Amen, Amen, Amen

An exploration of how obsessive-compulsive disorder can be a gift

The Unanswerables

I was a superhero with shorts instead of a cape

I realized this morning that this conversation took place almost twenty years ago. That's how long I've been holding on to it, mulling, gnawing, pawing at it. That's how long it's taken me to get mad and then hurt, at myself, at him, at all the unanswerables.

It was my freshman year of college. I'm pretty sure I was wearing my green corduroy shorts with navy tights underneath and a purple turtleneck. I was feeling pretty chic. Or at least sassy enough to wander down the hall to Nate and Christopher's room. Sarah was already in there, getting high and mashing her face into Christopher's. Which was fine with me. I'd come to see Nate, and not for face mashing. I'd come here to finish our talk.

Our talk had started a few nights before in our dorm lounge, when Nate stood on a chair and threw back his greasy mane to announce he was a socialist. Also an atheist. And that he'd read most of the texts required for our freshman Humanities course so if anyone felt like coming into his room and discussing Kant or Locke, he was ready to prove that the universe was an accident.

At least, that's what I understood of what he said. Mostly I just smelled his confidence, and his unwashed skin, seeping all over the lounge and up my nose. He gripped me with his wide smile and his dangerously bright eyes.

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I didn't tell any of this to Nate, of course. I told him I was working on my paper about free will and also that I was just near his room and thought I'd stop by.

"So, Abby. Abidabadabby," he said.
"Yeah. Actually, my full name's Abigail. My dad said by the third kid he didn't have time to look through the whole name book so they stopped at A."
"That's funny. Your dad's funny, huh?"
"My dad's dead," I shot back. If there was one thing that made me feel strong, it was talking about death. I'd lost my aunt and my father when I was eleven. Then my mom remarried and my step-dad dropped dead of a heart attack within nine months. I got a little too much joy out of listing my deceased. I blushed coyly when people gasped or said how sorry they were. I was an expert martyr.

But Nate barely batted an eye.
"How did he die?"
"He had this rare form of cancer. It was lung cancer but it wasn't in his lungs. And the doctors didn't find it for a while because he had a kidney condition. So by the time they did find it they couldn't do much."
"Hmph," Nate said. I was pretty sure I'd wowed him.
"Yeah, it really sucked," I continued. "Especially because my favorite aunt - my dad's little sister - died just a year before. They were really close. Best friends."
"Really?" said Nate with a thoughtful frown. I'd never told a boy my full tragic history before. This was going better than I'd ever hoped for.

"Best friends," I repeated solemnly.

Nate licked his lips slowly. "So, you think your dad just gave up because he didn't want to live without her?" he asked.

Okay, I don't know that he actually licked his lips. I'm making him sound more obnoxious than he was. Mostly because I've been replaying this conversation for now going on twenty years and still feeling the weight of my flop sweat, the dull ache of my jaw as I clamped my mouth shut, speechless.

I'd love to report that I defended my father. That I stood up defiantly and proved with an undeniable A + B = C that my dad was happy and in love with his wife and children and sure he missed his sister but it was purely a biological blip that had erased him. He died because his body was attacked by multiple diseases. He fought as hard as he could and he stayed positive and told me stories of how we would go swimming together and eat orange sherbet by the pool and there's no way that he just gave up. Not my dad.

I didn't stand up to Nate. I left his room crushed and heartsick. I wanted someone to explain to me why some people could live to 100 and others were struck down without warning. If we were in charge of our bodies I had to find the right prayers and visualizations to keep not only myself but also the world alive. Forever.

I should mention that in college my ocd rituals included praying obsessively up to three hours a day for everyone I knew to be completely happy healthy. I had prayers to say when I rose and when I went to sleep, before meals and instead of meals. I was constantly sure that I had misspoken or cursed blasphemously, condemning someone new to an untimely death. I was a superhero with corduroy shorts instead of a cape. Which meant I never felt like I'd swooped in and saved the day.
For me, ocd has always revolved around prayer and how I could change the fate of the world if I just pleaded enough. Then, in typical ocd fashion, I had to add more prayers, and more. Kisses and atonements and self-punishment. All in the name of trying to control the uncontrollable.

Twenty years later, I still don't have an answer for Nate. More like a big, powerful shrug. I truly do not know where our bodies, minds and spirits intersect. All I know for sure is that
a. We all die
b. We rarely have control over when, where or how.

Hope that didn't spoil the end of the movie. I think America is one of the few countries where death is still treated like a conquerable foe. Which leaves us so exhausted and unprepared.

Today, I am excited to be working on a book now exploring how different cultures view and even celebrate death. I feel so grateful for my writing partner and for all the religious and tribal rituals that have evolved to help not only the sick but also those grieving.

I am also working diligently with my therapist to cut down my prayer time and actually incorporate stillness. I'm using an alarm clock set to thirty minutes, after which I can only say Amen, and hope whatever energy I've stirred up is warm and peaceful. I am trying to actually describe to my doctor and myself what I believe.

I believe in a G-d who is a parental figure to all. Who leads us to our highest selves. I pray for guidance and comfort and to sound out ideas. Not for an intervention. I cannot save anyone from cancer or heartache or just a really rotten day. And when my body starts failing me, as I know it will, I will try to face my end with love and self-forgiveness.

And when I need to, surrender.

Abby Sher is a writer and performer in Brooklyn, New York, and the author of Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn't Stop Praying.

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