Monday, 1 April 2013

Our Minds Against Us

I was a child raised by terrible thoughts. When I was about ten years old, they started leaking into my head like a slow poison, making everything I tried to do in my everyday life slightly more difficult. They worked so gradually that by the time they’d established themselves, it felt like they’d always been there. And worse, they were absurd enough that they made me feel wrong. They made me feel broken. I couldn’t share them due to their absurdity.
 I would find out, twelve years later, that these terrorising and isolating thoughts were due to a mental issue, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. As the doctor explained it, the thoughts that plagued me were the out of place thoughts that everyone has once in a while. The issue was that my brain couldn’t shut the gateway that created the thoughts, so they’d just recycle over and over.
I’d walk by a light switch. My brain would fire out, “if you don’t turn off that light, you’ll get cancer.” Totally and completely absurd. And most people’s brains would then dismiss this thought, and it probably wouldn’t even register as a conscious moment. But mine would refuse the dismissal. I’d look at the light switch, reach out, turn it off. My gut would still be churning though, and again I’d receive a threat from my head, and I’d panic. I’ve turned out the light switch, what now? Touch it with all of my fingers. Make sure I’ve touched it an even number of times. At the bottom of the stairs, I’d stand there with ten fingers precariously wrapped around one light switch, and wait for that absurd monster inside of me to subside. And second only to my imminent fear of cancer due to light switch mania was my fear that someone would see me in that moment. 
My un-medicated mind was giving out an extreme example of something we all experience: forbidden thoughts of which we harbour fear. Things we want to control but can’t. Things we want to share but think we can’t, and therein lies my interest from this week: I am constantly amazed that anyone else can think or feel something as wretched/odd/“unacceptable” as me. I’m also convinced that this is true for everyone, and that the more we start sharing, the healthier and more amazed we’ll be.
It’s about overcoming social constraints on our ability to share and connect with others. We’ve set it up so that certain thoughts fall into a category that we lock away, believing that sharing them will isolate us from the rest of society. And even without a fear of isolation, we arrive at a fear of distinction. This is the same kind of fear that keeps us from believing that our sexualities are acceptable. It’s the same kind of fear that keeps people from discussing their concerns about their gender. It’s the same kind of fear that keeps us from really communicating after a death. 
It’s a fear that causes us, and our transitions, to suffer. And in order to become happier, more fulfilled people, we need to start learning to overcome this fear. My father taught me, in his years of ministering to various communities, that nothing we feel in a time of transition should be seen as so abnormal that it can’t be shared. 
When we share, we start having a greater level of control in our lives. The other week, I was talking with some coworkers about my relationship, and about the way Oly and I define ourselves and define acceptable behaviour with others, etc. I became so flustered at one point that I just stopped answering, saying instead, “You know, I just think I can’t talk about this. I don’t want to set up a situation where people are judging me for the way we are.” And my coworker, bless her, in response, said “Well ultimately, you and Oly define the relationship. It’s whatever you decide between you that matters.” Bam. Instant empowerment. Suddenly I was more in control of my life because I’d received an assertion that what I and my partner thought was, in fact, our decision, and what a radical idea!
Now my more dramatic instance of this takes more guts to share. When I was about thirteen, my mum suffered a blood clot. She was in the hospital in a very precarious position for what felt, to my young mind, to be ages. And part of the reason the time stretched so dramatically was because of the torture my mind was putting me through. I was thinking, as teenage girls do, of all of the things that I’d decided my mother did that made me angry or upset or were just plain dumb. Added to this list now was the real and profound likelyhood of her death, and man, that screwed with me. It messed me up because it made me angry. It made me angry in the same way that she irritated me when she’d forget to finish a sentence while she was talking (something which I now do all the time. Karma). I had a great deal of frustration for my mother, and I was angry she might be dying, and I was confused by those feelings and thoughts, because I couldn’t separate them. So I felt guilty; guilty that I was mad at her. Guilty that whenever I thought about losing her, I also thought about the other things that made me so mad. And my thirteen year old self wondered, what on earth is wrong with me?
Had I been able to communicate those feelings, the world would have answered with a resounding, “the same thing that is “wrong” with everyone else.” 
And that is a distinct lack of wrongness, and a profoundly challenging, complicated humanness--and the more that we talk about it, the more we’ll realise this. The only thing making these thoughts larger than us is that we keep them locked inside.
So world, what is it that you think is “wrong” with you? 


  1. I think the important part here is having friends who you CAN share anything with -- as a two-way street -- so that you can be relatively sure that sharing will be constructive. And knowing that you can gain the benefit of sharing without the fear of allowing anyone "power" over you. Thus true friendship really IS like gold.

  2. Diana, this is a really compelling, relatable, beautifully-worded description of OCD.