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.

Running with Horses

Michelangelo’s depiction of Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel
Weeping prophet with the puffy eyes:
I've run with men and am at my end.
Tell me how you ran with horses;
tell me how you stood to run.

Prophet sitting in Zion's rubble:
did you see Messiah weeping
in the broken city's puddles?
Did He lift you, man of tears?

Broken prophet dragged by crowds,
did you see heaven's horses' flight?
Arms bound by men, spirit alight,
did you hear the saviour sing?

The Patience of Bread

To the toddler eye, yeast bubbles for pure delight
and the lump of dough is to be savoured now.
Try as I might, I cannot explain
why that treasure must go to wait in the sun,
why the instant must make way for the delayed.

I too cannot understand
kingdom yeast's delay in them, in me,
cannot let go of moment's feast
without the smarting of loss, although I know bread
and how it emerges, transfigured,
a wonder of bubbling life.

The Weeping Prophet

Rembrandt van Rijn, “Jeremiah weeps over the destruction of Jerusalem”, c.1630
To be a pariah takes only hate
and the unshaken conviction that you,
above all others,
are right.

To be an outcast you only need yell
when a listening ear
might salvage a soul.

To be Jeremiah, you need more than that:
not only conviction, not only the truth
but the burden of weeping,
the burden of love,

the knowledge that kingdoms are built of people,
that people and kingdoms are bound to fall,
and yet to love them all.

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.

Lost Things

In a house where
daily I lose, misplace or break
what really, in eternity's view,
means little, yet
has power to make or break my day,

I understand
the urge to ask Saint Anthony where
my keys are, or my glasses, or
any other easily hidden thing.
God in heaven is surely
too busy with the business of souls
and perhaps too quick to point out that
my soul might be freer without
these Lost Things dragging it down.
Saint Anthony, I expect,
might take a kinder view,
being dead, and having this
in his official saintly purview.

And yet at times
when I might ask a saint and not a God, I recall
the stirring way He painted the heart
of the widow after her mite,
and the shepherd's flight,
and how far He Himself came
for every small, disposable
needless thing on two legs that roamed
foolishly, willfully, where it did not belong,
and I fancy
that God in heaven might
have eyes for lost things as small
and needless as mine.

Freeway Towns (After Kenneth Slessor)

Freeway towns
with your dusty browns

and shady grass
all moving past,

with parks astride
the freeway's side

and hearts that know
and streets that glow

in summer sun
at half past one,

that tolerate
our hasty gait

while moving on
to where we're from:

you watch it all,
while freeway's call

denies the chance
to meet your glance.

The moment gone,
we part unknown.

I wish I knew
the half of you.

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.

Christmas Day: Let all the earth rejoice

You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.

Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.

Isaiah 55:12-13

Joy does not come readily to me. I am more comfortable with the solemnity of Lent and Advent than with the rejoicing of Easter and Christmas. I need these seasons to remind me that rejoicing should be part of my story – a significant part – yet I find seasons of waiting and longing easier to digest.

Yet the journey of Advent teaches me that, instead of accepting that this is as good as it gets, I should be longing with creation for all things to be made new. It also teaches me to see in Jesus the object of all our longing coming to make His home among us. And while I do not see Jesus face to face I can see Him in every face transfigured by His presence, and I can catch in everything that is exquisitely joy-inspiring the kind of beauty that He will bring with every footstep when He returns.

If I find it hard to rejoice, Jesus has space for me in His grace. Yet He also teaches me that I should rejoice nonetheless, if nothing else as a declaration that all things are being made new and that the old order of death is slowly dying with Life returning in its stead.

In a year of death, longing and waiting, we need this kind of deep, come-what-may rejoicing. We need it whatever lies ahead, because we need to train our hearts for the Joy that will one day trump everything else that has been.