How I Was Seduced by Traditionalism, Part 2: Asperger’s and Religious OCD Make a Great Couple

If you haven’t been able to read between the lines thus far, I’m just going to explicitly state right now that I have Asperger’s Syndrome. Some skeptics seem to think that Asperger’s is a “trendy diagnosis,” especially when you have so many people doing the self-diagnosis thing. However, having Asperger’s Syndrome is only “trendy” if you’re someone like Bill Gates, who is already rich and famous, so any “quirks” can be immediately translated into a sign of genius. Girls and women with Asperger’s Syndrome or who are elsewhere on the autistic spectrum are practically invisible in our discourse. Many people have some clue as to what can be done about a geeky autistic boy who liked computers and math, whereas a geeky autistic girl who can name every post-War of the Roses British monarch and likes to learn Latin (like me) is always going to be an oddity.

So let’s say you’re that weird Asperger’s girl who likes Latin and medieval history. Where do you go? If you’re anything like me, you gravitate towards an institution that seems to resemble the sorts of pre-modern stories that you like to read about anyway. And not only are you dazzled by the pageantry of the whole thing, but this institution gives you a set of rules to live by that appear to give you meaning and grounding in life. I knew I could never aspire to “normalcy,” but sainthood seemed like something doable, especially with the sixth and nine commandments not really being much of an issue for me.

The problem is that Confession, the Examination of Conscience, and the generalized hysteria about liturgy and “life issues” awakened a set of fears that I didn’t even know existed, namely religious OCD. I obsessively prayed the rosary, performed any and all obscure pre-Vatican II devotions I could find, and became visibly agitated if I had to miss Sunday mass (then, as now, I couldn’t drive because of my anxiety, so if my parents couldn’t drive me, I wasn’t getting there). I had a peculiar obsession with the whole Consecration to Jesus through Mary thing under Louis de Momfort, because I felt that I should be doing great acts of spiritual daring after I underwent the consecration, rather than the way I was actually feeling, which was like a worthless loser.

Despite leading one of the dullest lives imaginable, I went to confession every week, because I was afraid that I might die in a state of mortal sin. In retrospect, it was quite absurd, because the “sins” that I was confessing were not really sins, but signs of inadequately treated mental illness. The thing that I usually confessed was a feeling of chronic “despair” (e.g., depression), which I interpreted to mean as that mysterious “sin against the Holy Ghost.” My inability to “pray” my way out of my despair/anxiety only made me feel worse. The so-called “advice” that the traditional priests gave was not particularly useful in helping me get out of my funk, since it all just felt like traditionalist boilerplate that had nothing to do with me and my particular problems.

Then in 2008, things really started to go downhill. Like that Gnarles Barkley song “Crazy” where the narrator remembers when he lost his mind, I can remember exactly when things went from bad to worse. During the same time as the “Obama Drama” that I’ve outlined elsewhere, my accordion teacher, Mr. R, died. It should not have been a shock, since he was about 85 years old, but he was still driving around, performing, doing yard work, and everything else that you would expect a healthy person to do. Plus, it seemed that people lived to be one hundred all the time, so why not him? I had known Mr R since I was fourteen, and one of the few really close relationships that I had ever had, closer to me than my own flesh and blood grandfather, and now he was gone.

I suppose that a major death in one’s life is one of those periods in life when you’re supposed to take succor in religion, but traditionalism only made things worse. Mr R lived life on his own terms and they weren’t the kind of terms that a Catholic traditionalist would approve of her. For starters, he was married three times,the first one being a quickie post-World War II marriage in Reno and the other two being a marriage and remarriage to the same woman (“The second time was even worse than the first!” he used to say). In the grand scheme of things, having bad luck in the marital department isn’t the worse thing one could do in life, but  probably comes off as unrepentant adultery by traditionalist standards. Mr R was also a Protestant, a Baptist to be exact. He never came off as super religious or anything and I suspect that like many Southerners, he was just Baptist because everyone he knew was Baptist. This fact is neutral in and of itself, but according to Catholic traditionalism, Mr R was a “heretic” who was probably roasting with the other losers who refused to bow down before the inherent awesomeness of the Church of Rome.

I started obsessing about Mr R’s final fate, and worried about whether his three marriages and Protestantism had permanently consigned him to an eternity in some Dante-inspired barbecue session. I would pray for his soul, use my meager funds to have masses said for his soul, and pray the other prayers for the repose of the departed, but nothing made me feel better. Between Mr R’s death, the Obama Drama, and the various scandals erupting at St F, I was really starting to wonder if sainthood was all it was cracked up to be if it meant Mr R had to go to Hell while the self-righteous traditionalist prigs went to Heaven, or at least the better parts of Purgatory.

My attempts to break free of traditionalism were marred by the fact that my mind was still caught up in the obsessive thought patterns that I had picked up at St F and the conservotrad blogosphere. I couldn’t enjoy non-traditional church services because I was still obsessed with “invalid masses” and the like, and even during my sojourn among the proudly low church Mennonites I was still wondering about what the “true church” was and whether I had abandoned “the Truth” just because I found the people at St F to be personally offensive. In the end, the only thing that helped break the spell of religious OCD and anxiety was to just stop believing in everything: in churches, in god, in Jesus, sacraments, the whole nine yards. This may sound extreme to some, but in reality, my search for “the truth” ended up back where I started, which was secular humanism. My advice is that if your search for “the truth” is causing you mental and physical pain and affecting your ability to function and form real relationships, then you’re taken yourself down a wrong path.

To sum up the point I was trying to make with this post, I think that my Asperger’s Syndrome combined with my anxiety to create a monster case of religious OCD. I thought that the clear, black and white rules in Catholicism would help curb my anxieties but in the end it only worsened them. Easy answers, whether from a book, a religion, a charismatic figure, or anything else always come with a high price, although what that price entails may not be clear for years to come.

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One thought on “How I Was Seduced by Traditionalism, Part 2: Asperger’s and Religious OCD Make a Great Couple

  1. I can definitely understand where you are coming from and why you abandoned the church. It is true that rules, religion, and rituals, can be less than helpful sometimes… And constantly thinking about Hell can be depressing. I have had negative experiences with Christianity, but I still believe in the Lord Jesus and found some great people who feel the same way. However, we try not to waste our energy thinking about who’s going to heaven and who’s not, which is maddening and counterproductive, as you know. We just try to accept the sacrifice of the Lamb every day of our lives, living in love, blessing, and mercy. I’m not saying trying to suggest that we are super great or anything, but I think that my brothers and sisters are making a genuine effort toward the worthwhile goal. Trying to follow rules can be useless, but experiencing the divine love and fellowship, in my opinion is not. Life is full of trials, setbacks, and temptations, but I still believe in spite of it all. I know that you probably think that what I am talking about is still religion even if I don’t call it that… In a way it is a matter of semantics- after all, I am Christian. But in another sense, it is much more than that. Anyway, just wanted to share that because I really related to your post. Take care!

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