to escort me to a psychiatric facility. Turns out, he went to high school with me, which was absolutely the cherry on top of this horrific nightmare. I was forced to ride in the back of a police car and make small talk with a former acquaintance, all the while wondering why anybody cared at all if I wanted to die. Moments later, walking into that facility—my life was about to get far, far worse.

My first encounter with the psychiatric facility was a small white room, furnished with only a plastic-covered couch. Just like the movies, it was incredibly sterile and even more lonely. I laid on the couch for what felt like hours, as the exhaustion of the day’s events finally caught up to me. Although I had been told at the hospital it was possible I would get to go home from here, I was quickly informed the admitting process had already begun. It would be 4 days, and no amount of screaming or crying would change it. If anything, it would just prolong my stay. I fell into a defeated silence. It’s funny, but the one thing that sticks out in my mind during this time was how my shirt felt: soaked from tears and stretched from fighting. It suddenly felt dirty and uncomfortable, and I was suddenly hyper-aware of the germs I had forgotten about for the hours prior.

The next step was a strip search. Again, I was taken aback by how little these healthcare professionals knew about OCD—a mental illness—in a mental hospital. When I told them my clothes couldn’t touch the ground or the bathroom sink, they stared at me blankly. There were no special accommodations here and no exceptions. I’m not sure how I got through this day, or the ones which followed, as I am still horrified by the details. I think it’s a perfect example of suppression in order to survive. The human mind is powerful and incredibly resilient. I finally retired to my bed (a plastic mattress in a wood frame, kind of like a dorm). I kept shutting my eyes tightly and opening them again as if trying to wake up from a bad dream. Me, a former high school cheerleader, magna cum laude graduate with a BSN, nurse, missionary, reader, writer, and friend… sitting in the ‘crazy house.’ I call it this because I’m trying to make a point, so please do not be offended. At this time, that’s what I knew it as. Many people still call these facilities by this name. I will never use the word ‘crazy’ again, but it’s because I know better.

Courtesy of Caroline Broadbent

One of the most shocking facts about my stay? More than half of the patients were admitted for suicidal thoughts or attempts. The others were in for drug detox. I only met two patients who were in states of psychosis, like the ones you see in mental hospitals in movies. So, if these places are housing so many hurt and hurting individuals, why are they/we being treated as untouchables? How much more would these people benefit from some empathy? An ear that actually listens? A safe place to unload feelings that are crippling and destructive? Such a strange, alternate reality. It was almost like we escaped life for just a minute.

I had many surreal, ironic moments. I saw familiar faces from growing up in this town and there was even an employee who also worked at a local bar. I recognized him, and he knew me. He said, ‘You aren’t the type to be in here,’ but I don’t think that’s the truth. Mental illness does not discriminate. The mind is complex and can get stuck in very dark places. This isn’t abnormal, unstable, or ‘crazy.’ It’s actually incredibly common. Just kept taboo. The inability, or unwillingness, to relate to these feelings is why psychiatric facilities feel more like prisons. It’s why there is so much shame associated with illness of the mind. The stigma is so strong, for the simple fact, people fear what they do not understand. Stepping out into the sunshine after 4 days of confinement, life was exactly as I knew it before. I still struggled through OCD treatment. I was still depressed and scared and anxious. It took me a long time to find healing and peace—but I did find it.

I graduated from my specialized OCD treatment in August of 2015 and by early 2016, I was working as a nurse again. My OCD voice was quiet—still there—but many times drowned out by my own voice and rationalizing. I was doing well, and I felt lucky to be alive for the first time in a very long time. I met Connor in May 2016. I guess I should say reconnected with him because I have known Connor since childhood. He is light, impulsive, extroverted, and carefree. He is the gas, where I am the brakes. I was coping with my mental illness very well at this point—so much so he doubted it even existed. And most people are like this: much like Santa Claus, we can’t believe what we can’t see. That’s why disorders of the mind are so difficult. First, you come to terms with the diagnosis, and then you must continually cope with a lack of understanding from the vast majority.

Courtesy of Caroline Broadbent

Connor and I started dating fairly quickly, and everything was rainbows and butterflies—until it wasn’t. As I stared at two very pink lines on a pregnancy test on my bathroom floor, I was sent spiraling again. We had only been together for 4 months. Connor, his family, and his friends did not know the darkness I had climbed from—and now? Now I was unsure what pregnancy—motherhood—would bring bubbling to the surface. I wasn’t even truly sure I wanted kids at all, to be honest—doubting my ability to overcome an OCD flare up again. My biggest fear wasn’t getting married early, having to potentially raise a child alone, or even what others would think. Honestly, my biggest fear was this unexpected new role would send me back to the dark depths of OCD from just a year prior. I couldn’t go back there again.

