For a child who loved playing Pretty Pretty Princess and could still answer the question "How old are you?" with the fingers on just one hand, I thought a lot about death.
One of my earliest obsessive-compulsive memories is from my fourth birthday party. I was dressed up as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz––short brown hair in braids tied off with ribbons, blue gingham pinafore dress puffed at the sleeves, and uncoordinated feet tucked into gold sequin ballet flats (Mom couldn't find ruby red ones, so I had to settle my riotous perfectionistic heart for gold). As the dining room table erupted in a cacophony of children singing "Happy Birthday" off-key, and a decadent cake larger than all my five friends' torsos combined was placed under my nose, the four burning candles set a fire in my mind: You're already four years old! Your life is going by so fast, before you know it you'll be dying. Before you know it you'll be dead. I don't remember what happened after I blew out those taunting candles, but I remember hearing several times in the following nineteen years, "Remember when you started crying uncontrollably at your fourth birthday party and all your friends had to go home?" (Haha, good times.)
By age seven, I'd established an annual tradition: the night before my birthday I would lie awake for hours, crying in sync with the ticking clock, panicking at the sound of each passing second of my life. As soon as my head hit the pillow, an unanswerable string of questions would loop in my mind, constricting my breath like a tightening noose: When will I die? What if it’s soon? I’m not ready to die... What if I die before my parents and they're left in pain? What will happen when I die? Is heaven real, or did someone just make that up for comfort? How do you get into heaven? Do you have to die in a certain way to get into heaven? How am I going to die? What if my house burns on fire tonight while I'm sleeping and I die trapped in this room? Will I have died innocently enough to make it into heaven, or do I have to die heroically? What makes someone a hero? What makes someone a “good person”? Am I a good person? As the moonlight continued to illuminate my glistening night sweats through the blinds, I gnawed over each thought like a stale wad of Bazooka bubblegum I couldn’t find a trash bin for.
11:47pm. Will there be a scoreboard when I die? And if so, how many points do I need to get in order to get into heaven? Am I at a disadvantage point-earning wise if I die younger? Does God keep score of how many books I've read? I mean, I love the Scholastic Book Fair but I'll admit, I never actually read the books that I buy there...is there a penalty for that? Does He count how many times I've won Hungry Hungry Hippos? Does He hate me because I cheated at Chutes & Ladders when I played with my neighbor that one time? Does the fact that I’ve never won a single raffle at school events reflect something bad about me? Would I have won something by now if I were truly a good person? I mean, I hear it all the time, "Good things happen to good people." Am I going to go to *gulp*...Hell...because I lied to my friends about having a boyfriend in California? I just wanted them to think I was cool...
3:22am. Will God punish me for being more focused on how much money I was gifted for my First Communion than what that event really meant? Speaking of which, what was my First Communion about? I really don't know, all I know is I got over $400 in gift money and that's more than my neighbor made. Does that make me bad? Oh, God, I'm a terrible person––I recited all of those prayers and quite frankly I didn't understand any of them. What if I said one of them wrong? Will I go to Hell because I misspoke a holy prayer? Is it bad that I had a sip of the wine at communion? What if I become an alcoholic because of that? I hope it was actually just grape juice, that’s what Mom said it was... Was that a test to see which kids were bad and easily tempted?
5:54am. Is life just a game? If everyone is so sure that God has a plan for us all, what if I'm not even in control? What if my every move is predetermined and I don't have a choice in anything, even when I think I do? Did God mean for me to break my arm when I was eighteen months old by jumping out of my crib? I definitely put in the muscle effort to scale those white bars...but I was a baby and didn't really have a functioning brain yet, so who would choose for that to happen?! I didn't learn anything profound from that experience either––just got a cool green cast. Did I choose to take that breath just now? Someone definitely has to be controlling that because I certainly did not consciously think to take that breath. What if I'm actually just like Mario & Luigi, trapped in a game with someone else controlling my every move? What if my feelings don’t mean anything and they’re just a trick to make me believe that people or experiences are meaningful? What if—
By the time 8:30am came, I officially required an additional finger to signify my age and a clean set of sheets.
I tenderly reflect on these memories as my earliest OCD symptoms like one does their beloved safety blanket or favorite stuffed animal from childhood––there's something adorable and nostalgic about them, however wretched they may be after years of collecting your tears and anxiety-produced perspiration.
