Haunted Houses, OCD, and Other Frightening Things

by Kristin Werstler (Univ. of Mount Union)

First Place

Walter was a freshman in high school. He was scrawny, with the kind of shaggy brown hair that made elderly folks cringe. The kind teachers demanded he cut because it blocked his view of the board. But since it also prevented any direct eye contact and too-long stares at the constellation of acne dotting his face, Walter didn’t mind missing a few algebra equations.

At home, the numbers ran through his mind. He stared at the fresh hole in his bedroom wall, thinking about products and denominators and variables – oh those variables. The hole seemed to grow larger and larger, pulsing, as though he were breaking away chunks of plaster from across the room. The stapler he had thrown was broken. He didn’t realize he was screaming.

Foot falls pounded the steps from his bedroom to his mom’s. The family photos and ornate rugs passed in blurs, but everything inside felt so sharp. Like all the knifes he had pressed into his soft skin were suddenly pressing into his lungs.

“Mom?” Walter stood in the frame of the bedroom door. He was crying. “Mom, please, are you there?”

The pale afternoon sun filtered into the carpeted bedroom, illuminating the dust floating in the air. Walter’s mom, a tall, thin woman, rounded the corner to face her son. The creases around her eyes were deepened by her furrowed brow.

“Walter?”

He began to cry, harder now.

“Mom, I want to die. Please, mom, I really do. Oh God, please.”

Tears raced down her cheeks. The same arms that held her son during every thunderstorm were trembling. She pulled him close.

That night, Walter’s mom fell asleep next to her son, after a silent agreement that he shouldn’t be left alone. Walter could smell the fresh laundry detergent and soap mixing on her skin as he fell asleep, wondering if the cement filling his chest would let him wake up again. His mom pressed her face into his shaggy brown hair, listening to Walter’s even breaths, while his dad searched for the directions to the nearest children’s hospital.

He told me to change his name. The only way he would publicly talk about his depression is if I hid his identity. Because once you admit to having depression, you become the depressed person, not the person with depression.

Walter shrugged at me. “Would you tell the world about your OCD?”

No, probably not.

Mental illnesses are like haunted houses. They’re fascinating to look at, but nobody wants to live there. Approximately 61.5 million Americans battle mental illness in a given year. That number breaks down into a kaleidoscope of different disorders – depression, OCD, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, schizophrenia, dementia, PTSD, ADHD – a slew of goblins and boogey men and zombies all living in one dark, crumbling house.

Mental illnesses can be brought on by a complex number of elements. Often times it’s several forces interacting together that lay the foundation for houses filled with beasts. Neurotransmitters are chemicals, like dopamine or serotonin, that relay chemical messages from one neuron to the next. Like ghosts floating from room to room, you can’t see them, but you can feel their cold chill bleeding through the walls. In a depressed brain, they move furniture without your permission, kick up dust and make it difficult to breathe. If a neuron receptor is insensitive or oversensitive to a certain chemical, such a dopamine – the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure and a sense of reward, it causes the depressed brain to be unreceptive to positive emotions, creating side effects like unexplainable guilt and deeply rooted sadness, along with physical changes such as weight gain or loss and insomnia.

OCD works in a similar way. When the Hindbrain, the part of our cranium that controls primitive impulses such as aggression, sexuality, and bodily excretions, is activated, let’s say, by using the restroom, this part of your brain brings the impulse to wash your hands to your attention and causes you to address the impulse. One theory behind OCD is that someone with disorder has trouble turning off the primitive impulses. This, in in turn, creates compulsions – the need to wash your hands repeatedly, until they bleed – and obsessions, or uncontrollable thoughts – the invasive impulse to harm an innocent person. Stress often heightens the symptoms of OCD – I’m ashamed to recall the invasive thoughts I struggled to control during countless job interviews and exams.

Social anxiety is characterized by a persistent fear of negative evaluation or scrutiny by others in social situations, thanks to a deficiency in the neurotransmitter serotonin. This results in excessive fear of humiliation or embarrassment, decrease in adaptive functioning, and clinical distress. You can spend days and weeks and months clinging to one weird gesture in an otherwise perfectly successful conversation. Because of that one gesture, the whole interaction is soiled, only to be redeemed by beating the crap out of your self-esteem until you vow to reach perfection.

It’s absolutely exhausting.

