Hi, my name is Melissa, and I’m nuts. Don’t worry, the nuttiness is well tamped down at the moment, and has been for some time. But there was a time when it most decidedly was not.
I had a fascination with patterns and evenness as a kid, that over time turned into more of a compulsion. That’s the earliest I can remember of it, anyway. If I tapped a foot, I needed to tap the other foot, too. And the tapping should be in an even number. No, not that number- that one’s bad. Maybe a couple more. Good. But that last tap wasn’t really a full tap- more of a half tap. Better try again. But now is that even, or odd? Better start over. But before I can start over, I should even out the taps with the other foot…
You see where this is going, right? Insert anything in place of foot taps- counting lights on the highway, not stepping on cracks between tiles- all kinds of stuff. I remember getting these weird feelings of an elusive Completeness, a Rightness that I could seldom attain, applying to all sorts of inconsequential things, from a very early age. At first, it was just a pleasant awareness of the pattern, with an urge to complete it. Then it strengthened to a somewhat annoying compulsion- I didn’t just want to finish the pattern, I needed to. I thought of it as a superstition, maybe an endearing personality quirk. It didn’t bother anyone but me, after all. But the initiations of patterns grew more frequent, and the compulsions to finish them stronger. And the odds of them being “Right” on any given iteration grew smaller. This was getting to be a problem. It was still an internal problem- though I was expending a lot of mental energy dealing with it, the most anyone was likely to notice on the outside was some fidgeting, or a strange persistence in walking in a particular pattern on the store tiles, or a hesitation before I answered a question because I had to finish what I was doing mentally- kind of weird, but not unheard of from a kid. And hey, I was a weird kid. I had no reason to think it was anything other than irritating and slightly unusual- part of my general and generally likable weirdness.
So at this point, I was already showing definite, but mostly private, signs of nuttiness. What we think of now as really freaking obvious serotonin issues. But give me a break, I was a kid, and it was the early nineties, and obsessive compulsive disorder as we understand it today had only recently been defined. Mental health, thank God, is a much better understood and recognized issue now than it was then, though there is still a lot to be done. But I digress. So, I’m a kid, I have a tendency to notice and initiate patterns, a preoccupation with unattainable Rightness or Completeness, and a compulsion to achieve that unattainable goal.
Enter a precocious reading level, a badly informed Bible reading, and some unfortunate application of spiritual ideas. I got an adult Bible when I was about eight, and started reading it. From the beginning. My framework for understanding was rather limited, and I was extremely literal. Although I knew many of the stories from both Old and New Testament, I didn’t understand the theological implications of the New Testament in general, much less as applied to the endless rules and regulations of the Old Testament. So what I got from it was, God had these rules, starting with the Ten Commandments and followed by a bunch of others, and Right Behavior meant following the rules. Then there were some early church experiences that stressed that nothing we could do would ever be good enough for God- even if we tried really, really hard, we would never be able to live Correctly. We would, in fact, be utterly despicable failures in God’s eyes. But that was okay, because God forgave us! We just needed to ask Jesus into our heart, and when we asked him, he’d forgive us and help us to do better.
Let’s leave aside for the moment the idea of how best to introduce spiritual concepts to children. I have Views on this, which I would love to discuss another time. For now, we will just say that this particular presentation of the situation was not helpful to me at this time. And I would quite like to have a chat with the staff of a particular, long-ago church, just in case they are still teaching impressionable children. Eh-hem.
So my preoccupation with Correctness gained a moral and spiritual component. Not even in reasonable ways, generally; although I was aware that I should, say, be nice to my brother, respect my parents, honor the Sabbath- those things were messy, hard to define, and hard to know that I got Right. I was extremely rigid about moral rules when I had decided what Right was, but there was already a known Rightness that I was failing to achieve many times a day. My brain had somehow connected my existing obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors with spiritual failings- it wasn’t just Wrong to tap an uneven number of times, it was deeply Wrong, platonically Wrong, spiritually Wrong. I became sure I was offending God with my failings. I knew what to do with this- of course I wasn’t good enough, of course I failed. I was a fallen human. But I could pray for forgiveness. And so I did.
