As I tore through the pages of Abby Sher’s new book, Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying (Among Other Things), I felt like I was in the passenger’s seat accompanying her on the bumpy ride through her lifelong struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. An extended meditation filled with humor and grace, and anxieties, fears, joys and sorrows, Abby’s memoir brought me right to the center of her vulnerable humanity and my own. I now understood OCD in a whole new way—not as something foreign, but as an antidote to the uncertainty of existence that we all can relate to. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand OCD, or themselves, more intimately.The Frisky: I know you have written essays, young adult literature, and plays in the past. Why was it time to write a memoir?
Abby Sher: I wrote an essay for SELF magazine about the time I was sure I’d killed a lady with a grocery cart. An editor read it and contacted me and said, “I think this should be expanded into a memoir.” I was like, “Oh yeah? Do you want to write it?” But when I thought about it, I realized that I had actually been circling around my story for years. Writing my memoir was really one of the most therapeutic things I’ve ever done.
The Frisky: What is the one thing you wish people understood about OCD?
AS: That’s a good question. I’m not sure I understand OCD myself. I guess I’d like people to know it’s secretive, like any other powerful addiction. It’s not like you can “snap out of it.”
The Frisky: With OCD, people have rituals or compulsions that help reduce their anxieties. Can you tell us about some of yours?
AS: I think a bunch of my rituals started even before I was conscious of them. I began by shredding napkins and washing my hands a ton. My book begins on the night when my favorite aunt dies suddenly. I was trying to make sense of how somebody could disappear like that and I remember tracing these patterns in my wallpaper. That became a ritual that I thought was soothing, but then when I did it more and more I just couldn’t stop doing it. After that I became obsessed with picking up litter—paperclips, staples, gum wrappers. I had this theory that if anyone stepped on something slippery or sharp, or if a car tire went over something like a nail, there could be a terrible accident and everyone would die and it would be my fault. I had secret stashes of rusty nails and shards of glass that I kept in my closet.
The Frisky: Do you think you would have struggled with OCD no matter what your life circumstances were or was the disorder aggravated by all the losses you suffered?
AS: I think maybe everyone has a certain degree of OCD. There’s comfort in repetition, right? Comfort in repetition? Yeah, that’s an OCD joke. I also think my mom had a little dash of OCD and I idolized her, so I’m sure I learned some of my habits from her. But most of all I think OCD is this delicious way of trying to control the uncontrollable. Because I couldn’t understand or control people suffering around me, I was motivated to do something that would make it stop. So I picked up litter and prayed. Basically, I tried to give myself super powers.
The Frisky: Do you watch that show “Obsessed” on A & E? Have you ever seen a really accurate portrayal of OCD?
AS: I’m sorry to say I haven’t seen “Obsessed.” But I think the best portrayal of OCD I’ve ever seen is Jack Nicholson in the film “As Good As It Gets.” He was quirky and curmudgeonly, which is pretty common in people with OCD, but there was this one scene where he’s trying to lock the door and he’s turning the lock back and forth, just standing there, over and over again. And oh man, he gets it.
The Frisky: You’re really into yoga. How has it helped you?
AS: Yoga has been such an amazing release for me. Of course, like most things in my life, I manage to make it obsessive sometimes. Am I doing it fast enough? Am I building up a sweat? Am I enlightened yet? But then there are these pockets of really finding my breath or seeing my thoughts as separate from myself, and those moments are just … awesome.
The Frisky: Prayer is something that people tend to rely on in difficult times, but for you it was an obsession. Do you still pray?
AS: I still pray at least a half hour every day and yes, at times it really took over my life, but I also think prayer is what got me through the darkest times. I started praying maybe to find a father or Father because I missed my dad. And I only wanted to please Him. And then I was terrified that everything I did would be blasphemous and I would make more people die. But now I’m trying to make my prayers more like a conversation. So that no one is accountable for the entire world. I still love the idea of a protective parent up above, but I don’t want to make Him or me entirely responsible for anyone else’s well-being.
The Frisky: How do you feel about psychiatry — especially medication? I know that you are conflicted about it in the book.
AS: I think medication is incredibly helpful. I really don’t think I’d be able to have a child or eat or even pause without it. I also have an amazing psychiatrist with a great Irish accent, so when she speaks everything sounds so sweet and manageable.
The Frisky: What would your advice be for anyone suffering from OCD?
AS: Talk about it. Write about it. Just do anything you can to hear it out loud. I think the hardest thing about OCD and addiction is its secrecy. If you can say it out loud, hopefully with someone you trust, it can take shape and you can see the disorder more clearly and hopefully start to unravel it.