About six years ago, in an act of confused desperation, I awkwardly left my Acting I class early and went to Hillel to attend Rosh Hashanah services for the first time in my life.
I had just started my first year of college—and was suffering from a debilitating sense of guilt. The summer before, every time I’d hit a pothole or a speed bump I’d look behind me to make sure I hadn’t actually killed someone. Occasionally, I’d circle back around just to make sure. Multiple times. And then in a panicked, fearful daze I’d Google “hit and runs in Atlanta” and see if any of them were near where I was.
This wasn’t new for me. The first time I remembered having this specific sort of debilitating long-lasting “guilt attack” was a few years prior, at the beginning of high school, though I had always been anxious as a kid. I freaked out when I turned a penny green after learning that it was illegal to deface US currency, and felt nauseated whenever I saw FBI copyright warnings pop up on the VHS movies we’d rent from Blockbuster.
The problem was, as much as I would try to find ways to sooth my fears, a new one would immediately take its place. No hit and runs that day in Atlanta? Fine. But I sure as hell didn’t deserve to be going to Swarthmore College, because I had had a sip of beer and wasn’t yet 21.
The High Holidays initially offered relief. I could apologize to anyone for anything and it wouldn’t be weird, because it was a religious obligation. Plus, the prayers specified sins committed in thought and in deed, known and unknown. It covered everything my brain could think of.
After fasting on Yom Kippur for the first time, as a freshman in college, I felt deep, bone-soothing relief. Then the guilt attacks came back. Some days would be better, and some days would be worse, but I ended up going to Kabbalat Shabbat almost weekly for the sense of peace that the services would (temporarily) provide.
I didn’t know it, and wouldn’t be diagnosed for another two years, but I had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Most people think of OCD as meaning that you are fastidious. It seems kind of cute. Oh, you have a clean room! (My room is messy.) Or like that TV show character, Monk, who doesn’t like germs. (I once ate a lemon ice that fell on the sidewalk.) My OCD isn’t like what people mean when they say “I’m so OCD” to refer to their color-coded notebooks. It took me six years to get diagnosed and nine till I got proper treatment. I was one of the lucky ones—the average time between when OCD first appears and proper treatment is received is between 14-17 years.
As I better understood what was happening in my brain, my relationship with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur changed. It dawned on me that apologies I had once been so relieved to offer were not sacred acts but rituals stemming from a disorder.
By my senior year, I felt like my recently diagnosed OCD was decently managed. I hadn’t done the form of therapy recommended for people like me, but I’d read a lot online. I was feeling pretty damn proud of having pulled myself up by my mentally-ill boot straps. I had the occasional panic attack every now and then, but it was much better than before. All I needed to do was avoid anything—like too much downtime—that might set off an obsessive train of thought. And that included the very holiday that had once offered me so much sustenance for my fear. I worried that if I looked back over my mistakes for too long I’d begin obsessing again.
I still went to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, but the holidays were much emptier than in years past. The difference is pronounced between praying for atonement because your entire worth as a human depends on the completion of this ritual and praying while trying not to think about atonement because you are petrified of OCD. My past two Days of Awe have fallen into that empty, fearful category. This year’s would have as well, were it not for the fact that I accidentally caused my fragile OCD-avoiding world to fall in on itself.
In an act of hubris, I thought I could take a long vacation.
By the second week, I was obsessively spiraling.
Unlike during my first year of college, though, I knew what was happening. I went to an OCD-specialist and began Exposure Response and Prevention (ERP) treatment. I’m not going to go into the details of what ERP looks like (that’s another article for another time), but basically instead avoiding what you’re afraid of, you learn to expose yourself to it and by doing so retrain your brain to no longer panic. It’s a hell of a lot easier said than done, but for me it helped a lot.
And now, it’s Elul again. I’ve been in therapy for about five months, and I’m wondering what it would look like to celebrate the Days of Awe in a way that is mentally healthy.
I talked over a few ground rules with my therapist. No apologies for anything I have recently been obsessing over, no apologies for anything that happened longer than a year ago, and no apologies for having OCD.
I haven’t fully begun the process of reflecting on the past year yet—what I’ve done well and what I genuinely feel remorseful about. I don’t know what it will be like to do so without the engine of Obsession driving me. I’m frightened. But I’m also hopeful.
There seems to be no better way to celebrate the start of a New Year than by staking out my right—to myself above all others—to celebrate free from the shadow of my own mental illness.
Wish me luck.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.