Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Anxious and Catholic cathartics

Into the bin old Catholic burdens!
They are just symbols. Inanimate sculptures of metal, pieces of fabric, with no inherent meaning other than that which I choose to allow them. No magical powers. Yet a source of heavy burden for many years, a burden assigned by the mind - influenced by the world outside it - and reflected back with greater intensity as neurons fire and anxiety pulses through the brain.

For years now, they've been packed away, close but virtually non-existent. I couldn't throw them away. I don't know why, it just felt ... wrong. Out of sight to spare my mind. Left sitting in a dark place devoid of meaning.

This is the one aspect of my 15 or so years of chronic OCD that I never thought I would publicly disclose, or at least not for a long time. Honesty is fine, but some things people just don't get. It was the most absurd and personally embarrassing. But, the hell with it.

On the wall just inside the door to my bedroom at my parents house, just above the light switch and in direct line of sight, less than a metre away as you opened the door, was a crucifix. I think I received it as a First Communion gift.

I was raised a good catholic boy. God fearing. I was more superstitious than religious now I think of it, so perhaps it was inevitable that I would reject it when I realised it didn't satisfy my soul. I feared the unknown power of God, hell and religion more than anything else ever. It was so abstract and so overwhelming it was one thing my obsessively rationalising mind could not combat when anxieties kicked in. The 'what ifs' were endless. And, at times, terrifying.

I couldn't look at that crucifix much of the time for fear of thinking a 'bad thought' and feeling like I'd prayed for it. So at any time I feared I might slip into prayer (basically any time I thought about it) my thoughts went into lock down, heavy control, so I didn't inadvertently ask the almighty for something bad. Something like the Mr Stay Puft scene in Ghostbusters. Over time I developed measures of avoiding these outcomes, though each time my mind found a loop hole and they are too many and absurd to describe here. I had internal debates about what constituted praying. When did a thought become a prayer.

Religion was the bane of my life. It was made more torturous by the fact I 'knew' no one else had these concerns. Still, I couldn't rest easy or allow free thought until I was absolutely, beyond any doubt convinced four, eight or sixteen times over that I had nothing to worry about. Welcome to the world of OCD.

Thought suppression is not just essentially impossible, but counter-productive. Looking at that crucifix made me think of prayer, which brought anxious thoughts of things I didn't want to pray for, which made me try to not think those thoughts, which, of course, made it impossible to get those things out of my mind, which made me *want* to think them just for the relief, which created more tension as I desperately suppressed those thoughts more tightly, thinking in explicit, super-conscious, 'front of mind' words to avoid my worst fears potentially coming to fruition.

I got frustrated and desperately angry with myself. Often I would hit myself in the head with the heel of my hand to teach myself a lesson.

Once I threw Jesus across the room and broke his arm. I later placed him back up on the wall, a bread bag wire holding his arm on the cross, and wondered what mum and dad thought when they saw it.

As an aside, this history of religion-related OCD might also explain for my friends who were with me in Munich where I drunkenly and joyously yelled abuse at God and the Church as we stumbled home from Oktoberfest one night. It wasn't hatred so much, or even grandstanding, but a primal uninhibited release harking back all those years. Why that night, I don't know - I was happy and free of worry perhaps. It wasn't cool, but it was harmless. And it feels good to break the shackles of your oppression.

I started trying to get out of going to mass in my mid-late teens because it was such a tortorous experience. It wasn't until a few years later that I became disillusioned with the Church, and later realised I didn't really believe in it. Not believing in it was no reason not to feel the anxiety though. That went on a few more years along, or in interchange, with other fears. I still couldn't prove beyond obsessive doubt that I had nothing to worry about.

So, when I moved out, for some reason I took pieces of religious memorabilia with me. They never saw daylight, just sat in a cigar box I souvenired from my Dan Murphy's days on a shelf. A sense of foreboding unease prevented me throwing them away. I couldn't think of it, it had a bad feeling to it.

Until this weekend past. Cleaning out all the crap from my crowding bedroom I found an old communion plaque, a card from my confirmation and a scapular I wore religiously in year 8. Discarding them out was not easy, per se. I didn't want them, but there was an instinctive discomfort with throwing them out. And not because I'm a hoarder. Other than band t-shirts most other things can go when past their usefulness.

Overriding that though, was the fact they no longer reflect my identity in any way, and it was empowering to toss them. What would my parents think? It doesn't matter.

These were reminders, not of joyous times, but of pain. By throwing them in the bin, where they still sit in my room as a sustained show of strength, I'm not running from those memories but prioritising my energy and focus on things that reflect who I am. It was liberating. I felt my 15 year old self smile. I'll never forget. But I have no space for oppressive symbolism.

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