On Being Vulnerable
Sharing the story of my head injury was more emotional than I thought it would be. It was a huge relief to communicate what I have been experiencing. It also felt quite vulnerable because it exposed the mental and neurobiological strata I deal with, not only to friends but to complete strangers. The effort to heal and not be controlled by these phenomena is massive, a work of body, heart, and mind, and it is challenging to understand myself, much less come to terms with. It is most certainly not always a glorious fight.
The process of self-acceptance demands a daily dose of grace and requires confronting the specter of shame that cloaks stories of mental health. It is absolutely sobering to think about the shuttered away nature of these illnesses throughout history, and even today. Yet, these experiences are not atypical. They are baffling and bedeviling, and sometimes they seem to be simply the stuff of the man of sorrows, something perhaps only God can fully understand.
An Excursus on “Woundology”
What do you do with a painful story? Is it like the dream deferred that festers, or stinks, or explodes? Maybe each of Langston Hughes’ scenarios contains truth when it comes to the art of sharing wounded stories. Perhaps hiding those stories causes them to infect our lives and promote over-identification with them. Perhaps they become suffocating and isolating in their suffocation. Perhaps those wounded stories are the seeds planted in life’s thorny ground that burst open, bringing beautiful, infinite renewal. Perhaps the most explosive destruction, pain, and growth happens underground, out of sight, beyond our neighbors’ ken. Perhaps it is best that way.
Caroline Myss refers to what she calls “woundology,” a language of wounds that in contemporary life serves to foster intimacy and delay healing (see The Anatomy of the Spirit, pp. 208-213). To share a wound repeatedly can serve as a form of narrative reinforcement, of self-definition (Perforce there must be a phase of that in any healing process, I think: a moving through in order to move up). Now that I am doing a bit better, I don’t feel the same need to share those sorrows in everyday conversation to be understood. I share if it is to support someone else in her sorrows, to show that I understand that particular form of pain from direct experience.
I have wondered, was sharing my concussion story a form of woundology? And would sharing more of the backstory be that, too? Raw emotion does not have to define the story’s telling, but is the very act of telling gratuitous? This story has been the defining struggle of my life for quite a while. Accepting it is, I feel, a form of claiming personal power. In the telling perhaps I will learn to tell it better, to derive more and more healing from framing, reframing, gaining distance, practicing perspective.
As I write this I am chuckling a little bit because this sort of introspection, this worrying over moral rectitude or how others might perceive me is an element of the OCD.
What is OCD, exactly?
I have never spoken at length or in any depth about OCD with other than a few dear friends. It has been my companion all my life, although it has manifested itself in various degrees. I could use that acronym in casual conversation to explain why I might be feeling a certain way, but only other members of this painful fraternity would fully grasp what it means. Even though those three little letters are a familiar part of the cultural idiom, they are misused regularly, jokingly, even, to describe fastidiousness and perfectionism.
This TEDEd lesson does a good job of explaining that OCD is an actual neurobiological disorder that manifests itself not simply as punctiliousness but as a number of disturbing, disruptive thoughts and behaviors. Some of these include excessive fear of harming others, obsessions about morality, and fears of disease, all of which I have experienced, in addition to some relatively mild compulsive behaviors.
Two-hundred and fifty. Two-hundred and fifty-one, the number of center stripes on the highway.
I can trace obsessive compulsive tendencies going back to my childhood, long before I ever claimed OCD as a significant component of my neurobiology. My shoes had to be tied just so and my clothing arranged in a particular way or I was prone to melt down. I remember it, that feeling of discomfort in my own skin when things weren’t right. One night, I vividly remember, I lay in bed perseverating on the thought that Satan was literally going to get me in my bed. As I reached my teen years I began to have unbidden intrusive thoughts and swearing. Although they were not overly disruptive, I had checking compulsions, worrying that I left the iron on until I proved that I had not, and counting compulsions, especially on road trips as I numbered the glowing white center stripes on the highway, or as I lay in bed.
In college I noticed I washed my hands frequently, likely a gesture to contain the stress I was feeling or perhaps more accurately a response to a neurobiological impulse. Feelings of unworthiness, in a religious sense, followed my devotions. Sacrament meeting and temple attendance, could be agonizing, prone to intense anxiety. I recognized as obsessive compulsive the tendency to check and to swear under duress and to need things just so, yet I did not connect worries about worthiness with the disorder. Mood regulation, anxiety, and depression factored much more prominently in my awareness of what was causing the most distress. Making this connection was a huge turning point for me, but it was hard won and interacted crucially with my faith.