I’m currently going through the hardest breakup of my life.
I miss it constantly: my lifelong passionate, off-and-on, toxic love affair with Control.
Like all great love stories, this one involves a great loss. But this loss comes at the very beginning, before I even knew I was in love. The affair started as soon as we were separated.
I lost Control somewhere in childhood, and tried desperately to reunite with it through various experiments. In the early years of our separation, I created my own litany of rituals and superstitions, my version of password attempts that would unlock mornings, guarantee love, grant me the key to someone else’s immortality:
Don’t look at the clock so your mom will be safe on her drive home.
Turn off all the lights, flip them back on, and then your day can begin.
Hug your dad three times before he leaves and then you know he’ll come back.
Eat breakfast at 7:52, lunch at 11:46, snack at 3:37.
This worked gorgeously until I realized it didn’t. Control was still elusive, especially as life complicated itself as I got older. Sometimes I was busy at 3:37. My dad didn’t come back. I must have gotten the passwords wrong.
Then I learned how to get Control back in my life for good as my experiments evolved from behavioral to mental. I reunited with my lost beloved through obsessions rather than compulsions; I grew out of my superstitions around flipping light switches and moved on to fixations of the mind: studying, calorie-counting, punishing myself for the slightest veer off-course into anything a teenager might normally do.
As a high schooler, I wouldn’t let myself sleep in, I wouldn’t touch food that didn’t meet a long list of personal requirements, I couldn’t study enough. (I was a barrel of laughs!!) Control finally came back to me, for good. We were an item.
While that all those fixations sound extremely un-fun, Control became an intoxicating partner to me at the same time that it was haunting me—a Phantom of the Opera type affair that both spooked and enchanted me. While I resented it for its interference in my eating and my leisure time, I also saw that it gave me discipline and hyper-attention to details that got me positive attention.
In addition to obsessing about grades, I also obsessed over creating the most interesting outfits possible, collecting obscure jazz albums, learning Russian after school, and setting my sights on intentionally-difficult career goals. When I pushed the limits of what I perceived to be my uniqueness, people praised me: “You’re different,” “You’re interesting,” “You’re strange.”
I interpreted these comments as “This is why you’re a valuable human being,” and collected even more obsessions: ways of distinguishing myself from other people as a defense mechanism dressed in vintage skirts and thrift jackets collected on off-the-beaten-path solo travels. Control told me that being the most unusual person in the room meant being the most lovable, valuable and worthy of attention.
Control was the partner behind all my fixations, encouraging obsessiveness in every area: best grades, lowest calorie count, weirdest outfits. I would have never let Control go. It was my key to being valuable.
And, over time, Control has shown itself to be my greatest ally in assuring me love and acceptance. I credit Control for co-creating beautiful experiences. I assume that people have a good time with me because I fixate on planning each moment to magical perfection.
We’ll take the walk down this block with the beautiful trees, we’ll get this booth at this restaurant so he can have this cool view of the kitchen, we’ll leave strategically right as the sun sets (I've looked up the exact time). He’ll swoon. He’ll tell me I’m special, that he’s never met anyone like me. He has the most exquisite experiences with me. I know. Control guarantees me affection. Why would I ever let it go?
As Control has apparently mastered what I need to do and how I need to perform to secure love, it has also amped up the hauntings. Control still insists that to be valued is to be special, but I’m realizing what a warped idea Control has of what it means to be special. The haunting comes in when Control tells me that I'll never be special enough, and obsesses over supporting evidence.
This is the year that I realized I want to release this voice that sometimes sounds like a gentle suggestion to beautify an experience, but more often sounds like a demonic command to be some misguided idea of perfect.
That’s the funny thing: Control has never lived on earth before. I realized that I’ve been trusting a voice that knows very little about the human experience, and doesn’t even know me that well. This is a force who has picked up vague visions of what matters—from compliments and beliefs I received or intuited when I was 5 years old—from people whose names I can’t even remember.
Control has never met a human being, yet has a very clear idea of what’s desirable to them. Control has never had a job, but knows the right way to do mine. Control has never experienced a sunset—only consumed them—yet seems to think they are extremely important to the process of guaranteeing me love.
Unsurprisingly, Control has not turned out to be the dream partner that I thought it once was. Its rigid idea of what’s important has led me down roads of comparison and jealousy that have only ended in spiral labyrinths of self-torture. I ferociously measure myself up against others and panic when I inevitably find ways that I’m not a completely unique human being. What I thought was a loving relationship with Control became obviously toxic and painful. Control told me exactly how to be, then made it impossible for me to be that.
