by Ian Johnson
June 25, 2020
Ian Johnson, former professional basketball player, shares the relationship he has with his OCD symptoms, or “uninvited guests.” He is the author of “The Bounce and the Echo: Dying to Love a Game.” He coaches basketball in Pittsburgh, PA.
In my mid-twenties, I flirted hard with religion. I read large portions of the Old and New Testaments, and smaller sections of the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita and even the Book of Mormom. I attended church with some regularity, and tried to pray and tried to talk to a higher power. While I’m grateful for the opportunities I had to explore, a decade later I don’t flirt with churches or temples or mosques anymore. I don’t have much of a relationship with religion at all, actually, except in the uncountable ways religious custom has influenced and still influences, both subliminally and not, culture at large.
Yet I retain in my secular state several lessons from that era of fliration, mostly in the examples of Jesus in the New Testament, but also the following line, a line that isn’t in the Bible or any other official religious text, but a line that in my opinion should be the foundation of any spiritual dogma: only love begets love.
When I was nine years old, and just about to start the fourth grade, my first OCD symptom showed up at my front door. I was perplexed by its arrival. I hadn’t invited any symptoms over for a glass of lemonade or a game of catch. No stylized invitation cards. No request for an RSVP. No matter. The symptom barged in, announced its presence and would stay for decades. How rude.
My family had just moved from Pittsburgh, PA to Charlottesville, VA. On the day of the move, our station wagon pulled into our new neighborhood in the early afternoon. My parents led us inside our new home and my mother instructed us kids to check out the upstairs. As I climbed the steps for the first time, my vision froze on a dead bug on the second step up. I halted and stared, and, without any sort of conscious recognition of anything happening, something happened. Within a couple seconds, I’d associated that dead bug, and therefore the second step, with vague but horrible things happening to me or to my family or just in general. The only option I felt I had to make sure those horrible things didn’t happen was to avoid that second step. And so I did.
More symptoms showed up not long after, again uninvited, again barging into my head without even a courteous heads up that they were on their way. My head began to get crowded, and, miffed and confused, I wasn’t a very nice host. I was scared of my symptoms, and therefore didn’t offer to hang up their coats or inquire if they wanted a glass of water or ask where they were coming from or what their life stories might be. Most importantly, I didn’t ask if they had anything to tell me.
My head began to get crowded, and, miffed and confused, I wasn’t a very nice host.
As I progressed through my teenage years, I developed nighttime rituals and superstitions and suicidal thoughts. I struggled with decision-making and HOCD. In my twenties, my flirtation with religion began, in part because of OCD-related fears about what would happen if I didn’t. The symptoms filed into my head from some unknown waiting room. I was afraid to peek outside to see how long the line was. My head became a crowded urban area, a permanent hotel for these troubled symptoms who seemed to have nowhere else to go. Again, I wasn’t an accommodating landlord. I fought my symptoms whenever I could. I grabbed a broom and tried to sweep them out. I screamed at them in anger when they wouldn’t shut up at night. I pleaded for them to find somewhere else to live. They didn’t listen, and in response to my hatred they only vowed to stay that much longer in my head, and be that much more disruptive. They turned up the Scrupulosity Stereo and blasted the Intrusive TV, sometimes, it felt like, for weeks on end. They were my unwitting roommates, my unwelcome houseguests, my constant life companions no matter how hard I tried to shake them free.
Often, too tired to fight, I submitted and gave in to everything they asked for. This wasn’t a good idea. In time, the intensity of our cohabitation was such that I tried to kill us all. I was willing to sacrifice my life to kill theirs. I didn’t do it, but not doing it didn’t solve the problem.
Eventually, through the help of a therapist, I was able to try something unexpected and novel: I asked if my symptoms had anything to say. However tremulously, I invited them to sit down at my kitchen table and share their stories. I acknowledged them respectfully and accepted them begrudgingly and said that even though everything might not be okay, we could still work together towards okayness. In other words, I showed my symptoms — I showed myself — a little love.
However paradoxically, my symptoms didn’t want to stick around as much once I started giving them some love. They still showed up and had raucous parties now and then, but for the most part they got more respectful about turning down the TV and not shining headlights in my eyes while I was trying to get to sleep. We didn’t become best friends or anything — our history was too heavy for that — but we learned to tolerate each other, and eventually I got to a place where I could really hear what they had to say.
And there was so much they had to say; there was so much for me to hear. My symptoms, I realized, were a kind of messenger. While recognizing the genetic components of OCD, it has been the case with my own OCD that the introduction, frequency and intensity of most of my symptoms have been correlated with traumatic and stressful events in my life. Growing up, I struggled to find a fluency with my feelings. Unable to communicate pain and grief and sadness, even to myself, those wounded feelings needed an outlet. OCD provided one, however unwelcome. My symptoms, then, were the voice of all the pain and confusion and uncertainty I’d never given a proper voice to.
As I listened to my symptoms, they told me how they represented heartbreak and anxiety and pressure. They told me they didn’t want to be in my head, either, but that they were compelled to stay until I paid attention to what they were trying to tell me. Until I addressed the wounds they represented. Until I learned to love myself.
If I have a religion now, it’s love. If my religion has a sacred text, it contains just a single line: only love begets love. And when my symptoms show up as unannounced guests in the house that is my brain, I do what I can to practice that truism. My management policy is, simply, to love and listen.
Love isn’t usually prescribed by medical professionals in the treatment of OCD. Love is hard work, much harder than hate or frustration or fear, and I struggled and continue to struggle to be consistent. Plus, the idea of “loving oneself” requires a wiser, more mature self who can love the symptoms and the trauma they represent, and this brings up some uncomfortable existential queries — just who is loving whom? And how do we tell the difference? Additionally, giving oneself the time and space to love isn’t always feasible. Sometimes it’s just way easier to self-medicate or distract oneself. Sometimes you’re just too damn tired and so you give in to your symptoms even when you don’t want to. But love, however corny or cheesy or unprofessional, belongs in your toolkit. You deserve it.