I couldn’t stop thinking about the nature of existence. Then I was diagnosed.
“We’re just meat machines navigating a controlled hallucination,” I said. “Doesn’t that freak you out? What are we even doing here?”
“This again?” my friend asked with a smirk.
I sighed. Yes, again. Another one of my existential crises, right on cue.
Fretting over the whole “being alive” thing was nothing new to me. I’d been having anxiety attacks like these since I was a kid.
One of the first I can remember happened in sixth grade. After being given the advice “Just be yourself!” one too many times, I snapped. A bewildered classmate had to console me as I cried on the playground, explaining through muffled sobs that I couldn’t tell if I was being my “true self” or just a “pretend version” of myself.
She blinked and, realizing she was out of her depth, simply offered, “Want to make snow angels?”
We’re put on this planet with lots of contradictory explanations as to why we’re here. Why wouldn’t I be spiraling? I wondered. And why wasn’t everyone else?
When I learned about death as a kid, it, too, became an obsession. The first thing I did was write my own will (which really just amounted to instructions on which stuffed animals would go inside my casket). The second thing I did was stop sleeping.
And I can remember, even then, wishing I would die soon so I wouldn’t have to live with the recurring question of what happens after. I spent hours trying to come up with an explanation that satisfied me, but I never seemed to be able to. My ruminating only made the obsessing worse.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). My recurring crises were actually something that’s known as existential OCD.
The International OCD Foundation describes existential OCD as “intrusive, repetitive thinking about questions which cannot possibly be answered, and which may be philosophical or frightening in nature, or both.”
The questions usually revolve around:
- the meaning, purpose, or reality of life
- the existence and nature of the universe
- the existence and nature of the self
- certain existential concepts like infinity, death, or reality
While you might encounter such questions in a philosophy class or in the plotline of films like “The Matrix,” a person would usually move on from such thoughts. If they experienced distress, it would be momentary.
For someone with existential OCD, though, the questions persist. The distress it evokes can be completely disabling.
I’d spend hours ruminating, trying to combat the thoughts by coming up with explanations, hoping to resolve the tension. I’d knock on wood whenever I so much as thought about a loved one dying in the hopes of somehow “preventing” it. I recited a prayer before bed every single night, not because I believed in God, but as a “just in case” wager if I died in my sleep.
Panic attacks became a common occurrence, made worse by how little sleep I was getting. And as I became increasingly depressed — with my OCD occupying almost all of the mental and emotional energy I had — I began to self-harm at age 13. I attempted suicide for the first time not long after that.
Being alive, and being extremely aware of my own existence, was unbearable. And no matter how hard I tried to pull myself out of that headspace, there seemed to be no escape.
I genuinely believed that the sooner I died, the sooner I could resolve this seemingly bottomless anguish over existence and the afterlife. It seemed so absurd to get stuck on it, and yet not unlike a finger trap, the more I wrestled with it, the more stuck I became.
I wasn’t repeatedly washing my hands or checking the stove. But I had obsessions and compulsions; they just happened to be ones that were easier to mask and hide from others.
The truth is, OCD is defined less by the content of someone’s obsessions and more by the cycle of obsessing and self-soothing (which becomes compulsive) that can lead someone to spiral in a debilitating way.
A lot of people think of OCD as being a “quirky” disorder. The reality is that it can be incredibly scary. What others might think of as a harmless philosophical question became entangled with my mental illness, wreaking havoc in my life.
The truth is, there are few things we know in life to be certain. But that’s also what makes life so mysterious and even thrilling.
It’s by no means the only type of obsession I’ve had, but it was one of the most difficult to recognize, because at a glance it can seem like such a typical, benign train of thought. It’s when that train goes off the tracks, though, that it becomes a mental health concern rather than a mere philosophical one.
Before I knew I had OCD, I took my obsessive thoughts to be the gospel truth. But being more aware of how OCD functions, I’m able to recognize when I’m spiraling, utilize better coping skills, and cultivate a sense of self-compassion when I’m struggling.
These days, when I have an “Oh my god, we’re all meat machines!” kind of moment, I’m able to put things in perspective thanks to a mix of therapy and medication. The truth is, there are few things we know in life to be certain. But that’s also what makes life so mysterious and even thrilling.
Learning to live with the uncertainty and the fear — and, yes, the possibility that this is all some controlled hallucination, masterminded by our brain computers — is just part of the deal.
When all else fails, I like to remind myself that the same forces in the universe that brought us gravity and infinity and death (and all that weird, scary, abstract stuff) are also responsible for the existence of The Cheesecake Factory and shiba inus and Betty White.
And no matter what kind of hell my OCD brain is putting me through, I’ll never not be grateful for those things.
Sam Dylan Finch is a leading advocate in LGBTQ+ mental health, having gained international recognition for his blog, Let’s Queer Things Up!, which first went viral in 2014. As a journalist and media strategist, Sam has published extensively on topics like mental health, transgender identity, disability, politics and law, and much more. Bringing his combined expertise in public health and digital media, Sam currently works as social editor at Healthline.