The Story of a Brain: My life with Big O

As an school-aged child, I was very orderly. My family would say, immaculate. Everything had its place and I noticed it anything was out of place, even if it was only by a centimetre. I always kept my hair neat, patting it down with water to keep it from sticking up at the back. My family called it my “water spout”. The jokes that I had OCD were only meant as that: jokes. But they were common, and I made them as much as others did. It was a way of labelling something that seemed cute but didn’t make sense. What made less sense but no-one else saw was what happened in my head, sometimes at night, sometimes simply when no-one was looking. That was what came first, before the neatness, and it would continue, and worsen, until one day, at age 28, it would be given the label that others had used as a joke. I had obsessive compulsive disorder.

But it wasn’t the neatness that showed I had OCD. The neatness was simply one of many coping strategies, and in my case it was the most mild. While I am concerned about cleanliness and hygiene, I’ve never had compulsive cleaning rituals. In fact, my compulsions are so invisible to most people that the psychiatrist who originally diagnosed me in said that I had none. But I can remember when they began, the compulsions: finger-tapping rhythms so my brain couldn’t make obscenities and blasphemies out of song-lyrics; the words I would repeat on loop in my head to avoid invasive thoughts; controlling my hair so I didn’t get ridiculed like the boy in my class whose hair made an egg shape on his head; the mental preparedness I needed when going to the bathroom at night to avoid accidentally summoning bloody Mary in the mirror without wanting to; the constant checking and rechecking of my thoughts that I would do while lying in bed at night in case I committed the unforgiveable sin without choosing to.

None of these anyone saw, and none of them I told to anyone. Why would I? They wouldn’t understand. It was only when I was in my 20s and the invasive thoughts had become darker, more constant, harder to control, that I finally began a process of therapy that saw me diagnosed, first with depression (a common comorbidity, and often the first to show itself to others), then with “Big O”, the kind of OCD that involves obsessions and primarily mental, rather than physical, compulsions used to control them. The neatness – decreasingly important as I got older – was a means of order, a means of control when my own head was far from controllable. I think this is the case for most people with OCD: rarely is it simply a need to keep things clean; it’s a way of keeping in check the invasive, unwanted and uncontrollable thoughts that the disorder will bring about. Many people are meticulous; that’s not OCD. The real thing is much more terrifying and, because OCD doesn’t affect executive function and often plagues highly moral, intelligent and capable people, is very, very well-hidden. We know that what we think and do is irrational, so the last thing we want to happen is for you to see it, even if it means going it completely alone. In the end I couldn’t go it alone. I value relationship, people and honesty too much. I opened up. But it took over a decade and who knows how much damage to my brain’s processing systems to get there. Many still do not ever get there.

One of the things I learnt to do over time was to turn my internal world to poetry. It helped me give voice to the things I couldn’t talk about in direct language, and it helped me give order to chaos. While labelling things as “a bit OCD” is profoundly unhelpful because it is almost never accurate, knowing I have OCD has been generally liberating: it gives a name to what for most of my life was terrifying in its namelessness. It also tells me that I am not what my obsessions tell me I am. In fact, we generally obsess over fears that we will do what is least in our moral code to do. That’s to say, our obsessions don’t reflect what we are like; they reflect what we are not like.

Yet my moral code is not what comforts me in the end. It is the knowledge that I do not need to fear the worst of myself. God has seen not only the worst I have done or thought but also the worst I am capable of, and He loves me and has made a way in Himself for me to be freed from the worst of me. When we try to fight our obsessions we strengthen them by revisiting and reinforcing the neural pathway. When we say to God, “You see this, and you are okay with me,” the pathway is weakened because we begin to teach our brains another story to tell.

My story is a work in progress. Now I am learning how to be a husband and a dad with OCD, and this is probably hardest for my family. They teach me grace every day. I will tell you more with time about what my brain looks like, the less frightening it becomes to do so. But let’s start with this: OCD is not a story of compulsive neatness but a story of a brain learning to defuse the explosive and invasive dread of its own thoughts. This is the part of OCD that you will never see, but it’s the part that most needs your understanding, most needs your love.

Peace and the Thorn

“Mellow out,” they say. If I only could.

Adolescent patient quoted by Dr Michael Piechowski
Three times, the Apostle, says he cried,
yet three times denied:
within his side the unnamed thorn remained.
To fester? To infect? No, to be the site of grace,

for only this reply came: My grace
is sufficient; in your weakness will my power be complete.
And when He said weakness He meant
all the foibles and flaws you could name,
the whole litany of human frailty -
all the deal that He assumed
when He was flesh and frail like us.

And so we hope,
and like naked ones in the cold
crave to be clothed.
I for one shiver with shame
when laid bare by how stabbing thoughts
and fears betray me, how I wince
within, without, at every twinge that divides us,
every failed aim at peace.

Though I long
for numbness, or the certainty of some, I turn
in naked longing and set
the beating of an unquiet mind
to the slow, steady peace at the heart of Christ,
to the quiet words of the Word Made Flesh:
All shall be well. All this shall be well.
You too shall be well.

Valedictions

Once the new year came
in a traffic jam, at Borneo's mouth,
when the crowds who'd fled early to escape the rush
now bid each other a happy one
between their cars across the street.

Another time it came while I
and a friend were lost in the midst of things,
driving from one house to another where
the champagne was chilled
and the view guaranteed.
Instead we drove
through a ditch and came
out at a set of lights where the lights
skipped across the shop rooftops.

