I was an expert at obsessions and compulsions before I knew obsessions or compulsions existed. From 9 years old, I began to parlay obsessive thoughts and fears through actions that I believed could change the future for the better. You may have seen such compulsions hilariously portrayed on Monk or the Simpsons. Who hasn’t made up the bed a specific way or constantly checked the stove knobs for peace of mind.
Sometimes, these aren’t enough, and you have no choice but to wait for fate and chance. But who needs to wait. From young, I figured out that I could sway fate in my favor by rolling a ‘dice’ to determine the outcome of any situation. Why deal with the unpredictability of life, when I can pretend to control every part of it.
This started at 9/10, with prayers that I would repeat to prevent myself from going to hell. I don’t remember when or why I became concerned with dying and burning in hell. Oh right, black church! If you grew up in church, then you would have experienced a period when you realized what hell was, and you were probably told that you would go there if you curse. Or Steal. Or masturbated too much. Or if you didn’t ask for forgiveness for touching yourself before you die.
It was this pious religiosity that triggered my first compulsion, to pray endlessly. I felt like a crusader ensuring that everyone stayed alive. I would ask for forgiveness for sins, I would commit, as well as my mother and sisters. I covered my whole family. I prayed on my way to school, so that if I died from a car crashing into me, I would go to heaven. Sometimes I would pray in school so that, if the roof fell on me, I would go to heaven. I would also pray before I went to bed so that I would go to heaven in case I died. Sometimes, I would give the lord, specific days, weeks or years to cover myself. If I were to sin, I have been covered for hundreds of years.
2. Ball games/Bets
I graduated from a prayer-based power to a sports-based power. I would shoot hoops or perform others tests for accuracy in order to determine whether I would have good day, pass an exam….or go to heaven. This took many forms. I would time myself to run the blocks to school to ensure that things happened in my favor. I would set my Casio watch for a minute and then sprint to the next block before the minute was up. such feats became my new marker for favor. No sooner had I done one block that I would feel obligated to do another, better, faster or to answer a different question. Can I bike home in ten minutes? Can I wash the dishes in 5 minutes. Can I find a specific leaf? If I did, I would feel better knowing that After countrywide exams, I tossed a tennis ball against the wall of our house for hours, betting on the likelihood of better results each time. I bet my cousin, that I would be able to bounce the ball, and then pass it under the house within 5 tries. I did not. To cover myself, I kept going, betting against myself in my head until it was night. I was uneasy about the results. I was expected to be among the top performers. I was not. My grades were lower than expected. This made sense since I generally suck at sports. Soon after, I stopped using speed-bets as a predictor for success.
Coins replaced sports as I entered secondary school. This is a simple way to ensure that you are covered against all potential issues. Simply ask a question and then flip a coin. If you lose, just go for 2/3. If you lose, try 5 out of ten. You can determine the odds, and the rewards. Will I ever be rich? Flip a coin. Will I pass this test? Flip a coin. Will I go to heaven? Flip a coin. Once you start, it’s hard to stop. But don’t worry, you can flip a coin to double-check the coin. Or flip a coin to stop flipping forever.
High School was all about stacking. An intricate game with rules and limitations. Stacking is the pièce de ré·sis·tance of my compulsions. It came to me when I started high school in Brooklyn after migrating to the United States. It was a finger game that could be played quietly at any time. Like prayer, coins or sports, you can bet any question and get a response. Now the rules, hopefully you appreciate the intricacy. (P.S. I hope you understand)
Stacking started as one-handed, five-finger stacks. I would count out the syllables on one hand as the teacher was speaking. The goal was to ensure that you kept stacking syllables 1 through 5 and then repeating until there was a natural end in the sentence. A good stack would end symmetrically on 5’s, 10’s or 15’s etc. The more 5’s the better. I would follow the teacher, counting away on my fingers, hoping for an even 5. This would ensure a favorable outcome to the question. And then it changed. I don’t know why but it changed. I started stacking symmetrical pyramids, first the five fingers (1-5), then the middle three (2-4) then the middle finger (3). It was stable because of the pyramid shape. Now, I had to choose, after the initial stack 1 to 5, I could either go for a symmetrical stack or a pyramid stack. I would ask myself questions all day and answer them on my fingers. And then it changed. One hand stacking became less fulfilling.
Two handed stacking was riskier because it was harder to find sentences that stacked symmetrically (10/20/30) or that could be stacked like a pyramid: First all (1 through 10), then the middle 8 (2 -9), then the middle 6 (3-8), then the middle 4 (4-7), then the middle 2 (5&6). Since it was riskier, it felt like the answers were more definite. So much so that it was no longer worth it to stack on one hand. I could stack until I get better answers and change the questions to cover a bad stack. It gave me a sense of control. Like I could bet against fate and take control of my destiny. Life wasn’t just chance, I could ensure that things were going to be okay. It was a very fair system. I stacked all the way through the end of high school until the first few months of college. Then I stopped.
My last year in high school, I started marking all my papers and assignments with ‘100%’. It would be written in tiny letters usually upside down, near the bottom of every assignment and exam. I felt better as if I was ensuring that the assignments/results came back with full marks. I continued this past the end of stacking and into my third year of college. And then the rituals faded away sometime around the death of my mother. I don’t know really know why. Maybe I was outgrowing them. Maybe I was having ‘bigger’ problems. Maybe it just changed into a different anxiety. Or maybe I just had more control in college.
For much of my life, I have felt emotionally isolated. Trapped in my own skin and in my own head, in the body of a nerd. I remember being a passive passenger of life; insecure, scared and somewhat traumatized. An observer, forced to react to the world. With the divorce, multiple migrations, changing schools, changing homes, identity issues, life felt very chaotic for much of my childhood. I truly feared the world. All the while, I just wanted things to be okay. Such a simple concept, and it’s probably what you spend your whole life chasing after, for everything to be okay. To feel safe. To feel happy and well adjusted like “other people”. It didn’t help that I grew up wanting to be someone else; someone who was better at sports, wanted to talk to girls, and more ‘masculine’ to other people. Someone who wasn’t marginalized, riddled with low self-esteem and self-hatred. Someone who felt encouraged to just be himself outside his door. And it all went under the radar. I’m sure that there are many brothers that can relate to this.
I am less of that person today. But some of that remains. I am still anxious and thought ridden, but the compulsions faded away. Still, I have to work at undoing decades of internalized stuff. Sometimes, I’m not sure what that stuff is or how it played into the path I’ve traveled and the anxious brother that I became.
In recent years, I haven’t had any new compulsions, except for the side of my wife that I’m walking on, or over-brushing. Nothing harmful, I think. I’m truly not into controlling the future like that anymore. I gave up my powers. Or they were taken from me. Or, I don’t need them anymore. I feel safe. Well, safer. As an adult, I feel happier than as a child. I’ve grown to love and accept myself a lot more even though I’ve strayed further from my goals. I feel more in control of my life. I feel I can better handle my life, not by rolling a dice but by fighting for me. Besides, if the compulsions got better then the incessant health anxiety can too, right?
Keep being weird!