My Lifelong Battle Against Intrusive Thoughts
I used to pray a strange prayer:
“Dear God, prune the roots.”
I saw my mind as a magical tree, but I feared it wasn’t mighty enough. What if it’s only a bonsai? I wanted God to go underground, down to the roots and trim them, snip off their tapered decisions to stop reaching, encourage them to dig deeper into the earth.
“But bonsais are so beautiful,” you say.
You’re not wrong. And I love you.
God’s pruning would make the root system vast. Imagine oceans of water sent up and up into the bonsai. It would have a choice to make. Either expand like a balloon, becoming a water bomb the size of EPCOT, and explode — or grow to the height of a sequoia, a redwood, and freakishly beyond, a tree so gigantic that the moon nests in its branches.
Why did I pray this? To be noticed, of course. I knew by instinct that it’s difficult to ignore a brain so big it swallows the moon.
This was my mother’s wish. As a little girl, she looked up at the moon and cried because she wanted it and didn’t know how to make that happen.
I prayed another strange prayer in the old days: “Dear God, please don’t take writing away.”
I knew my commandments — “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” — and my obsessive-compulsive disorder helped me see God as a mean father, watching his children carefully, waiting for any of them to love one of his gifts too much.
His solution? Remove the gift.
OCD: He knows!
What did he know?
I loved writing too much.
OCD tends to get worse when you’re stressed, when you’re attempting by frantic prayer to build yourself a different brain, and when the God of the universe is whittling an angel into a spear to throw at you.
First, the Lord attacked my hands.
I got myself into a tight spot by not meeting my writing quota for a couple days in a row, which meant I had to write for hours and hours without stopping. Not long into this marathon, I noticed my hands were having trouble.
The curse of surgeons and concert pianists had come for me:
Carpal tunnel syndrome.
I mourned my hands that day. My darlings used to be the autobahn, allowing thoughts to fly to the page as fast as they wanted. But now God had reduced my hands to cow paths. Every thought would have to sludge along narrow and narrowing twists and turns, getting blocked up like gummy blood in arteries.
I had an attack.
I remember lying on the floor in my room, hands tingling. I was crying, begging God to give me back my hands.
While waiting for his answer, I ordered speech-recognition software and a fighter-pilot headset so I could speak and the words would appear on the screen.
But the microphone was a bad listener. It played a vindictive game of telephone, writing very strange things on my screen. At worst, gibberish. At best, elvish:
I couldn’t even pronounce my own writing, but it had the look of someone mocking me. God laughing from his holy hill.
This is when I started praying to the Devil.
I really did, even though I did not want to.
But OCD doesn’t care about what you want. You’ll be washing dishes with your mother, scrubbing a steak knife, and an intrusive thought will show you an image.
OCD: My goodness, look at this! It’s you! You’re stabbing your mother.
Of course, you’d thought of stabbing your mother before, many times, but those thoughts were always yours, not intrusive, not from a mind that sounds like yours, but is alien.
And here’s the thing about OCD: The intrusive thought is so strong that you feel the action leaking from your mind down your arm, down into the hand that holds the knife, like the cold feeling when you stand on cliffs. You’re afraid, terrified.
You might actually do it.
Of course you won’t. You never do. And you never would. But it really feels like you’re about to. You have to put down the knife and go far away from anyplace where they have knives and mothers.
My Satanic prayer was simple: “Come into my heart.”
It was the game of “Don’t think of an elephant,” but the elephant is the King of Hell, and the thought is “Make yourself at home.”
I couldn’t stop.
I would shake my head, jolt my whole body, anything to make it stop. But thinking is so easy. It takes no time to reach out to the Devil. I did it again and again.
Until I didn’t.
I never defeated this intrusive thought. My mind simply stopped wanting it. It moved on, and I’m thankful to God for that.
Did anything happen to me while I was welcoming the Devil into my heart? If you’re talking about possession or bleeding walls, then no. But if you’re talking about fear, then yes.
I’ve never been so afraid.