Because of the overlapping characteristics between mental disorders and personality traits, there is a continuing debate about how to conclude on a final diagnosis. It goes back to the lack of understanding. There’s a difference between being torn up over a breakup and being clinically depressed. Between frequently using hand sanitizer and OCD. Between shyness and social anxiety. But there are also different levels of severity to each mental illness, and no guidelines by which they can be defined, leaving it a slush pile of blurry confusion and detrimental misunderstanding. For example, some symptoms of OCD are obsessions with cleanliness, invasive and violent thoughts, and compulsive beliefs, such as the irrational fear that someone you love is going to die if you step on a crack in the side walk. You can have one of these symptoms. Or two of them. Or all three, but only on certain days when your stress level is high enough. Another symptom of OCD is depression. And symptoms of depression include social isolation, which is related to social anxiety. But who doesn’t have anxiety at some point in their life? How do you tell the difference?

What a medical phenomenon it is, an illness that manifests in a patchwork of different ways, that brings people to the brink of their sanity, still discredited by both sides of the spectrum; “the you can pull yourself out of the funk” mindset and the “I was so depressed that one time my favorite T.V. show was cancelled” attitude. Maybe people don’t see how serious it is because it’s physical traits are transparent, locked away in within the brain. Like endless corridors in a haunted house, they swerve around, merging at odd intersections and leading victims to unexpected places.

These mood disorders are the number one cause of hospitalization for those between the ages of one and seventeen, followed by pneumonia, asthma, and epilepsy. Walter spent a week at Akron Children’s Hospital for depression just after his break down, but was able to return to school the Monday after he was discharged.

The moment he entered the high school, the smell of freshly grinded erasers and stuffiness struck Walter’s senses. Bits of ripped notebook paper litter the floor, and a high-pitched squeaks reverberated from the lockers being yanked open. Every student was hastily shoving books and binders into their bags before rushing to class, growing into the mold of their daily routines that Walter immediately knew he was behind on.

He hoped no one would ask questions.

Although, things were going okay. He was standing out on the front porch of his haunted house, smiling at the neighbors, relieved that his beast was back hiding in the basement instead of staring at the normal people from the front windows.

“Hey Walter!”

He turned in the direction of the voice, making eye contact with Jared, a boy with long hair held back by a beanie decorated in skulls and bones. Now smiling, Jared waved Walter over with a gloved hand.

“Dude where have you been?” A smile still marked Jared’s lips, though the question felt invasive.

But Walter was prepared. “Just sick, I got a really nasty flu-.”

“Are you contagious?” Asked a girl with poorly dyed black hair – Walter thought her name might be Kenzie.

“Oh, nope, I’m completely clean.” He forced a smile, but bounced on the balls of his feet. He could not be late today.

Out of all the voices surfing through the hall, one shouted above the rest. “Emo!” It spat in their direction.

Walter froze. What?

Jared tried to act casually, but his smile gave him away. “I think he saw my arm during gym or something.”

He pulled back his sleeve to reveal thin, little lines streaking his pale skin. They weren’t deep, but they were bright red.

Walter fought back a gasp. He had seen a girl with slashes across her legs in the hospital – she had been abused by her father.

His heart pulsed. “What – are you okay?”

He pulled down his sleeve while raising his eyebrows. “Yeah, man.”

Walter didn’t know what to say. He watched them take the term “emo” with stride and talk about being depressed like it was a casual thing. They listened to music that glorified self harm and suicide and all the things Walter fought so hard to resist.

At the time, I knew Walter well enough. Before OCD’s dust and grime coated the walls and furniture of my mind, I tried to fit in by not fitting in. Playing the role of the depressed girl, projecting what I thought a depressed person looked like with heavy eyeliner and black finger nails. “Desperate for attention” was my user name on a social media website for teen writers, where I would post hastily written poems about searching for death and darkness. It was all very dramatic, and overdone to say the least – but I was so desperate to be special.

Walter wouldn’t have another breakdown until his freshman year of college. He went off his medication and suddenly the shutters crumbled and the doors flung open, letting the boogeymen played in the front lawn. Though he was quickly treated, the madness had already been unleashed.

“Movies and Madness” is a psychology course offered at The University of Mount Union that explores the stigmatization and marginalization of people with mental illnesses in popular movies. Toward the end of the semester, a student in the class put together a photo project to further help snub out the it’s-not-real stigma. All participants held up a sign featuring a statement about their mental illness to be part of a larger collage. Proudly, loudly, and without fear. I didn’t go.

Universities are on a trend to raise awareness on the issue of mental illness. But in doing so, a new stigma has risen from the broken floorboards and hidden passage ways. The stigma that mental illness is cool – it makes you interesting. You’re fun and quirky.

Which sounds like the neighborhood kids daring each other to ring the doorbell.

