I'm not sure how science describes it but
sometimes a neuron
seeking safe passage yet
enters black space
where nothing is thought
as reprieve from thinking,
feeling too much.
And in that space
is only static
only the humming of
Emptied, what can
speak or console?
What can reconnect?
Devils silenced, but so
the voice of angels.
In this deadness no strong man
need cast the demon from the house.
Only the Lamb
who was slain
can lie down and comfort
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.
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
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.
Wash your hands; don’t touch your face.
Did I wash my hands, and did
I touch my face after? Before?
Don’t be afraid but be aware.
Wash your hands; don’t touch your face.
These sightless microbes swim in air.
Your nose is dripping. Touch your face.
Wash your hands. Don’t be afraid.
It all may come to nothing; don’t
Touch your face. Now wash your hands.
…he hath made me to dwell in darkness, as those that have been long dead.
(Psalm 143:3 KJV)
my brother and I sleeping on
fold-out beds in our grandparents’ living room,
I found myself awake
well past the usual hour, and
my thoughts like the room plunged
in obsessive black, save
for a red electric glow from some
unidentified source, I knew no
comfort to tether me
to the physical facts of things – that here
I was, and there my brother was, and
upstairs my grandparents slept and
somewhere out there was the lapping of the sea,
the daggers my nighttime mind turned inwards
and the sheer obsidian
absence of light,
and though morning and my brother’s voice
restored me to earth, the night
with its limitless black save
that relentless red glow
have clung to me since
as the knowledge of Hell.
I must have a light
that can dispel such a dark.
…you will not find my actual life in these pages so much as my thoughts on the graces Our Lord has given me. I have reached the stage now where I can afford to look back; in the crucible of trials from within and without, my soul has been refined, and I can raise my head like a flower after a storm and see how the words of the Psalm have been fulfilled in my case: “The Lord is my Shepherd and I shall want nothing…”
St Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul
My brother led me to prayer,
a child, afraid in the dark.
My sister taught me, downcast, to say,
Why so downcast, O my soul?
My parents taught me to ask and search
yet not be controlled by the heart’s wild waves.
My teachers fed my questions
and books sustained my mind.
Lewis taught me magic
and Love deep, deep in time.
Robert Frost was early rhythm;
Eliot and Herbert came later on.
Auden taught me the happy eye,
the sober perspective on the folded lie,
Kierkegaard the lily’s glory
and the grace that strikes in anxious thought.
Bunyan and Luther and Thérèse
knew the scruples that strike, and the way –
the Little Way at Jesus’ feet –
so once again I’m led to pray.
My wife has taught me the open heart;
now my home and hearth expand.
O Love that finds me everywhere:
Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.
Well, today is the last day of Advent, and so it is time for me to wrap up my Advent story for the year. If you’ve been following the story so far, you can read the last instalment below. But, if you’re new to this year’s story you can read the rest of it, plus my two previous Advent Stories, “The Gift” and “Pageant”, in this free downloadable PDF of the three stories, together for the first time. I hope the stories can be a blessing to you and to anyone else you choose to share them with. Have a blessed Christmas, celebrating the goodness of God in coming to live as one of us.
When the police officer visited him in his hospital room and showed him a photo that he did not recognise – seemingly of the man the police suspected – she said, “I didn’t think he was your man.” And then she had spoken to his parents, who stood at the foot of the bed. “He’s already confessed,” she said. “And there’s not a chance that he was the man your son saw.”
And, while the explanation helped – that the man at 12 Burden Street had been killed by his ex-wife’s new boyfriend, who knew the house well and had no need of directions from a thirteen-year-old in the street – and while the panic had subsided and the ghost-court had gone into recess, it had all only been replaced by a new flurry of unfamiliar action: group therapy sessions, individual therapy sessions, silent and unsteady walks around the hospital grounds, rooms filled with pamphlets and booklets with names like, Understanding OCD and The Way Out of Obsessions and Compulsions. Sometimes, when his parents thought he was asleep, he saw them reading the material together, stony-faced, whispering concerns to one another. But when he was awake they would tauten out their voices, as though stretching tired muscles, and say unnatural things like, “How are you going, big fella?” or, “Can we get you anything, honey?”, calling him names they never normally called him and adopting faces that said, Everything’s okay, which they had never felt the need to say before for never having feared that it wasn’t.
And then there had been Laura’s visit, with a bunch of flowers and a card from his class, her dad awkwardly in tow behind her. She had perched next to him at the end of the couch in his room and together they had tried to find words to say and found none, finding only a silence that was, for that moment, the most comforting thing anyone had said. And then she had leant over to hug him and he had felt her breath in his ear and smelt her shampoo and when she left his heart could not stop pounding and he had no idea where to begin thinking.
