in recent years

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intrusive religiosity

For about a year in the late 2000s, I became intensely devoted to crossing myself whenever I passed a cross.


 
This started with a steeple cross that was visible to me from the freeway on the drive home from my college. I often sat in a little clutch of traffic near it and it was lit at night, so I noticed it frequently, hovering over the wall that separated the speeding 210 from the neighborhood beyond.
 
I’m not religious. I’ve been to church less than a dozen times in my entire life. I’m unbaptized, un-saved, uncircumsised. I’ve been to Catholic mass once and I spent the entire thing staring at how super naked Jesus seemed on the cross, hanging morbidly above the Filipino priest’s head. I’m religiously curious, so I know a lot about rites and rituals. Plus I’m a writer and I like characters of faith, so I’ve done a lot of research over the years. I’m an atheist though. No waffling here: I don’t believe in god and I have no interest in church.
 
But this cross, it haunted me. I could feel the pull of compulsion each time I passed it, the little tug at me, like there was something my body, my hindbrain NEEDED to do, but I wasn’t getting the message. It probably took a month of this drive, two or three times a week, for me to figure out what it was. My right arm wanted to make the sign of the cross.
 
This is 1. hysterical because with all that lack of religious upbringing, I had no idea how to accurately make the sign of the cross, and 2. disturbing, because it was a compulsion with an intensity I had not yet experienced. I’ve had intensely intrusive thoughts my entire life (flashes of sudden injury, the desire to drive into oncoming traffic, having to back up from a rail because I wanted to jump – all the regulars!) but this was not that. And it wasn’t like the compulsive need to touch and smell things that I inherited from my mother. (Thanks, Mom!) It wasn’t going all the way back to my apartment or dorm door to make sure I locked it. Twice. I knew there were consequences if I left my front door unlocked. I didn’t have any identifiable fear or consequence of NOT crossing myself, I just realized that I had to do it and I had to do it real, real bad.
 
So I did.
 
It became a thing. I drove by this steeple, I crossed myself. Probably incorrectly, but it got the job done. I felt compelled first in my upper arm, then my elbow, then my fingers as I neared the cross. I’d cross myself and I’d feel the minor flood of elation at having satisfied the compulsion. I only crossed myself when I was traveling on the westbound side of the freeway because, I don’t know, these things just happen and the universe in which I live has all kinds of rules I just obey because that’s how it is. I also always did it with my fore and middle fingers extended, which had no reasoning either. It just felt right.
 
It was weird, but it wasn’t dangerous and it was only once a day, twice a week!
 
But then it started happening when I was eastbound as well.
 
And then it started happening any time I passed a large cross. Then any time I passed a church. Then any cross. Then cemeteries.
 
I was living in a Los Angeles suburb and commuting into the Inland Empire. I spent a lot of time in the car and I saw a lot of crosses and churches and cemeteries.
 
I knew it had become a problem when I had to come up with a way to cross myself SECRETLY.

I had started crossing myself so frequently (There are more than 40 churches just in the town of 40,000 where I lived.) that doing it with other people had become unavoidable.

I have been an outspoken atheist since I was thirteen years old, I couldn’t let my friends and family think I had suddenly become weirdly and confusingly Catholic. Also, I still – despite having access to the entire internet at my fingertips – had no idea if I was crossing myself correctly and being seen doing it incorrectly would have been HUMILIATING, obviously. I think I didn’t look it up because the compulsion didn’t want me to. My crossing was organic and it wanted to stay that way.
 
I had learned in like, the third grade, that crossing your fingers for luck came from persecuted Christians giving each other the what’s up, so I tried that. I didn’t like it. First of all, it’s not really an action, it’s an adjustment. Second of all, it didn’t satisfy my elbow or my shoulder. My fingers were okay-ish with the deal, but the rest of my right arm was Not Having It.
 
So I started drawing a cross on my thigh. It allowed for the motion of my entire arm, it seemed semi-holy, and it was pretty easy to do inconspicuously. And I did it A Lot.

The best way to end this story would be to tell you that someone busted me and I had an embarrassing breakdown about how I was an adult woman who couldn’t control my own weird, compulsive, faux-religiosity. Or maybe that the compulsion started to make me feel too out of control and so I forced myself to break it. But, sadly, this story just ends the way most idiot problems I have do: it just went away on its own.