Thursday, 20 December 2007

Numbers add up to nothing.

Perhaps it’s because I’m into week three of the rather interesting experience of withdrawing from the little white pills that have for past decade helped to compress and maintain my equilibrium, but while lurking in church last Sunday morning I experienced a slight recurrence of the disorder which once ruled my world. It was far from severe, and actually gave me something of an insight into the current mess facing my beloved Anglican communion. Which will take a little explaining…

For much of my life I have wrestled with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, an odd affliction which may be quite amusing when portrayed by Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets” (or more recently by someone whose name I cant remember – which shows things are pretty much under control these days - in “Monk”), but is actually a cursed way to live. At it’s worst my particular symptoms were pretty weird: I’d have to spend whole nights laying awake and memorizing large chunks of books (usually dictionaries), and then attempting to discover a mathematical algorithm to account for the difference in word length – thereby enabling me to predict how many letters any new words which might be created would contain, irrespective of what that word might mean… or some other equally meaningless mental task. Yes, I know I’m probably losing you at this point, and I really do know how crazy it all sounds – but obsessions like this could literally keep me awake for days at a time, and intrude into every spare moment of the working day. And please don’t think they seemed any less crazy then: at the time I fully realized my mind had been captured by an utterly pointless and stupid task – but it felt irresistibly, exhaustingly urgent just the same. It simply had to be done, and I had been made slave to the task.

Those extremes are long in the past now, but while lurking in a back pew at church last Sunday morning, I could feel the once-familiar troll recommence his gibbering at the back of my mind. Although this time the end result was good

As it was an old church (by Sydney standards at least) the pews still have faint traces of numbers on their ends; a legacy of the days when they were rented on an annual basis by parishioners in an alarming extension of the class system – the better the pew, the more you paid and the wealthier everyone knew you were. Looking across the aisle, I could see the numbers were out of order: at some point in the past the pews must have been moved around in the course of maintenance.

“So what?”, any sane person would say. And I agree, except that for me this could have once been an unavoidable mine-field: “were they now in any mathematically discernable pattern?”, “what would the next number in the series be?”; and “could there be any meaning in the order the were now positioned?”; the old ways of thinking were not so loud as to be crippling, but just loud enough for me to laugh at my old tormentor.

By the grace of God, and with the help of more than a decade’s therapy, I could understand the situation for what it was, and keep control. But it’s amusing to know that there was once a time when I would have been compelled to re-arrange the pews if I were to continue attending the parish. I’d have had to keep my reasons for doing so secret (maybe even hide the whole process itself), since I’d have known my reasons for shifting things around was idiotic, but I’d have simply had to confront the issue. Instead I found myself wondering: if my obsession was other people’s sexuality, instead of word and number patterns, would there be much difference in the obsession’s validity?

What I’m trying to say is that I wonder if some of the people currently claiming to be focused on a “biblical” and/or “moral” issue aren’t actually just suffering from a more socially acceptable form of my own malaise? Whereas I learned from a very early age that sharing my obsessions with others normally just resulted in them dismissing me as “weird”, the obsessions of people such as +Schofield, when expressed in the manner in which they have learned to use so effectively, actually gains them a following among others similarly afflicted.

The reason I never liked any of the “Bible Code” garbage is because their linguistic/mathematical hypotheses were always so weak – but what if someone had been able to produce a more rigidly consistent theory? It’s likely I’d have embraced it wholeheartedly – just as so many of the followers of the currently popular obsessions gaze so lovingly at the loudly repeated tissue of lies.


I’m writing this in a plane thousands of feet above the Tasman Ocean, heading for Christchurch, New Zealand, where I’ll be joining my wife and her family for Christmas. On this day ten years ago I was in a psychiatric ward, having just failed in an (yet another) attempt to kill myself. Then life felt very, very alone, and all over bar the screaming. Today, in contrast, it’s very, very wonderful. But how dearly do I wish that some of the other people similarly afflicted could find their own new life of wonder and joy, instead of so loudly indulging their own obsessive disorders at other’s expense.


Brian R said...

I have some understanding although mathematics has always been an enigma to me, I always must hang the washing in the same way, like next to like, and will even unpeg things if I find a sock at the bottom of the basket. My neighbour is amused.
Obviously librarianship was my forte :-)
Glad things are so much better for you now. Enjoy celebrating the birth of our Lord "God with us"

themethatisme said...

Thank you for such an open and refreshing reflection. I have thought myself that all human beings have some sort of compulsion which is obsessive. It is probably the flip side of nihilism. That which ends up as medically/psychologically defined is simply as you say relative to the number of people who define it as sufficiently abnormal to require a box to put it in. +Schofield are only different in that they define their own box and who is or is not allowed in.

Nina said...

Thanks for this. I will be reflecting today on solo v. shared obsessions, and how they differ from the mission of the church, which is to share new life. May you continue to be blessed with new life and insight.

Lapinbizarre said...

A very interesting post since I suspect that the majority of folks have at some stage in their life at least nibbled at the edges of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Interestingly and paradoxically it suggests a frame of reference for the "Anglican" homophobes that brings an element of reason to their behaviour and offers the possibility of examining them without absolute bafflement. Dwelling compulsively on the details of the sex-life of any two men or women is bizzare, particularly since similar images of the sex-life of the majority of heterosexual couples of one's acquaintance are unlikely to inflame lust.

The observation "I would have been compelled to re-arrange the pews" interests me. Would you have returned them to conventional numerical sequence, or constructed a mathematical sequence involving the numbers in different order and arranged them in accordance with this? None of my business and feel free to tell me so, but of interest.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Alcibiades, thanks for your story. I'm so pleased that you are well and living a "life of wonder and joy" now.

I have long thought that those folks have a form of OCD. I even did a thought for the day post to that effect:

"Some folks are obsessed with sex. Some folks are obsessed with other people's sex."

I have no doubt that they have a sort of mental abnormality. The surprise is that they get so many "normal" folks to play into their nasty fantasies.

Ann said...

Thanks for opening a window into your world and your ability to share the journey.

Rowan The Dog said...

This is such a beautiful post! Thank you. I hope it finds its way to those who most need your hopeful message. I feel proud just to be on the planet with you!

Crescens said...

I read a wonderful article the other day which suggested that the reason middle-class people buy fancy furniture which requires constant dusting is so that they can relieve their obsessions by dusting them constantly!

Thanks so much for a superb post!

KJ said...

Ahhhh.... This is incarnational.

Merry Christmas and peace of Christ in the new year.

Paul said...

Thank you for offering this to the world. I join Lindy in hoping it finds its way to help and encourage those who struggle with OCD.


That Kaeton Woman said...

A brilliant piece, my friend. A strangely wonderful Christmas present which opens the eyes of the heart to the dynamics of human suffering. The gift of compassion is one that never gets returned.

susan s. said...

Thank you! Beautifully written.

This is a very helpful post, not only for those with OCD, but others who do not have it, but live with (can I say?) OCDers.

Yes, I think we all have it to some degree.

Have a Blessed Christmas!

Padre Mickey said...

I've been quite surprised at how many members of the clergy have at least a mild case of OCD. Mine manifests in patterns, and it hasn't become a problem, but i want to thank you for your story.

May God bless you and your family in all you do.

Br William Francis, BSG said...

Thanks for sharing this with us.

I actually get what you mean.

I dont know if it scares me more that I actually understand what you are saying or that this disorder is possibly the underpinning of the current unpleasantness in the church.