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Joshua GrayMay 16, 2024
Photo courtesy of iStock.

When things were at their worst, it took me an hour and a half to leave my attic apartment. Touching was a compulsion: Touch every electrical outlet in the place. Make sure none were hot. Check the stove. That meant touching the burners, the broil element, the bake element and all the knobs. Check the breaker box, the locks. Choke back the humiliation and panic and do it all again, and again and again. At its worst, my obsessive-compulsive disorder held me in my apartment until the last possible minute. When I finally walked out the door, it wasn’t because I felt good about leaving; I simply knew that if I didn’t, I would lose my graduate assistantship. 

To finally make it to the street was a liberating feeling. I could turn my attention to my postgraduate studies and the day ahead. I could breathe in the crisp Illinois air. Then one day, halfway on my walk to the university, a thought stopped me in my tracks: the possibility that the water heater’s pilot light was leaking gas. I sat down and wept.

Of course, I knew somewhere deep inside that everything was fine in the apartment, that if any disaster were to occur, it wouldn’t be due to my lack of diligence. Yet I also knew that I would walk back home, wriggle into the crawl space and make sure the pilot light was lit. Why? Because otherwise my worry would become a white-hot, raging ember burning into the very core of my being. Trying to cool that ember was such a Sisyphean effort that it could grind a person down.

No. That statement is too pretty. O.C.D. can drive someone to think about suicide.

‘Not Good at Letting Things Go’

According to the American Psychiatric Association, obsessive-compulsive disorder is officially defined as “a disorder in which people have recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas or sensations (obsessions). To get rid of the thoughts, they feel driven to do something repetitively (compulsions). The repetitive behaviors...can significantly interfere with a person’s daily activities and social interactions.”

What O.C.D. feels like, however, is to be plagued by carrion birds. Sometimes floating above, drifting, gyring, alighting, pecking. Sometimes swarming in a ravenous horde.

I’ve experienced obsessions and compulsions since childhood. “Not good at letting things go” is how my parents described it. When I was growing up in the Deep South of the 1980s and ’90s, mental health was never discussed. I blamed myself for being different. Only later did I realize that anger, anxiety, depression and trauma were our family heirlooms.

A childhood obsession of mine was fear of going to hell, of being taken by the devil. The way I saw it, the devil could slip in easily, swiftly, undetectably—in a sip of water, through the soles of your feet when walking barefoot, by your answering yes to a benign question. My compulsion to counteract this was nonverbal chanting. To protect against possession, for example, before and after every drink I’d silently chant, “Bless this swallow and all the ones that follow.” I still think this on rare occasions, and yes, it does soothe in its own strange way. What can I say? The compulsions might be one’s torturers, but, after a while, they also seem familiar companions. 

As an adult, my obsession with hell was replaced with fear of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, of death, of disaster and of humiliation. Something goes terribly wrong and I’m to blame, with no way to fix it. As the O.C.D. grew worse, I feared people discovering that I was losing my mind. So I stopped making friends.

To avoid slipping completely into what felt like insanity, I sought professional help from a campus psychologist, an underpaid saint of a man. With my official diagnosis came a certain relief in knowing that I wasn’t insane but rather was suffering from an intense psychological disorder. Just being able to name my experience helped to bring my typical 90-minute morning ritual down to a tight 75. And that felt like a holiday. Until it didn’t.

I rarely slept. Exhaustion was as constant as a cellmate, as heavy as a tumor. At night, I found relaxation in driving to the lake at the local state park. But in the early morning darkness, when the whole world was reduced to what was lit by a pair of headlights, I’d think of how a simple tug on the steering wheel would plunge the vehicle inescapably into the water, or into the trunk of a particularly large oak.

Unbuckle yourself. Make it easier. Write a note? Or let your mother think it was just a terrible accident? Accident would be better. The tree is a good choice. It gives her a pilgrimage site, a place to mourn. And she likes plants. She might find solace in weeding among the roots. She could keep a jar of its acorns on the mantel back home in Mississippi.

