I started therapy for depression when I was 11, and was eventually diagnosed with clinical depression (also known as major depression or major depressive disorder), leading eventually to hospitalization and a short but fairly horrible go with an early antidepressant. A diagnosis and experience like that becomes part of your identity going forward, especially, I think, when experienced so young. But apart from the diagnosis and whatever coping skills I clearly learned during my months of therapy and weeks of hospitalization, I don't remember much about it (which may be a coping mechanism in and of itself). And I certainly never thought to track down my records or any other info relating to that time in my life--that is, until I found myself dealing with postpartum depression while also fully realizing the implications of being a parent now and having potentially passed some of my mental health issues on to my children. However, it's been 25 years (holy fuck) since all that went down and there is essentially zero reason to believe my records even exist anymore--not to mention the fact that the hospital I was a patient in closed within a decade of my stay. I would love nothing more than to be able to delve into my childhood mind, but alas.
Beginning therapy last summer, I didn't expect any sort of new diagnosis, as clinical depression is, you know, plenty to deal with. But it turns out there has been something else going on in my mind that, in reality, has and continues to affect my behaviour and inner dialogue and sense of self far more, I think, than depression. And who knows if it was diagnosed as well all those years ago, but it is extraordinarily clear now that I have been dealing with this other mental shadow my entire life, and its effects have morphed in bizarre ways over the years.
The diagnosis? Oppositional defiant disorder, or ODD. And let's please just take a moment to appreciate the fact that I have been professionally diagnosed as ODD, shall we? I mean, right? So great.
Okay, so what is this special brand of ODD? It's generally an adolescent diagnosis focusing on a child or teen's issues with authority and the behaviour that comes with it. Clearly essentially all young people go through a period of questioning authority, and many adults, of course, retain that badge their whole lives. But ODD is something different than the basic stick-it-to-the-man attitude held by some, and is often a more common issue of highly intelligent folk, as the focus becomes one of defying those you believe hold misplaced authority. And the defiant bit is important, as there's very much an active element to the disorder.
I want to stop here and toss something out that, in all honesty, makes me uncomfortable, as there is no way to discuss my mental health issues without referring to it. I am a highly intelligent, and consequently highly creative, person, and I am forcing myself to come to terms with being able to say that and not feel like I sound like an utterly arrogant bastard. The creative bit I hadn't ever really considered until recently (this shocked my therapist), but I've clearly known about the intelligent factor my whole life. So even though I've been conditioned by society to not flaunt my intelligence in general (us smart kids learn that lesson early--less bullying that way), I'm beginning to learn how it's affected my mental health over the years, and how important a factor it's been in me becoming, well, me. So I will be referring to my intelligence during my discussions of my mental health out of necessity, not because I really (want to admit I) am an utterly arrogant bastard.
Glad we got that settled.
So, why was I given a typically adolescent diagnosis at 35? Well, because the shit's insidious and long-lasting for some of us apparently. After just a couple sessions with my therapist, I had a revelation that I become stressed and fussy and often downright paralyzed in the face of expectations, regardless of size or import. And this is really the crux of my ODD because this issue with expectations has ginormous consequences in terms of my life path thus far, as well as just my basic interactions with people and the world around me. And it was bringing this idea up that made my therapist reach for the DSM-5 for a diagnosis that day.
A mental health diagnosis is not always a panacea or even particularly helpful to a patient in a practical way. However, this one blew my fucking mind, and honestly, continues to, as it touches on the core of who I am and how I self-identify. There's so much there, it's hard to know where to start, and is why I've hesitated to write about it before now. I'm sure there will be followup posts, but for now, we'll just dive in somewhere and see where it takes us.
