“People in Boston seem overly worried about fire,” my coworker said.
It was a strange sentence, but made sense in the context of the conversation. I had an anecdote to offer, something to add, and it slipped out before I could stop it.
“I have to take a picture of my candle before I leave the house so I know that it’s really out.”
I wanted to take it back. Another coworker remarked that she knew a good social worker or therapist, before laughing it off. The reception was what I hoped it would be, given that what I said seemed too insane to tell other people.
Every morning, if I’m the last person to leave the house, I pull up the camera on my phone and take several pictures of the candle, which stays covered by an oversized silver lid when it’s not lit. Sometimes I have to do this several times, take the pictures. I then leave my apartment and make sure that the door is locked. I have to be mentally present in that moment, jiggle the handle 5-6 times, or I’ll end up having to come back to make sure it’s locked once again. When I drive away and I’m sitting at the light at the bottom of the hill, a feeling of unease creeps into my mind and chest. Once I get out of the radius of the house, start to make my way elsewhere, I can usually get the thoughts of the candle and door out of my head. That’s when I’m free and clear.
To date, I’ve made two drivers turn around, and they’ve both understood when I’ve told them that the reason, which is simply that I don’t want to burn the house down. Sometimes I’ve recently lit the candle, but other times, it hasn’t been aflame for several days. I don’t know what I think will happen, okay that’s not true. I’m afraid that the candle will magically become lit if I don’t check it, and that it will burn the house down to the ground, to nothing but a pile of ashes and cinders, and that it will be all my fault.
I’ve lived with some version of OCD for a while. In middle school we changed classrooms after every period, and we’d carry our things with us. I’d have to check under the desk several times to make sure that I got everything, even if I’d only taken out a notebook and a pen during the class. Maybe no one noticed me, or they just thought I was being thorough. One of the symptoms of anxiety is that you always think that people are looking at you and making judgments, when in fact people are often off in their own little worlds, and they don’t care what you do; it’s wildly narcissistic that way.
These are simpler things, and in some ways my OCD is a blessing. It helps me to not forget things when I leave a place, although sometimes I’m so distracted with other thoughts that I do forget things, or I forget to check, and I get a jolt in my chest that makes my breath shorten. I think the worst part is knowing that I’d never leave a candle lit. I’ve never come back to my apartment to find the flame still alive, still dancing in the wind, still giving off light and the faint smell of beeswax. These thoughts are relatively tame in comparison to some of the thoughts that grab hold of my mind and don’t let go.
Some people laugh when I tell them I have OCD. I’m a scatterbrain, and I’m always misplacing or forgetting things. My room looks like someone dropped a live grenade in it, and I’ve been known to put the milk in the cabinet and the bowl in the fridge. My OCD doesn’t apply to things like that; it manifests itself in a completely different way.
I won’t get into some of the thoughts that grab a hold of my mind with a white-knuckle grip. I’m not ready for that, at least not yet. I know that when one of these thoughts starts to occupy my mind, I don’t notice it at first. It seems innocuous, until it has the chance to really blossom, to grow legs. Once it takes hold, the thought takes on a life of its own. It becomes the last thing I think about before I fall asleep, if I’m able to sleep at all. It becomes the first thing I think about when I wake up, and I don’t even have time to ease into my morning. It’s as if someone placed the thought in my head overnight, just to make sure I wouldn’t be able to escape it when my eyes open. I’ve had months where I just don’t sleep, or the quality of sleep is very compromised. I understand what my friend said to me when his Brooklyn apartment became infested with bed bugs. He looked at me with tired eyes and simply said, “I lost the month of October.”
When I think about the thing that’s gripped my mind, it gives me that familiar jolt of anxiety in both my brain and my chest. A sense of uneasiness or tightness takes over my body for a brief minute, and it’s hard to shake. You’d think that the more you actually think about something, the more you let it float around in your brain, that it would start to lose its potency. Sometimes this happens, but I’ve also had months where I just can’t stop thinking about something. It makes me feel like I’m losing my grip.
A lack of control is what usually defines these thoughts. These thoughts usually focus on a situation with potentially ugly consequences in which I’m powerless to influence the outcome one way or another. Another post I’ve written but not published discusses a lack of control, and how terrifying it is to realize how little control you have over anything in your life. You never know when some particular thought is going to take over you mind and hold you hostage; you just can’t control it.
I don’t know how I’ve kicked these thoughts in the past. I guess they run their course, and you move on. You can try to be rational about it, tell your brain to think about something else, but that rarely works when you’re in the grip of some extra-strength OCD. Therapy helps, as it does with most things. Talking about it can be useful, and it helps to have friends who are able to withhold judgment, who just sit and listen and are patient, even though you’re telling them the same story for the hundredth time. My therapist suggested giving the problem to God, and letting him figure it out. That may not be a technique for the secular crowd, but it has worked wonders for me.
People I’ve dated have asked me from time to time what I’m thinking about, what’s occupying my mind. They seem oddly confused or even frustrated when I say, “Nothing.” That’s my favorite answer to this question because it means that I’m not anywhere else but right here, right now. My most pleasant moments in life are when my mind is clear, when I’m allowed to just be in the moment, without a thought in my head.