By Dana Gornall
As a kid, I was mildly effected by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
My family jokes about this now at holidays when we are gathered around, telling funny stories about when my brothers and I were kids. Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, there was no internet and OCD wasn’t talked about much. I was just kind of quirky.
I can clearly remember the small rituals I performed all seemed necessary: tapping each finger on the kitchen counter (sometimes one finger repeatedly if it didn’t “feel” right) or grazing each side of the door frame with my index fingers, stepping first to the left and then the right before entering my room. If I didn’t do this, I was uncomfortable—the way one might feel if he were walking around with a pebble in the shoe or the sharp edge of a tag on the back of a shirt scratching his skin.
I knew my magical thinking was a little weird and therefore, tried to control it around the friends I didn’t know as well.
As I grew older, those rituals faded away and were replaced with new, less obvious ones. In high school, I had to look at a certain picture every time I walked down the main school hallway, and I always carried a pen in my right hand when hopping from class to class. If I didn’t do these things, a small part of me felt I would be unlucky and get a bad grade on a test or forget my homework.
I can’t say exactly when the rituals stopped, for sure. They were never enough to completely impede my day and I was always good at hiding them. Maybe it was gradual maturity or the understanding somewhere in the back of my mind that those thoughts weren’t reality, so I tugged my mind over matter and forced them slowly out of my life.
Still, in some ways the magical thinking remained.
I had superstitions—self created, of course. Each night before bed, I felt compelled to mentally list each person in my family, saying a prayer for their health and well-being. I had this inexplicable anxiety that if I forgot a name or missed a night, something terrible would befall them and it would be my fault. Or if I didn’t call my boyfriend at a specific time each night, I feared we would break up.
After I gave birth to my son, I laid him in the bassinet next to my bed and slept with my glasses on. I thought that if either he woke or I woke and I couldn’t see him then surely he would stop breathing.
I remember when my grandfather was in the hospital, his health failing by the minute, I laid in bed one night with my eyes open thinking that maybe if I just stayed awake and continued thinking good thoughts and saying prayers, just maybe I could somehow influence the outcome and keep him alive.
How foolish it is to be convinced that any of us can think a person well or change the course of the day with the tap of a finger or a glance at something on the wall. If I think a certain way, say the right thing, meditate with those mala beads or wear my lucky shoes, good things will happen.
These all sound like crazy ideas, and in many ways they are. Like the droning recitation of the Hail Mary as each tiny bead was passed through finger tips, my eyes grew heavy with long nights of thoughts cycling through my mind; my head would feel weighted and full with lack of sleep. The reality is, no matter how many times we recite a prayer or a mantra, no matter how many times we tap a finger on a counter or whether we wear our lucky talisman, none of us have one iota of control over any of it.
The more I realized I didn’t have control over things, the less stressed I became. Sure, we have responsibilities to attend to and decisions that need to be made, but we can only do so much. While putting work into practice yields results, the fact is that life is just going to happen.
People are going to die. Things are going to break. People will change.
The only thing I have control over is how I deal with things as they come.
Recently, I saw a video short posted on Facebook. Set to sweet lyrical music and without any narration, the film depicts a young monk in training. The boy loves gardening and one night, stumbles on a sickly plant in the rain. Distressed at the site of this plant in need, he digs up the bowing flower and brings it inside to be cared for. Showering it with almost all of his attention, he soon neglects all of the other plants at the temple. His teacher sees this and goes to to the boy, stopping him from tending to the dying plant. Of course, the boy is angry and the teacher’s actions seem harsh. Yet, the teacher takes him outside to show him a hilltop full of plants.
While tending to that which is ill or in need is human nature (and of course necessary), haven’t we all given too much to something that cannot be saved? We hold on, out of fear, in need of control and foolishly think that we alone can push back the earth on its axis.
My OCD was the symptom of this deep need to exert some sort of control in my life.
Fingers tapping and touching painted surfaces gave me the reins to pull back so that I could feel as if I could get a handle on the way things might unfold. Every once in awhile life goes a little haywire and I forget; I relapse into magical thinking. Thoughts whirl around out of control. I find my head weighted and full with lack of sleep. I forget, no matter how hard I think it, ideas do not form into solid things on thought alone.
And then I remember. And then, I let go.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak
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