Now I try convincing my
three boys that there's no party on,
while they fight through bedtime, crazed
from a day of irregular food and cars.
And where many can't wait to see it go
and say good riddance to the year that's been,
I suspect I'll say good night and catch
the fireworks from my sleep.

But after years and years and years
of deserts, each new year the same,
fighting to smile while others raved,
to see the evening slip to sleep
while my children slowly do the same,
I cannot say good riddance, only,
Thank You, thank You Lord.

The other side to success

Year 12 results come out today in my state, after a year in which no-one would have chosen to sit their final high school exams. I live through Year 12 results every year as a teacher and this year because of people close to me receiving results I’m experiencing it more close to home. This has given me pause to reflect on my own experience of getting my results 19 years ago.

I’ve been thinking in particular about something we tell all our students every year at my school: that “the number doesn’t define you”. Had someone told me that at the time, it would have sounded to me like a pat, “you’re all winners” kind of platitude. I also would have thought that it was something you said to prepare people for doing badly, but if they did well then it was fine to let it define them.

What people never tell you is that you’ll have to process how to handle the significance of your result whatever it is, high or low. If it’s low, or simply average, it might mean an adjustment of expectations in the immediate term. It might mean a change of preferences for tertiary study. It might mean a loss of dreams. But if you do well and you still let the result define you, then you’ll have to deal with the neverending question of how well is good enough. If you come to expect perfection, it’s never enough. Even if you attain perfection once, there’ll always be the challenge to maintain it, and that will either never happen or it will destroy relationships, mental health, and all elements of life that make you slow down and show grace to yourself and others. In other words, you might get a perfect score in your work but everything else will have to suffer, and you will probably find that it really isn’t worth it.

My VCE results got me into the course of my choice and meant that my uni paid for me to study with them. It also set a standard for myself in my head that I spent over a decade fighting to maintain. I still struggle with the pressure to seek perfection and to see no middle ground between perfection and failure. My academic results led to panic attacks throughout uni that then ate into my personal life and made panic my primary way of operating in all challenging aspects of life. And when I became a teacher, and then a husband, and then a dad, I entered realms of life in which hard work could never mean perfection. I couldn’t control my students’ results. I could never be a perfect husband or dad. I would always have to drop some balls some of the time. I may never be in the 99th percentile of life again and that needed to be okay.

The truth is that our English word “perfect” has lost track of its own meaning. It means “complete”. The Greek version comes from the word “telos” which means an end point, a destination. It refers to a point of arrival. Something is perfect when it has finished its job. I will not be perfect until my race is finished, and God willing that’s still a few years away. And the thing that will conclude my race and make it perfect is not my achievement but my dependence on grace. Grace enables me to love myself and others. Grace enables me to get up again in the morning, and to turn around and face my family again after I’ve blown a fuse or said something I regret. Grace makes my failures into successes and makes my successes into means of further grace not just for myself but for others. Without grace, I am all sound and fury, whatever number academic bodies attach to that sound, however socially acceptable the fury. With grace, everything – everything – is turned towards a perfect end.

That’s what I wish they told me about success 19 years ago. That’s why the number – whatever it is – must not define you. Only grace is worth that much.

Ubi Caritas: For World Mental Health Day

What happens, he wonders,
shattered by the mess, by the day,
by the constancy of demands,
by the ever-present lesson of patience,
by the daily failure to learn this patience -

What happens, he asks, when my love is broken?

Nothing happens. The day goes on,
all is reset as night arrives;
all but the weight that pulls at his shoulders,
that sags like his soul has a leak in its middle.
Nothing happens;
night is as long and restless as the one before,
and morning will come with its worries anew.

But this still happens. The glory happens,
though it does not shout or cry.
Day on day, God dwells in this mystery:
that love can wake up
tomorrow
and do
what love has done today.

Birthday Gifts

My eldest gathers an ecosystem of treasures
like a store of botanical specimens for the apocalypse, or
a nest for lockdown hibernation.
And I, wandering with him and his brothers,
viewing the world like they do, at ground level or just above,
begin to spy jungles, mini-forests, whole worlds,
grooves and knots, stalactites of sap,
and breathe Thankyou
with the air
that still pushes my lungs to live.
I live.

Frontline (For the pandemic teachers)

Check temperature before you leave;
Second guess that winter sniffle.

Hand-sanitiser with your markers,
Enter the ever-shifting classroom space.

Greet the students in masks.
Watch attendance, but don't be afraid.

Be calm. Reassure. You may mention the war
But know how to read the faces before you.

Keep life normal
When nothing is normal.

Plan.
(Nothing will go to plan.)

Admit when you are not okay
But face the battle nonetheless.

Adapt and keep
The children safe.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Conversation with my son

At the sink he perches
atop his two-stepped seat to watch
a morning routine that's utter
prose for me, discovery for him:
how I wet
the shaving brush, lather soap,
then smooth the jawline
of my beard, and how
I brush my teeth without
protest, without needing
to eat the toothpaste with each brush.
And then how I open
the mirrored cabinet and take
my pill-cutter, split
Escitalopram in two, and scoop
water into my mouth to swallow.
"What will you swallow, Dad?"
How to answer?
"Medicine," I say, "to help
the chemicals in my brain."
"Maybe," he says, "when I am bigger,
I will take some medicine too."
Oh my love. "I hope not,"
is all I can say,
"because then you won't have
the sickness I have."
And as talk turns to other
two-year-old things,
my father heart churns
with the weight of this,
while pandemic and cabin fever
test the power of the pills, the rage
of being Dad drives the nerves
that splash water on my morning face.