Things you don’t understand: On superstition and coping with OCD

Art by Ina Jacobe

Growing up, I was raised side by side with two cousins who couldn’t be more different from me if they tried. Dana, the oldest, was a social butterfly who ran for the student council and constantly interrupted my dial-up internet connection to talk to her sixth-grade boyfriend. Inah, the middle child, was a girl genius who often bossed us around but was always willing to share books. Me, I was the baby. I was the quiet one, the shy one, and the one who got easily upset. I liked my things just so and cried while watching Dora the Explorer, imagining all the different ways I could lose my mother. But then again, what eight-year-old didn’t?

My family came to view these tendencies simply as part of who I was. Sure, I liked collecting things and I liked to count them a few times a day. I picked at my skin and pulled out my hair strand by strand. That’s just normal kid stuff. It didn’t matter that these things made it harder to get through the day, or that they were bordering on the unreasonable. They were just me being me, even if they made me feel like a horrible person sometimes.

When you’re 11 and reading one of those “It happened to me!” articles in teen magazines, you never expect to see yourself in them. But one girl’s story rang weirdly true: She wouldn’t let her feet touch the bathroom tiles fully. She would have these random, invasive thoughts about disastrous situations. She’d sing herself songs to distract herself from the need to check things at home when she was already on her way to school. She explained that she had obsessive-compulsive disorder — that these thoughts and habits developed because there was something in her brain that kept causing them.

For years, the question “What’s wrong with me?” had always been rhetorical in my case. But for the first time I began to think that maybe there was an answer, and this story held part of it. It’s been a decade since, and I’m still grateful to have read it, because it showed me that I wasn’t alone, and I wasn’t a sh***y human being. It led me to being open about my frustrations and to seek help, and even find kindred spirits in the likes of Mara Wilson and Jesse Eisenberg.

“It’s a disorder that demands order, a lack of control that takes control.”

I’m a relatively superstitious person. This is proven alone by how I pin this reliance on the abstract on my being a Scorpio. I believe in making wishes on fallen eyelashes, and in lucky charms, and in knocking on wood. I cross my fingers, do tarot readings, and feel weird about opening umbrellas indoors.

It’s silly, but it never hurt anybody. There’s something endearing about this belief in outer forces that tip the world in and out of your favor. And when I get to thinking about it, being obsessive-compulsive is actually kind of similar in a number of ways.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing silly about OCD. You live your life according to guidelines and rituals that don’t make sense. It’s not quirky and it’s not #relateable, unless you have it, of course. It’s irrational and exhausting and it consumes you.

It’s why my hands are dry from excessive hand washing and why I spend hours in a room just making sure I still have every single item I own. It’s why certain images repeat in my head like mental GIFs I can’t scroll past. It’s why I worry myself to the point of anxiety over the smallest things, and why, even when nothing has happened, I sometimes find myself in an unpleasant mood all of a sudden.

It’s a disorder that demands order, a lack of control that takes control. It’s also, oddly enough, driven by faith — strong convictions of the vexing kind. If I do X, Y doesn’t happen. And like superstitions, you know they’re not necessarily true. You just can’t help yourself.

Finding a way to be able to overcome my compulsions and to cope hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learned to take it one day at a time. When I’m stuck in a cycle of opening and closing cabinets, or when I have to do an entire process over from the start because the tiniest mishap has convinced me that everything in the universe will go wrong, I take a breath and remind myself: Life moves differently than this, and things will be fine.

It doesn’t always work, of course. But when it does, it allows me to step back and get a handle on things. The magnified causes for concern disappear or fade into the background, eventually, if I try hard enough. I always have to try.

And if they’re still there, well, I can always knock on wood.

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