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Ritual Habitual

For Jennifer Traig, mixing milk and meat could have brought on the end of the world. What happens when custom becomes compulsion?

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As Jennifer Traig prepared for her bat mitzvah, she also began to worry about keeping kosher. This California girl, the product of a mixed marriage, wasn’t just finding religion: She was developing scrupulosity, a version of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in which individuals fixate on moral questions and religious practice. Perplexed, Traig became her own guide, wearing plastic bags on her hands to avoid impurity and forbidding herself from looking at pictures of anything leavened on Passover. In Devil in the Details, the McSweeney’s contributor recounts her girlhood dive into the murky waters where mental illness meets faith.

Jennifer TraigIn your book, you say OCD is religion. How so?

It’s ritual. Everything you do has heightened meaning—urgency—and must be done in a prescribed manner. Like so much of religious practice, it has a magic to it. We perform this mitzvah hoping that it will bring goodness to the world or will elevate our souls. And for the same reason I’m going to wash the dinner plate three times. It’s a talisman. It’s going to protect my family.

You really thought you had the power to protect your family?

On some level, you know that’s crazy. You know that your family’s health has nothing to do with how many times you wash the dinner plate. But once that thought gets in your head, you can’t let it go. It really was sort of this dark, foggy unknown. It was dread of displeasing God. And anything could happen: I could go to hell; I could lose everything that I love; the people I love could be hurt. It wasn’t, like, my dad would get cancer if I did this. But everything bad could happen and there was nothing to stop it.

Did you ever explain to your parents that you had to, say, tap the outlet or else the world was going to end?

No. I never gave a good reason for what I was doing, because we all knew, on some level, there is no good reason for this. When I finally got into therapy, a lot of the work we did was imagining what’s the worst that could happen by not being able to wash my hands.

When did scrupulosity stop being the basis of your religious observance?

Probably when I was about 18 and living on my own. I got to make all my own choices, no longer doing things just to annoy my parents or because my brain was making me. On paper, my observance wasn’t all that different: I’d been shomer shabbos for six years at that point. But it was okay to make mistakes. Now if I slipped up I wouldn’t spiral into a hand-washing frenzy.

And I just took a lot more pleasure in the practice. At home, because my family wasn’t observant, everything I did I kind of did by myself. But in college, for the first time I was doing it in a community. It was suddenly really fun to fast on Yom Kippur.

So was your compulsive behavior a form of rebellion?

The fact that I have OCD, obviously, was completely beyond my control. But the direction it took—I could have been tapping or counting or doing something that didn’t irritate my parents quite so much. The religion really got under their skin. That’s part of why I was attracted to it.

What bothered them?

It got in the way of everyone’s life: Suddenly we couldn’t have bacon in the house and I was putting the kibosh on Friday night fun. For my father, who’s purely a cultural Jew, it was very hard to understand. My mother is a practicing Catholic, so practicing a religion wasn’t alien to her. Of course, the things I was doing were.

As you write, people are fascinated with the “droll little quirks” of OCD. Aren’t you basically serving yourself up as entertainment?

Well, I guess I don’t think that’s bad. I’m fascinated by it too. As crippling as it can be, it can also be terrifically entertaining. I can say that because I’m lucky and didn’t have an incapacitating case. I’ve met parents whose kids have just the most severe OCD and are just completely nonfunctional and are considering surgery. My heart really breaks for them, but for the majority who have it, it’s a little bit funny. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that. It makes it much less scary.

At one point, you list saints who suffered from OCD or scrupulosity—Catherine, Ignatius of Loyola, Thérèse of Lisieux. How come you didn’t find rabbis?

I really did dig and ask around, and my failure to find them may have to do with being a bad Jewish scholar. I couldn’t find it ever described as pathology, though I certainly found instances where I thought, That’s OCD. There was a rabbi who was very insistent on his son’s checking the locks every night. And there was rabbi who spent hours, even days, picking the perfect matzo, which seemed a little excessive.

If the Catholic tradition seemed more accommodating, what made you turn to Judaism?

I didn’t have a choice. My parents decided before they got married that the kids would be Jewish. That decision wouldn’t have stuck if I didn’t always feel it was the right one.

Do you think religion is a form of illness?

Freud certainly did. I see the point—but no, it isn’t. Simply for the reason that it can be really practical, it’s a set of tools to help you live your life. And a lot of it is really sane, though certainly parts are a little crazy.

You talk plenty about your food obsessions, but you skirt the question of menstruation, which can be a big hurdle in adolescence and also is so central to Jewish concerns about impurity.

It would sometimes cross my mind: Maybe I shouldn’t sit in that chair; she’s touched that, maybe I shouldn’t touch that now. Fortunately, social conventions kept me from asking too many questions. The thoughts would pass through my head, and then I’d normally let it go. It was not a can of worms I was eager to open. We already had enough cans of worms.

At the end of the book, you’re off to Berkeley, and the OCD just goes away. It seems too quickly resolved.

Yeah. And no one believes me! I remember standing in my dorm thinking, That’s it, I’m all better. And I really was. That can happen with pediatric OCD. It wasn’t overnight: I’d spent a year in therapy, and the summer leading up to college I’d really worked on what I’m leaving behind. But the minute I stepped into the dorm room, I was fine.

Any recurrences since then? Aftereffects?

I really did think I was all better until I started doing the research and realized that some of my behaviors are obsessive compulsive. It’s little things: When I walk with someone, I have to walk on the left side; my brain feels weird if I’m on the right. And I check my locks probably a little bit more than the average person, and I’m always patting for my keys and wallet. But nothing that gets in the way of my life. I have a rule: If it ever is taking an hour a day, then I’ll go on meds or into therapy.

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Ritual Habitual

For Jennifer Traig, mixing milk and meat could have brought on the end of the world. What happens when custom becomes compulsion?

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