By, Ben Ruvo
It was the summer going into sophomore year of high school. I was on vacation, I had a great girlfriend, I was getting good grades, and had a loving and supportive family. Little did I know I would find myself a year later, bed ridden and anxious, struggling to get up each day. My own mind had taken me into a dark hole, and my body was just there for the ride.
Mental Illness does not discriminate. “Get over it” society says. “It’s just a thought” most think. “You have nothing to be upset about, your life is great,” is a common response. I thought the darkness I was feeling would pass as merely a phase. When I mentioned it to my brother he told me that he, too, had a similar thought and that it just came and went on its own. He said, “Oh, it’s happened to me, too. It will pass, don’t worry about it.” For the normal brain, that is true; occasionally, a troublesome thought will form and enter but eventually it exits. I assumed everyone had thoughts like these and that all my anxiety would go away in a short time. I woke up each morning hoping that the darkness and anxiety had exited my brain, only to find that they were getting stronger with each passing day as they created a home inside my body. I constantly asked myself, “Why is this not going away?” and prayed that this depression and hopelessness would magically disappear, as it appeared to for others.
My name is Ben Ruvo, and I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I am not Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In today’s society people are very quick to use mental health disorders as personality traits: “I am so OCD” or, “Stop being so bipolar.” These have become common sayings in our current society. I am here to tell you my story as an athlete, a student, a brother, a son, and a friend, but most importantly as a survivor.
As previously stated, it all began early sophomore year of high school. I was having a casual phone conversation with my girlfriend at the time. She asked me a question and I thought to myself, “What if this question defines who I am?” This what-if thought stuck to me like glue for three months. Once the thought was resolved and finally exited my brain, everything seemed to be good. My mind was clear and I could just focus on schoolwork and baseball. Sophomore year became very free flowing again. My girlfriend was great, I was doing well in school, and just enjoying life as a sixteen year old kid.
However, OCD does not just disappear for good and I learned this the hard way. After three months of it passing, that same question led me to over a year and a half of constant suffering, sleepless nights, and crippling anxiety. That summer, the same obsessive, intrusive thought that I had at the start of sophomore year came back stronger than ever – and this time it was not exiting anytime soon. It eventually got to the point where everywhere I went I constantly whispered to myself, “this is not me, this is not me.” I thought that reminding myself that the thoughts were not who I was would make them go away. To my surprise, that only made it one hundred times worse. The more I told myself not to think about it, the more it came up. For someone without OCD, this method would tend to work as they would realize that it is just a thought and it would eventually fade out of their mind. I, unfortunately, could not do that. I was getting constant, intrusive thoughts and for twelve or more hours a day I was latched onto these feelings. I did everything I could to try and forget about them but their anxiety provoking nature returned, each day a little stronger than the day prior.
I realized speaking to myself was not working so I decided to search the internet. I would test myself, looking things up and proving to myself mentally that the thought I had in my mind did not represent me as a person. Each time I proved it to myself I got a huge feeling of relief. I would then repeat it to myself in my head: “See, you’re fine. Look at what the internet says.” I would repeat that to myself every second to gain that same relief until the anxiety came back. Then I would have to look up something else to prove to myself once again that the thought was not true. This constant Googling and ruminating went on for hours and hours and made the anxiety come back stronger every single time I went through the cycle. The cycle would go: anxiety, rumination, compulsion, relief, doubt. This happened over and over for about a year and a half.
These constant dark thoughts eventually impacted all aspects of life. My grades were dropping, I was sleeping more, finding excuses to not workout, and was having crippling anxiety on the baseball field. It was not a way to live. I could not function this way anymore. I could not keep acting like everything was okay when it was not. I remember coming home and faking migraines just so I could sleep through the afternoon. I was in a serious state of depression that I could not get out of. Even when I was sleeping I could not escape it. The intrusive thoughts started creeping into my dreams where I would see them even when I closed my eyes. I would wake up sweating, begging for an alternative, hoping that it would all just disappear.
