Obsessions Observed

As a kid, I obsessively repeated number sequences in my mind. 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2. 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2… If I failed to repeat the pattern–the right numbers, in the right order, at the right time–my mother would die.

At 5, I knew she would die in a fire; at 6, I knew she would be shot. At 8, I knew she would be killed be a drunk driver, and at 9, I knew she would get cancer. I became especially consumed by this terrible false foresight when she went out at night. I begged her to take me along to meetings and choir practice, convinced that if I were there, she wouldn’t die. Or at least you would die too, a part of me whispered.

I have struggled with anxiety for as long as I remember. I now recognize it as OCD, which runs in my family. I am worming my way out from under the thumb of these fevered preoccupations.

The same pattern has followed me in a dizzying variety of forms, both subtle and overt. In the most obvious and painful form, I believe that my mind can cause or prevent a loved one’s death.  I recognize the pattern by two telltale signs:

  1. The thought states or implies that my mind can somehow influence external events and/or predict the future. If I think about something bad, it will happen; or else, just as often, if I don’t worry, it will happen.
  2. I am fixated on an imagined disaster . There is little evidence that this event will actually occur.

The delusion is so obviously false, and the fixation so clearly misguided, it is hard to believe I fall for it over and over again. But mine is a clever and persistent monster. I talk myself out of wild improbabilities, only to talk myself into new fears, ever so slightly more plausible. The shape-shifting apparitions of my mother’s death–fire, gun, car accident, cancer–chronicle the obsession’s development over time.

I want to be free of my father’s disease. I have loosened and loosened its grip; I have reach levels of calm I never thought possible. Transition, medication, and meditation have done me worlds and worlds of good. These days, my moods are upbeat and steady. People remark on my peaceful demeanor, a compliment that always surprises me. Still, again and again, I get caught in its cold fingers, and I find myself with a knot in my stomach, gasping for air, when absolutely nothing is wrong. I never want to feel that melancholy panic again.

Its disguises are manifold, but the root is the same. My mind ceaselessly sets about attacking problems, always making plans and calculations, hedging bets, setting goals. Like a loyal dog, my mind sniffs out possible problems and goes about solving them. There is nothing wrong with this–it’s useful. But my poor little mind, always wandering through worries, returns again and again to one problem, the Problem of Problems, a nauseating truth it cannot solve.

My mind has been trying to outsmart death. Temporariness is the wall I’ve been banging my head against. My mind hits it and gets stuck in an endless loop of magical thinking, like a scratched CD stuttering, like a crashing computer.

When I can observe this, a warm glow overflows from my heart. It is the light of love for myself, for the good old dog that is my mind, bound to try, doomed to fail.

It’s okay, boy. You just can’t solve this one.

הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים אָמַר קֹהֶלֶת הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל

Mist of mists, said Kohelet. Mist of mists, all is mist.

Ecclesiastes 1:2



  1. Shokubutsujin

    Wow, I had no idea OCD was this serious. It must be dreadful not being able to get rid of these thoughts! After watching “Spirited Away” as a kid I started developing a belief that when I went out for a walk I MUST return home through the EXACT same route, or else I would be trapped in another dimension. The people around me wouldn’t be real; my parents would become shadows, images of what they used to be, and I’d be doomed to walk on forever through waters of tricks and traps. Though I now know this isn’t true, I still do it every time. It was horrible when I didn’t manage to retrace my footsteps and my mum wouldn’t let me go back and start over.
    I can only begin to imagine what you must be feeling. I hope the best of the world to you and good luck!

  2. TJ

    This is beautiful writing and I feel like it came from my own experience. You captured panic perfectly in “Still, again and again, I get caught in it’s cold fingers, and I find myself with a knot in my stomach, gasping for air, when absolutely nothing is wrong.” I have panic attacks and though I would never wish one on my worst enemy, it is nice to knoa that I am not alone and I too may reach “levels of calm I never thought possible”. I love your writing. Thank you

  3. Lesboi

    I’ve been wanting to comment on this one but we took a little vacation and I didn’t have much alone time to think and write. I, too, have all kinds of little OCD quirks and it runs in my family. My mom used to make us all sit down together in the living room for a minute before we could leave to go out as a family. She also taught me that it was bad luck if we didn’t all walk on the same side of a pole or obstruction in our path. Silly stuff and I’ve carried a lot of it with me. I have my own stuff now though, like counting or tapping my feet as cars go by when I drive. I have anxiety and panic attacks too. I guess you’re right that it all comes down to fear of death in the end and there is no logical way to deal with it. Interestingly, I’m not so scared of death as I am of dying and not having truly lived and completed all of my dreams, goals, etc. I’m working on accepting that I am wired this way and it’s part of my life. Meditation, mindfulness and acceptance have really helped me to calm down and manage my anxiety.

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