And Pa, too, always Pa, with books that he had “found somewhere” (the endless supply of books that man had! how did they all fit in his caravan, 0r in the handful of boxes in the attic?). Pa, with old jokes and hand-me-down stories. Pa, with, “Well, you’ve got your two front teeth, so what else do you want for Christmas this year?” And his dad saying, “You’ll be home by Christmas, the doctors reckon.” And his mum saying, “Greg, they’re not sure.” And Pa saying, “Well, we’ll just have to throw a party for you wherever you are.”
And then silence, a breather in the afternoon when they left him alone, no flurry of action, no therapists, no doctors. And then he would take out the treasury of stories that Pa had given him that night, and he would look again, again, at the strange, bewitching words of the Christina Rossetti poem Pa had found for him to read:
The end of all things is at hand. We all
Stand in the balance trembling as we stand;
Or if not trembling, tottering to a fall.
The end of all things is at hand.
O hearts of men, covet the unending land!
O hearts of men, covet the musical,
Sweet, never-ending waters of that strand!
While Earth shows poor, a slippery rolling ball,
And Hell looms vast, a gulf unplumbed, unspanned
And Heaven flings wide its gates to great and small,
The end of all things is at hand.
The end of all things? he would wonder. Or only the end of the ghosts, of the fear, of hospital rooms and this newly-named, old familiar thing they called OCD? Hell looms vast, he read. He knew that well. But Heaven flings wide its gates to great and small. Great and small. Which was he? The vacuum was great, and he was small.
The silence always passed before he could complete the thought. Soon there was a parent, or a concerned aunt, or cousin, or a therapist or nurse coming to check something or give some reassuring thought, and the poem would have to wait, expectant somewhere hovering around his bed. He knew he would return to it soon, as soon as he had the chance, and that it promised an answer if only he could listen, and promised something more comforting than sleep, if only he could grasp it beneath the sheets and hold it to him as he lay.
“What do you want for Christmas?” the nurses always asked. Everyone asked that, as though Christmas presents alone could remedy all ills. Every year before this one he had had a wish-list that he’d subtly present to his parents, mostly books. This year, he had no thoughts, except one; and silently each time he would say that same thought, deep in his mind, where only something truly silent and reverberating could be heard. “No ghosts,” he would say, half-statement, half-request. “No more ghosts, please, this year.”
There was nothing else he could tell Pa now.
Nothing else, because words could not convey the kind of knowledge he now held. It was knowledge of an utterly certain though intangible kind, yet it carried with it also the equally palpable certainty that none would believe it. He could not tell you how he knew, yet he did know: that the man he had directed to Burden Street had been the killer, that he was in some unavoidable way to blame for the death that had taken place there, and that his life was now forfeit because of what he had done. Indeed, he had already known this in some way prior to this moment; known, that is, that his life was forfeit because of something unspeakable within him. Was that not the reason his classmates mocked him, why they called him “Savage”, why that name always seemed so apt for him, why Laura kept her distance, or why he knew he had to keep his distance from her? It all made sense. It always had made sense. Yet, like Cassandra before the fall of Troy, what he knew was never to be believed, however disastrous the consequences.
And so silently he took the book from Pa, said, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing,” and made to get ready for bed. If Pa was unconvinced, he said nothing, only paused briefly in the doorway to add, “You know where I am if you want to chat.” It was one of his common lines – whenever he could see hints of unhappiness in Philip’s face – and Philip would reply, “In the backyard”. Only, not tonight. He said, “Yes,” and looked at the cover of the book.
He had read A Christmas Carol some years ago, and images from it were still burnt into his mind, most powerfully the Ghost of Christmas Future, that figure who was all the more terrifying for being silent and invisible. Yet he was haunted too by the image of Marley, the ghost whose face first appeared in the door knocker and who Philip somehow expected to see each time he went to his own front door. He had been haunted too by the ghosts that had hovered in the night air after Marley’s appearance to Scrooge, those souls tormented by unresolved wrongdoing, doomed to linger in that tortured half-life of theirs, a life that, for months after, Philip had believed himself condemned to.
No-one else knew why. At school, he was without fault. Yet that faultlessness was a trial to maintain, especially when it was nothing like the world within. And now, he felt sure, the world within had caught up with events outside of him. The murderer inside him had crept out and taken hold of circumstances, even against his conscious will, to take another life, just as he had done so many times in his own head, when mocked, when ridiculed, when set up for failure again and again. Each time he had wished death upon another: each of those times had culminated in this moment when a murderer had seen him in the street and, knowing at first sight the murderous kinship they held, had asked him for direction. There was no doubt in Philip’s mind: there would be ghosts for him tonight, and ghosts more brutal than any that Scrooge had seen.
