Devil in the details indeed

Sometimes I wonder if it's possible to be just slightly OCD. I just finished reading Jennifer Traig's memoir "Devil in the Details" about her childhood battle with obsessive-compulsive disorder long before they had a name for it. It's a breezy read, laugh out loud in places, and tracks Traig's experiences, largely involving scrupulosity, a form of OCD that often presents as religious obsession. In Traig's case, it's extreme Orthodox Judaism, which while no doubt truly difficult at the time, makes for some pretty hilarious copy in retrospect. One of the things Traig writes about in the book is having obsessive destructive urges and how she was unsure she coudl resist voices inside her telling her to hurt others. (She did.) That's the part that hit home for me. Not that I have urges to stab my family members -- other than the normal ones, of course. But I have this thing with heights. I call it a fear of heights and, I suppose, it is. But what I have a real problem with is heights that are open -- not staring below from a window of the John Hancock Tower, but bridges or cliff edges or tall balconies.

Ever since I was in my twenties, when I get towards an edge like that, I get this really strong urge to jump. It's not that I want to die. It's just that there is the pit of my stomach that rises up, that sends the nerves of my legs on fire, that tells me in the space of a split second, I could give in to a completely insane inspiration and hurl myself over the edge.

Now you think I'm insane. Or insane-er. But there you have it.

When we were in Istanbul, I teetered out on the edge of the Galata Tower, which is a very narrow, ancient ledge with a very small, ancient, skimpy rail around it. It's narrow enough that if you encounter someone, one of you has to hug against the building as you go past. My legs practically buckled. Sure, it offers a breathtaking 360 degree view of Istanbul but that doesn't matter much if some part of you is looking at the railing, whispering, "Do it. Jump." In that split second, it all seems very possible, abandoning yourself to complete impulse. It makes me feel insane. I don't want to die. No part of me wants to end it. It's not rational. It's pure, terrifying impulse. And where the hell it comes from, I have no idea.

So that's why I'll likely turn you down if you invite me to teeter on the edge of the Grand Canyon with you, or stand on the side of a bridge looking down. I'm not afraid of the height. I'm afraid I'll go. Poof. Jump. Vanish.

On another, perhaps less-disturbing note, I'm also given to obsessive thinking, although that's not exactly unknown for those in recovery. I have trouble falling asleep at night because of all the thoughts (of everything that's ever happened in all time) racing through my head. I sometimes have to literally stop myself in my tracks to refocus on doing One Thing before moving onto the next 80. I have the greatest of intentions but often accomplish very little I'm so easily sidetracked.

Traig writes about how her mother used to keep she and her sister busy during the summer by forcing them to learn a variety of crafts -- everything from knitting to sewing to macrame. In a passage that hit me very close to home, Traig describes the relationship she has developed with the process of making things:

For me, crafting is the ritual. It's as comforting as reciting psalms, a meditative practice akin to prayer. It controls my tics and hushes my ruminations. It's secular and spiritual. I never feel as peaceful as I do when I'm elbow-deep in a project.

I realized, in reading that passage, that it's exactly how I feel when I'm knitting or sewing or making cards or whatever. I'm rarely terribly pleased with the outcome and I thought my pleasure was largely in the process of learning how to do things. But I think Traig has it right: what I really like is the fact that my mind is focused and quiet when I'm making something. I'm concentrating on one thing. I'm not obsessing about problems or worrying about work. I'm just in the moment, creating something, moving yarn across needles, guiding stitches across fabric. If meditation is stillness of the mind then, yes, making things is probably the closest I come these days.