Eventually I took my thoughts to the internet, and searched: “Why am I getting these thoughts that are not me?” and the term Purely Obsessional OCD came up, or Pure O, for short. “I am not crazy,” I thought to myself. Knowing this gave me the biggest sense of relief. I felt as if I could put all of this behind me now, recognizing that all I had was OCD. Yes, you heard that right: all I had was a crippling anxiety disorder. I figured that now that it was something I could define, that meant I could just make it go away. I started repeating to myself, “I’m fine… I’m fine…It’s just OCD.” Once again, I thought if I could just tell myself this whenever I was anxious, it would disappear. I reunited with the cycle of ruminating, Googling symptoms and reassuring myself that I was not crazy and that it was just OCD. Like this strategy had done before, it made my OCD come back stronger than I ever thought it could have. Once I would get a feeling of relief, it was like an addiction; I needed to keep getting that same feeling of relief or my mind felt like it was on fire. I was back in this hopeless cycle.
I went through this cycle for months, thinking that if only I could find a definitive answer this could all be put behind me. Ironically, with OCD, that glimpse of doubt is all that is needed in order to keep you in the cycle; it felt like it was never ending. I knew I should have gotten help but I did not know who to talk to; I felt alone. If it was not for my girlfriend at the time helping me open up to my parents about what was going on, or helping me find the right therapist, I would never have gotten the help I needed. As daunting as it may initially seem, getting help from loved ones is so important.
It is very hard to open up to family and friends when you are struggling with OCD, or any mental illness. You feel as if you are the only one who has it and that nobody will understand. “Oh, he likes to wash his hands.” “His desk is clean, he is organized.” These are the common responses that I was expecting to hear when I told my family what was happening. I remember the first family member I told was my father. I sat in our back porch sobbing into his shoulder. This was the only way I could react as I felt such a big relief from telling him but also so much anxiety. I did not know how my family would react with what I was saying. I did not think they would understand the true extent to which I was struggling. This is part of the unfair stigma attached to sufferers.
My father, as well as the rest of my family, was very supportive. At first they did not understand my condition but after further explanation, they were more than happy to give me the support I needed. I was very fortunate to have a great therapist in my area, Dr. Jordan Levy. He put me through intense Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to help me with my battle. The treatment is very challenging but if you want to get better it is the only way. As my doctor said, “It gets worse before it gets better, but if you stay diligent it will all pay off.” I went constantly for about a year and then I finally noticed that my anxiety and obsessive thoughts were slowly going away. I no longer felt the need to search for answers on the internet or over think my intrusive thoughts. I still get intrusive thoughts every now and then, but I have learned to let them come and go with great coping strategies that I discovered throughout my treatment.
Even though I was open to my family and girlfriend, opening up to my teammates was and has been a completely different issue in itself. Although I opened up to some of my close friends, I never found the courage to speak about it to my highschool teammates. It took me until college to finally have the confidence to speak about it with my teammates and coaches. Sitting in our conference room briefly telling my new teammates, as a freshman, what I was going through was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but it was the best decision I ever made.
Everyone should feel comfortable opening up to their teammates as they are some of the closest people to you in your life. That being said, many athletes choose not to do so because they see it as a sign of weakness, as there is oftentimes a feeling of shame and embarrassment typically associated. An athlete puts so much emphasis on being physically healthy, however, being mentally healthy is just as important and deserves just as much attention. There is a stigma surrounding mental health in athletes, as their nature involves the need to appear tough, fearless, and durable both physically and emotionally. Athletes and student-athletes face many additional pressures in life than the average person, and their image tends to be glamoured by society, as they are expected to be able to handle more than the average person. This combination enforces a stigma that wrongly defines the idea of strength, where athletes need never to show signs of struggle, thus making any hidden struggles inside more difficult to open up about. This is what led me to start OpenMindGymm and continue with The Hidden Opponent. Through my story as well as many others I have noticed a lack of attention and an unfair stigma attached to mental health in the sports world. Many athletes are suffering mentally but do not know where to turn and feel very uncomfortable talking about it with their teammates. I am here to tell you that unless we all start doing our part and speaking up about athlete mental health, there will be no change. There has been progress but not enough. In order to do this we must keep an open mind about the way we look at athlete mental health. Help me end the stigma!