I’m finding it very helpful to write my OCD story in different forms, to try and understand my experiences from as many angles as possible.
The following is the version I’m working on for my dance/theatre company’s upcoming performances, in which I would read this while my collaborators dance, sing, play music and more.
I wrote it in the third person, using a nickname, with language that felt less diagnostic and closer to poetry. It’s been both challenging and rewarding to read it over and over again in company rehearsals. I hope it can be of benefit to others.
Once there was a boy named Elale.
Elale was very quiet, and shy, and liked to draw.
As he grew, he worried.
He worried about who to talk to at recess, and what to say.
He worried that he would do something to make the adults disappointed.
He worried about stepping on lines or cracks in the sidewalks.
He had 13 stuffed animals in a nook in the headboard of his bed. There was a lion, an orca, a koala, a mouse, a pink elephant and a bunch more. He would talk to them about his worries. And he would pet them, and say good night to each one. They could help protect him against bad things that might happen.
Soon he started to worry that the animals could tell that he liked some more than others. Maybe if he pet some of them less, they would get mad and instead of protect him, they would hurt him.
He decided to pet and say good night to each one twice—going all through the line, and then starting over, just to be sure. But after a while it seemed like twice might not be enough. So then, each night he would go through the line three times. To be extra sure.
And then eventually he would start to get distracted on the 2nd or 3rd time, so then he had to pet and say good night to each one of them in turn, four times before he could sleep.
He dreaded going to bed.
Elale was told he should lose weight. So he started doing lots of exercises. He got up at 5am every morning, and did push-ups, and sit-ups (10 of each at first, but then 15, then 20, all the way up to 80—every morning).
He went downstairs. He did 15 pull-ups. He rested.
He did 10 pull-ups. He rested.
Then he took out a bowl. Then he did 3 pull-ups.
Then he took out a spoon. 3 pull-ups.
Cereal box. 3 pull-ups.
Milk. 3 pull-ups.
Sugar. 3 pull-ups.
He poured the cereal. 3 pull-ups.
Poured the milk. 3 pull-ups.
Added sugar. 3 pull-ups.
His arms were nearing total exhaustion.
He put away the cereal. 3.
Put away the milk. 3.
Put away the sugar. 3.
He took his first bite. He did 3 pull-ups.
Then he finally, sat down to eat.
In the afternoon, he didn’t go to anyone else’s house, in case they didn’t have a pull-up bar. He had to do a set of pull-ups every hour until he reached 100 each evening.
When he was 11, Elale found dance, or really dance found him–and something blossomed inside. Soon he didn’t have to do so many pull-ups anymore.
He worked harder than anyone he knew at dance. And at math and reading and all the possible things there were to be the best at. He got straight A’s. He had the most people sign his yearbook of anyone in the school. He won the spelling bee and was valedictorian and was men’s dance captain, and was voted most talented, and voted most likely to succeed, and he won the school pull-up contest.
When Elale went to high school, he wasn’t the best anymore. That was hard.
For junior year, he moved and changed schools. He discovered marijuana, and LSD, and spirituality, and sexuality. He fell in love with a boy named Lance.
Lance was in a band, which was made up of the ultimate group of enlightened artist warriors. He longed to join them. There were rumors that they had sex with each other. Elale thought this might be his only chance to have sex with boys.
The leader of the band was much older and said lots of things that sounded like they must be wise, like “Let go,” and “Surrender,” and “conquer your fears.” Elale tried to do all of those things, but wasn’t actually sure what they meant. He thought that if he worked hard enough at it, someday they would let him into the band and teach him everything.
One weekend he got to kiss Lance, and then performed with him in the dance concert, and went to an amazing party after and danced in ecstasy and felt like everything was gonna be better from now on.
After that weekend Elale withdrew. No one is sure why. He told people that he needed to spend more time alone in order to make sure he was being authentic every moment.
He started to worry again. He had lots of strange thoughts about doing strange things. He thought that if he didn’t do these strange things, he would never be enlightened, and never join the band, and never be with Lance, and never be happy. He tried so hard to “let go” and “surrender” and “conquer his fears,” but he couldn’t get it right.
He was lonely. His worries got louder and louder. He called it “the madness.”
The madness wouldn’t let Elale alone. He thought smoking more pot could help. Or trying other drugs. Or doing riskier and riskier things. It just got worse. He was often terrified that he had made the ultimate, shameful mistake and that he could never again feel at home in the world. But he wasn’t quite sure what that mistake was. Or how to undo it. He was desperate. He tried to have sex with the guys in the band, maybe that would undo it, but they didn’t want to have anything to do with him. He was drowning in shame.
Elale stumbled into therapy and finally got to tell someone about all of it—the madness, the band, loving Lance. It was a moment of great relief. Then his therapist told him to have sex with a girl before having sex with a boy.
Elale changed back to his old high school. He tried many different things, and some of them started to help, especially taking medication and exercising a lot. Little by little he learned how to push himself past his worries. If he did something daring (like climb a tall tree, or jump off a wall, or say something very embarassing, or try to kiss someone) he would feel a rush and that would give him the confidence to get him through the day.
He was drawn to a boy, Adam-the best artist in the school. He and Adam had sex, and that made him very happy. For a week or so. Then Adam pulled away.
Elale went to college. There was so much new stuff to see and hear and think about.
He made a close friend, Andrew. They talked and sang and wrestled and gave each other massages, and long hugs. They understood each other. He learned about gayness, and started heading towards it. He fell in love with Andrew. When he told Andrew, they stopped being friends.
Elale got really sad and quiet and alone again.
