Mar 14, 2014 02:37PM ● Published by Kathy Dittmann
Emily receiving the Bertha Proctor Award at BDAAA High School Art Exhibit Opening
Gallery: Powerful Ambitions: Emily McKnight [3 Images] Click any image to expand.
I remember always being a shy and introverted person. My mother remembers worrying about me when she would see me by myself at school. I was always the different one, whether it was that my parents were American, or I was quiet and shy. It never really bothered me. I never could have known back then how that difference would develop into something I could hardly have imagined called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
My first memories of OCD are from when I was six or seven. I had some compulsions, like touching things evenly with both hands. I never told anyone about these things and tried my best to hide them. In 2006, at the age of ten, my parents moved my family back to the United States. My older brother and sister were very open about their negative feelings toward our move. However, since I did not openly talk about my feelings, my parents did not think it affected me that much, but it did. I, like my siblings, loved Scotland. It was my home. I loved everything about it. I am not sure if the move was a trigger, but things went downhill from there.
My first year in the United States was pretty hard. As I advanced to middle school, I felt surrounded by kids who hated school. I did not understand why they hated it so much, because I loved to learn. Learning made me happy. Disruptive kids would do nothing but wreak havoc for the teachers so I was afraid to speak up in class or do anything that would attract attention to myself, especially in seventh and eighth grades.
At that time, intrusive thoughts and anxiety increased to a more severe level. I developed more rituals to decrease my fears and anxieties. If I would think about something bad while walking or doing something, I would have to retrace my steps or “rewind” my motion to the spot I began to think about it. I remember my mum or sister seeing me and asking what I was doing. I had to lie and say I thought I had forgotten something in the other room, or whatever suited the situation. In mid-eighth grade, my compulsions began to interfere with school. I significantly decreased my activities and classes. I could not touch anything there or breathe heavily because I thought I would inhale all the germs.
After school my obsession for cleanliness consumed me and I developed a strict cleaning ritual that took up all of my spare time. I would wash my hands well over 20 times after school. I spent an hour in the shower, scrubbing my hands until they were raw, and it was a real killer. I would have to scrub my eyelids until I could not open them. I would spend the rest of the day curled up somewhere trying to get away from contaminated things and trying not to do anything in general because of the hell my OCD would put me through.
Summer, although more relaxing due to no school, allowed me a break, but my OCD was still very much there. On the first day of high school, my mother tried so hard to make me go to school. I fell apart and could not physically let myself go. I cried and panicked until my energy plummeted to zero. That was when my parents decided to home-school me. This move got me out of the contaminated halls of the school and away from the “bad” things, but it did not in any way help with the illness. Compulsive thoughts distracted me from schoolwork, and I could not get much done. I would never leave the house, except for medical appointments. At home, I would not let anyone talk about anything I considered “contaminated.” School was at the top of that list. This was hard, because school is such a big part of my siblings’ lives, especially my brother, who is disabled and loves school.
Every afternoon I would hide under a blanket on the floor of my room with my eyes closed. I thought the germs would be floating around because everyone was home and walking around the house. I would wait until the germs would settle, and then I would come out for dinner. I would not let anyone talk about anything I considered to be contaminated. That left few topics. I still feel horrible about that, but at the time, I could not help it. When someone touched me or said anything “contaminated,” I would feel trapped in the thoughts of my OCD, like there was no escaping. There was nothing I could do to erase what had happened, so I knew I would have to do some OCD ritual like scrubbing my hands or eyes. I could only show people what those things did to me and how they made me feel. Some days it was so bad it almost drove my parents to take me to the hospital.
I lived trapped in my mind and thoughts for a year and a half. Everyday I struggled. Sometimes I thought about giving up. That would have been the easy way out. I was trapped in this misery, while my older brother and sister each found a great college and followed their dreams. I had dreams too. I wanted to attend a great college and make something of myself. I had dreamed of that since I was a little girl, standing in the playground at primary school, lost in my thoughts. I never lost hope that my dreams could still come true. I just could not let that one last source of hope leave me. As much as the thought emotionally hurt me, I knew that if I ever wanted to do something good with my life, I had to combat this debilitating illness and fight the compulsions. I would no longer let OCD control me.
As a high school sophomore, I had to make a very difficult decision. I knew that if I wanted to get my life back, I had to return to school. That would be the first step, a big one, but a hard one. I had to face all of my bad thoughts and contamination issues, and just do it. My mother was apprehensive about letting me go immediately and wanted me to slowly return to school. I did it my way. The rest of the year at Beaver Dam High School was terribly difficult. I placed many restrictions upon myself like having my hair tied up, wearing thick clothes and staying completely covered. I spent the year with hunched shoulders, trying to avoid as many germs as possible, capable of nothing more than school itself. I knew people saw that something was wrong, but I kept all my issues a secret. After school, I could not touch anything in my house unless I took a shower. Often I took two showers. I used a towel to touch everything. My towel was my best friend in terms of keeping my hands clean. One of my rituals included washing my hands for five seconds really hard and then repeating that 60 times. After the second shower, I used a different towel. On bad days, I could be stuck in a ritual for hours. I remember on multiple occasions standing by my bedroom door with my hand on the doorknob for hours, often past 1 a.m., until exhaustion forced me to go to bed.
The next year I made a big effort to release some of my rituals. It was my junior year, so every day was getting closer to graduation and college. Even though I was still entrenched in my illness, I found that my goal of going to college really helped motivate me to push through the hard times and, in turn, make my college dreams feel like they were actually tangible. Those realizations made me feel great. Even though my obsessive thoughts were still bad, I was learning to cope with them and control the rituals that they caused. It was very hard, but when I had those days with bad thoughts, I just would think about my ambitions and how, if I kept on fighting, each day would be one step closer to my dream. I was even able to do more than just school and joined clubs and began volunteering, things I knew were important to the college application process.
Now, as I come into my senior year, I feel that I am more confident than ever. The bulk of my prominent rituals are behind me, and I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. It was a long journey, one that I would not wish on my worst enemy. However, I would not change any of it. My experience has made me stronger, more resilient and focused on life and all it has to offer. And I feel that with my story, I have found my calling, what I have been born to do: help others. I want to dedicate my life to helping anyone and everyone with this menacing illness by sharing my story and giving them the courage to fight and never give up. Personally, I know that I still have a ways to go, but I can finally say that I will not let my OCD and anxiety control my life anymore. I hope that my story will inspire other people, especially young people, to face their problems and live their life on their own terms. Dreams and ambitions are powerful forces; they literally saved my life!