You think too much.
You take everything way too seriously.
I can recall the first time I was made aware of the way my thoughts seemed to wind themselves–of their own volition–around me. A single thought could loop once, twice, dozens of times around me, until I was bound within it.
I was twelve, and my friend Jane asked, “Why do you constantly harp on things?”
Her words were a slap.
I harp on things? The thought hooked itself into the meat of my brain and began its familiar revolution.
How I harped on those words, how I begged Jane to explain. “What do you mean?”
She was angry; mean. “You just…obsess. Over everything.”
Worry wart, my family called me.
I can still feel the way the words what if pecked at my brain like a flock of red-winged black birds, the day I found a used condom on the playground. My curiosity and poor impulse control led me to poke it with a stick. The instant the stick touched that gooey blob of latex, my hand seemed to vibrate with contagion. I knew about AIDS. I knew how babies were made. But my child-brain did a funny thing. A series of uncontrolled thoughts emerged in my mind:
What if I get pregnant?
What if I get AIDS?
What if I’m going to die?
I went home and confided in my grandmother about what happened. I told her about my thoughts.
“Did you touch it with your bare hand?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Well then, you’re fine.”
But I didn’t feel fine. Those worries wound around and around me, and nothing would stop them. Soon, I found myself blinking a specific number of times between the change of minutes on a digital clock. Or challenging myself to put each item of clothing on within fifteen seconds. Or avoiding touching certain things in the house, because they were contaminated by some invisible thing that could kill me. In my mind, the consequence of not doing these things would be the death of me or someone I loved.
It wasn’t until I was 26 years old and living in Chicago that I discovered the root of those thoughts. In the fall of 2007, my thoughts took on a brand-new form. Every time I drove over an especially deep pot hole, I thought, “What if I just ran over a person?” I would drive around the block, sometimes multiple times, looking for a person in the street. I would check my car for blood spatter. Look beneath it.
Once or twice I even checked the news for stories about a hit and run.
Of course, a rational line of thought would go something like this: Don’t you think you’d see a person if you hit them? Don’t you think bystanders would stop? Don’t you think you would be tracked down? Wouldn’t there be blood? Wouldn’t your car be dented?
To that, my brain would say, What if I didn’t see them? What if I’m in the middle of a psychotic break and I couldn’t see the person I ran over? What if the police are after me? What if I’m only imagining that I don’t see blood or dents?
The thing other people cannot understand is that these are not like typical thoughts. They don’t rise and fall, they don’t respond to logic, they don’t leave room for other things, they can’t be willed or distracted away. I often describe the way the thoughts manifest inside my mind by using the example of a scene from the move, The Aviator. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the role of the American business magnate, Howard Hughes. The movie illustrates Hughes’ struggle with OCD, and in one memorable scene, he repeats, “Show me all the blue prints,” over and over. My thoughts are very much like that. They fire inside my head rapidly, back to back. There have been times when I’ve been so fatigued from obsessive thinking that my day-to-day functioning suffers until I withdraw from others.
In the Fall of 2007, no matter where I was or what I was doing, I worried whether I had killed someone with my car and was wanted by the authorities. I knew that it didn’t make sense, but the fear was real and unrelenting. Every rational thought was eclipsed by another what if.
After weeks of feeling as if I were on the precipice of a psychotic break (and, perhaps I was!), I met with a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Not everyone appreciates labels but learning that I have OCD was one of the most liberating moments of my life. I knew that what I was experiencing has a name, it is common, I am not alone, and there is treatment. I started taking Sertraline right away, and for the first time, I felt the way I imagined most other people do.
My obsessive thinking can be maladaptive, yes. Medication is not a cure-all, and when I’m under an unusual amount of stress, my brain will find something unhealthy to harp on.
But even beyond OCD, my thought process is rigorous and strange, and it can lead me to the unusual and delightful places that are directly responsible for the things I create.
For instance, just last week a friend brought me an injured kitten. He was a fuzzy grey ball no bigger than a bolillo, and the tip of his tiny nose had been shorn clean off. I took him to the veterinarian where they weighed him (he was .8 lbs) and discovered that he was full of maggots. The little bugger was sedated, cleaned out, stitched up, and sent on his way with me until his adopter could pick him up the following day.
I had him with me for less than 24 hours, but I was impressed by his chutzpah and will to live. It was as if he had no sense of the pain he should be in. He was jolly. Ready for life.
His brief presence in my life started up my rigorous and strange thinking.
I contemplated the circumstances of suffering. His, and my own.
I thought about the fact that he had possibly been thrown from the window of a car, or mowed over unintentionally by a city worker cutting grass in the ditch he was found in. One possibility malevolent, the other random.
I thought about the fact that my parents hadn’t wanted me, that I became a burden. Not unlike the kitten, I was cast away, helpless. In my helplessness, I was hurt both intentionally and unintentionally. My nose wasn’t shorn off, but I have carried the invisible wounds, the writhing maggots of Chronic PTSD. And yet, like the kitten, I have a jolly way about me. A will to live.
I thought about the way pain gets transmitted, and even after we have stopped the cycle, there are the types of pain we can’t stop from being introduced into the world. The untimely death of a child. Cancer. Spontaneous acts of violence.
I take responsibility for the multi-generational pain I’ve been charged with healing, but what about the pain of a kitten in a ditch? Someone said, “You should go look and see if there are more.” After considering that, I said, “Well, there are always more.” There are always kittens in a ditch. Even after every last one of us has healed our own pain, pain will find a way to start the cycle somewhere again.
I am not a religious person (though I do have a BA in Religious Studies from Naropa University), but while I was contemplating the very beginnings of suffering, the thought of Eden emerged in my mind.
All sexist connotations aside, the concept of Original Sin finally made sense to me.
I wrote out a few lines of a poem:
Who should bear the weight
of Nature’s cruelty?
Was it Eve’s originality
that bungled Eden?
The pleasant stasis of Eden replaced
by earthly disequilibrium.
The apple, destined to be
Humankind’s hot potato.
The hunger born of its taste
The mother of invention.
Did Eden, too, have
Hops, Poppies, Sex
Ready for the taking?
Our earthly desire to explore
Are they all just apple seeds?
Of course, I don’t believe in the story of Eden as truth, but it is an interesting way of understanding the nature of earthly experience. We have free will to interact with one another and our flora and fauna, and because humans are all capable of Good and Evil, there will always be the transmission of pain on earth. We can’t delete it from our existence.
Some might say it’s absurd that all of this was brought to the forefront of my consciousness by an .8-pound kitten.
But this is just how my brain works.
In my blog, I will share the products of my obsessive thoughts, both maladaptive and creative. I do hope you’ll interact with me.