That summer was hard. Elale felt lost, and the madness came back.
In the fall he went back to college. His fears grew bigger than they ever had before. His fears about not finding enlightenment had turned into fears about being punished when he died—sent to Hell. He didn’t understand.
Growing up, his family had been non-religious, even anti-religious. He didn’t believe in Hell. Never had.
He did believe in God in a certain way, a way he had found himself, on his own, and the God that he believed in was the same thing as truth and love and nature and space and sex. Why was he afraid of Hell?
He was ashamed of this fear. It grew and spread inside him. All he knew how to do was to call his parents or his old therapist and ask them to tell him that there wasn’t a hell, and that he would be fine. But he only ever believed them for a few minutes.
His fears told him to do all kinds of strange things: prayers, talking to himself, not eating certain bites of certain meals, thinking certain things, not thinking certain things, sitting or not sitting in certain places, reviewing his thoughts to make sure he hadn’t messed up, eating dirt. He had to convince himself over and over again every day that he didn’t believe in Hell and that he was going to be fine. Sometimes he barely made it to class. Sometimes he barely made it home.
Since the madness kept growing, and he couldn’t prove to himself that he would be okay after he died, Elale began to seek out those who spent a lot of time around death. Who weren’t afraid of it. He started meditating. He decided to major in religion. He went to India, and lots of workshops, and meditated every morning and every evening. It didn’t make the fears go away. But he was getting bigger inside, so they couldn’t knock him quite so much.
As he became less afraid of Hell, he started worrying about “The Devil.” Again, he didn’t believe in a Devil, never had, but the thoughts were so convincing and scary, that he had to spend a lot of time every day arguing with himself and doing strange prayers.
But at the same time, other things started to get better. He remembered that he loved to dance, and as soon as he went back to dance class, he started feeling human again. He met a girl. They danced together, and fell in love, and he told her all about his fears, and she didn’t pull away. Dance and meditation and girlfriend and medication and therapist and a new group of dance friends all combined to make life seem livable.
There were good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks, good months and bad months.
Elale finished college and decided to become a professional dancer. Everything would be okay if he could just get into his favorite dance company. He worried less when he focused on this.
The fears continued. Some ultimate bad thing happening to him because he had the wrong thought or feeling, or said the wrong thing, or didn’t do a prayer in time. It was so strange and so different from his beliefs and his loves and his life and his friends. So he didn’t tell people what went on inside his head, or that he took medication, or that he was terrified for some part of every day.
Elale was now a man. And his girlfriend was a woman. And they lived together. And they started a dance company. And that gave his life meaning. She knew how to help him past his fears more than anyone else. And he helped her through hers, which were luckily very different. They got married.
Eventually things got hard. They decided they either could be married or share their company, but couldn’t do both. They got divorced.
Elale was very scared to be on his own, but also mysteriously clear. His fears became much less captivating. He was going to finally get to be with a man, or many men. Something beautiful was blossoming inside again.
Elale met a man. They fell in love. They started living together. Eventually they got married and had three dogs. They learned a lot from each other.
Elale discovered that he wanted to make his own dances and plays and songs.
He found that he was drawn to those who were honest about the pain they felt, or the quirks that made them different. In fact, he found that he felt most at home around people with disabilities, in his work, his art, and his life.
It probably seemed that this was because he was deeply committed to social justice and inclusion. Which was true.
But an even deeper truth was that in these groups he was allowed to be his real self. He was learning how to relate with friendliness and creativity to his “madness” by watching his friends relate to their disabilities. Even if he didn’t tell them about what went on inside his mind, he felt accepted.
He learned that he wanted to lead a group of other outsider artists—growing together and sharing their growth through performances. He went back to school. He became a professor. He grew his own ensemble. They became a found family.
He still worried about being punished eternally after he died. Just one word or image could set him off for hours, or even days: Hell, The Devil, Satan, Lucifer…or even Sauron, Voldemort, the Dark Side of the Force. He avoided those words as much as possible.
When he was busy the worries stayed small, like little insects buzzing about. But when he wasn’t seeing his ensemble, or working on a performance, they got worse. At those times the worries turned into giant monsters, and he barely got through alive.
He was caught in a bind. Working hard made the fears less. But it also was exhausting. So he wanted to rest. But resting made the fears take over. Which was even more exhausting. He longed for a way out.
One time, not long ago, after an especially fulfilling performance month with his ensemble, he fell into a deeper hole of obsessions and compulsions than he had in many years. It was painful and confusing and really scary. He was profoundly discouraged.
And then something shifted. He was tired of it.
He began telling people about his fears. He told his ensemble.
He joined a group. In the group they had to talk about their fears, and do things that made them more afraid, and they had to help each other refrain from their prayers and compulsions, by any means necessary.
It was really hard. Maybe the hardest thing he ever had to do. But his perspective was changing.
Elale practiced inviting his fears in for tea, over and over again, like Milarepa who had put his whole head into the mouth of the scariest demon.
He began to think that it might actually be possible to someday not be afraid of The Devil or Hell or of somehow doing the ultimate wrong thing. He began to think that it might actually be possible to live from his own beliefs and values, rather than the beliefs and values of the madness. He actually had moments when this happened. And these moments were coming more frequently.
He looked for creative ways to tell more people about what went on inside. He tried writing about it in different ways. This very story that is being read right now, is one of those ways he is trying.
He continues to practice, and to risk trusting, and he is finally starting to learn what it means to “let go,” and “conquer his fears,” and that they are things already inside of him, not something someone else can give him.
And he has a long way still to go.
Eric’s OCD story >