Diagnosis Living in the Labyrinth of My Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
“Perhaps the point of a labyrinth is not to find the exit.”
I once held in my hand one of the clay tablets recovered from the ruined palace of Knossos on Crete, where the mythological king Minos is said to have shirked and stormed and sequestered his wife’s monstrous half-bull progeny. The tablets do not tell us this or any other story; to the disappointment of some classicists, they consist entirely of administrative records—taxes, tripods, trades of saffron and oil. I ran my thumb over the symbol for a , four lines in the shape of the double-edged axe, the labrys , from which the labyrinth takes its name. The tablets survived when and because the buildings around them were destroyed, which fired the clay in the flames.
Knossos is a lesson in what the seeming order of numbers and systems can conceal: sharp edges, histories of burning. What is it, I wonder, that we stand to find down there in the spiraling dark? Somewhere in that sepulchral stone beehive, the ancient authors tell us, the Minotaur waits.
What is the difference between a labyrinth and a maze? A quick Google search brings up a maxim of dubious origin: “You enter a maze to lose yourself, but you enter a labyrinth to find yourself.”
I find the second part no great comfort.
Let me propose a new formulation: Mazes have exits, and they are about escape. Labyrinths have centers, and they are about monsters.
Not all authors give the Minotaur a name, and for most of my life I had no name for my monster, either. “OCD” was a benign, sterilized acronym that bobbed in and out of my consciousness, and seemed more like a societal joke than anything else. My classmates who tidied their desks were “so OCD”; my parents putting away the dishes were “a little OCD.” I knew that I, with my cluttered desk, couldn’t have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: I just wasn’t neat enough.
When I was eleven years old, I spent several months picking relentlessly at my own hair. I stayed awake fretting that my hair would never be clean or free of oil; I plucked and rolled hairs between my fingers until grimy, scraggly knots littered the floor beneath my bed. The next time we went to the hairdresser, my mother asked, with strained casualness, for a cut that would hide the bald spot. It was as if I’d given myself a monk’s tonsure in the service of a terrible god.
Later, I began to tear compulsively at the blank margins in books, popping the shreds of paper into my mouth. (The Minotaur, we are told, demanded routine sacrifices of seven youths and seven maidens to soothe his insatiable hunger.) I could neither explain this new habit nor control it—these tatters I left along the edges, all for the flat, cardboard taste of a perverse paper Communion on my tongue.
These days, doctors speculate that pica—a well-known disorder characterized by eating non-food substances—has a connection to OCD. Why, I think to myself, didn’t anyone see at the time?
I suppose my desk was still messy.
My misconceptions about OCD persisted into my twenties, bolstered by online diagnostic tests I couldn’t help but check (if you have OCD, you always check, and check, and check). Even those from reputable mental health organizations began with questions like Are you concerned with contamination? and Do you need to keep things arranged neatly? No, I wasn’t obsessed with germs. No, I never ran home to check that I’d turned off the oven. Though perhaps that was because I never turned on the oven; at that point, I was staying in bed for several hours every day while my mind pinballed around like a buggy internet browser, opening tabs at full speed.
I began to doubt things I’d thought were certain: my chosen career, the truth of my feelings for others. I began to obsess over my health: Every new spot was skin cancer; every fever, toxic shock. In the grips of hypochondria, I wasted hours on medical websites and spent money on doctors whose voices took on a now-familiar “oh, another hysterical woman” cadence. Every time I “solved” one irrational worry, another sprang up to take its place.
One day, I took to the internet in a last-ditch attempt, and this time my frantic clicking led me to something new—something called Purely Obsessive OCD. “Pure-O,” as some call it, is a subset of OCD that gives sufferers predominantly “mental” compulsions; while they may not obsessively scrub their hands, their brains are engaged in the same disastrous, compulsive cycles as those whose OCD takes more visible forms.
Constantly examining yourself for signs of disease—demanding reassurance—worrying about whether you “really” love a significant other—check, check, check, I thought. Everything fit, even the confessional impulse I’d assumed was just a relic of my Catholic upbringing. It was the ex-Catholic in me, too, who rather enjoyed the term “Pure” OCD. I thought I’d given up purity when I gave up the Church, but here it was again like a ragged prophet in the wilderness of my most shameful thoughts: a monster named Pure.
Naming and taming the beast, unfortunately, were not synonymous. Having been seriously depressed once made me afraid to stuff myself with antidepressants with vicious side effects and little relief. I could afford neither the expense nor the time for extensive therapy. During good weeks, I played martyr, convincing myself that it wasn’t that bad. Invariably, I found myself lying in bed again with my skittering mind, furious with myself.
Only when the unforgiving Michigan winter ended at last did something finally shift in my mind’s overworked gears—maybe it had something to do with the deep, lazy breath the whole world seems to gulp during those first days of undiluted sun. I trained my brain to recognize the beginning of my OCD spirals, not to stop the furious thoughts but to accept them; to learn to sit with my fear and shelter it.
I do not have to decide right now , I told myself.
I littered my apartment with yellow Post-it reminders: I am comfortable living with not knowing .
Only mazes have exits.
I do not want to make it sound as though my amateurish self-therapy cured my OCD. It did what was needed at the time: it granted me stretches of respite so I could continue living my life. When I found myself in a place where preliminary psychiatric services were free—after a week spent frantically wondering whether I should break up with my significant other because I was obviously leading him on; I was convinced I had no feelings for anyone or anything, and maybe I should also drop out of graduate school to run a cat sanctuary—I made an appointment. The therapist’s cool and quiet confirmation of my Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder slipped into me like rainwater into parched earth.
“What do you want out of this?” she would ask me, patient as stone, sketching the diagrams that were supposed to teach me to catch my mind in its tracks. She made it clear that our handful of sessions might give me relief, but no cure.
I focused on her arms, generously crisscrossed with red scratches. She was a gardener, she’d said, with a tendency to battle rosebushes. For a moment, I wanted pain that could be grappled with and torn up at the roots; I wanted my own crimson lattice to wear like a monster’s head on my wall. I’d never have guessed you have OCD , people usually say to me. I thought of my mind, a house full of pinwheels, spinning and spinning. I wanted to be well . A familiar, greedy anger clutched my throat; I resented the lack of an instant cure, the unlikelihood of ever being one hundred percent “well” again.
I breathed in. My scrabbling mind found purchase with my new diagnosis, and the resentment passed. I found myself sitting loose and light in the chair, as though a current of fresh air had run through my entire body. I said, “I want to get better .”
In Jorge Luis Borges’ retelling of the Minotaur myth, La Casa de Asterión —which is remarkable for using the Minotaur’s real name—the young prince of Crete reflects on the figure of a long-awaited “redeemer” who will come to release him from the labyrinth. Ojalá me lleve a un lugar con menos galerías y menos puertas , he says. I hope he takes me to a place with fewer hallways and fewer doors.
All labyrinths are empty until we populate them with monsters. Perhaps the point of a labyrinth is not to find the exit, but rather, to find the center where the monsters wait; to go again and again into the darkness and confront the beasts in its heart. To look them in the face and learn their names and then—only then—to make it out alive.