By Katrina McDaniel
‘Catholic guilt is where it all started for me, really.‘
I don’t know if a lot of you have ever had close contact with a Catholic family, but it can be pretty intense. If you do know, God love you. Resisting the urge, upon hearing Star Wars fans say “may the force be with you,” to reply with “and also with you.” Begging St Anthony to help you find your lost jumper from school before your mummy goes through you for a shortcut.
Religion is a weird one for all of us, but because this was where it all started for me, it’s even more embedded in my conscience than most. I remember vividly the dancing colours of the stained glass, the wide, open ceilings that let light filter into and brighten the cream coloured stone walls, the hard benches underneath my knees as I knelt for prayer. I remember trying to wrap my mouth around the new word the teacher said we must do when we enter and leave the pews – gen-u-flect – and the feeling of pride when I knew all the words of the prayers without even looking.
I was 7, and my First Confession was just around the corner. For anyone unfamiliar, confession is one of the important tenets of the Catholic doctrine, and to tell the priest your sins was as important as anything. How else would you get into heaven, but for telling a stranger that you hid your mummy’s bank card down the back of the skirting board for a laugh and kicked your sister for touting on you?
We went a few times, sitting with that sober looking priest who would dole out penance differently each time, “Say a few Hail Marys” usually, and we did it and God forgave us and we went on about our lives again.
Or, we should’ve. The guilt ate me up alive. I was a sinner, surely I needed to do more than just a few Hail Mary’s? I should do seven, every single time I felt bad. Then every night I should do a decade of the rosary, an Our Father, the angel prayers, the prayer you say at the end of the day in primary school, a prayer to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and the confessional prayers. Every single night because if I fell asleep before this God would definitely punish me.
I think this was when I first began showing signs that I had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. When you hear the term ‘OCD’, you don’t generally think of saying your prayers at night. You think of cleanliness, of germs and scrubbing. Sure, this can absolutely be an aspect of the condition. But to consider cleanliness and organisation in itself a sign of OCD is reductive and to be quite honest a little bit offensive.
OCD is defined as a mental health condition which consists of recurring thoughts and repetitive behaviours. On the surface, that’s probably what it looks like if you watched me potter around my house: tapping walls, kicking the stairs, touching my elbow in a very specific way against the wall. Repetitive behaviours, but pretty calm all the same. What you would fail to see is the storm of anxiety raging inside me and the need to do things ‘right’.
You see, I didn’t say my prayers from a place of massive devotion. I did it because I was plagued with thoughts of what God would do to me, my family and my friends if I didn’t. Repetitive behaviours aren’t a ‘comforting’ idea. They are things I physically need to do to function, and it’s been like that for as long as I can remember.
As I got older, hand washing became my new obsession. My left hand was constantly dirty and I had to wash it in order to stay clean. I distinctly remember a summer when I was in primary school reading Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood trilogy. It was a big book, and every 20 pages or so I had to go to the bathroom and wash my hands, to make sure everyone in my life would stay safe and wouldn’t get sick from my infected left hand. It remains one of the most physically exhausting parts of my life, and one I rarely divulge with others.
The condition continued to evolve, but it reached a head when I was 10. I was involved in a pretty serious freak accident where my long hair was caught in a Go-Kart engine, effectively ripping my head open. I had severe whiplash and was subject to a gruelling operation with plastic surgery and over 40 stitches. I’m left with a nasty scar that’s fortunately not visible through my hair, and a ton of mental scars.
As you can imagine, this event compounded my OCD massively and made it all too real. I attributed the accident to the fact I hadn’t forwarded a chain mail I’d seen a few months previously. My feeling that the accident was my fault was only further exacerbated by a complication of infection a few months later. If I could do this to myself, what could I do to the people around me?
I rarely left the house at this point. I cycled between a number of magic numbers – seven being my favourite, and had to touch right hand, left hand, right foot, left foot, seven times over. As I went up through school, I found the need to push every chair around me all the way in. I had to touch certain doors and railings; I was wholly aware of the laughter and whispering at my expense. It only got worse – writing notes became hard because if I had a negative thought while writing, I had to scribble out the whole line and start again. My books and my head were a mess. I just couldn’t risk something bad happening again because of me.
As I got older so did the considerations. Don’t look away from the TV until the volume is at 20 or you’ll get pregnant, lose your job, get a disciplinary, fail your essay at University. For a while I had a real fear of the supernatural despite no real interest in that sort of thing. As one concern fades, another one emerges. It’s an endless war against the thoughts in your head.
And yes, you might ask: don’t you realise it’s all in your head? I am acutely aware of how illogical it is. I know how stupid it sounds to admit that me touching this stair with my foot eleven and a half times (my current favourite number, right down to the half) isn’t going to help to stop things from happening. I know logically that the likelihood of me falling pregnant when I’ve taken all necessary precautions are slim, and I know that my friends don’t hate me. But would I rather complete my rituals than spend the rest of the day in a knotted ball of anxiety, feeling sick to my stomach, and blaming any little thing that happens – someone getting a flat tire, for example – on the fact I haven’t clicked my tongue enough times, or turned the two switches at the side of my bed off at the same time? Absolutely.
Sometimes the touches aren’t right, and you have to do them again. Sometimes it settles the anxiety in your tummy unexpectedly, until the next intrusive thought seeps through your consciousness and has you scrambling to complete the next ritual, look at the right things, park the right way. It is the most physically exhausting aspect of my life, and it won’t go away. It’s as much a part of me as my personality traits or my hair colour.
Which is why, at this trying time, I’m overly frustrated by the flippant use of the term ‘OCD’. I understand there isn’t any malicious intent behind using it, but when you describe yourself as “so OCD” because you’re reorganising your home in boredom or cleaning your kitchen, just know that the current lockdown has only added more worries to my ever-evolving intrusive thoughts and has all but crippled me half the time. I can cope well outside; it’s in my house that my rituals are the worst. Spending more time in the house than I have at any time in the past year has unsurprisingly made my everyday life that much harder.
I’m not asking for sympathy, nor am I asking anyone to ever understand what it’s like. I don’t even understand it half the time myself. What I am asking for is to stop trivialising conditions such as anxiety or OCD. They aren’t cute or quirky, and they certainly aren’t little niches to embellish your personality with. They are real, they are ugly, and they consume a large portion of my life. If you do anything productive in this time of reflection, please gently remind yourself and others that you have absolutely no idea what is going on inside someone else’s head.