Those thoughts crept in like a noxious gas. Once-a-week therapy was nice, but I needed something more. My life depended upon it.

Some Saintly Help

I’ve always found comfort in the library stacks and the musty, lived-in smell of old books. During my sleepless nights, I reread Aurelius, Nietzsche and Jung, but they had already given me what wisdom they could. Next came Brené Brown and Eckhart Tolle. I distrusted their suggestions of mindfulness, since I felt that my compulsions were mindfulness at its most grotesque. 

Around that time, a classmate asked me what I was reading. She was a rich Jersey girl, jockish and thin and Catholic. I sheepishly admitted to self-help books about mindfulness. My aunt reads that stuff, she said, not really listening. I nodded, embarrassed, prepared to palaver about sports; her Yankees were winning.

Then she said: They taught us the examen in school.

I replied: Exam? Like a test?

She chortled. I looked it up. 

This introduced me to St. Ignatius Loyola. Back to the library for a copy of the Spiritual Exercises. Google supplemented my research. Yet the thought of prayer frightened me. I did not want it to be a return to the chanting of my childhood.

But this prayer, as I understood it, meant one was to have a conversation with God, starting with one’s waking and working through the day, giving thanks for everything that happened, no matter how large, no matter how small. And then noticing where God was present and offering gratitude. It was worth a shot.

Thus, late one night, I sat in my apartment and thought about my day. I hadn’t slept, so there was no waking, but I’d had a good cup of coffee. Thank you. I’d enjoyed an evening walk under Illinois hardwoods dripping with autumn rain. Thank you. During that walk, I’d seen an owl flitter through the penumbra of a streetlight. Thank you. At some point, I fell asleep, if only for a short while.

A part of me worried that the examen would become a compulsion, too. Still, I started practicing the examen in line for coffee, along the aisles of the grocery store, walking to work, pacing in my attic and, eventually, during my night drives. Slowly I began to understand the blessing of gratefulness, of appreciating what I saw and felt. On a night walk, I saw a gaze of raccoons 30 strong. Thank you. I saw a skunk with three kits who lifted their tails to defend their mother from human harm. Thank you. I found a white oak that had the skeletons of small creatures at its roots, a massive hawk nest high in its canopy. Thank you. On these occasions, there was the sense of not being alone, of a presence nearby. There was a Catholic church across the street, which was, on occasion, riotously full of Chicagoans. I attended my first Mass there. It was in Spanish. I said thank you.

This was a lovely repose from the obsessive-compulsive lifestyle, but that was during the evening. Then I saw a quotation from 1 Thessalonians on an Ignatian website: “Give thanks in all circumstances.” And I knew that I couldn’t avoid the morning terror any longer.

A New Routine

In my morning routine, I returned again and again to the gas stove. I knew a family who’d died in their sleep from a gas leak. My therapist and I discussed this event as the root of my obsession. But that didn’t make the compulsions to touch any less real or less powerful. 

I touched the burners. Cool to the touch. Thank you. I moved onto the next compulsion. Forty-five minutes later, I was out the door. A minor miracle. Yet I had to sit on the stairwell, breathe deep, count the numbers, still the heart. I said thank you. By the end of the week, I could leave in 20 minutes.

My fear that the examen would become a compulsion never materialized. The examen is a choice. This is an incredibly important distinction. A compulsion is an action that can override common sense, desire and logic. The examen carved a space between me and the compulsion, just enough to breathe, to think and to make a deliberate choice.

I often describe my routine of touching as if I were a drowning man being swept downstream by an overpowering current, reaching out for rocks that are too slick. The examen was the rock that I was finally able to grab hold of. St. Ignatius saved me from going under, being swept away in the current. It prevented a cross under a great oak in Illinois. For that I say thank you.

Editor’s note: If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

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