Despite my ability to now recognize these thoughts as symptoms of illness, I continue to have a tumultuous relationship with my birthday. It's a trigger scheduled annually for the rest of my life. With every "happy birthday :-)" message from a long-forgotten acquaintance on FaceBook comes the thought: "Another year has passed, you're nearly dying, and even that kid Jared from 6th grade who you forgot existed is acknowledging it." With every corporate email encouraging me to treat myself to a discounted birthday gift from a store I no longer shop at (yet still receive hundreds of emails from per week) comes the thought: "Everything is meaningless and you'll just spend the rest of your life escaping this truth through consumerist pursuits." With every birthday card in the mail from a relative whose call I forgot to return last week comes the thought: "You're a terrible person––you call yourself kind and you really just calculated how thick the envelope was before processing which aunt it was even from? Start packing your bags for Hell." Around this time each year, I brace myself for the emotional tornado that will inevitably knock me somewhere over the rainbow into the black hole of existential and scrupulous OCD thoughts––my very own Oz that I struggle to escape.
After re-watching The Wizard of Oz the night before my birthday––in the spirit of embracing The Feels and understanding why the hell my four-year old self loved that movie* to the point that I'd rewind the VHS tape as soon as 'The End' appeared and start it right back up again––I discovered a new way of relating to the story that permeated my childhood years:
As Dorothy sets off on her journey to Emerald City, in search of a means to get home, she begins questioning and doubting herself, "But what happens if I–" to which Glinda wisely interrupts, "Just follow the yellow brick road." I recall skipping through the house as a kid, linking arms with my stuffed animals and singing "Follow the Yellow Brick Road," but this scene means something new and special to me now: when ruminative obsessive thoughts twist and turn in my own world-bending tornado, leading me to an unsettling Oz where I inevitably doubt my every move, I, too, need to follow the yellow brick road. My yellow brick road has become the road of recovery, an endless pathway leading me toward my values. There will inevitably be unexpected lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), and every time I get steered off course I have the choice to redirect back to this yellow brick road. Unabashedly embracing the classic cliché: the only way out is through.
In the end, Dorothy learns that she possessed the power within her to go home the entire time––she wore those magic ruby red slippers each step of the way. However, it was part of her journey to learn this lesson for herself. Likewise, I always have the choice to redirect from obsessing, whether it's about my death, my purpose, my reality, or anything else OCD throws my way. But, it was, and continues to be a part of my own recovery to learn over and over again that I have the power to Stop, Take a breath, Observe the fact that I am ruminating, and Proceed back to the present moment and down the yellow brick road. (Unlike Dorothy, though, I will gladly skip out on the highly ritualistic behavior of clicking my heels together three times as an escape means.)
I am now 23 years old. Despite the unusual limitations of celebrating in quarantine during a global pandemic, my birthday came and went last week with the most ease since my toddler years when I couldn't cognitively process what having a birthday meant beyond consuming excessive sugar and absorbing all the attention in the room. I still found myself worrying about my prospective death, yet allowed myself to stamp a big fat "TBD" on it and devoured my birthday cheesecake bearing 23 burning candles––I blew those suckers right out so I could get to the good stuff without giving in to their taunts. I still felt a deep, anticipatory pang of grief that my loved ones will some day be left to feel after I die, and proceeded to absorb the warmth of their smiles and love-filled "Happy birthday!" messages on Zoom as I kicked their asses in virtual Pictionary. I still questioned the meaning of my existence, but ultimately decided that I'd rather immerse myself in the laughter in the room and Elton John's voice on vinyl than continue tuning into the broken record of repetitive questions that I'll never be able to silence with an answer.
The only thing I can be absolutely certain about in this life is that I will die some day. Nothing else is certain. I may be good person, I may be bad person, and I very well may be somewhere in between this limited and unhelpful binary. I may die this year, or in several years when I still am not ready, or I may die past 100 years old when I'm sick and tired of labored breathing. I may go to Heaven, I may go to Hell, I may be reincarnated, I may cease to exist altogether, or something else I have not yet considered may happen when I die because, quite frankly, I don't believe in any of these possibilities. If the only thing I know for certain is that I will die in some unknown way at an unknown time, then in ruminating over unanswerable questions, I am merely withdrawing from life in fear of death.
*I still cannot fathom why I loved The Wizard of Oz so much. However, I find it telling of my developing neurotic, twisted character that my favorite movie featured threats to put down an innocent lil' dog, creepy flying monkeys, a vivid green witch with a severe chin and nasally cackle, and several references to death (some even celebrating murder). That movie is quite disturbing––even at 23.