January 2021’s book of the month was Don’t Get Too Excited by Jen Epstein. It’s a hilarious, down-to-earth book of essays about living with OCD. The neurodivergent author lives in Brooklyn, NY and holds an MA in media studies. She is currently looking to make a career transition into the non-profit sector and world of community organizing. If you have any leads, drop her a line on her website!
In your book, Don’t Get Too Excited, you explore some personal topics that might be embarrassing to admit. For example, daily panic attacks and struggling to be intimate with people. Your essays were courageous.
However, even though the National Institute of Mental Health reports that “nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness,” stigma is still a very real problem in our society. According to the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, “58 percent [of Americans] do not want people with mental illness in their workplaces.”
Did you ever worry about people reading your book and judging you as “crazy,” such as your co-workers or boss?
That’s a great question. And yes, at first I did but in fact, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the exact opposite happened. Don’t Get Too Excited: came to fruition through my participation in a writers group that was co-founded by two of my friends and former colleagues.
We met at the office and the group was open to all of our co-workers, present and past, as a creative outlet and safe space to workshop ideas. Initially, I was terrified to even admit to them that I was a writer. But it wasn’t long before I became comfortable not only sharing my creative self but also revealing to them through the personal essays I wrote that I had been struggling with a mental health condition since being diagnosed with OCD at the age of twenty one.
If anything, it brought me closer to them and they began to understand me on a much more intimate deep level. My colleagues began telling me about some of their own personal experiences with mental health either that they or someone close to them was living with. It was cathartic and therapeutic for all of us! It’s the reason why my first in-person event after Don’t Get Too Excited: was released took place at our office and was called a Tribute to Writer’s Group.
Had it not been for the support of my co-workers/fellow writers, I might never have had the courage to share my story with them or with anyone for that matter.
Your essays detail the struggles of living with OCD, such as tapping the burners on your kitchen stove over and over to make sure they are shut off before leaving your apartment. You also dedicated a chapter to discussing the specific requirements for doing your laundry, explaining the anxiety of washing your clothing at a laundromat:
“Selecting the temperature cycle on the washing machine leaves me equally anxiety ridden as shredding documents. However, my fear of contamination casts the deciding vote, and it is almost always to launder my clothing and bedding, even those made of the most delicate fabrics, on the highest temperature.”
Has the pandemic affected your OCD?
The pandemic has without a doubt affected my OCD. It’s made me reevaluate everything in my life.
Last summer I attended my first OCD conference (virtually of course). I can’t begin to explain how powerful it is to be able to connect with a community who “gets it,” who gets you, who nods when you talk about the anxiety experienced while selecting the temperature cycle on the washing machine. And sends you heart emojis over zoom when you begin tearing up over your struggles with intimacy. Then having the opportunity to send emojis back to them while they talk about how fears of contamination have affected relationships in their own lives.
I found out that the sponsor of the conference, The International OCD Foundation (IOCDF), had a resources directory filled with information on support groups, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure-response prevention (ERP) treatment programs. The next week I began sending out email inquiries for programs that might be accepting new patients. In October, I officially began taking a break from talk therapy and working with an OCD Specialist.
The pandemic has put everything into perspective for me. I know I don’t want to be alone but that I do want someone to be there to hold me. I’m motivated to take the next steps in my OCD treatment. To show up every week to meet with my therapist and move closer to achieving my goal of not letting fears of contamination control the narrative anymore.
The work I’m doing with my therapist is painful and challenging, but I have the support of other patients in my GOAL (ERP) group who I see every other week on zoom. We’ve all grown very accustomed to sending words of encouragement and heart emojis to each other, to people who get it!
On another note, one of the silver linings of living through COVID-19 is that it has been vindicating, not just for me but I think for many who struggle with OCD. I wrote a blog piece about this at the beginning of the pandemic. I was ahead of the curve by not using the folding tables at the laundromat to fold my clothes. During COVID, no one has been permitted to use these tables. And not as many people have been eye-balling me strangely for sticking my takeout pad Thai noodles in the microwave when the food is already hot. For some of us, the pandemic has normalized what might have been considered idiosyncratic and quirky behaviors before.
