I hope you have a friend with OCD

1/30/19
Writer: Mike Esposito
Photographer: Ron Tu — Punta del Diablo, Uruguay

Before we get to my friend with OCD (who’s also directed a successful documentary about his best friend, worked for ESPN and CBS sports, started the JCK Foundation and dedicated his life to the Mental Health Movement) we have to dispel two myths. Letting you read this without would be like running a marathon with your shoes untied after a night out.

 

One, if you don’t suffer from a diagnosed mental health complication, you’re not at risk for psychological breakdowns, suicidal ideations or a range of other reactions typically ascribed only to those with diagnosed mental health complications. That myth is false and so is this one — the term mental health only refers to mental illness. Let’s come to a consensus to say the term mental health includes both mental illness and mental wellness (of which self-care is a part). The latter being an art we all practice in some form, in which the output shapes what I believe to be the soul. Or your general emotional disposition if that makes you feel more comfortable.

 

So when I tell you all these things about myself and describe how well I was doing on society’s checklist, I hope you consider how much privilege, luck and circumstance I was afforded during this period of my life. I’m a white, agnostic man born within 50 miles of New York City in a cliche town that penned white and minority populations by railroad tracks and incorporated villages that sucked an extra layer of taxes off affluent Long Islanders. That extra layer of taxes my family thought so valuable, combined with a timely divorce, ensured a few extra “NOs!” at the supermarket and a deathly-concerned look whenever walking into the doctor’s office. (A surgery, hospital or specialist’s bill could kill the month.)

 

But my mom (and frankly my dad’s child support) still found a way to get me to therapy as young as six or seven. I don’t really remember and I conveniently fill in thoughts from this period in my life, but I was young. We’d lost a grandfather unexpectedly. He was very much the patriarch of my life. Hands like mitts, a boxer, union guy, politically active, unapologetically empathetic. Everything I was supposed to watch, reflect and repeat as I grew up. This type of entrance to counseling as a tool to cope stuck with me and has been useful in my life. But still, through the ups and downs and the suicidal ideations I’m going to describe, I’ve never been diagnosed with a mental illness, mental health complication or the range of disorders that feed them. The closest I’ve gotten was a weak ADHD recommendation when I was young. My mom refused to put me on any medication — a wise choice in retrospect.

 

After graduating high school in said town, I went on a division 1 lacrosse scholarship to the whitest place I had ever been. Ironically, I was roommates with the bi-racial star of our team. Check! Make it out of your town to get an education. After a few concussions, a slew of bodily injuries and a generally negative disposition to my current education, I made the leap and transferred to an institution that added significant currency to my future resume. Check! Put yourself in a position to get a great job. I graduated without many letters next to my name but all I needed was that name recognition and a timely connection to land an internship and post-grad job that paid me boat loads the day I stepped off campus. Check! Get that great job. As many in said industry, I began to resent the work after three years and skipped town to organize for the most inspiring political candidate I believe I’ll ever see. Check! Drop the money to work for something you’re passionate about. Unfortunately that candidacy didn’t pan out, either did the congressional campaign I jumped on to during that same election cycle (I ended up fired). Check! Stay firm in your beliefs if you disagree on a major piece of your job. Even after that, I landed a great job in consumer technology. I thought it was the final Check!

 

I remember convincing myself that I’d run the entire gamut of life. I’d traveled between all those experiences, gone to therapy on and off, took interesting side jobs to pay my school loans, still had a great set of friends, great partners and a family that (mostly) supported how I was moving through the world. I was invincible, and distinctly impenetrable to the issues that I feared most — slipping into depression and alcoholism. I had good reason to believe my genetic predisposition would push me toward a co-occurring disorder (mental health disorder + substance abuse disorder) but I’d gone through some legitimate ups and downs, fought the good fight and came out balanced on the other side. So I thought.

 

After that last job in politics, my perfect internal storm began to brew, contacting shore fall ’17. Only now can I say a combination of the following led me there: stopping therapy, a return to drinking hard liquor (dropped it in 2014) and a serious propensity to isolate in response to adverse events. From an outside perspective it sounds like this, ‘So you stopped your chosen preventative method (therapy), re-engaged a destructive form of self-medication (liquor) and decided to intellectualize your problems alone (isolation).’

 

Ah yes yes, my friend with OCD. John Tessitore. Absolute legend, but beside that a long-time friend I reconnected with in October of ’16. John had run a nonprofit focused on mental health awareness while I was dodging and weaving my way through post-college jobs. I watched from afar and finally showed up at a talk John was giving at my alma-mater. Walking in late, and in the door directly next to the podium, John immediately caught my eye. We grabbed dinner after and drinks a few nights after that. I asked to volunteer for the JCK Foundation. I was interested in mental health, fully-knew the intellectualized argument for awareness and education in the field. But, John needed help starting a podcast. So I learned to edit, he learned to host, we learned to work together.

