All signs point to death
My dog has taken to sniffing my armpit in such an intense way that I have come to believe he is busy detecting cancer or some other serious disease through the chemicals in my sweat. Nevermind that I have watched this dog run headlong into a fence post at full speed while chasing a biker, I've somehow convinced myself that he's gifted enough to save lives with his nose. I don't even know if cancer sniffing dogs are real or if the story was just some junk science that had made the news a few years back, but the logic doesn't matter to my brain in either case. Once the anxiety has been triggered, logical thought processes cease. Then the reptile brain has a field day.
If you've ever wondered what living with anxiety looks like, consider this scene: I'm lying in bed trying to read when my dog sticks his nose in my armpit, sniffing aggressively, and I immediately think, Well of course I have cancer and isn't it a shame that I won't see the children grow up and will Chad be able to find a nice woman who will love them and keep my picture on the mantle and what will poor Rosie do, my sensitive little child who already worries about things like nothingness and eternity, what will my long decline and painful death do to her? And before I know it, I'm tearing up a little, and my heart is racing, and my palms are sweating so much that my dog's fur sticks to my hand in a damp mat as I pet him.
It's the feel of wet dog hair in my hand that finally lifts me to the surface of this particular avalanche, and I can begin to engage the logical part of my brain again and calm myself. These kinds of racing thoughts are a hallmark of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a fun little mental flaw I have lived with for as long as I can remember (and have written about in all of its absurdly glorious detail here).
Even as a child, I obsessed over death until it spilled over into my dreams, many of which I can recall—viscerally—to this day. In one of these dreams, I was George Washington, reduced to bone, rotting in the ground for years on end. In another I was with my father, watching as he took a pill from a street vendor and turned into a plant, gone from me forever. If these thoughts strike you as particularly morbid, consider that I was only about five years old when I was having them. I must have been forming an awareness of death at that time, triggering the obsessive thinking that was likely hardwired into my brain.
Fortunately, my OCD has taken on a softer tone through the years. In fact, I hadn't been thinking much about it until sometime last year, when the therapist I was seeing began asking questions about my intrusive thoughts, which, at the time, all revolved around things related to my father's death. I recounted for her all of the ways I used to quiet my mind when I was younger. My methods were, clinically speaking, compulsions. I'd find a word on a sign or in a book and rearrange the letters into a specific number of other words, in doing so securing some kind of cosmic protection for myself. I'd do something similar with numbers, manipulating them until they became "good" numbers, which, for reasons that I could never articulate, were always odd--usually 3, 9, or 11. I couldn't do anything else until I had finished the task I had prescribed for myself because--and this may be the part that "normal" people might not be able to fully understand--some misfortune awaited me if I didn't perform these tasks.
Of course, that some misfortune in the form of death always awaits me. It awaits everyone. There's no escaping death, and no ritual will ever protect me from it. That's the logical brain, fully engaged. That's the brain that reflects on the words of Seneca, who wrote in his Moral Letters, "It is ruinous for the soul to be anxious about the future and miserable in advance of misery. . ." That’s the brain I’ve put on a Crossfit regimen of cognitive behavioral therapy for years and years. That’s also the brain that enjoys a cheat day every now and then—thus, the belief in a cancer sniffing dog (or a lurking shark).
Though I've managed to shed most of the compulsions of my youth, I still find myself performing a few relatively innocuous rituals to calm myself. I recite the same few lines of poetry during takeoff every time I fly in order to keep the plane aloft, for example (a vital service that has yet to be acknowledged by my pilot husband). And before having children, I’d still try to impose order on my life by arranging my physical space just so, but I’ve managed to temper that over time in order to retain my overall sanity. (I’ll confess that if I have one obsessive fantasy, it’s to have my own apartment where no one in my family can rearrange anything).
Anxiety in all its forms has been a challenge for me to manage, particularly after I became a mother. In fact, I wish someone had advised me to get a better grip on my problem before I had children, because the level of anxiety every mother feels, regardless of her history with mental illness, is intense and, for me, is often briefly debilitating. My obsessive worrying after Dylan’s birth likely took years off of my life. But I can’t allow myself to entertain that idea (just how many years did I lose?!) unless I want to trigger another avalanche of unwanted thoughts. Constantly reframing thoughts like this can be an enormous cognitive burden, but it’s necessary work and I’ve made good progress—as long as I stay away from WebMD.