Magical Thinking

What a Coincidence

I came across an article  about coincidences that got me thinking about OCD and meaning-making. The author argues that individuals who want to ascribe more meaning to the world – those perhaps of a more spiritual bent – weigh coincidences more heavily than others. Statistically speaking, coincidences aren’t so extraordinary, but humans are storytellers who like beginnings, middles, and ends. It’s not enough that you met someone who shares your birthday and believes, as you do, that chipmunks are hell-bent on destroying the world. You had to have met for a reason. Perhaps you should get married.

I might be exaggerating, but I do know a bit about magical thinking and the almost-comfort it brings in regard to OCD. The disorder is, in some ways, about bringing order to chaos. The world is unpredictable, unspeakable tragedies happen, and you can’t control the future. But an OCDer – at least this OCDer – irrationally thinks she can. If I ritualistically check traffic reports, then my loved ones won’t die in car accidents. Of course, this isn’t how the world works, but engaging in the ritual brings a modicum of relief. The relief, however, is so fleeting that you must engage in the ritual over and over again to the point of its becoming debilitating. We know we’re engaging in irrational behavior, but we just can’t stop. The pull of creating peace is just too strong.

It also happens that a coincidence sent me reeling. In fact, the event is so painful that I hate to call it a coincidence; I am a meaning-maker after all. One of my chief fears is losing someone I love in a car accident. Over a lifetime I’ve ritualized about this thousands of times, perhaps tens of thousands. Then it happened, and the finality of it all was too much to bear. It was as if my OCD won. I must not have ritualized enough or it wouldn’t have happened at all. Now I had to ritualize more. And I did. About accidents and all sorts of tragedies. The OCD just got worse, and despite knowing how irrational my thinking was, my desire to keep others safe was just too strong.

If you have a thought thousands of times, it might come true eventually. That doesn’t mean you want it to happen, or that it should happen. But people with OCD ascribe a lot of meaning to their thoughts. Perhaps this is because thinking is such an intimate act. Couple that with a desire to make the world safer for your loved ones, and the development of OCD isn’t so difficult to understand. What I try to remember is sometimes a thought is just a thought.

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Coming Out, OCD

Maybe I Just Like Closets

I came out of the closet shortly after grad school, though I knew I was gay since I was 14. I had attended a creative writing program, and for my thesis I wrote both fiction and nonfiction, though you might say I simply wrote fiction. While there, I admired one of my instructors for her candid portrayals of herself in her stories and essays. She was real in ways I wasn’t. I also took a course that dealt with the way writing can heal trauma. While I don’t feel that dealing with my sexuality was traumatic, I embraced the idea of writing as healing. I finally came out because I knew I couldn’t live an authentic life while in the closet.

Perhaps I don’t learn my lessons well, or maybe I just like closets, but life handed me another opportunity to come out. As with my sexuality, I long knew about my OCD. I’ve had it since childhood, though I didn’t have a name for it until I was a teenager. I did what you’re not supposed to do: I diagnosed myself. I’m not sure how I put the pieces together, but I remember seeing the book Brain Lock and recognizing its truth. I remember reading a bit of it, furtively, in the bookstore before becoming so afraid of what it said that I put it down and snuck away.

I stayed in the closet for another 15 years or so when a tragedy finally forced me out. I lost a friend to a car accident, and that amped up my obsessions and compulsions in ways I’d never experienced before. I constantly checked traffic reports when I knew a family member was out driving. I called my folks every night to make sure they were still alive. I literally grew sick with worry, enduring a bout of the flu that included a trip to the ER and an expensive IV. Finally, I broke down one night while talking on the phone with my mom. That’s when I sought help.

Now I’m fully out of the closet and able to share my story without reservation. I’ve always admired people who, like my professor, can speak authentically. It took some time for me to realize it, but I’ve been trying hard to be just like them. In a way, I’ve finally received my master’s degree.