OCD

Sword and Shield

I don’t see the bear.

My six-year-old daughter, Ellie, and my two-year-old son, Alex, have returned with me to our remote campsite from a late dinner at the main camp.  We are the only humans in sight.  I’m lost in thought, obsessing on a story I want to write about family camping (“What will I write?  How long will it take?  Where will I try to publish it?”).    

Ellie wants to sit in the red chair at the end of the picnic table.  So does Alex. Ellie wins. Now she wants her doll, “Hannah.”

“Daddy please get Hannah for me.”

Hannah—the doll she loves best— is out of my reach.

“Ask Alex to get it for you,” I say, as my fingertips play in my mustache and my mind obsesses on my story.

“Alex please get Hannah for me.”

Alex waddles around the picnic table toward the far end.  “Okay Eddy,” he says, pronouncing her name as best he can.

“Daddy,” says Ellie, “Who knocked that box down?”

It is a wooden box about four feet tall and designed to keep food away from chipmunks.  Now it lies on the ground, in front of the tent, broken.  Beside it, a large Tupperware lay smashed and its former contents—peanuts, marshmallows, granola bars etc—lay scattered in the grass.  I stop playing with my mustache.  Beside the pine tree, staring at me over the blonde head of my son, waits a large black bear.

I slowly step around the table, pick up my son (who clings to Hannah), and turn, taking my daughter by the wrist.  “Come with me right now, kids,” I whisper, “Don’t say a word.”  They obey both commands until Ellie breaks the second about a hundred feet up the trail. “Daddy, why are you squeezing my wrist so hard?”

“I saw a bear.”

I don’t think I can imagine a more frightening scenario—unwittingly leading my children into the company of a bear.  It reminded me of my greatest fears as a child: falling asleep while something was burning.  Instead, I got lost in my writing obsession while a bear was lurking.  The core fear behind my childhood obsession—sparked by the fire that nearly destroyed my father’s printing shop—was that I was afraid to go to sleep.  I was afraid of losing my consciousness, afraid of losing my soul.  

As a new father, my greatest fear was that I’d inadvertently endanger my children.  I got out of bed in the night dozens of times just to check and re-check the oven knobs and the toaster oven.  When we brought Ellie home from the hospital after her birth, I remember watching her all night, afraid that if I fell asleep, I wouldn’t notice if she stopped breathing.  

Instead, I didn’t notice a bear.  

I returned to the camp site without the children.  A mangled coffee can shone in the tall grass.  It had been sealed and filled with chocolate-flavored coffee grounds. The bear crushed the can and licked it clean.  As I examined a fingertip-sized hole made by a single tooth— it brought back more childhood memories.  The coffee can looked like the metal strip that fastened my eraser to my pencil, right after I crushed it with my teeth. 

My 3rdgrade teacher noted with a star on my progress report dated November 1, 1972: *Eats his pencils.  I didn’t eat my pencils—I held my pencil with both hands, the eraser against my chin, and spun it between my fingertips.  It focused my awareness, made my sense of consciousness feel safe and secure.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, my ritual was an example of thought-object fusion, a thought distortion common in OCD. When my classmates noticed my ritual and started to mimic me, I put my pencil in my mouth and bit the metal strip. Embarrassed and frustrated, I’d crush it.  Then I’d peel off the metal strip and remove the eraser.  Grinding the strip of metal into a tiny ball, I tried with all the force of my teeth to make my anxious feeling would go away.

My teacher referred me to the school counselor who encouraged me to draw him a picture.  He gave me a clean sheet of paper and a pencil.  I drew King Arthur wearing chain-mail and wielding Excalibur, the sword he pulled from the stone.  More importantly, I drew Arthur’s shield, and took my time drawing the cross on the front of it.  The counselor watched me draw for awhile.  Then his chair creaked as he leaned back and gazed out the window.  He was oddly silent.  Finally, the chair creaked again as he turned and adjusted his glasses. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing to the sword I’d drawn.                                                                                                                                                                  

“Excaliber.”

“What about that?”

“His shield.”

“Oh.”

Looking back, I think he was just waiting for me to eat his pencil.                                                                                                                                               

By the time I got to college, I’d given up the pencil ritual. Instead, testing the theory of Cartesian dualism I’d studied in philosophy class, I tried to experience pure consciousness by distinguishing my awareness from all sensation.  As my mind drifted away, I compulsively pulled the edges of my mustache between my fingertips, eventually leaving the right side of it bald. When I pulled my mustache, my awareness separated from that sensation—so much so that I soon became unaware of what I was doing.  I dissociatedfrom both my sensations and my surroundings. When my classmates noticed my ritual and started to mimic me, I stopped.  Embarrassed and frustrated, I’d tear the tab from my perpetual soda can, and with all the force of my teeth, I’d grind the metal tab into a tiny ball. 

Recently, I went to the dentist for the first time in many years.  I had a severe toothache.  Don’t get me wrong—I take care of my teeth, and I never miss brushing what remains of them.  I use sugarless gum to mitigate the grinding, and I don’t chew metal anymore. I pump iron. Rather than using my jaw to shatter my teeth, I challenge my arms to shatter my records.  Instead of trying to fuse my consciousness to an object, or trying to dissociate my awareness from sensation, I use my willpower to lift heavy objects and to create a more enduring sensation.     

The feeling of recovery—muscular serenity—lingers for two days.

But the dentist didn’t know about my exercise ritual or my fastidious habits of oral care when he came into the room to examine my toothache. Just before he stuck the mirror in my mouth, I said, “I have OCD, and that has something to do with the condition of my teeth.”

“But you’re not obsessed with brushing and flossing,” he said, smiling.  It didn’t bother me that he seemed to take OCD lightly—I knew that his attitude would change when he actually looked at my teeth—and it did.  “You’re right!” he exclaimed.  “Decay is not your issue….  Holy cow—you’re just breaking your teeth!  I could do $50,000 worth of work on these teeth!”

I only lost a single tooth.

But I still feared losing my consciousness, of becoming unaware.  OCD keeps coming back—only facing my core fear again and again can drive it away.  Only God can preserve my soul.  Consciousness is neither a solid object nor an pure state of awareness; consciousness is the state of being aware of an object.  

Back at camp, that object, again, was the bear.  

“The bear’s back!  The bear’s back!  The bear’s back!”  It’s my wife, Liz.  We were certain the bear would not return while we were actually building a fire at the camp site—we were wrong.  My wife takes my daughter by the hand while I carry my son and follow.  The bear walks right down the path and into our site. We retreat to the dock, our backs against the lake.

“Do you think the bear will go away when people start coming back from dinner?” asks Liz.

“I don’t know,” I answer, “but I’m not waiting.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Scare the bear away.”

Armed with a wooden paddle from the canoe rack, I return to the camp site where the bear eats our marshmallows.  I decide to do what the campground counselors told me to do if I ever encountered another black bear. “Hey!” I shout, raising the paddle over my head, trying to “look big.”  I shout again, swatting a boulder with the paddle.

The bear retreats, slowly, into the trees.  I retreat toward the dock.  Just in case, however, I return to the camp site.  

The bear is back.  

Embarrassed and frustrated, I spot an ax beside the firewood pile.  I drop the canoe paddle. Clang!  Steel strikes stone.  The bear turns, growling.  I follow, and this time I’m not stopping.  Carrying an invisible shield—the same shield I once drew for the school counselor— my soul is safe and secure.  Smashing the blunt side of ax-caliber against the trees, driving the bear deeper and deeper into the woods, I chase him till he’s over the hill and gone.

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