I had a lot of expectations placed on me starting at a very young age, and not in a harsh, disciplinarian way, but they were expectations nonetheless. And honestly, I was already defying expectations in utero, seeing as I was four days shy of being a month late. I held my head up immediately in the hospital, sat at three months, crawled at four months, and walked at seven months. I was without question the smartest kid in every class, in all subjects, and was one of the very best at everything I did, whether dance, gymnastics, singing, theatre, sports, instruments, you name it. And on top of it all, I was ridiculously mature for my age, gregarious, funny, confident, pretty, etc., etc.
I was THAT kid. And I was expected to do great things. Except I didn't. Starting at age nine, which also happens to be the age I started my period (I was already developing breasts by age seven), fulfilling the expectations of the doting, loving, excited adults around me lost its luster apparently. Again, I was defying expectations off the bat, but it began taking a different track at that point, and instead of simply not caring if I was meeting expectations, I began getting off on the act of purposely choosing to act in a way contrary to what was expected of me. My 4th grade teacher was on the committee developing new GATE (gifted and talented education) curriculum for the district, and to keep me, the classic highly intelligent yet bored student, engaged in school, she asked and received permission from my parents to test out new lesson plans on me. In addition, a small group of us from class would get to meet separately with a parent or teacher's aid weekly to work on our current GATE curriculum. One of the other GATE students was a boy who lived down the street from me, and his mom often oversaw our GATE work. I remember vividly walking home from the bus stop with him one day and having him sheepishly admit that his mom didn't like me, something I had already gleaned, always having been a good reader of people. Why didn't she like me? Because I didn't do my work. It bored me and I didn't see the point, so I didn't do it. And she couldn't stand me for it.
Was I upset by this information? Fuck no. I LOVED it. I felt fucking fantastic. I couldn't give a shit about being liked by someone's mom, and got off on the fact that I could elicit such strong emotions from an adult just by simply not doing what was expected of me. And there began the beginning of the end of my promising educational career. You would expect someone as bright and talented as me to go far in the world of education and careers, right? Perfect, then I'm not gonna. I'm gonna eek by, not do any of my homework yet ace every test, end up on independent study in junior high, skip 8th grade entirely, barely make it through my freshman year, and finish up high school at a small, alternative high school--and that was accomplished only barely. Then off to college because that's what you do apparently, only to drop far more classes than I ever finished, most dropped at the end of the semester, too, after kicking ass and placing myself at the top of the class from day one. Even though I love learning, the bullshit hoops you're forced to go through to prove you know something in school is something I find incredibly obnoxious. And even though deep down inside, I hated letting my professors down (at least the ones I liked and respected), part of me got off on being privately told by more than one professor that I was one of the best students they had ever had and they hated seeing me give up at the end of the semester, when the expectations really came down to the wire. I literally had professors beg me to just give them something, anything they could log and grade me on so I didn't end up with yet another unfinished class.
But, you know, meh. That's not who I am, you see. I like to keep people guessing. I'm rarely if ever into the latest trend, and often am not into it simply because it's the latest trend. Oh, everyone's doing that? Well, I'm not gonna. Imma have a sandwich. I like dichotomies. I like being the unexpected. I like going against the grain, even if the only person it really negatively affects is myself. Because here's the thing about ODD that really fucking sucks: The common thread is defining yourself not by what you are, but by what you're not. And that, friends, is the epitome of self-sabotage. Because who are you saying no to in that instance? Who are you really defying?
The answer? Yourself. Most decisions come to be made in the negative, not informed necessarily by what you want, but by what you don't want. Your whole sense of self and identity becomes informed by a reaction to and pushback of what other people are and do and like and think, and especially what they expect of you. And although the process can lead you to really great, out of the norm things, it's an existence full of nots and don'ts and aren'ts.
And it's criminally, hurtfully self-defeating.
Okay, wow, there is so, so much more I want to (and will eventually) say on this topic, as there are several more ways in which it has seriously affected my life and especially my interactions with others.
But we'll stop here for today. Because perhaps this didn't turn out as gassy as I promised, eh?
I'll work on that for next time.
But don't expect too much.