Deliver Me from OCD
by Lindsay-Rose Dykema
I was 9 years old the first time I saw a dead body. It was at the wake of my Irish Catholic grandfather, 35 years ago. I remember my father scooping me up and walking me out of the funeral parlor that night; for some reason, I had stayed in that eerie room after everyone else had left. My view was over my dad’s shoulder, and I remember solemnly waving goodbye to Grandpa Skip as we exited the now-empty room. He would be “laid to rest” the next day, but I was told the casket would be closed for that part, so I realized at that moment I was the last family member who would ever see his earthly remains. At age 9, it felt like both an honor and a burden.
My grief manifested as OCD -- obsessional worries that my grandmother would die too, and that I could somehow prevent it if I prayed every day in the exact right way. Rituals, earnestly and faithfully carried out, impart the illusion of control. I have often wondered whether this is why the majority of the clients I have treated with OCD were raised Catholic.
About a decade after my grandfather died, he paid me a surprise visit, in the form of a mint leaf floating in my iced tea. I took a sip of a flavor I hadn’t encountered since the days I’d followed him around as a child in my grandparents’ backyard garden, plucking the garnish for our iced tea -- and instantly, the memory hit me as if I had been literally transported to the past. A powerful sensory experience had delivered my grandfather’s presence to me, momentarily, but I did not have the words to describe it until I was a college freshman assigned a passage from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. In the so-called “madeleine episode,” the protagonist describes being smacked in the feels upon dipping a madeleine cookie into a cup of tea; it was like a switch flipped in his mind and he felt completely at peace. He realized, upon dissection of where such a powerful feeling could have come from, that he would dip madeleine cookies into tea during summer visits to his beloved aunt’s home as a child. I have a tattoo on my left arm with the last line (in its original French) from this excerpt:
I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some [other] being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and thus effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognised them the spell is broken. Delivered by us, they have overcome death and return to share our life.
I never did finish Proust’s seven-volume literary ultramarathon, but my takeaway from what I made it through is this: your ancestors, Celtic or not, can pay you a visit at any time. If you are mindfully aware enough to tune into them, you can smell, taste, feel, and hear the messages they deliver without words.
I broke up with Catholicism in graduate school, after the Boston Globe Spotlight story showed just how badly human beings can screw everything up. I have never stopped believing in a source of wisdom, light, and love, however; and I have never stopped believing that consciousness (i.e. “the soul”) does not cease to exist upon the death of a physical body, and instead becomes part of this source, that I can then draw upon. Shoot, we all can! I draw on ancestral wisdom in my meditation practice. I am continually mindful of signs, but not the ones that block up scenery and break my mind: nay! the ones that clear away branches of unnecessary noise and break me free from my mind’s prison.
I have been learning more about psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy recently. I have never used a psychedelic drug myself; I’m a bit fearful of the rabbit holes. But as a psychiatrist I have kept an open mind, and I am particularly intrigued about the use of psilocybin for OCD. Michael Pollan’s Netflix series had an episode that featured an interview with one of the research subjects in a study going on right now at Yale, a new father with debilitating OCD that hadn’t responded to medications or psychotherapy. He discussed his psilocybin mushroom trip on the documentary, which had been, in a word, transformative -- one trip had made his symptom severity drop from the severe range to subclinical. A goddamn miracle.
In his trip, this is what he experienced: he was dirt, then a tiny sapling, then he kept growing, into the branch and leaves of a large tree. He then saw himself with his wife and baby, taking a pleasant family stroll, walking by that tree. He watched as his baby took the branch (his soul, presumably) and experienced it in its fullness, the kind of awe and delight only a baby could really have. The man was openly weeping in the interview by the end of it. He said that vision, that massive widening of his perspective, was all he needed in order to realize: these obsessions are so dumb, in the grand scheme of things, because Jesus, isn’t everything? I mean, in the scheme of things. Psssssst: You can let those thoughts go now.
I have been spending a lot of time with trees recently, my tall friends in Balduck Park, about a mile away from my clinic; the wind makes them lose their minds, and I sit and listen for their wisdom. Obsessional thoughts think they’re a force of nature that can tie the knots of our nooses, if we let them. But we won’t. Because we look to the trees for wisdom, and feel the wind to guide us. And when we feel urges to self-destruct, we can envision ourselves as saplings springing back from the cold dirty ground where our ancestors are buried deep. We can see ourselves growing into fervent green, the essence of our friends and ourselves at our tallest, reminding us we’re not alone and whispering: that’s so dumb, in the grand scheme of things. Because Jesus, isn’t everything?
About the Author
Lindsay-Rose Dykema, MD (she/her/hers) graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 2005 and completed her residency training at Columbia University. She is a queer psychiatrist, prison/police abolitionist, and founder of Uncaged Minds Detroit, a mental health and wellness resource for low-resourced Detroiters, particularly queer/BIPOC folx and those impacted by the criminal injustice system. Her work has been published in psychiatric journals, poetry anthologies, and Slate Magazine. She lives in Detroit.