And though that battle is over, I’m still scared.
I feel like stutterers must feel, the ones who beat the stutter. I imagine in the backs of their minds, they’re always wondering, “What if it comes back?” What if it comes back at the worst moment, right when I’m receiving the Nobel Prize for saving the most children with a single novel? I’m bowing before the pope to receive my crown and golden Nobel medallion necklace, and then I’m turning to give my acceptance speech to the nations, and I say,
“Satan, I invite you into my heart!”
The poor pope would have no choice but to strangle me with the golden chain. And then a voice would be heard, mourning and great weeping, the living children of the world weeping for their Dan and refusing to be comforted, for their Dan is no more.
The tollbooth of the Lord
I went to a writing school located on a peninsula reaching out into the Gulf of Maine. The peninsula is called Wolfe’s Neck. The neck of the wolf has bald patches, beaches, and there is one state park that requires payment if you want to use their sand.
But I had a plan. If I didn’t drive in, but walked in, I wouldn’t have to pay. I guess I thought if I didn’t have a vehicle wrapped around me, they wouldn’t see me? I’d be like the invisible man when he’s naked.
So I did it. I parked on the main road, then walked in, but just as I was passing the tollbooth, a woman leaned out of it and said, “You have to pay.”
As an aside, in this life, there is always someone leaning out to say either “You have to pay” or “You’ll pay for this.” Now I know the name of my posthumously published novel, which I’ll dedicate to the pope:
You’ll Pay for This.
Though I was surprised by the booth, which had lashed out at me from its window with the upper half of a woman, I thought up a lie, and I thought it up quick. I didn’t want her to know I was trying to sneak my way in.
“My mistake, madam. I thought the payment for was the parking spot.”
“No,” she said.
“I see. So, you pay for the use of the park.”
“Now I understand.”
But of course I’d always understood the payment was for the park. I knew it didn’t matter if you drove in, ran in, or were dragged by Bigfoot. My thought had been “I’m much smaller than a truck. They won’t notice.”
“You have to pay,” she said again.
“Makes sense.” And because I only had enough money for Swedish Fish, not Swedish Fish and parks, I turned around and walked back to the main road.
Later on, thinking about my lie at the tollbooth, I got nervous.
It was a small lie, but it was a lie, and God was watching.
I feared he would remove his protection and blessings from me if I didn’t make it right. For the rest of my life, I would be on the run from God. Or worse, he would punish me by making me a missionary to a country where they don’t believe in candy.
I had to do something to save my future. But what?
My OCD had an idea: “You have to go back.”
“Back where?” I asked.
But I knew.
I agreed. I had to return and confess my sin to the woman in the tollbooth. Only then would God remove his squeezing hand from the throat of my future.
I went back the next day.
On the way to the park, every light turned red when it saw me coming.
You see? God is against you.
I drove faster between the reds.
Your heart rate has accelerated. Interesting. Your family has a history of heart disease. Fun fact: God doesn’t protect liars from heart disease.
Leave me alone. I’m doing what you want.
But just because you’re obeying your OCD doesn’t mean it won’t come up with other suggestions. Like this:
Swerve into that tree.
I felt the urge to swerve rushing into my hands and fought against it.
No? Okay, then how about… that tree over there.
So you’re ignoring me? Good luck. Oh, and another thing, HAVE A HEAD-ON COLLISION WITH THAT TRUCK! NOW! NOW!
I held on tight and made it all the way to the park.
I hoped it would be the same woman from yesterday. If it wasn’t, I’d have to come back again and again.
I rolled up and stopped at the booth, cash in hand.
It was her.
“How many today?” she said.
This woman, like me, was a soldier of routine. She would have asked me “How many today?” even if I’d ridden up on a unicycle.
“Just one,” I said. “Just me.”
“That’ll be $4.”
I handed her a five. Then I made my confession:
“Hey, I was here yesterday. I tried to get in without paying? That was me.”
I thought I saw recognition on her face. Or not. I couldn’t tell.
