Black Swans: The Answer to Illness Is Not Necessarily a Cure

By Slater, Lauren | Family Therapy Networker, July/August 1997 | Go to article overview

Black Swans: The Answer to Illness Is Not Necessarily a Cure


Slater, Lauren, Family Therapy Networker


There is something satisfying and scary about making an angel, lowering your bulky body into the drowning fluff, stray flakes landing on your face. I am 7 or 8, and the sky looms above me, gray and dead. I move my arms and legs--expanding, contracting--sculpting snow before it can swallow me up. I feel the cold filter into my head, seep through the wool of my mittens. I swish wider, faster, then roll out of my mold to inspect its form. There is the imprint of my head, my arms, which have swelled into white wings. I step back, step forward, pause and peer. Am I dead or alive down there? Is this a picture of heaven or hell? I am worried about where I will go when I die, that each time I swallow an invisible stone will get caught in my throat. I worry that when I eat a plum, a tree will grow in my belly, its branches twining around my bones, choking. When I walk through a door I must tap the frame three times. Between each nighttime prayer to Yahweh, I close my eyes and count to 10 1/2.

And now I look down at myself sketched in the snow. A familiar anxiety chews at the edges of my heart, even while I notice the beauty of the white fur on all the trees, the reverent silence of this season. I register a mistake on my angel, what looks like a thumbprint on its left wing. I reach down to erase it, but unable to smooth the snow perfectly, I start again on another angel, lowering myself, swishing and sweeping, rolling over--no. Yet another mistake, this time the symmetry in the wingspan is wrong. A compulsion comes over me. I do it again, and again. In my memory, hours go by. My fingers inside my mittens get wrinkled and raw. My breath comes heavily and the snow begins to turn blue. A moon rises, a perfect crescent pearl whose precise shape I will never be able to recreate. I ache for something I cannot name. Someone calls me, a mother or a father. Come in now, come in now. Very early the next morning, I awaken, look out my bedroom window and see the yard covered with my frantic forms--hundreds of angels, none of them quite right. The forms twist and strain, the wings seeming to struggle up in the winter sun, as if each angel were longing for escape, for a free flight that might crack the crystal and ice of her still, stiff world.

Looking back at it now, I think maybe those moments in the snow were when my OCD began, although it didn't come to me full-fledged until my mid twenties. OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and some studies say more than three million Americans suffer from it. The "it" is not the commonplace rituals that weave throughout so many of our lives--the woman who checks the stove a few times before she leaves for work or the man who combs his bangs back, and then again, seeking symmetry. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is pervasive and extreme, inundating the person's life to the point where normal functioning becomes difficult, maybe even impossible.

For a long time my life was difficult, but not impossible. Both in my childhood and my adulthood, I'd suffered from various psychiatric ailments--depressions, especially--but none of these were as surreal and absurd as the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that one day presented itself. Until I was 25 or so, I don't think I could have been really diagnosed with OCD, although my memory of the angels indicates I had tendencies in that direction. I was a child at once nervous and bold, a child who loved trees that trickled sap, the Vermont fields where grass grew the color of deep-throated rust. I was a child who gathered earthworms, the surprising pulse of pink on my fingers, and yet these same fingers, later in the evening, came to prayer points, searching for safety in the folds of my sheets, in the quick counting rituals.

Some mental health professionals claim that the onset of obsession is a response to an underlying fear, a recent trauma, say, or a loss. …

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