Nissa’s Story

I’m Nissa and I’m 24 years old. I have experience with depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors.

As a kid, I was very involved in dance and I loved spending time with friends. I’m an only child, lived with my parents, and had a close relationship with my father. My parents fought a lot and began the process of getting a divorce when I was in middle school, but my mental health challenges really began when I was 13, when my father died. This set me into a deep depression which affected me even after months of mourning. At that time, I had not been very close with my mother as she struggled with alcoholism, which made life very difficult at home. At the same time, I felt a responsibility to care for her because I knew she was also struggling. This experience persevered throughout high school, while I also dealt with coming out and having my first relationship with a girl. My girlfriend’s family was religious and disapproved of homosexuality, which made me very anxious and on edge about keeping our relationship secret from many people. I can’t say exactly when I began showing compulsive behaviors, but I remember them developing and not knowing how to stop.

I realized I was having obsessive compulsive behaviors during high school. I felt a lot of guilt, anxiety, and loss of control and I believe performing certain rituals developed as a way for me to cope with what I was feeling. There would be a little voice in my head telling me I had to check that the door was locked, for example, 5 times or else something bad was going to happen. But then 5 times wouldn’t be enough to appease the voice and I had to up the number to 10, or 17, etc. Sometimes I had to touch the corner of my desk as many times as felt right, or scroll a specific way on my phone. I developed a fear of certain numbers and an affinity to others. I knew that it was ridiculous because my mind had just made up these rules, but I didn’t know how to stop. It was embarrassing to know I was doing something that made no sense and not be able to explain why I still had to do them, so I didn’t tell anyone.

I felt a lot of fear, anxiety, loss of control, sadness, and helplessness. My compulsive behaviors consumed so much of my time and my thoughts. I didn’t know how to deal with the severe anxiety I had. If I texted my girlfriend or my mother and they didn’t respond within a few minutes, I became convinced something terrible had happened to them and that it was my fault — that I must have made a mistake with one of the rules I was supposed to follow and now I was being punished for it. I would turn my phone off for hours trying to ignore the situation. It was easier to know that I couldn’t see their texts because my phone was off, than because something bad had happened and they couldn’t contact me.

I remember my high school girlfriend telling me that she thought I needed help because she noticed my sadness and anxiety were severe, but I didn’t know what to do. My mother had been fired from her job, our house was falling apart and there were countless unpaid bills. I didn’t think she could handle another problem and I felt guilty for needing help. I did express to my pediatrician what I was experiencing and she suggested I seek therapy, but I never followed up. I didn’t end up seeking professional help until I went to college.

When I went to college, I joined a therapy group for anxiety and I learned healthy coping skills. It helped me to know I wasn’t alone and that I had a place to talk about my past experiences and how to move forward. My mother, while resistant at first, also received treatment for her substance abuse and mental health issues. As she recovered, we were able to work on restoring a healthy relationship with each other.

I try to journal at least once a week to reflect and be mindful of what I’m feeling. I encourage myself to be honest about what I feel, getting the feelings out and onto paper allows me to set aside those thoughts rather than hold onto them. Seeing what I’m feeling on paper can help me trace back my feelings to know the causes of what I’m experiencing, and troubleshoot ways to move forward. Meditating daily has been a great help in allowing me to break the cycle of a thought loop. I can experience an urge to check that the door is locked, for example, but rather than physically having to disrupt my day to act on that worrisome feeling I can recognize it is just an illogical feeling and it holds no consequential weight as to what might happen in the world.

Today, I’m a peer coordinator, exploring different career paths, and working towards skills that will bring me greater independence. I currently live with extended family who have been extremely generous and helpful to me and I have been able to reconnect more with my mother as she also has gotten help for her mental health challenges. I love reading, especially books related to psychology, philosophy, and social change. I’ve also started biking a lot more, something I used to do with my dad – who biked from our home in the Bronx to Manhattan for work everyday.

I was really lucky to have such close friends in high school, and extended family that was willing to help me — but I only took advantage of this much later than I could have. If I could talk to my younger self, I would tell her that there is hope and you don’t have to live life paralyzed by what you’re going through. I would tell her not to be ashamed and that it isn’t her fault.

There were so many times that I was told I should seek therapy but then didn’t follow through because I was too scared and didn’t know where to start. I think I could have used a friend or a family member who would have helped me through the process of finding a therapist so that I didn’t have to do it alone. I know the people in my life who suggested therapy to me probably just didn’t want to seem controlling, but just offering to go through the steps with me I think could have eased a lot of the burden off me.