In the shower the other day, my thoughts began to trickle down into an endless void on the subject of contamination, like flowing streams of water from the shower-head as they circled the drain beneath my feet. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has that effect on me. I often get stuck in an unending mental cycle of what ails my psyche. I’ve realized though, that the subjects of my disorder, like contamination, is not the thing I truly fear. The pain that I will inevitably inflict upon myself should I not obey the demands of these subjects is what scares me the most.
Over the years my OCD has taken many forms, such as: imperfect handwriting, religious impurity, repeatedly double-checking things, and, frequently, contamination. But the real question is: why? Why do I impose this pain upon myself in the first place? These would-be catalysts of my neurosis appear as an afterthought to the initial psychological agony of the onset of my disorder; a logical outcome to an ailment that seems to have no other explanation. I like to compare it to treating a burn with a cast. Rationalizing my behaviours in this way never addresses the real issue, and leaves me desperate to satisfy my obsessions over and over, no matter how harmful the ritualistic attempts become.
What I have come to believe as the true source of this internal torment is known all too well by the Chinese Taoist. At a basic level, Taoism is the harmony of the self, without manipulation to adapt to what is useful, or required. In Taoism, the bending of the individual to conform to social norms is seen as a necessary, yet violent process of the Confucius way of life. Where Confucianism creates rules for a harmonious society, Taoism is a model for the harmony of the soul. When the task of Confucian conformity proves too much, whether through age or illness, Taoism is offered as an escape. The benefit of these two opposing views coexisting within one culture allows the discomforts of social conventions to be more easily understood by the general public, where that pain is acknowledged and expected of everyone. In the end, one retires to Taoism to find sanctuary from the requirements of society.
Like a square peg forcing itself into a round hole, my neurosis is the result of the personal contortions becoming a member of society requires, and I have found that it is an excruciating process. Here in the Western world, unlike Taoist China, we do not have a philosophical doctrine that exempts us from failed assimilation. In our mainstream culture, many believe that conforming, that forcing ourselves to fit into the constructs of society, is the only way to achieve success and happiness. We believe that we will get some great pay-off for our perseverance. To those that find security in this model, they can take comfort in the fanciful luxuries it offers; in some yet-attained nicety: a new car, a dream vacation, a beautiful home. Life becomes a never-ending cycle of materialistic enhancement. For me, collecting tangible nonessentials, and acquiring a socially acceptable status never offered any release from the torment of my neurosis. In fact, it only seemed to make it worse. Still, the idea that conformity could be a solution for my disorder cannot be escaped entirely. By way of advertisements, social media, by the insistence of friends and family, and by our entire culture, a better life is promised to be just around the corner if I only put in the time and the effort.
Often in my life, I have grappled with the expectations of society. I have bought into variations of the person I could be. The indoctrination of civilization is so firmly ingrained that it feels profoundly rebellious to not keep trying. Recently, however, I have discovered that by letting go of my desires to conform, I can glimpse the self that is not tormented. The few years I lived in Vancouver were perhaps the first moments I became awakened to this idea. I had secured a respectable job, better than any I had before. I had been living in the heart of a gorgeous metropolis. I made lots of money, and still I carried the weight of anxiety, OCD, and depression. My neurosis was still out of my control, and I felt defeated. Instead of finding support in my relationships, the world seemed to be telling me that to escape my mental struggles I only had to make more of an effort. Ten more years of therapy, and trying to adapt to other lifestyles, both extravagant and simple, would take place before utter exhaustion left only one alternative: I had to stop trying to feel better under the pretence of what society had sold me. Mental burnout of my efforts is what has finally afforded me some peace. In surrendering the idea that any form of myself would satisfy society’s standards, or my own, I was able to begin my philosophical journey.
I think the one upside of mental illness is that it brings clarity faster than to those without it. For some, the illusory security of purpose and control is enough in this life, but it is not infinite. A significant alteration to the systematic norms and beliefs is inevitable, whether it is the loss of purpose through forced retirement, or the loss of control from the death of a loved one, when all the money and technology of the world had failed to save them. Sudden changes like these can lead to a complete collapse of one’s psyche. I think this is where tragic deaths, those lives that are taken by lonely hands, stem from: a lost sense of purpose, or control. As a result of years of battling with my own mental illness, the destruction of purpose and control has come early in my life, and more frequently. I have become desensitized to the shock it induces. Many nights I cradle the thought of suicide. When I have a particularly bad day, I examine the paths my life could have taken had I been able to elude my disorder, only to find that discovering these possibilities exacerbates the whole sensation of my misery. I become frustrated when I cannot make myself feel better about my reality, and out of my embitterment more extravagant schemes to escape it pop into mind. I resent myself when my abilities cannot satiate my ambitions, but the belief that I am somehow defective, just as I am, is lessened each time I come out of it again.
If I have seen this, I am still in the process of accepting it. I don’t know if the afflictions of my psyche can ever be repaired completely, but when I have the clarity to see, and the compassion to accept the damage my failed assimilation has wrought, I find a peace I have known nowhere else. That is the beauty of letting go.