Courtesy of Caroline Broadbent

I had to cut my OCD medication in half because of the pregnancy and was no longer able to take Xanax for panic attacks. Connor began to witness full-blown panic attacks, and I was terrified he would run. He’s not the running type and put forth the effort to understand, or at the very least empathize, with my tumultuous mind. Connor and I got engaged, then married, moved in together, both changed jobs, and eventually had our baby boy in one year’s time. It was a recipe for disaster, right? That’s what my doctors said, anyway. Medical professional after medical professional told me to expect relapse, to prepare for the worst. Again, I felt alone. I was painfully aware of the glowing pregnant women I saw online and in the OB office. Happy, excited, ‘perfect,’ and ready. And me? I was scared I wouldn’t be able to love this baby. That I would be so caught up in fear of germs, illness, and injury, I wouldn’t be able to embrace this new life being given to me.

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Surely if people knew the dark thoughts I had, they would take my baby away forever, right? Fortunately for me, the opposite was true. Gatlin, my first son, changed my life in every positive way imaginable. Yes, the stress of a new, fragile marriage, the stress of a newborn, and the fight to keep my mental illness at bay were a lot—but I had something worth fighting for. I decided early on suffering in silence was not serving me, or anyone for that matter. As hard as it was, I opened myself up over and over again to anyone willing to get close. I brought up the hard things, preferring to bare my soul instead of suffering through small talk. Turns out, a shocking number of people are all feeling the same way—isolated, shameful, confused. Each time I waved my white flag and spoke put my truth out there, in the space between, I found connection. It was the bridge.

Billi Cate Photography

When my second son, Brooks, came along in 2019 and I was hit hard with postpartum depression and anxiety, I was ready. I adjusted my medication, sought out therapy, and began self-care practices to strengthen my mind. I leaned into friendships where I could unload the hard stuff, and I clung to them for dear life. I asked those close to me to learn more about mental illness and made myself a resource for anyone who was willing to learn. I survived—thrived, even. I relapsed without falling back into the valley. So yes, I still have panic attacks every so often. I still can’t sleep without medication, and I have a few remaining OCD compulsions which followed me into motherhood and beyond. But that’s the thing about mental illness—you probably won’t be able to ‘cure’ it all together. You manage it—learning to let the thoughts come and go without taking up residence. And you fight because you’re worth it.

Billi Cate Photography
Courtesy of Caroline Broadbent

I have lived in the painful isolation of suppressed emotions. I know the darkness. I advocate for mental health because I also know there is a way out. I am willing to walk back into the fire and carry people out because I know what they can’t see yet—the mountain just on the other side of the valley. I can almost promise you no thought you will ever have is unique to you. Every emotion, every fear, every worry has been felt before. Rest in the truth you are not alone, you are not damaged, and there is healing. There is hope. There is freedom! More than anything, I tell my story so you will understand how very messy life is. Everyone has their stuff, and we are not entitled to judge anyone else’s mess. I once was institutionalized, but you would never know if I didn’t tell you.

Courtesy of Caroline Broadbent

My life online looks funny and light. I try to keep it real, but even then you don’t see the darkness. That’s the human way, right? Going forward, I’m asking something big of you. I’m asking you not only walk in someone’s shoes…but that you walk with them for as long as they need. If you can’t understand someone, make it your mission to do just that. What if THIS became the human way? What if, along with trading fashion tips and fitness advice… we also swapped shoulders to lean on? It’s not a revolutionary thought, but one I am passionate about nonetheless. I’m asking you to meet someone exactly where they are, and then sit down and talk awhile. Who knows, you might find out you were standing in the same place all along.”

Billi Cate Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Caroline Broadbent of Nashville, Tennessee. You can follow her journey on  Instagram and her website. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more stories about battling OCD:

‘I can’t do this another day!’ My hands were rotten, my skin so red and thin I could see my bone through it.’: Teen OCD survivor becomes mental health advocate, ‘There’s light at the end of the tunnel’

‘You’re too intense.’ My heart beat out of my chest; there wasn’t enough air. I became addicted to the relief of self-harm.’: Young woman diagnosed with OCD after years, ‘I learned so much about myself’

‘I’m doomed,’ he says. ‘I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know how I’m going to live like this. He’s hurting me.’: Woman sheds light on boyfriend’s struggles with OCD, mental illness

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