Quite Mad

Dear Sarah Fawn Montgomery,

I have obsessive compulsive disorder.

I was diagnosed when I was 17 but have experienced symptoms since I was 12. Before medication and cognitive behavior therapy, I would spend hours each day conducting a multitude of compulsive rituals, afraid that if I didn’t do them correctly I would die or get sick. I would spend an eternity wringing my hands under the faucet with pumps and pumps of soap until my hands were raw and cracked, unable to touch any food until I deemed my hands sterile. Although my symptoms aren’t as severe anymore, I still struggle to touch food without a thorough hand cleaning, still feel the cyclical, pestering thoughts that I know are irrational, but I just can’t seem to scrap from my mind.

I am a writer, a storyteller. Yet, very few people know my story.

I feel a mix between embarrassment, fear, and vulnerability every time I think about sharing my truth. For a few years, I’ve been wanting to be more vocal about my illness: I’ve wanted to write about it or share it with more friends, but I could never find the courage to do so. I didn’t want people—strangers or loved ones—to look at me and see a disorder, an illness, instead of me.

But after reading your memoir and reading about your mental illness narrative, I realize that my illness is me. They aren’t two separate entities—I wouldn’t be myself without my illness. As you so eloquently put, “I would not be without OCD, without PTSD because they have changed the way I see the world. I feel, I think, I am, richer, fuller, and more human because of them. I have been created by my illnesses, but at the same time illness has made me a creator.” Reading this urged this latent desire I’ve had for years to share my narrative. And I’m starting here.

Perhaps what I admired most about your memoir is your ability to put into words what I’ve struggled to express to others for years, to make them understand what it’s like to have anxiety and OCD. Although you write, “I cannot make the words right, cannot make the listener—not even you—understand,” I do understand. Our narratives are different in certain aspects, but there are certainly overlaps (the fear you felt on May 21st, 2011—the day of the supposed rapture, the inescapable pull of fulfilling your compulsions, and the obsessive thoughts that exhaust your mind) that made me feel a little less alone. In order to describe what it’s like when anxiety and OCD consume you, you use metaphor, “Know this. There are ropes around my feet, holding me down, and when I bend to untie them they are vines that grow and grow and take root even deeper.” This digs so deep into my felt experiences that I start to choke up every time I read it. It is rare when I find such truthful and spot-on language in writing to dictate what I’ve been feeling all these years.

I believe your memoir should be read by everyone, not just those with mental illnesses or those who wish to read narratives with which they can relate. The book crucially examines America’s history of mental illness treatment by providing in-depth research of the tumultuous and problematic practices of the past and present. I read in horror about the American mental health industry’s history of lobotomies, eugenics, unsafe administration of psychopharmaceuticals, and the disillusionment that deems mental illness as “curable” and not “chronic.” Even though these parts were uncomfortable, I knew that was your intention. America tends to participate in a collective forgetting, where we push our horrific histories away because we’re ashamed to admit that such a “wonderful, problem-free” country participated in such atrocities like icepick lobotomies. But we need to address these pasts so we can expose the ways sufferers of mental illnesses have been wronged. With stories like those told in your memoir, we can start to change the stigmas and narratives of mental illness treatment.

Another necessary part of your memoir was the way you illuminate female experiences with mental illness, using both personal narratives and research. “Women’s silence is learned. Since childhood I’ve been taught that working-class women—women like my grandmothers my mother, me—need to be tough and resilient. There is no time, no space for weakness, for emotion, for the indulgence of madness.” Many female narratives in general are marginalized, so one can imagine how the female narratives of mental illness and trauma are even more suppressed, yet in dire need of exposure. To start a dialogue about mental illness without mention of the female body and experience would be to not talk about it at all.

I would like to thank you, Sarah, for sharing your narrative, for presenting the problems surrounding the psychopharmaceutical industry, America’s treatment of mental illness, and the female experience with mental illness. It is because of Quite Mad and your beautiful words that I have found the courage to share my own narrative. Your words are powerful, captivating, and necessary, and I will carry them close for a long time to come.

Courtney Clute