Determinism, OCD, and the Fight Against Fate

My mornings are probably quite different from yours. When I wake up, I don’t slide on my slippers and make my way to the kitchen for some breakfast. I don’t turn on the morning news to see what weather is headed my way. I don’t check my phone, use the restroom, walk the dog or read the paper.

The first thing I do when I wake up is wash my hands. The second? Wash my hands again. The third? Stuff my bed sheets into the washer and wash my hands again. Then I wash them one more time before making coffee — I wouldn’t want to “contaminate” the coffee machine, after all — and wash them again before preparing breakfast.

On an average day, I’ll wash my hands about a dozen times before going to work, another dozen or so times before going home, and another ten or fifteen times before I’m finally ready to hit the sack.

From the moment I awake in the morning until the moment I lay down at night, my mind moves at a pace that would turn Usain Bolt green with envy. This is because I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, a ghastly little demon that has been nesting inside the crevices of my brain for the better part of the last twenty years. I won’t pretend to understand how that devilish rival of mine has managed to outsmart me on such a consistent basis, but I’ve never stopped believing that, with a little professional help and a healthy dose of willpower, I’ll one day manage to slay the demon and reclaim my rightful place as king of my psychological castle.

Despite my best efforts, though, that day has yet to arrive. I’ve swallowed every pill I’ve been prescribed. I’ve invested more years in therapy than in high school and college combined. I’ve read every book and watched every documentary about OCD that I could get my hands on. Yet here I am, still struggling, still fighting, and still obsessing. The question now is, is there any chance at all that I’ll eventually manage to wrest control of the situation away from my OCD?

According to determinism, the answer is no. Because according to determinism, I have never been, and can never be, in control of anything.

As Merriam-Webster puts it, determinism is “a theory or doctrine that acts of the will, occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws.” To put it another way, determinism is a philosophical doctrine that annihilates the concept of free will.

If it truly is the case that free will doesn’t exist, then I contend that nature itself is a wretched and cruel thing. How else could I describe it? After all, is it not nature that has instilled in us an innate desire to be free? And is it not also nature that has provided us with the capacity to recognize that we are not actually free? God himself couldn’t devise a more torturous prank to play on our species. If determinism is true, then it would seem that our natural lust for liberty is a craving that can never be satiated.

So now I find myself in a situation that philosophy informs me is the result of countless factors over which I have no control. This of course means that the resolution of my ongoing struggle with OCD also depends on factors over which I have no control. In other words, even if I somehow manage to overcome my disorder, it won’t be because I willed myself to victory; it will be because the universe has already decided to anoint me the victor. Similarly, if the day should come when I forsake past promises made to friends and family alike and acquiesce to the demands of my disorder, it will be through no fault of my own.

To hell with that.

I can’t give you a logical reason to reject determinism. It certainly feels wrong, but the evidence in support of it is quite convincing; it’s as sound as any doctrine you’ll come across in philosophy. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the only way to live life is to live in denial of determinism, even if it is one day proven to be an objective truth. And frankly, I’m still not entirely convinced that it is objectively true.

As I sit here at my desk and continue to write this piece, my mind is barking at me to hasten up the stairs and into the bathroom so that I may wash my hands for the umpteenth time this evening. According to determinism, I was brought to this moment by an elaborate combination of laws and events that gave birth to the infuriating obsessions bouncing around inside my head. But I refuse, at least for the moment, to comply. I sit in defiance of determinism’s unearned authority and write in defiance of its irrational demands.

There are some who might argue that by pushing back against my obsessions, I’m playing right into the hands of a deterministic reality. And they could easily be correct. There may very well be a set of instructions embedded in the recesses of my subconscious that is responsible for my indignation, which would imply that my resistance to my OCD is more instinctive — and, therefore, more deterministic — than it is willful. But if that’s the case, why is it that the same brain that inspires my defiance simultaneously insists on my compliance? And who is responsible for breaking that stalemate?

On those rare occasions when I capitulate to my obsessions and compulsions after offering just the slightest bit of resistance, I feel an indescribable relief that I can’t compare to any other feeling I’ve ever experienced. It doesn’t matter that the relief I feel is an illusion — or that I’m aware of its illusory nature. What matters is that it feels really damn good to have a few consecutive moments in which I’m absolved of all my worries and concerns. But I’m proud to say that when my OCD calls for me, I never surrender straightaway. No matter how futile it feels, I always put up a fight.

That being said, it would be quite satisfying to just get up out of this chair and make my way up those steps and into that bathroom. I’ve done it thousands of times before and will likely do so thousands of times more before my life expires. Or I could just sit here for another minute. Or two. Or ten. The decision feels very much like it is mine to make. And until I’m proven wrong, I’m going to assume that it is indeed mine to make. I can’t live my life any other way. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone could.



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D.A. Kirk

D.A. Kirk


Outer space enthusiast. Japanese history junkie. I write about politics, culture, and mental illness. Disagreement is a precursor to progress.