OCD and language and image and the unconscious and Cormac McCarthy


I recently watched a film from December 2017 by Karol Jalochowski entitled 'Couldn't Care Less. Cormac McCarthy in conversation with David Krakauer.' Not only was it fascinating to sit in on an exchange between two such minds, but the direction of their conversation chimed, and made connections, with the direction of many of my current thoughts about OCD. Having read most of McCarthy's novels, but never having heard him speak on such a range of subjects at such length, I found it extraordinary to hear this great author conversing with David Krakauer (president of the Santa Fe Institute and Professor of Complex Systems) about everything from Frank Lloyd Wright, to Oppenheimer, to the workings of the unconscious mind. It is so gratifying that one of the greatest of all American fiction writers had such an inquiring, open, and flexible mind. In my own writing and thinking I have increasingly tried to embrace the broadest possible approach to learning that I can. Over the course of my life I had built up a resistance to seeking out knowledge of mathematics and the sciences. I think this originated in a childhood dislike of these subjects as they were taught in school. It has been a relatively recent development for me to open my mind to discussions of Time in physics and to an evolving interest in the life and work of Isaac Newton. I now see that an individual mind and soul can only benefit from exposing itself to the widest possible breadth of knowledge. We don't need to have any aptitude for these areas of learning, simply to be inquiring and interested. Hearing Cormac McCarthy talk with evident passion about the pioneers of quantum mechanics makes me feel that I am on the right path with my thought patters and my approach to research. How does any of this relate to obsessive compulsive disorder, I hear you ask? Well, it's because the more I read and the more I research - the more interested I am - in different areas of learning, the more able I feel to apply all of this reading and experience to the workings of my own mind: an OCD mind.

McCarthy and Krakauer get onto the topic of the unconscious mind. McCarthy mentions a realisation he had about why the unconscious mind works in the form of moving images (that resemble movies) rather than addressing us directly through language. His conclusion is that the unconscious mind has been in existence for a million years, while language is a comparatively new means of communication. He talks about mathematicians falling asleep and being given the answer to problems in the form of symbols in dreams. Incidentally, McCarthy's description of the solution to a mathematical problem as being 'like a lost animal coming in out of the rain,' is quite beautiful. The two friends discuss 'the night shift' that happens when the unconscious mind gets to work on the tasks we set for it while we are asleep. The title of the film, 'Couldn't care less', comes from the closing words of the conversation wherein McCarthy says that our unconscious mind 'couldn't care less' about anybody else but us. He points out that it only works according to our conscious agenda; the things that matter to our conscious mind are also the things that matter to our unconscious mind. As somebody with OCD, this theme naturally got my attention. OCD is a condition that I feel wants to trick us into thinking that is is working for us and solving problems for us. 

I did a social media post recently about OCD and dreams where I asked if anybody else in the OCD community experiences obsessive thoughts and the feelings of doubt and anxiety they create in their dreams. Many responded that OCD does indeed enter their dreams and give them feelings of anxiety while they are asleep. Unlike the unconscious mind, OCD doesn't work for us - it works only for itself. It is not putting in a night shift of cognitive activity for our benefit, far from it. All it does when we're asleep is its pattern of obsession creating doubt and then anxiety. The unconscious mind is fascinating because we understand so little about it. Fortunately we understand so much about OCD and how we can use cognitive behaviour therapy and exposure and response prevention to manage the condition. The film's ideas about the unconscious made me wonder if OCD operates in the form of images or of language. McCarthy highlights in the film that we don't consciously form each word of a sentence before it leaves our mouth. We form spoken language as we speak it. OCD obsessions have a similar quality of immediacy. They are thoughts; they come into our minds apropos of nothing. In a mind without OCD, these thoughts telling is that we have raped or killed people, or that our possessions are contaminated, for example, are dismissed by the mind as the nonsense that they are. In the OCD mind, these thoughts become stuck and they immediately begin to create doubt and cause anxiety. They demand our attention, and in McCarthy's words they 'couldn't care less' about our welfare, our goals, our relationships, or anything that's important to us. What OCD does care about is our undivided attention. It prompts us to perform compulsions (like washing hands, seeking reassurance, and checking rituals to name a few) in order to solidify its preeminent position in our minds. McCarthy and Krakauer discuss an unconscious mind that works only for each individual, but with which each individual can also have a sometimes oppositional relationship. With OCD there is only opposition. This condition wants to make us think it is protecting us with the offer of endless compulsions as the solution to our problems. A key difference between OCD and McCarthy's unconscious is that OCD will never solve a problem for us. OCD is the problem. We can have a fruitful and creative relationship with our unconscious. We cannot have a fruitful and creative relationship with OCD. 

I don't think OCD acts in linguistic terms. For me, it produces images that have a particular sharpness to them. These are images of rape or of physical assault in the case of my OCD sub-type. These images cause an instant feeling of discomfort and anxiety. OCD then offers up its false solution of the performance of a compulsion. Compulsions for me could be (and still can be sometimes) mental checking exercises and asking others for reassurance. When OCD became more severe for me, I had particular phrases that I would say in my head (and sometimes out loud). These phrases were attempts to ward off the obsessive thoughts before they happened. They always started with 'I'm never'. They would continue with something like 'I'm never gonna touch anyone', or 'I'm never gonna go near anyone'. These particular compulsions show how OCD can trap us, how it can make us think there is danger inherent in a mere thought. The unconscious mind is limitless and fascinating. Cormac McCarthy ponders in the film whether our unconscious mind sometimes knows things it shouldn't. We can explore the unconscious in ways that we can't explore OCD because OCD is limited and repetitive. Having an inquiring mind and a thirst for knowledge helps me to manage OCD on a daily basis. I have faith in the methods of CBT and ERP that have helped me so much. I will listen to my unconscious mind in any way I can. I will not engage with OCD because to do so is to fall into its trap.         


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