Control has embarrassed me, limited my life, and bossed me around. It’s the reason I’ve been sometimes called “crazy,” the reason why I can’t listen to certain favorite songs without triggering myself into psychosis because I suspect that my boyfriend might have once listened to them with his ex, the reason why I often choose to forego an experience I know I’d love because I may not be able to make it as magical as Control would want me to.
I decided I wanted to break up with Control when I realized all of this. Control wasn’t rooting for actual Me; I don’t even think it knows what I look like or how old I am, and yet it’s the dominant force of my life. For the sake of my relationships and my work and my ability to appreciate the golden light that floods through the cracks of certainty, I have to let it go.
It’s terrifying. If I say goodbye to Control, then I lose its well-developed (but poorly-executed) concept of desirability and worthiness. I have to figure out my own.
To toot my own horn, this takes a lot of guts. It also takes a lot of help. I’m trying medication for the first time and I’ve committed to two different modules of therapy. I’ve found camaraderie in podcasts, forums, and articles devoted to ‘Pure O OCD’ (obsessive-compulsive disorder without the compulsions) which manifests in the fixations and intrusive thoughts that have plagued me for decades.
To have a name for something that I thought was just a shameful part of my personality has given me a more tender perspective on it: Oh my sweet brain with your wonky chemistry and deeply-embedded behaviors, let’s help you out. There are many, many people around the world who, through openly sharing their experiences, have beckoned me from the world of “There’s something wrong with me” into the world of “I’m not alone and this can get better,” and for that I’m so grateful.
As we've begun our separation, I long for Control. Taking medication to distance myself from something that has considered itself my greatest ally feels counterintuitive, and brings up fears around saying goodbye to some parts of my personality that I really like: What if I become apathetic, or lose my discipline? What if my brain softens as it switches from overdrive mode to...something else? What if I stop appreciating beauty because I'm no longer obsessed with pointing it out to people?
The last question answered itself the other day. I was leaving an exercise class and noticed that the morning had changed color from frosty grey to glowing pink, and with it a more delectable temperature. I had a few pressing items on my to do list, but the list reordered with the hue of the day: I now prioritized taking advantage of a warm winter Thursday.
My whim took me to a bookstore; I selected a Staff Pick of a book I'd never heard of and took it to sit with me outside a cafe for a while. The book was so engrossing that I didn't look up for who knows how long, until the moment I decided I wanted more coffee. My eyes went from page to city, and I saw a stunning performance of sunlight on the red brick building across the street. I marveled at the colors and shadows contrasted with a thick blue sky above, and, when the thought struck me, I got tears in my eyes: I didn't control this.
There was nothing about the moment I could have orchestrated: It was all serendipity and chance. Colors brightened and my appreciation widened. This is what can enter in when Control exits the scene.
For someone who talks a big game about embracing the unknown, the uncontrollable, and the uncertain, I didn't know how intensely I was still committed to the relationship with Control that has so often robbed me of witnessing tender clumps of beauty that only exist when I allow my experience of life to unfold as it may.
These days, when Control pops up to rekindle our relationship and remind me of its charms, I have to work to turn my attention elsewhere. 'No thank you, I've suffered for too long,' I'll tell it, when it suggests reasons I should compare myself or encourages me to freak out over a changed plan. Then, I repeat a phrase that is new to my life, one that gives me much more power than Control ever could:
Maybe, or maybe not.
Maybe something bad will happen, or maybe it won't.
Maybe he'll leave me, or maybe he won't.
Maybe she's better at this, or maybe she's not.
Maybe they're thinking about that, or maybe they're not.
When I think this way, calm rushes around my body. My eyes blink open to possibility. I relax into the day. I feel capable of handling either option. And my therapist affirms, 'That's the real Mari, right there.' The one who is curious, open, and appreciative of the unknown--not the one who believes it's up to her to perfectly perform in order to secure connection.
Control still wants me back, desperately. It taps on my brain and sends me late-night messages and woos me with promises of security. I have to resist, over and over.
But this is a great love story that won't end with a tragedy; I'm moving on to a life full of warm mornings and rich color and mistakes that lead to intimacy and trust that has nothing to do with plans going perfectly. I'm sending my brain on an all-expenses-paid vacation without intrusive thoughts, and I want to fall in love with that version of my mind. As scary as it is to let a great love go, I'm in for a lifetime of greater love.
The new story begins here.