The court was in session. The witnesses, ghoulish but familiar all of them, were summoned one by one. First, the swimming instructor Philip had wished dead when he was nine. Second, the emergency teacher who always found reason to tell him off when he was in Grade Six. Third, a convoy of his peers. Fourth, Laura. She could not even speak. All she could do was point at him. And then, fifth, the Burden Street Stranger. And sixth, the dead man at Number 12 who, though Philip had never seen, was emblazoned in his mind. He had no face, only eyes, and the eyes stared into Philip’s.
Seated at the head of the court was the judge. He too was faceless yet saw everything. And when the witnesses had all spoken he raised his gavel and beat Philip’s resounding judgment into the table, into the earth below. There was nothing Philip could do. Panicked, he ran from his bed. Only water could save him, if even that would do.
Hurriedly, he entered the bathroom and slammed the door, stripping his pyjamas from his body, now drenched in condemning sweat. The sweat knew. The bathroom mirror knew. He did not wait for the water to heat before standing under it. He did not close his eyes. He simply stared through the shower screen at the sight of his face in the basin mirror. The water gathered around his face. The shower screen began to mist. Still Philip stared. Still the face and the mirror knew.
He barely heard Sarah knock. He barely had the presence of mind to cover himself as she came in. He barely registered what she said; was it, “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before”? Perhaps. At least he gave up covering himself then, and let her enter the water to take him out.
And then, “Mum, Dad.” Yes, she called, “Mum, Dad.”
And where were they? Did they come straight away? Draped in towels, he felt himself be taken. He felt the couch beneath him. He heard his mother say, “Dad, can you keep an eye on him while…”
And then the phone. It was a noisy phone. The numbers always beeped when you touched them. He heard her speak but not her words. “Easy there, mate,” said Pa, as he sat. And Pa’s soft arms enveloped him.
A knock on the door. The door began to open. He hurriedly poked his head out from under the covers. It was Sarah.
“What are you doing?” she asked, looking a little oddly at him.
“Nothing,” he mumbled. “Just reading.”
“Under the covers?”
“Yeah, why not?”
A pause. He slipped the book under his pillow, hoping Sarah didn’t see the action, then slid the covers off and stood up, with a face that said, Nothing to see here.
“Do you want me to pick you up from school tomorrow?”
“Sure,” he said. It felt strangely grown-up having your sister pick you up from school. He wondered if Mark’s sister could drive. He didn’t know if Mark had a sister.
“Okay,” said Sarah. She stood in the doorway for a moment. “Are you alright?”
And, though he felt quite sure that he was, for some reason his voice squeaked a little when he said, “Yeah.” Was his voice breaking? He was a bit young for that, wasn’t he?
“You sure?” Sarah insisted.
“Yes, I am sure,” he said, thinking that a more formal reply might be more convincing. And Sarah, recognising at least that no other answer would be forthcoming, gave him a peck on the cheek and went out, closing the door behind her.
He paused before picking up the book again, but soon he was so immersed in that strange, staccato world that he forgot the conversation. So immersed in the odd and frantic world of the character’s brain – a brain that feared an eye, and the pounding of a dead man’s heart. Immersed, he must admit, in a mind that had resorted to murder. Nothing else could enter his brain until he reached the final words – Tear up the planks! here, here! – It is the beating of his hideous heart! – and had found in that phrase something that grabbed him and clung to him like an oddly caustic limpet.
He had carried it with him, wordlessly, as he said good night to his family, turned off the light for the night and crawled under the sheets, with Edgar Allan Poe still at his head, beneath the pillow. And as he lay there he found the limpet still present, though it seemed to be becoming larger, stronger, almost in the atmosphere around him. And he found that all conversations and all things that he had read, seen and known that day were replaced with the face of the man in the street – why was he there? – somehow changed, turned not so much sinister as knowing, and replaced too by the pounding thought, prompted by nothing but his own pulsating mind, that he, Philip Savage, was the real danger, and that a pounding, murderous heart, uninvited yet thoroughly expected, was beating all about him. Quick, the air seemed to say, listen to his hideous heart! And sleep, he knew, was unlikely to come that night.
Wanting to keep things neat and tidy is not OCD. Straightening crooked pictures is not OCD. Demarcating your work-space clearly is not OCD. All of these things might point to OCD but they could just as likely not. Having invasive, repeated and unwanted thoughts that drive you to perform compulsions in an attempt to control them – THAT is OCD.
It was a small town in South Australia near the Murray River. My wife and in-laws were still in the coffee shop finishing their lunch and I needed to pick up some medication before we left town; I would need it by the morning, and there was a chance that there would be no pharmacy wherever we were going that night. So I left my family in the shop and wandered down the street to where I had seen a small pharmacist.