Onward: “I told you I thought the money was for parking spots, not for visiting the park, but that was a lie. I lied to you. I know everyone has to pay. I just thought I could slip by. Anyway, I lied, and I’m sorry.”
I waited for her to smile and say, “People have lied to me all my life, but no one has ever come back to apologize. I was about to give up. Damn. I really was. I was ready to give up on this world. Not anymore, thanks to you, young man. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. You know what? Maybe there is a God.”
Instead, she gave a little smile. Or I think she smiled. It was difficult to tell. Her face needed closed captioning.
She handed over my change, and I drove into the park, then went down to the water.
I felt almost fine. I felt almost free from the burden of my sin.
But as I stood on the shore, looking out at the water, I started thinking and thinking, “I don’t know if that was a smile. What was it then? Confusion? Maybe it was. She had no idea what I was talking about, did she? She was just waiting for me to stop talking so she could give me my change. But how could she not recognize me from yesterday and from what I said? Do handsome young men walk up to her booth and lie all day long? She had to recognize me.”
But it was clear, she hadn’t.
Then I knew why.
OCD: Your hat.
Yesterday, I wasn’t wearing a hat. Today I was. That’s what threw her off. That’s why she didn’t recognize me or understand what I was saying. What do I do?
OCD: You have to go back and talk to her again.
Me: No way, she’ll think I’m crazy.
OCD: She won’t. Once you take off your hat and explain you’re the guy from yesterday, she’ll thank you for your honesty.
Me: I can’t do that. It’s weird.
OCD: I hate to say it, but God’s pissed.
Me: But I already confessed!
OCD: Incomprehensibly, and to someone who had no idea who you were. Doesn’t count.
Me: Are you sure?
OCD: Always. Go back. Try again.
So, I did.
It must have been strange for her to see me returning so soon. And it must have been stranger still when I stopped my truck beside the booth, got out, and walked around to her window.
And even stranger when I said, “Hey, I don’t know if you remember me from yesterday, but I wasn’t wearing a hat then. See?” I took off my hat and showed her myself without a hat, then I put it back on. “I’m the guy who tried to walk in. I said I thought the payment was for a parking spot? I didn’t know if you recognized me with my hat on.” I took it off a second time. “I lied to you. I’m sorry.”
I waited. Now that she knew who I was, she would thank me for restoring her faith in humanity.
She did not do this.
Instead, she backed away from the window half a step. And instead of looking at me, she stared. Said not a word. She simply waited for me to leave.
Because I know how to read a room, I can read a booth, so I said, “I’m really sorry for lying. See ya!”
After I returned to my truck and started off down the dirt road, I looked into the rear-view mirror. Maybe she’d changed her mind, realizing I wasn’t insane but some kind of saint. I was hoping to see her leaning out of the booth, smiling and waving goodbye, maybe cocking her head to the side as she wondered, “Wait, was that a man or an angel?” But she wasn’t in the booth at all.
She had stepped out and was standing in the road. And she was staring at my truck. Studying. She had the look of someone trying very hard to make a lasting memory of a license plate.
I sped away, thinking many thoughts:
Me: Why was she so scared of me?
OCD: You’re scary.
Me: No I’m not. I was trying to say sorry.
OCD: That’s not what she thought.
Me: Well what did she think?
OCD: That you’re some kind of a psycho. You know what you have to do.
Me: I’m not going back!
OCD: How else is she going to know you’re not crazy? Your confession doesn’t count if she thinks you’re nuts.
Me: Shut up. I’m not doing it. I’m never going to a state park again.
OCD: Can I make a suggestion?
Me: If it has nothing to do with going back, sure.
OCD: It doesn’t. I swear.
Me: Okay, go ahead.
OCD: Run over that jogger. Jerk the wheel. Now. NOW!
I held on tight to control my hands, and I saved the jogger’s life.
Since that day, I’ve saved hundreds of joggers, maybe thousands, and my mother still lives. That’s got to count for something.
So… God? Would you let me keep my writing?