Panic, OCD, Grandma, and Me

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by NotMolly

This essay is a part of our Peculiar Minds series.

and then you realized that the age old teacup was the only friend you hadI learned some new things in the past few weeks; things I didn’t have on my list. I started out to write a brief background post on two different disorders, and ended up… well, here, writing about my grandmother and me. Reading notes on OCD and Panic Disorder was a bit like reading a report on my grandmother’s daily life during my childhood, and while she lived with us during the last five years of her life. I think my understanding of what she battled, and compassion for how well she managed, has been a long time coming.

Often, disorders overlap and interweave; OCD and Panic Disorder (with or without added Agoraphobia) encompass a host of intertwined aspects. Obsession and compulsion go far beyond random thoughts of “did I lock the door?” or small personal quirks like needing to have the pictures straight. The persistent and frequent obsessive thoughts involved could relate to almost anything; the thoughts tend to be unrelenting and invasive, making it virtually impossible to change the brain’s topic of conversation.

To relieve the stress of these obsessive thoughts and try to reestablish control within his or her own mind, the individual may develop compulsions: repetitive rituals or behaviors, mental scripting with physical expression that becomes a release valve for the building pressure of obsession. Though people with OCD usually recognize the obsessions and compulsions aren’t logical, that recognition doesn’t mean they can just snap out of it.

With Panic Disorder, the body’s normal threat-response system is over-amped, ramped up, and unpredictable. There may or may not be a discernible trigger for a panic attack (even anticipating the possibility of a panic attack can trigger one), but when it comes, the physical symptoms are severe and very real. These can mimic a heart attack so well that some are first diagnosed after an ER visit for suspected cardiac emergencies. Increasing isolation, difficulty being in social situations or settings most people consider fine or normal, or use of drugs or alcohol in an attempt to tamp down the severity of the panic response are common. Sometimes the avoidance attempts develop into a further complex of responses known as agoraphobia.

I wish I knew more about my grandmother’s experience. I know her struggles emerged later than some, when her son lost his brief and brutal battle against cancer at 20. My mother was 16; she’s said, just a few times, that the mother she and her brother enjoyed was a different mother than my aunt (twelve years her junior) experienced.

I know she tried to self-medicate (self-medication efforts are common with many disorders), and it led down harmful paths. I know she quit driving, quit shopping, quit bowling, quit drawing and painting. I know she loved us, but it was hard to get close to her when she felt so distracted and… well, perhaps the best word from my own perspective is prickly in her soul. She felt tightly-wound, as she struggled to maintain control of a vast world inside her body.

I know her needs overwhelmed her. I know she spent time in the hospital; we visited her there. The locked ward doors scared me, the windows in the day room grudgingly admitted a light that was too grey, too cold, and I hated the nurses who brought the medications. In my mind, they were the enemy. I wish I knew how Grandma perceived the locks and trays and schedules. Was it better there?

I know she tried to live on her own again, briefly. I helped set up her little house, and loved going to visit her there; I’d never had a grandparent live so close. I know the little house all her own became a problem, and she moved into an assisted facility where she was closer in age to the nurses than the other patients. I loved to visit her in her room there, too, on my walk home from school. We talked about books.

When my parents offered her a room in our home, she quit smoking, cold-turkey after four decades of packs-a-day use. I think I underestimated her strength of will; she was giving up one of her key rituals, and she didn’t looked back.

Her room was below mine. Our connecting air vents brought me the audio version of her very precise daily routines; the household tried very hard to help her maintain those routines. We did not move her hand lotion, shampoo, or perfume bottles even a centimeter. Her new rituals were so much healthier (easier for us) than her coping methods 15, 10, 5 years earlier. She kept up with her daily meds, and the one easily-identifiable compulsion she had (eating chocolate) was harmless enough to become an amusing quirk. (She used an oxygen compressor, so she’d trek through the hall to the kitchen, and rummage until she found chocolate — any chocolate — to consume. The compressor made the same koo-koosh as Darth Vader’s machinery. We are all big, big nerds. You can imagine the rest. Luckily, Grandma had a pretty good sense of humor.)

I have no idea how many battles she waged daily to re-direct, compensate, control, and overcome her panics, compulsions, and anxieties. Mom drove her to the doctor’s offices. Mom drove her to the hairdresser once a week, where she read celebrity magazines under the dryer. Mom took her on just-them trips to the ocean, near where she grew up; that seemed to be one spot the battles in her body and mind ceased, and she had peace, just for a while.

I didn’t find out about her other peaceful thing until after she died. She told my mother she missed me after I left for college… our connected air vents gave her the only front-row (ear?) seat to my daily ritual, too. Teenage-Me was oblivious; soon after she moved in, she had my mother move her chair right next to the big windows with the view of the mountain, directly under the air vent, because I sang. Everything. And she listened… to everything. It was a connection I didn’t know we had, and it seemed to be enough, for those short moments each day, to quiet her storms. I wasn’t as vast or complete as the ocean, but for awhile, it was peace.

Read more about OCD at the National Institute of Mental Health, and the International Obsessive-Compulsive Foundation.

Read more about Panic Disorder at the National Institute of Mental Health, the US National Library of Medicine, and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.


The Entire Series

About NotMolly

Liz blogs as NotMolly, and lives on the western reaches of the Rocky Mountains with her Tall, Dark, and Slightly Neanderthal husband, their four beloved Minions, a huge number of books and assorted musical instruments, and four very spoiled pet hens. She can occasionally be somewhat serious and ponder The Big Stuff. And then she'll probably lapse into puns again...

7 Responses to Panic, OCD, Grandma, and Me

  1. Bonnie says:

    I’ve had similar experiences going back and reconsidering the manner or behavior of older family members. It’s been enlightening, even though I wished there had been someone to help us understand then. Your grandmother’s courage, and your parents’ understanding, are inspiring to me. Thanks for writing this.

  2. jendoop says:

    It’s amazing all the variety of experiences that family gives us. From this experience with your Grandma you gained knowledge that probably helps you to now relate to people with similar experiences and it led you to write this essay. Thank you for sharing.

  3. templegoer says:

    A very beautiful reflection on family life. The stats would suggest that most of us will have to bear in mind the idea that our loved ones behaviour may at times be beyond their control and exercise some mercy towards them. How beautiful that she was able to find some peace in hearing the sound of your voice.
    I have a very disordered neighbour, and I notice that she becomes much better when her grandchildren stay, it’s beautiful to see how they help her get a grip. How precious we all are in our flawed humanity.

  4. Michelle says:

    Oh, NotMolly, this was beautiful. I am feeling drawn to understand my Grandma as well and so perhaps that is all the more reason why this moved me so much.

    And that last paragraph was so unexpected, so beautiful. I imagine she still hears you sing, but rather than through a vent, she hears you through the veil.

    Thank you for this post.

    • Liz C says:

      Michelle, your middle thought made me leak from the eyes. 🙂 Thanks.

      I really do wish I had known *her* more, rather than just others’ perspectives on her. But the stigma of mental illness is virtually immovable for her generation, and that made it even harder.

  5. Paul says:

    What a lovely remembrance.

    I’m touched by your descriptions of her daily struggles to control the world inside her. That is a struggle that family members can hope to acknowledge, but may never fully understand; still, knowing it exists helps family members to come closer to understanding their loved ones’ battles with the diseases of the brain.

  6. misssrobin says:

    What an absolutely beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it. What a lovely thing to learn about a gift you gave your grandmother without knowing it.

    My husband fights OCD. I am familiar with those storms.

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