Friday, November 15, 2019

The girl scared of 4-letter words - (OCD story part 3)

(If you are just joining, this is a continuation of a story I'm working on about a 13-year-old girl in a very tumultuous phase of her life. It will make more sense if you read the first posts here and here and then return to this post for part three.)

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Along with my newfound knowledge of the bird, it was during these early teens that I also grew enlightened with other vocabulary in the English language, namely profanity. In the same way I grew terrified of using my middle finger inappropriately, I now had a fresh fear of accidental swearing. Though no obscenity ever left my lips, I lived in a state of perpetual worry that perhaps one had slipped through without my knowing. 

I also had a rising concern about the possibility of accidentally cursing in my head. This fear wasn’t the traditional series of events that most might imagine: stub toe and then think curse word. It was more subliminal. Now that I had knowledge of these words, they would occasionally surface from my subconscious, and run their way through the forefront of my mind like subtitles across the bottom of a TV screen. Though I had as much control over them as I did preventing myself from thinking the word “tree” when I looked at a forest, I felt excruciatingly guilty and disgusted with myself for “allowing” them to be a part of my thought life. My mind continued to taunt me, like a broken record caught on a bar I’d rather skip altogether.

Curse words and using God’s name in vain, for me, were two of the world’s greatest evils. There was little in life that horrified me more, in these naive early years of privilege, where I was shielded from life’s real and true abominations. Part of it was my legalism, but I realize now that a large part of it was also my OCD at play. I was the kid who marched around on my high horse, correcting the foul-mouthed “rebellious” girls on my city-league basketball teams, requesting they please replace their expletive choices with words like “heck” and “gosh.” From my seat of judgment, I thought I was doing them a favor. 

I remember the one and only time I ever heard my Dad say the words, “Oh my God.” It is one of my most vivid childhood memories, which now said aloud, feels laughable. In the vast array of all occurrences that could be preserved and treasured into permanent memory, mine would be about the one time my dad slipped up with his words in my presence. I say this not to emphasize the gravity of the misdemeanor in the grand scheme of things, but rather to highlight the fragility of my mental state when my OCD symptoms were at their height. Everyone (myself included), was maneuvering through a world made of up of thin shapes of glass. One wrong move could result in a total shattering. The only option was to tread lightly, stay the course, do right, be right, or be crushed beyond repair. There was only black and white, not even a sliver of gray.

We had just concluded dinner and we were in the kitchen, rinsing dishes under the glowing fluorescent lights overhead. The phone rang and I answered it in the way I had been taught, greeting the caller and identifying myself by both my first and last name. It was one of my cousins, a student at our town’s university at the time. 

“Well hello Kelsie Wilson,” he chuckled, gently jabbing at my formal phone introduction, as many familiar callers often did. He asked to speak to my dad and I obliged his request, handing the receiver over. 

I went back to the pile of dirty dishes in the sink, occupying my hands while my ears stood at attention, eavesdropping on the half of the conversation I could hear. My dad hummed in acknowledgement of what was being said for a couple of minutes and then it happened. Without warning, he said it.

“Oh my God!” 

It shattered the silence and echoed repeatedly through my head. My hands froze under the flow of the faucet and my back went instantly tense. If I had been holding a plate in that moment, I’m sure I would have released it to clatter down upon the dishes below it. It was as if all time had stopped. 

Certainly I had misheard! My dad, a Scripture-reading, Bible-believing, church-going man of God would not allow such shameful words as these to leave his lips. “He must have said ‘gosh,’” I tried to reassure myself. I was unable to handle the alternative, that my dad, the one I admired and looked up to, had disobeyed one of the 10 commandments, one I viewed to be up there with the world’s greatest evil, right in front of me. 

“He would not have said that,” I thought, still trying desperately to make sense of the situation. “He knows using the Lord’s name in vain is wrong.”

No matter how much I tried to defend him, I knew in my heart that he had indeed said the forbidden phrase. I excused myself from dinner clean up and ran to my room where I threw myself on my bed and cried. The unleashing of emotion that followed was disorienting and hard to describe. To anyone else, it wouldn’t fit the crime. But for me, it was devastating. In my extreme black-and-white-rule-following reality, I couldn’t reconcile what had happened. I was terrified about what this misdeed would mean for my dad, but more so, I was devastated and unable to handle how my image of him had been crushed. Certainly he had raised his voice and said harsh words and been an imperfect parent in all sorts of ways beforehand, but this was somehow different in my mind’s eye. It seemed more explicit and I felt sick to my stomach.

I remember my mom coming to me in my room to see what was wrong. I remember crying to her, in utter devastation that my dad would ever say such a thing. I think what startled me most was her lack of surprise. She was always one to cringe and gasp during each patch of foul language in movies and on TV, but in this moment, she seemed to be shrugging it off. How could she? Did she not realize the gravity of the sin? In her attempt to comfort me, she told me about how my dad was around a lot of people at work who used that phrase with great frequency. 

“When you are around people who say these things, they can get stuck in your mind, and can slip out without your knowing,” she told me. 

Sure, this made logical sense but was she even hearing me?! Dad had used the Lord’s name in vain! I wanted her to join me in my horror, to help me normalize and make sense of these extreme thoughts that were whipping through my mind. Instead, she held her line, acknowledged the incident for what it was, and then was ready to move on. In retrospect, totally unbeknownst to both of us, her response was likely my first dose of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy now widely used to treat patients suffering from OCD.  

I am uncomfortably aware of the black and white, judgemental nature of my thinking here in this story. I hesitated in sharing it because now it feels so shameful. It is difficult to imagine ever viewing a situation as severely as I did. But, with my dad’s permission, I’m sharing it now because I think it so clearly illustrates the extreme rigidity I operated under. My mind could only see the world via a lens of two options: right or wrong. There was no space for gray. What I was suffering from was a specific and extremely messy form of OCD known as Scrupulosity, which I will dive into more thoroughly in future posts. Stay tuned.

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