I prayed. I prayed and prayed and prayed. And then I prayed wrong and had to start over. And then I had a stray thought, or breathed wrong, and had to start over again. And then I knew I was being crazy and the crazy was probably offensive to God but that was okay because he would forgive me if I asked but I had to ask right without bad thoughts intruding or else I’d have to stop and ask forgiveness for those thoughts but the Wrongness would just play over and over again like a skipping record again and again and
Yeah. Nuts. It was outwardly noticeable by this point. I spent the first part of my sophomore year muttering repeated prayers, just under my breath. Trying to do my schoolwork and failing, because I was too busy inside my own head. That was the outside. On the inside, I felt hopeless. Despairing. Though I would never have acted on it, it crossed my mind more than once that it would be far easier to be dead. It became obvious that something was seriously wrong, and my parents and teachers decided I needed help.
After a brief consultation with a psychiatrist, I started medication and therapy. My therapist explained the biological theory behind obsessive compulsive disorder to me, and said that the idea was to rewire my neural pathways to more constructive patterns. The medicine was meant to facilitate the rewiring, but I would have to do the work of forming the new habits, the new thought patterns, the new pathways. This was a really helpful way of looking at it for me. I wasn’t a lost cause. There was a physical illness, and a rehab of sorts. I could work at it, and get better.
Early progress was limited. I felt a bit of hope, and the medicine took a little- a smidge- of the urgency, the edge, off of the obsession/compulsion cycle. The therapy made sense- my brain chemicals were off, my pathways miswired, and my brain getting faulty signals. But I still couldn’t break it. The thoughts kept coming, and the patterns, and with them, the sense of failure, the need for forgiveness, the failure at even asking for that Correctly. After being buoyed, I was sinking again. And if the buoys failed what hope did I have?
I was praying one evening before bed- what else would I be doing?- exhausted, depressed, wanting nothing but oblivious rest, but unable to rest until I got it Right. I asked for forgiveness, and forgiveness for failing in my prayers for forgiveness, and forgiveness for failing in my prayers for forgiveness for failing… and so on. Imagine climbing a spiral staircase, trying to get out of a pit, at the bottom of which lie unknown and unspeakable horrors. Except for every half-story you climb, the stairs sink another story into the pit. Yeah, that. But still trying. Still climbing. When, suddenly-
I was overcome by the sudden knowledge that God loved me. Filled. It felt like light. It felt like air. It felt like bewilderment, followed by freedom.
God loved me, but not like I had been imagining. Not with disgust, or contempt, or out of pity. God created me out of love. He loved me because I was his, and he wanted me to grow and be well. That was the idea behind all the rules, behind the forgiveness and repentance and everything else. I had missed the point, mistaken methods for the goal. The real point was wholeness, relationship, love. He wanted me to do good, yes, but he wanted it so that I could be well. God wanted to heal me. And my obsession with Rightness was standing in the way. But his love was bigger than my mistakes, real or imagined. His love was bigger than my broken brain.
Love felt like joy.
I slept well, for the first time in a long time. The war wasn’t over- the next day there were new battles to be fought, and I would not win them all. But the tide had turned, and I was able to break the cycle more and more often. Knowing that the point was love allowed me to let go of the idea that I had unforgiven sin laying around somewhere, waiting to be held against me. It removed the shame and fear, allowing me to acknowledge my mental misfirings for what they were. I began to heal.
My brain chemistry still isn’t all it could be. Stress and lack of sleep bring on cycling thoughts that, unadressed, threaten to evolve from anxiety to a full blown recurrence. I watch my sleep, try to watch my stress, and have gone back to medication and therapy as needed over the years. But you know what? I’m not afraid. And I wouldn’t trade what I learned about real, saving, healing love, even for a perfectly functioning set of circuits. Because I’ve found that what I learned about love affects every bit of my life- my relationships, what I strive for and how I go about it, how I feel about the world and the people in it, everything.
Love is the point, my friends.
And love feels like joy.