This holiday season, Target came out with a new Christmas sweater, the words “OCD: Obsessive Christmas Disorder” printed on the front in large, green and white lettering. Upon backlash, the company apologized for any “discomfort” the garment may have caused, but announced no plans to remove the sweater from its clothing line.

On Facebook, one girl shared an article about it, with the comment. “Why do people have to get so offended? Yes, mental illness is a serious thing...but come on, chill out.”

“Smh, I swear people get SO but hurt. Bunch of fun suckers!”

“Right! Live your life!! And I mean it could be so much worse!!”

Glee, a popular television series, showcases a main character with OCD. But she is beautiful and has a home and office straight from a magazine. Oh so organized and oh so clean. How wonderful it would be to live in such spotless perfection.

Blood rushes around my cracked fingers and drips into the sink. Old wounds burst open after washing my hands over and over again. I don’t know how long or how many times – I’ve lost track. Dry blood crusts under my finger nails and I already know it’s going to take forever to scrape out. My skin is bright red and raw and stinging so ferociously my lips are locked into a scowl. I think about Glee and being a quirky-crazy-Christmas-decorator and how OCD doesn’t really mean clean at all.

The party isn’t crowded, but has enough bodies swinging their hips to a Nicki Minaj song that you have to constantly twist on your toes and mumble “excuse me, sorry, excuse me” to get to the front door. Once outside, the cold hits me. My breaths are like ghosts floating into the air as I round the front corner of the house.

“Jessica?” I say softly.

Behind me is our friend, Tara. A sob echoes from a bench swing slowly rocking on the front porch. We sit down, Tara between the two of us. Arms that tremble wrap around my shivering shoulders and pull me closer and closer until I can feel Jessica’s shaking breaths on my cheeks.

“I’m so sorry,” she whimpers. “I’m just so sorry.”

“Don’t be.” I whisper, though I know she can’t hear me.

“I don’t want to ruin everyone’s night. I didn’t want to be sad today, I told myself I wouldn’t be sad today,” she suddenly sobs. “But I am and I’m ruining everyone’s night.”

“You’re not ruining anybody’s night.” Tara’s firm voice battles the volume of her friend’s sobs. “I’m happy because you’re here-.”

“I don’t want to be sad anymore. I’m so tired of feeling so sad all the time.”

My chest begins to crack and ache, knowing that hopelessness and despising the way it takes over the most undeserving of people.

“I tried to kill myself.” Jessica sobs into Tara’s chest, clinging onto her friend as though she were dangling over an abyss.

“Jessica,” A boy I don’t know steps forward and kneels in front of her. He must’ve followed us outside. He has a poorly shaven beard and gruff looking hands. “I know you don’t know where you’re at, and that it just comes, but I’ve been where you are right now, and I’ll probably be there again. But it does better, okay, it doesn’t last forever.”

Behind him, a girl with purple dyed hair spoke softly. “I went to therapy for months. It was honestly the best decision I’ve made. Maybe you should go, too.”

I think of Walter inside the house, moving to the vibe of the party. He is used to the haunted house and the way the pipes clank and floor boards screech when you’re just trying to sleep, but Jessica isn’t. The boy with the gruff hands who now holds Jessica’s might be, but Tara and I aren’t. We have not trained our beasts – we have not found the appropriate dosages of Zoloft or Prozac. But sitting outside in the winter chill, we had not felt more understood.

Maybe more and more people are claiming to have mental illnesses because they actually do. Maybe now that it’s becoming more socially acceptable the statistics will go up because more people are comfortable enough in our current culture to come forward.

Psychology explains that coping occurs in response to psychological stress in an effort to maintain mental health and emotional well-being. Some may use “positive reframing,” or humor, to help deal with small failures. Another coping method is “venting,” which is characterized by outwardly expressing strong emotions.

My friend, Emily, used to constantly post on social media about being depressed, and no one took her seriously until she swallowed a bottle of pills. Guilt settled into the pit of my stomach when I thought of the ways I would criticize Emily’s posts. Could it be possible that the stigma was born because we’re so quick to judge other victim’s coping methods?

Mental illnesses are like haunted houses, people are screaming but no one takes notice because who doesn’t scream in a haunted house?

Another coping method is “seeking support” which is characterized by relying on emotional support from family and friends.

There will be people on every side of the spectrum creating the filtered lenses through which mental illness are seen by the popular media, on social networks, and in day-to-day life. But we shouldn’t let their white noise get in the way of how we understand our own situations. We should turn to each other instead of fighting the way different victims cope by calling it a stigma. The whole block may be haunted houses, but people will be living in them together. And the windows will be open. And the walls will finally stop shaking.

If you or a loved one is in danger of committing suicide, please call the suicide hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433).