Lauren grew up in a small Midwestern town. She describes her hometown as a “mental health desert”—before she was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), she didn’t know where to turn for help. But Lauren knew she deserved to feel safe and at peace with her own mind. So, she advocated for herself, found a therapist, and took steps that would change her life forever.
This article discusses topics of mental illness, suicide, sexual assault, and eating disorders. If you’re struggling and need to talk to someone, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine.
Growing up in a small, tight-knit town has a lot of perks. You often see friendly, familiar faces at the grocery store. You feel the camaraderie of cheering on the high school football team on Friday nights. And, in my case, you have childhood friendships that last well into adulthood.
But while I love my hometown, it has its faults. Growing up in the ‘90s, I never saw people talking about mental health on a national level—let alone in my small, Midwestern community.
So, when I started to have symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), I became terrified.
Living with mental illness
OCD is an often misunderstood diagnosis. From the way the media portrays it, you might think it’s a quirky personality trait that makes you clean all the time—but it’s not. And at its worst, it can be absolutely debilitating.
A common symptom of OCD is intrusive thoughts. These are explicit, sudden thoughts that are often about hurting yourself or others. And we’ve all had weird thoughts that we wouldn’t act on, like, “What if I drove off this bridge?” But people with OCD often lack the ability to think, “Oh, that was a weird thought,” and move on. So, they get stuck in “mental loops.” It’s circular, obsessive thinking that makes the person with OCD fixate on why they had that thought. Then, it can make them feel that they must be a bad person for having that thought.
The mental loops of OCD can be a scary, vicious cycle—and it wasn’t something that my 14-year-old self was equipped to handle. My grades started slipping. I couldn’t focus. I made lists of things I thought I had done wrong each day. I was going through the motions until, one day, I decided I’d had enough. I was tired of coming home crying every day because I didn’t know why my mind was the way it was.
Experiencing mental health successes and setbacks
Even if my town wasn’t outwardly supportive of facing mental health struggles head-on, my family was. My mom drove me to see my first therapist, who helped me to heal with the first words she said to me.
“You’re not crazy,” she said. “You have a very diagnosable issue called OCD. And you’re not alone—I see other patients just like you.”
Those words made me feel normal. After so many months of feeling crazy, having a professional validate me felt so important. We ended up mixing both therapy and medication for my OCD. Physically, this helped my brain produce the right chemicals I need to live more happily. Mentally, it allowed me to talk about my struggles without fear of judgment—something I didn’t even get from my closest friends at the time.
Things started going better for me until a few years into college. I was sexually assaulted twice by people close to me, and I developed an eating disorder called bulimia. These experiences sent my OCD into overdrive. This was more than a bump in the road of my healing journey—it felt like a “Road closed” sign.
Like many mental health struggles, sexual assault and eating disorders can carry a heavy sense of shame. I didn’t want to speak out about my issues because I didn’t want to burden the people I loved with my struggles (or—even scarier—be judged for them).
And why would I share? On the outside, I had a great life. I was engaged and planning a wedding. I had a great job and a stable family. But on the inside, I was suffering.
By the time I was 25 or 26, I had had enough. I was so sick of hiding my struggles. So—like I’d done once before—I asked for help.
Asking for help is a form of care
Advocacy can include big policy changes and important research carried out by the government or private organizations, but sometimes it can simply be small acts of care. It can be caring for yourself enough to believe you’re worth saving. It’s the inner strength you call upon to overcome the discomfort and vulnerability of sharing your problems. Care can be as simple as calling a friend or family member and saying, “Hey, I’m in trouble. I need help.”
The first thing I did was reach out to family to tell them about my struggles. Then, I started searching for a therapist who specialized in eating disorders. After a few failed attempts, I found the right therapist—she was two hours away, but that felt like a small price to pay for my physical and mental health. (It’s worth noting that, today, virtual counseling is much more accessible.)
With the help of my new therapist, I began to thrive while living with mental illness. I got healthier and happier, and I realized my passion for therapy. My therapist encouraged me to share my own experience with others. I started posting about my journey on Facebook, and received so many comments from people saying, “Me, too” and, “I’ve been there.”
The support from my therapist and those online testimonies sparked something in me. But it wasn’t until I was back in my hometown, working in theater, that my passion became a full-blown blaze.
Being who I needed when I was younger
I’d been involved in my community theater since I was young, and as an adult, I ran youth programs for fun. I quickly realized that many of these kids were dealing with the same issues I ran into as a teenager.
They confided in me about so many things, like their experiences with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, or coming out as LGBTQ+. And I didn’t know what to do. At this point, I wasn’t a professional—but the kids were afraid of talking to anyone else. They said it “wasn’t something they talked about” in their house or in their school.
It was heartbreaking. It was like looking at a younger version of myself: the girl who needed someone but felt she didn’t have anyone to turn to for help. Those kids gave me the courage to pursue my calling.
So, I uprooted my life and went back to school. I received a master’s in social work, and now I can use that knowledge to care for my community. I can be to these kids what my first therapist was to me: a trusted confidant and someone to validate their feelings.
And it’s the best job in the world. Getting to sit across from someone when they realize that they’re not alone is an incredible feeling. Because I still remember when I was on the other side, realizing the very same thing.
Continuing my calling
Now, I’m living 14-year-old Lauren’s dream. I’m using what I love most—the arts, theater, and therapy—to help people help themselves. And personally, I’m doing well. I’m still happily in recovery, I just welcomed my first child, and I have more than a career—I have a calling.
If you take anything away from my story, I hope it’s this:
- Trust your gut: You know what’s best for you, so get the attention you need—be loud if you have to—and ask for help. And don’t stop until you get what you need to heal.
- Don’t be afraid to keep searching for the right therapist: Finding the right therapist is like finding the right hairdresser. If you sit down with a therapist and you don’t like them, it’s OK to find another one.
- You are not alone: The first step is always the scariest, but there are people willing to help you, as long as you ask for it.