The Cosmic Side of OCD

by Robert St. Hilaire

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) comes in many different forms. For me, back when my anxieties were at their height, my struggle was often with double-checking: making sure, again and again, the car doors were locked, or the iron unplugged, or the back windows securely shut. At other times, however, it was a hyper-concern with cleanliness: over-scrubbing the dishes or washing my hands until they were dry and cracked and ready to bleed. But perhaps my most common problem was an excessive tendency toward order and neatness: precisely arranging the papers on my desk or the items on my nightstand, or in general insisting all things in my environment be symmetrical and “even” with each other.

Other people with OCD, however, have very different concerns. Some are over-burdened by unwanted thoughts. Some cannot get behind the wheel of a car or step inside a public bathroom. Others collect possessions to the point of making their homes uninhabitable, while still others perform exact religious rituals over and over again.

Because OCD can appear in so many various ways, even in a single person, it can be challenging to figure out how to begin treating it. In my own case, I sometimes had trouble determining even what behaviors counted as OCD. If I picked up a rag to wipe away the smudges on the mirror that were driving me crazy, was that obsessive-compulsive or just a “normal” irritation with grime? The sheer range of possible symptoms is part of what makes OCD so difficult to deal with.

But then again, perhaps all this variety is merely on the surface. Perhaps underneath all these apparent differences is a common root or cause. In learning to manage my OCD, one of the most helpful practices I adopted was to look at my disorder not as a collection of lots of different problems, but rather as one problem with one source. In the end, no matter what its particular form at any given time, my OCD always seemed to boil down to this: somewhere in the back of my mind, I was convinced the universe was out to get me. That is to say, I seemed to believe, half-consciously, the entire cosmos was actively seeking to do me harm. This strange cosmic paranoia, as I call it, turned out to be the hidden force driving all my obsessions and compulsions. Thus, it was not until I confronted this ugly perspective head-on that I was finally able to gain some control over my condition.

The best way to explain what I mean is to provide a concrete example. For a long time, I used to wrestle with severe anxieties surrounding my oven. Often after using it, I would feel the urge to return to the kitchen to make certain I had completely turned it off. Sometimes, I would do this repeatedly, double-checking, then triple-checking, then quadruple-checking all the knobs and buttons. On some mornings, my need to keep checking the oven was so strong I actually found it difficult to leave my apartment.

As anyone with OCD knows, one major challenge with addressing this kind of behavior is that on first blush it seems to have a very reasonable justification. Why was I checking my oven over and over again? Because I wanted to avoid an accidental fire, of course! It is an unfortunate truth that fires happen every day. So why not be a little extra cautious and make absolutely sure both the oven and stovetop are turned off? Better safe than sorry!

Whenever I was honest with myself, however, I realized my worries were not that simple. First of all, it wasn’t just that I was bothered about the possibility of a kitchen fire, as unfortunate as that would be. Rather, secretly I feared a giant conflagration, one that would begin by devouring my apartment and all my possessions and then spread to the whole neighborhood, causing widespread destruction, injury, and death. Sometimes, I would picture the scene: enormous flames erupting from rooftops, billowing clouds of smoke choking throats and burning eyes, fire engines screaming, buildings reduced to blackened skeletons, and storms of hot ash raining down on charred bodies. Who knows how many homes would be incinerated, how many families torn apart, how many lives lost! To my mind, then, checking the oven was my effort to prevent not just a fire, but a raging inferno that would obliterate both my world and the world around me.

What were the odds of this fiery apocalypse actually taking place? They must have been astronomical! After all, in my small residential neighborhood of western New York, the houses and few apartment buildings were spaced far apart, the water supply was abundant year-round, and the fire department was located literally down the street from me. Nevertheless, I could not stop worrying, and worrying intensely, that should I fail to turn off my oven, then chaos and ruin would immediately follow. In fact, the whole terrible scenario seemed to have an air of necessity about it, as though, when it came to me and my oven, the standard laws of probability mysteriously did not apply, and disaster was almost fated to occur. Yes, under normal circumstances, the chances of so great a fire might have been one in a million. In my own circumstance, however, they were a near certainty. As far as I was concerned, if I neglected to turn off my oven, then catastrophe was essentially guaranteed.