There was a trainee at the counter. He seemed warm and friendly and had been a local boy before moving to the city to study. He greeted the other customers like old friends or long-forgotten neighbours. I was the odd one out for sure, but he didn’t let it show. He was friendly enough and, once he had fetched my medication, he was careful – painstaking even – in how he wrapped up the packet inside the white paper bag he gave me. I must have looked at him in a way that made him feel scrutinised, because he smiled and said, “Yeah, I’m just a bit OCD about that.”
My first response was just to smile, pay, and leave with my medication. And as I walked from the shop I didn’t feel anything in particular. It’s a normal remark. It annoys me, but I’m used to it. I hear it all the time and, while you might hear it too and not really notice, I do because, you see, I have OCD. That was why I was getting the medication: an SSRI commonly prescribed to treat the condition. The same medication can be used for any of the related anxiety or depressive disorders; often OCD goes along with generalised anxiety disorder and/or depression, as it does in my case. Yet a training pharmacist should be expected to know that an SSRI may well be treating OCD or at least a number of closely related disorders. It was a thoughtless remark at best. At worst, it could have been deeply harmful. As I left I wondered if I should have said something. There was such a high chance that his remark would be highly pointed for me, and, while I have learnt to ignore comments like his, others may not know how to or even think that ignoring it is right. In the end it was too late to do anything. All I can do is hope and pray that he learns not to say such things.
But ever since then I have been thinking more and more about the remark, thinking about my own tendency towards brushing it off as “just something that people say”, and about the ways that such off-hand remarks can actually cause significant pain and distress to many. I’ve been thinking too about how few parallels there are, how few other serious conditions we have turned into idioms to describe our own eccentricities. Our society has generally moved away from calling things “schizo” or “retarded”. We might often say that we are “depressed” when we just feel temporarily bad, and some are inclined to declare themselves “suicidal” when that is a very long way from the truth. Yet there seems to be something highly pervasive about the phrase “just a bit OCD”, and not only does it diminish the pain of those who truly are more than a bit OCD, but it also shows a complete misunderstanding of what the condition entails. Wanting to keep things neat and tidy is not OCD. Straightening crooked pictures is not OCD. Demarcating your work-space clearly is not OCD. All of these things might point to OCD but they could just as likely not. Having invasive, repeated and unwanted thoughts that drive you to perform compulsions in an attempt to control them – THAT is OCD. And it is close to nothing like what the general public thinks.
When I was a child some of my family and friends would joke about me being “OCD”. I bought into the joke, not knowing how unhelpful it was. You see, I liked everything to be neat, and I was quite extreme in this. I once asked my brother if he had borrowed a certain CD, on the grounds that the disc was aligned differently in the case to how I would have done it. I also went through a stage of being almost obsessive in keeping my hair neat. These were, perhaps, signs of compulsions. The neatness, I’m inclined to think wasn’t, because in the end I could largely do without it. The hair was more likely a sign. But the thing that made it a sign wasn’t that I wanted neat hair. It was that there was a student in my class who was teased because his hair made an egg-shape on his head and, fearing anything that might give more reason for me to be bullied, I did everything I could to avoid such ridicule of my own hair.
The biggest signs of OCD, however, were entirely internal. When my head would be assaulted with a barrage of obscenities that were completely at odds with my quiet, Christian, demeanour, and I learnt to combat them by silently tapping out rhythms on my fingers or keeping a steady, circling version of the Lord’s Prayer or something along those lines in my head: that was OCD. Not just a bit OCD, profoundly OCD.
And it wasn’t until, at age 28, that a psychiatrist thought to ask me about THOSE thought patterns, not just why I was sad and stressed all the time, that my OCD was identified. Not because I liked things to be a certain way but because my head was filled with assaulting thoughts and I only knew how to keep them at bay through old (and increasingly ineffective) patterns that I had learnt as a child.
The word “obsession” actually comes from the Latin word for an army assault. That’s what an obsessive thought is like. Picture an army with a battering ram attacking a castle. And then picture the knights indoors trying to combat the battering ram by tapping out their own frantic rhythm to keep themselves from hearing the assaults outside. When that describes your mental state, and the habits you learn to combat it, that is OCD.
No-one ever describes a sore pimple or bump on your head as “a bit cancerous”. We’ve learnt not to call things “spastic”, and we’re moving away from “gay” and “psycho”. But, when we like things to be neat, we have no qualms calling that “a bit OCD”. Please, please – just don’t. If you don’t want to trivialise the agonising pain of a condition you barely understand, then find another phrase. Say you’re neat. Say you’re fussy. But don’t say you’re “a bit OCD”, because the chances are that you aren’t, and if you are (and you have all my sympathy and compassion if this is the case) then the problem is going to be much bigger than your neatness and deserves more respect than you or our society are giving it.