Magical Thinking, OCD

Poking the OCD Monster

lesson

I just read that book. I read a lot, so this shouldn’t be a big deal. But this book has magical powers. If you read it, someone you love might die. You can’t be 100% certain that will happen, so you shouldn’t read the book at all. Or so my OCD said.

I bought this collection of stories the day my friend died in a car accident. His sudden death was a painful reminder that life truly is uncertain. That event triggered my worst bout of OCD symptoms, which ultimately led to my seeking help. That was six years ago, and while I’ve certainly gotten much better, I couldn’t shake the connection between that book and that terrible day. I remember reading the timestamp on the receipt and concluding that my friend was dying while I was purchasing the book. There’s likely no truth to this, but I imbued the book with dark magic anyway. The title, I thought, was especially portentous. Here Comes Another (Painful) Lesson.

So I didn’t read the book, and even looking at it made me nervous. Over the years the book remained on my shelf, and then I moved and didn’t bother putting all my books back in their bookcases. I lost track of the book or deliberately forgot about it. More to the point, I purposely didn’t read it.

I don’t know what happened to make me finally do it. I’ve certainly been inspired by the people I interact with on social media. I’ve seen so many people overcome struggles, which made me feel less alone. Also, I believe that the act of posting something publicly is a way for me to hold myself accountable. That’s how I’ve managed to continue meditating for 200 plus days and counting, so I took this approach with the book.

I posted that I was reading the book and then started posting fun quotations from the book and then realized I wasn’t nervous while reading. In fact, I felt a strange sort of calm. I don’t know that doctors recommend this sort of public reckoning, but the approach worked for me. I’m just describing my experience.

While posting these messages, I had moments of feeling too brazen. I’d defiantly type “suck it OCD.” This, of course, made me scared. Don’t poke the OCD monster. Then I realized this was more of the same OCD thinking, so I kept poking the monster. Suck it OCD. Suck it so hard.

And then it happened; I finished the book. It took me about a week, and I made it through with minimal pain. When I was done, though, I cried. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it’s the truth. I had invested so much emotion in the book, and I could finally let it go.

The cover still makes me a little nervous, so I keep it out in the open. The title doesn’t seem so portentous now. I’ve learned a lesson, and it was a good one.

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OCD

Communion

I love reading and likely own more books than I can possibly read in a lifetime. This doesn’t deter me from buying more books, however. Setting aside whether I should talk to someone about my book problem, I’d like to discuss how OCD affects my love of reading. I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and because the universe often allows you to find what you’re looking for (confirmation bias perhaps), I stumbled across this piece about OCD and Reading  by Janet Singer.

OCD is notorious for attaching itself to everything you love. That’s the source of its power. For me, I’m often concerned about losing my support system, my family and friends. I worry about losing them to accidents or disease. When I read, I’m often confronted by trigger words. For a long while, if I saw words like “death” or “cancer” or “heart attack,” I’d immediately have to stop reading and start ritualizing. Even now it’s difficult to write those words. Sometimes whole scenes about tragic events can stop me from reading.

Some might suggest reading more lighthearted books as a cure for what ails me. But that’s not it. Reading for me is a rewarding experience because of the communion I feel with others while doing it. Even explorations of darkness bring light. One feels less alone when reading about struggle. The writer seems to say, “We’re in this together.” There’s a devastating beauty amidst the suffering.

And that word — “communion” — represents another idea that keeps percolating. I’ve been reading quite a bit about language, words, reading and listening, and the recurring theme in all these books and articles is that of communion. Talking and listening, reading and writing, words themselves bring people together.

Here’s one of my favorite lines from When Breath Becomes Air, a neurosurgeon’s meditation on confronting death: “I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion.” That line explains why reading is so important to me, and why I hate when OCD interrupts this intimate exchange. Fortunately, I’m able to read with less ritualizing these days, and that’s wonderful because I need to buy more books.