This brings me to the cosmic paranoia I mentioned earlier, the feeling the universe was out to get me. The reason all this devastation seemed so assured was that deep down I suspected the universe wanted it to happen. More specifically, a part of me felt the cosmos was eagerly waiting for me to make a mistake with my oven so it could put me at the center of tragedy and misery. If I were to leave my oven on, I feared, then cosmic forces would instantly align to create a fire as horrific as I imagined. Maybe the day would suddenly turn dry. Maybe the winds would begin to gust. Maybe, too, the fire department would be slow to respond, and then the fire hydrants would inexplicably stop working. Or perhaps it would be an entirely different set of factors causing the fire to grow out of control. I never had a clear notion of the specifics; I just believed the universe would deliberately arrange for every condition to generate as fierce and destructive a blaze as possible.

I sensed, furthermore, that all this disaster would be orchestrated precisely to harass and torture me. Yes, other people would suffer, too, but they were merely collateral damage. In seeking to make me and my oven the starting point of a cataclysmic fire, the universe, it seemed to me, was also attempting to assign me the blame for it. In other words, cosmic powers would not only bring this dreadful event into reality, but also, in a way ultimately beyond my comprehension, make me morally responsible for it. Thus, if this fire ever did arise, it would somehow turn out to be entirely my fault, despite my every attempt to prevent it.

It was no wonder, then, I had the urge to check my oven over and over again. Every time I re-examined its knobs and buttons, I was battling a universe that wanted me to bear the guilt for the annihilation of everyone and everything around me. There was no room for error!

Today, looking back on all these anxieties, I can’t say I completely understand where they came from. I do see, however, that what they reflected was a profound sense of worthlessness inside me. Deep down, I viewed myself as the kind of person who could do no right and only bring harm to others. Whatever the situation, once I got involved, then whatever could go wrong would go wrong. Thus, on a subconscious level, I felt that if the universe wanted to single me out and punish me, it was because I deserved it.

This cosmic paranoia, I believe, was—and to some extent remains—at the heart of my OCD. I have chosen as my chief example the checking of my oven, but there are dozens of other behaviors I could have selected. Whether it was repeatedly running back to the bedroom to make certain the lights were turned off, or brushing my teeth until my gums were raw, or combing my hair again and again until literally not a single strand was out of place, somewhere behind every one of these and my other obsessive-compulsive habits was the sense I was a deeply flawed individual and the universe was going to make me pay a price for it. Sometimes, this paranoia took on very concrete expressions. When I was in high school, for instance, before going to bed I would check the lock on my front door over and over again because I was convinced an intruder might try to break in and murder me and my family. At other times, however, the danger I perceived was far less precise. I remember for a while being haunted by the vague feeling “something bad” would happen if the ends of my shoelaces weren’t tied to exactly the same length.

Once I had uncovered this paranoia and the severe lack of self-esteem behind it, the path toward better mental health became obvious. I needed to find a way both to appreciate my own value as well as to stop viewing the universe as so deliberately hostile to me. This meant in part learning to see myself not as someone inherently broken or deficient in contrast to everyone and everything else, but rather as an equal member of the cosmos. In other words, it was crucial for me to feel as though I had my own proper place in the world.

The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas taught that without God’s constant and creative love, the universe would immediately evaporate into nothingness. God keeps all things in existence. Importantly, for Thomas, God’s existing does not mean simply being there. It includes having order and purpose. In upholding the cosmos, God also governs its direction and movements, assigning to every last thing its own course to follow and distinctive role to play in the divine plan. No detail escapes God’s infinite care and wisdom.

When I first began coming to grips with the true nature of my OCD, Thomas Aquinas’s way of looking at the world turned out to be very helpful to me. By reflecting on it, I would remind myself that my existence was not some regrettable accident or mistake. Rather, God had created me for a reason, and I belonged in the universe just as much as anyone or anything else. I had needed to accept that the cosmos was my home, too, and I had a right to feel comfortable in it.

Of course, incorporating this more positive worldview into my daily living was much more easily said than done. Building a healthier image of myself ultimately took years of hard work as well as the assistance of mental health professionals. Furthermore, confronting the cosmic side of my OCD did not make it suddenly disappear. I continue some days to struggle with this disorder even now. Nevertheless, I manage my condition better than I ever have before, and I have freed myself from the worst of its tendencies.

I do not claim that everyone with OCD has the exact same fears and challenges I did (and sometimes still do). I would suggest, however, that most people with this condition, in one way or another, secretly wrestle with their own sense of self-worth and their relationship to the rest of the world. Whenever I speak to others with OCD, I am amazed at how often the conversation turns to God, the universe, and meaning of existence. In the end, OCD is not about this or that particular habit or ritual, but rather how those of us struggling with it understand ourselves and our place in the cosmos God has created.

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