 

I’m not the easiest to work with but either is he. He’s generally disorganized (irony) and it’s tough to guide all his energy. But I’m a stickler for process and quality. We adopted a guiding quote “perfection is the enemy of greatness.” But we knew from the get-go only a transparent relationship that valued our own strengths and shortcomings would allow us to achieve our seemingly small goal: documenting society’s response to mental health through a humble platform we called Doming Out (now Collected Layers).

 

As we began interviewing and recording voiceovers, our relationship grew. We still struggled to work with each other but we were committed. A common goal helped us open up on what was working and what wasn’t. What we needed that day for self-care and what we didn’t. John was a healthier practitioner than I, but he was still going through the ringer now and then. Battling his OCD and feeling his depression rise up. But he’s been there and had his own routines to work himself out of ruts. Watching and helping John work through his ups and downs created a best friend who’s had my back in the toughest moments. I haven’t put that time into any relationship over the past 5 years and it was starting to show.

 

Stopping therapy and leaving the beer behind for the hard stuff were obvious drivers to a cycle of depression that lasted most of ’17 and early ’18. Isolation though, oh that sweet isolation, that sweet lack of connection, that sweet independence, that was the silent force I never saw spinning up internal swells that resulted in full sleepless days in bed, deafening back pain that came and went as it pleased, drastically-reduced empathy, a pullback from so many friends, aloofness and the absolute worst, a resurgence of anger and inadequacy that felt intractable.

 

There were definitely some outside factors that accelerated that isolation — I was watching my father lose 85% of his eyesight in the span of a year, watching him get forced out of the job he’d been at for 30+ years, watching my career go in another pointless direction, I was broke and still in $100k worth of debt (although that was nothing new).

 

This all came to a head in November of ’17. I was dating a woman for a while but it was slowing down. I was checked out but craved the crutch of attention, as I felt I didn’t have many other places to get it. (Fully the result of my own isolation.) After a few nights of shitty sleep and a squabble with my partner, I decided to leave my apartment around 12am to play pool. And drink. I came back around 4am, completely inebriated. My partner was still up, unable to sleep until we came to some resolution. All I wanted was sleep. All I couldn’t do was sleep. I wasn’t even generous enough to feel for her sleep. It was just me, me, me. I wanted to be anywhere but here.

 

I broke down. Quietly at first.

God granted me a case of sepsis when I came out of my mom’s womb. It took doctors 6 weeks, an emergency spinal tap and my blue, breathless body to be granted a stay of execution. My only thought that night was that I didn’t deserve to be here. God tried to kill me off and I should help him finish the job. I had never had a thought like this. I had never thought so deeply about God’s powers either. I didn’t believe in God and didn’t know why I was thinking of them. It was a full life of inadequacy squeezed into 60 seconds of thought. A rush like I’ve never felt before.

 

It got louder. My darkest instincts told me to respond to inadequacy with anger.

I yelled an incoherent argument at my partner in a last ditch effort to pin my sleepless nights, restless mind and deep depression on her. She got her things and left. I let it happen then ran after her. She was a few blocks by this point, I ran up and down each one screaming for her. The equivalent of digging my nails into a rock cliffside. I found her and she most firmly dismissed me. I saw how scared she was. I felt like an absolute monster and my anger flipped back on myself. I did not deserve to be on this planet.

 

I made one last ditch effort for my partner’s attention. But this is where I won’t give you the details. I put myself in a position where I could have been seriously injured. As was 100% responsible, my partner left as a result of my erratic behavior but not after a long, impossible effort to de-escalate the situation. When she left, it all came crashing down. There’s no way I could face tomorrow. There’s no way I wanted to.

 

John’s phone rang at 10am. He was in Denmark. Knowing there was a 6 hour difference, he picked up with a concerned voice and knew almost immediately what was happening. He simply reminded me who I was, what I was doing and why I deserve to be here. Then I called a cousin who had also been through some deep shit. He finally got me to sleep. They both forced me to text and call over the next couple weeks. They were the only people I told until now. I’ve been so embarrassed and guilty about the entire thing.

 

Why am I sharing this now?

Something that John and my cousin have is something called lived experience. I now have it too. John’s battled OCD and depression for 2 decades. He’s had serious suicidal ideations and even lost his best friend and mentor to a similar type of OCD. That experience is crucial in the Mental Health Movement, especially as we continue to see the social stigma melting so lucratively at the hands of athletes and celebrities without the mention of self-stigma. The force that burns quietly in the physiology of our bodies and still hasn’t forced us to think about mental health as a spectrum. Of which we all belong, under the clear reality that we’re all going to go through some shit and more often than not, societal factors like poor education, poverty, racism, classism, capitalism, technology and gender bias are accelerating a lack purpose. Self-care and connection are the basics of prevention. Practice it. Start yesterday. Continue indefinitely. Love you all.