The Time I Thought the Devil Lived in My Palms
What OCD can teach us all about insecurity
What makes some people crazy and others not? Many of us carry this idea that there is a normal way to act, and those who fall out of that “normality” are considered insane (or eccentric if they have tons of money). Mentally ill people put up with fear, nervousness, sadness … Wait. I guess when it comes down to it, people considered mentally ill or “insane” struggle with many of the same issues as anybody else. Even the most confident, clear-minded people can attest to feeling those emotions, and often. Of course for sufferers of mental illness, there is a difference; the struggles have reached a point they can no longer control.
A while back I wrote a poem called “OCD.” It was inspired by this huge change in thoughts and behaviors I was experiencing at the time, all of them based on an incredibly negative self-image. Oddly enough, that insecurity went from being about my home to my physical appearance, my worth as a human, and ended with feeling unsafe in my own skin. All that for someone who had just hit puberty, dang!
So, this is where we get to the disorder.
There are a lot of conceptions, many in the “mis-” category, about OCD. So let’s clarify what it is. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder, so the symptoms are brought up by anxiety or cause it. When many people think of OCD, they picture a scene like Leonardo DiCaprio scrubbing the skin off his hands like a lunatic in The Aviator. You know, germaphobes. Or, they imagine obsessing over a topic or person, though that’s not quite the right meaning of “obsessive.” While being a germaphobe can coincide with certain types of OCD, there are many more ways that it can manifest.
(There’s a funny movie from Spain that shows the different kinds of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder very well. It’s called Toc Toc, for reference)
People with this disorder have an obsession (a persisting fear or unwanted thoughts) that they try to get rid of by doing compulsions (repetitive actions called rituals), until feeling comfortable to move on. They might go out of their way to avoid specific tasks, like stepping on cracks, to the point that it’s ridiculous.
Whatever the symptom is, it’s all OCD because the sufferer is dealing with a worry that is irrational, in which the time they spend evading their worries is also irrational — at least to the average person. They obsess over a fear or anxiety that they have, then they compulsively perform rituals to be relieved of that anxiety. That’s why even hoarding can be considered a form of OCD since some hoarders irrationally hold onto items for fear of needing them someday.
An Aside on Obsessive-Compulsive Personality
There’s also a difference between OCD and Obsessive-Compulsive Personality. From my understanding, folks with OCD have a hard time seeing that their anxiety is irrational and truly believe their rituals help. With OC Personality, people can tell that their fears and rituals are irrational, but they have them anyway. Well, that’s another topic.
OCD for Me
In my experience, part of my fear was based on germs. That’s why the poem starts and finishes with,
The water fell upon my hands …
There was intense anxiety about the existence of tiny creatures crawling around on my skin. I constantly struggled with the idea of never being fully clean, of always being contaminated somehow.
I can’t escape the skin I’m in …
There truly was this feeling of being trapped inside of a filthy, contaminated body that I couldn’t get out of. Fear led me to spend hours at a time scrubbing my hands under hot water, turning my skin raw in the process. I have scars on my feet to this day from the showers I spent obsessively scraping my skin. I know that’s not a good look, but hey, I got to tell it like it is.
Other rituals I performed were spelled out in the verses;
I flush four times after excrete and
I cut four times my meat
but I wouldn’t dare take a seat
without counting the sacred lines
or the repeating of “I wash, and I count …”
Of course, these rituals sound pretty crazy or random when you look at them. I mean, how does counting to four after pooping help anyone in life? That’s kind of the point, though. Many of the rituals don’t make much sense to an outsider, but to the person with this condition, they make all the sense in the world.
In the poem I remember trying to capture a sense of shame and almost dread associated with OCD. It was actually based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Bells,” where he is increasingly tormented by the sound of bells. They start out cheery and hopeful, but they end with an awful clanging that does nothing short of haunt Mr. Poe. It’s an interesting read, I recommend it.
The skies they were ashen and sober; The leaves they were crisped and sere- The leaves they were withering and sere; It…
With OCD and most mental illnesses, the idea is that we do not want to feel this way. We are even ashamed, haunted, and tormented by our thoughts and actions. However, in that moment we cannot change, and so we are left to suffer what our minds dish out for the day.
What’s With the Devil?
There is also a repeated mention in the poem of the Devil as if he were personally responsible for my inborn impurity. In reality, many with OCD have what are called ruminating thoughts. These are thoughts that are totally undesired by the thinker. They cause more anxiety and fear than what was already there, often triggering people to do more rituals — or just feel generally bad. Sometimes these thoughts can be highly violent, sexual, or otherwise absurd, as they were with me. The tough thing is that they don’t go away but vividly replay in one’s mind.
The good news is that most who suffer such thoughts are exactly the kinds of people who’d be least likely to act on them. The bad news is that the sufferers feel such shame and discomfort from the thoughts they could view themselves as evil, terrible people. That doesn’t quite solve our positive self-image problem, does it?
Comparing the germs in my palm lines to Satan was more than just trying to shame my dirty hands. Many times, unwanted thoughts cause dismay and a sense of self-loathing. That’s what “the Devil” really represents.
Mental Illness & … Everyone Else
So, as was suggested earlier, OCD and other disorders are actually extreme cases of the mental struggles all people deal with. Sure, you might not be obsessively counting every time you hear an ambulance go by. But you likely worry about your health or the safety of a loved one. You might not scrub your hands in fear of the Devil’s germs or evil itself upon you. But you may care about making a good impression and not letting those down that you care about.
Germs and viruses are on almost everyone’s radar now, whether we want them to or not. Beyond our recent global obsession with diseases, we humans have a long history of going to great lengths to avoid people and situations that cause anxiety. That level of avoidance has been around long before all the Coronavirus chaos. Still, doing all we can to tip-toe around our fears will never let us move past them. That’s true whether you have a mental illness or are as fit as a running bandit.
At the root of my disorder was insecurity. A feeling of not being good enough, not doing enough, not liking who I was or what came out of me (guess that explains the whole “excrete” thing). It’s for that very reason that anxiety and depression often go hand-in-hand.
Insecurity and fear can be our greatest foes, but there’s few greater feelings than overcoming our enemies. There is power in taking small steps, day by day, to discover what makes you special and to be completely okay with who you are. I know it may seem impossible now, but I support you in that journey. This whole article is to let you know that we’ll be better — no, the best, soon enough. Well, and to tell you that, really, we’re all a little crazy.
Thanks for coming and reminiscing about the time …