Intrusive Thoughts

“What has been seen cannot be unseen, what has been learned cannot be unknown.”
― C.A. Woolf

For the reasons in this quote from C.A. Woolf, I have shied away from writing about intrusive thoughts. They’re terrible things. When taken out of context they can be used to paint the person experiencing them as a monster. The rest of this was written at the risk of being judged in that light.

Symptoms of OCD tend to kick in a little later than the symptoms of Tourette’s Syndrome. My first tics showed up when I was three or four. I experienced my first intrusive thought several years later when I was in elementary school. It was strongly visual, as most of mine have been, and only hit me when I was in church.

I was raised Catholic back when Pope Paul VI was in the Vatican. The message from Rome revolved around abstinence, not coveting thy neighbor, and the hellfire and damnation awaiting those who strayed from the one true path. The priests at our church were all too happy to pass the message on to us in the most strident tones.

One Sunday as I sat in the pew listening to the admonishments from the pulpit, I had a flash vision of everyone in the church naked, grimy, coated with grease and dirt, clawing at the walls like rats in a sewer, trying to escape, and desperately fornicating.

As a young kid I didn’t have any real knowledge of how sex actually happened, so the vision was a little fuzzy on the details. This is an important point to keep in mind with intrusive thoughts: they come out of your own head, so they can only use what you already know. I was a kid. I knew what dirty looked like. I knew what greasy looked like. The ditch behind our neighborhood offered plenty of opportunities to watch rats trying to escape rising waters. But sex? No clue.

That first time I was too shocked to react. I just knew I didn’t want to go back in the nave of the church. So from then on whenever we went to church I sat outside. Or I sat in the restroom, claiming I had diarrhea. Or I sat in the crying room. Anywhere but in there where the naked, greasy, clawing rats were.

One of the messages the priests were very clear about was that it wasn’t the act that made a sin a sin; it was the thought. The very thought of coveting thy neighbor was a sin. The very thought of murder was a sin. The very thought of taking the Lord’s name in vain was a sin. The thought of all of the churchgoers having greasy, dirty, wild sex? You gotta be kidding me.

My seating arrangements didn’t go unnoticed. Nuns would stop to talk to me, as did a couple of the priests. One Sunday I worked up the nerve to ask how serious they were about the whole ‘the thought is the sin’ thing. I was treated to my own private sermon right then and there. I drew the only conclusion I could: I was hell-bound.

Being a good Catholic, I decided to go to confessional, but my parents wouldn’t hear of it. “You’re too young! What could you have done that’s a sin?” Oooooh… You have no idea. In the end family won out over religion and I never went. It’s just as well. I’m pretty sure I’d have been burned at the stake.

I’m making light of the religious consequences of that first intrusive thought, but at the time it was mortifying. Every Sunday it came back. I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t un-think it. And the Church made quite clear I was going to hell for it. It felt like the entire universe had dumped me off a cliff and laughed as I fell.

It was the first, but it was far from the last. Several years later we stopped going to church and that particular intrusive thought faded. When my wife and I had our first child I was treated to the parent’s special: graphic visualizations of my child dying through my own negligence.

At the time I worked on a university campus and had to park several blocks away. This was Texas. This was the summer. By nine in the morning the interior of my car easily reached 120F. Each morning I’d drop my daughter off at day care, park my car, walk to my office, reel from the overwhelming knowledge I’d left her in the car, sprint back to my car, knowing I’d find her cooked, bloated body strapped in her car seat, only to find the car empty. I’d walk back to my office, feeling guilty anyway (the thought is the sin, after all!) and go through it all over again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Ever since that one all of my intrusive thoughts have centered around my being responsible for the deaths of others. Back when my kids had all entered elementary school I had what is to this day my worst one: Every time I saw one of my kids or my wife, I witnessed myself stabbing them in the chest. I would see their faces register shock and betrayal, see their eyes glaze over as they died, and watch them slide off the knife and fall to the ground. Each time I looked at them it would repeat. Over and over and over. I spent close to six months experiencing myself murdering my family thousands of times.

Of course it showed on my face. My kids would try to hug me and I’d either flinch or stand, stiff as a board, awkwardly trying to return the favor. “What’s wrong?” they would ask. What was I supposed to say? What could I say that would explain what I was experiencing, but not frighten them away forever? “Nothing, hon. Just nerves.” It’s all I had.

I told my wife about that intrusive thought years later, after it had faded into the background. It freaked her out a lot less than I was afraid it would. But of course by then she knew all my quirks. It was just one more to add to the list.

More recently I’ve had one that centers around stabbing myself, triggered by seeing a knife on the kitchen counter or in someone’s hand. That one flares up every couple of weeks, and is still going on. I found I can counter it by turning all the knives on the counter so they’re handle-out tip-in, and leaving the kitchen altogether when it’s particularly bad. It’s not perfect, but it serves.

I eventually made peace with the implications of thinking such horrible things. Years ago I wound up in a therapist’s office under less than ideal circumstances. Because of those circumstances, during our first session she informed me that if she ever thought I was a danger to myself or others, she would push a button that would call the police. At the end of the session they’d escort me to the state hospital.

As much as that might sound like a threat, in that context it was meant as a promise. A promise that no matter what happened next, no one would come to harm for it. I clung to that promise like a lifeline.

That was the first time I ever spoke of my intrusive thoughts. I told her everything. About church, about my children, all of it. She listened patiently, asked pertinent questions, but didn’t seem alarmed. At the end I asked if the police were waiting for me outside.

“No,” she said.

“Why not?” At that point I didn’t know if I was safe to go home.

“Because you’d never do any of those things.”

I found her words hard to believe at the time. The thought is the sin, right? By virtue of my thinking it, I must be capable of carrying it out. Right?

As I learned during subsequent conversations, I was wrong. Intrusive thoughts don’t convey your deepest, darkest desires. If anything they indicate the opposite; they embody all the reprehensible things most antithetical to your nature. They’re your brain’s way of throwing you under the bus and sneering as it runs you down. Having them doesn’t make you an inherently bad person any more than having tics does. Being unable to shut them out doesn’t make you weak any more than being unable to stop ticcing does. They’re just one more part of the puzzle that makes up the mind of a person with OCD. Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s difficult to convey the importance of that conversation. It was the first time I knew my family was safe from me. It was the first time since I was a young child that I truly believed I wouldn’t go to hell just because of how I was made. It didn’t make everything better, but it meant I wasn’t beyond redemption.

So here’s the quote from C.A. Woolf in its entirety:

“What has been seen cannot be unseen, what has been learned cannot be unknown. You cannot change the past, but you can learn from it. You can grow from it. You can be made stronger. You can use that strength to change your life, to change your future.”
― C.A. Woolf

It’s in the second half of that quote that I put most of my hopes with this post. If others can learn from my experiences and not unduly judge me for them, it won’t be a wasted effort. And if I can spare anyone even the smallest measure of the grief and despair I went through at the hands of my intrusive thoughts, then some good will have come out of them after all.