In your book, you wrestle with the idea of becoming a mother, something you call “Restless Motherhood Syndrome.” To adopt? To foster? To have your own?
In chapter 8, you write, “Do I want to have a child? How could I possibly? This is a question I ask myself every day. Each day the answer changes based on my age, on how well I’ve managed to balance my checkbook that month, or how many kids whizzing by on their scooters have run over my foot without saying they’re sorry.”
Have you made any progress on this decision since publishing your book?
I haven’t made much progress on having a child of my own but I’ve grown to appreciate the kids who are already in my life.
My god-sons are about to start pre-school. I talk to their mother regularly about the anxiety but also the joy she feels watching them begin a long journey of developing into independent human beings who will have to learn to share and be a good friend to the other kids in the class.
My niece has graduated high school and is starting to navigate living in the adult world. It’s especially rewarding to see how well she is coping with making this transition during COVID.
Even though I’m not a parent to them in the conventional sense, I still get to experience loving them, being proud of them, feeling pain and sadness when something doesn’t work out for them. Of course, it’s not the same as having kids of my own, but I’m still working towards this goal and as I do, guiding them as an aunt or godmother is a really nice substitution 🙂
Throughout your book, you refuse to be held back by your OCD, taking an anxiety-ridden trip to Costa Rica and hiring a personal trainer. Another thing you were determined to work on was dating! At the end of your book, you asked friends and readers to find you a date.
How has your dating life been going during a pandemic?
The work I’ve been doing with the OCD specialist focuses intently on dating. At first, I thought that COVID restrictions would offer a prime opportunity to get to know prospective partners in a physically socially distanced manner and that has partially been the case. Searching on dating apps and connecting on virtual platforms has made it possible to meet a lot more people in a short span of time. But my therapist also has been pushing me to take risks and do things outside my comfort zone, such as meet for an in-person date, hold hands with them and kiss. A level of intimacy that even pre-pandemic would have been challenging for me.
Dating has been going well. I’m more motivated now than ever before to put the necessary work into meeting someone and entering into a long-term relationship. For the first time in a very long time, I’m allowing myself to be open and vulnerable. I’m connecting with people who I might not be initially physically or intellectually attracted to but who have many other attractive qualities. I’m letting myself experience hurt, frustration, disappointment and all the things that I spent years trying to protect myself from.
Even though I loved the idea of being in a relationship, I wasn’t quite ready to go through the process of heartache, rejection, and confusion: all the things that eventually lead to finding the person you’re willing to be vulnerable for. The pandemic has made me reevaluate everything in my life, especially relationships.
Personally, I tend to hyperfocus on short passages, sentences or even single words, unable to leave them until they seem just right. It’s like super-extreme perfectionism and it makes me an extremely slow (and often very frustrated) writer.
Has OCD ever affected your ability to finish a piece of writing?
Thank you for the question, Wendy! Does answering this Q&A count? LOL, absolutely. Fighting the urge to find the ‘perfect’ ending or ‘right’ hook for that opening paragraph is a constant. Everything from a larger work to an email can fall victim to this conundrum.
Interestingly, this has also been a big component of what I’m trying to improve on through therapy. For example, I’m looking to make a career transition and have begun applying for jobs outside my field. My inclination is to spend significant periods of time researching the organization that’s advertising the position I’m applying for. And then to craft the ‘perfect’ first sentence in my cover letter. It all makes sense, right? And that’s probably how a hiring manager or recruiter would advise you to approach job-searching.
This too, however, is allowing OCD to control the narrative. For now, whether it’s writing a blog piece, submitting a writing sample to a competition, or applying for that next gig, no more than 10 minutes of research, only tweak a word or two, and send out as many as you can.
Because the truth is, we don’t know who’s desk that piece of writing is going to land on, or what kind of mood they’ll be in if and when they read it, or whether that mood they’re in while reading will influence their decision to pass your work up the chain. We are living through the unknown so we might as well embrace that vulnerability and fear, and just go for it!
About the Interviewer:
Josie Thornhill is a freelance writer and psychology student. She is probably having a panic attack in a fast food restaurant or doing yoga with gritted teeth. She is working on her first novel. You can learn more about her at her website.