It’s 2001 and I am somewhere around 8 years old. I live in an unremarkable ranch house in a Connecticut suburb with my large homeschooling family. My sister Caroline and I share a double bed in the basement, which doubles as a schoolroom during the day.
Each night, we have to whisper “goodnight Jesus” as the absolute last thing we say before sleeping. If we follow this up with additional conversation, we have to say it again.
If “goodnight Jesus” isn’t the last thing we say, bad things will happen. This we know…for the Bible tells us so? Not really, but it feels safe and we roll with it.
As an adult, this shows up with every “I love you” said in farewell. If the last thing I tell someone isn’t “I love you,” panic sets in. I imagine all the horrible and unexpected ways one of us could perish before meeting again. What if I accidentally let them die (or die myself) without “I love you” being the last thing I said to them?
I punctuate each penultimate sentence with “I love you”s uttered like hasty prayers. Slowly, the phrase begins to lose meaning through ritualistic repetition.
How much harm do these silly rituals do?
It’s funny how our rituals develop and follow us into our adult lives. I think if more of us were honest, we all share them, clinging to them like lifelines we don’t want anyone else to discover for fear of losing respect. Personally, I have grown to see all adults as overgrown children who haven’t a clue what they’re doing, so they perform these rituals to stay safe and feel like they have a semblance of control in their lives.
Maybe I’m projecting a bit. But really, how much harm do these silly rituals do?
Sometimes I find myself afraid of what will happen if I don’t adhere to the rules of my stupid, clearly made up little rituals. I become neurotic, paranoid, guilty. See “I love you”.
There’s the feeling that I’ve somehow forgotten something immensely important, and that life and death now hang in the balance because I forgot to do the thing that will keep me safe. My brain seizes onto every memory wherein something bad happened because — allegedly — I experienced a moment of carelessness.
Weak. Vulnerable. Punishable.
I take stock of my current values and recognize that no deity is going to hurl lightning bolts of pain and suffering upon me for living in the moment. Because I also recognize that the opposite of ritual isn’t chaos, but improvisation.
Improv comedy is a fascination of mine. I am a deeply anxious person, and the idea of going through life without a script is about as appealing to me as a restaurant where you show up and are expected to make a meal choice without a menu. Who knows what danger lurks in mystery tacos and unplanned conversations?
In therapy, we are taught that two opposing views about ourselves may be true at the same time. For instance, instead of saying “I am an addict OR I am in recovery”, one might say “Yes, I am an addict…AND I am in recovery”. This recognizes that one is allowed to exist within the other, and frees the person from polarizing thoughts about themselves. At least, that’s the idea.
Who knows what danger lurks in mystery tacos and unplanned conversations?
This “Yes, and…” approach also shows up in improv comedy. In order to keep the scene going, acting partners are encouraged to accept and expand upon one another’s statements, finding creative ways to scale the walls that have been placed around them due to the nature of the situation. It’s impressive to watch, and leads me to believe that improv comedians have figured something out that I haven’t.
In a world that is undeniably chaotic, improvising our lives is the only way we can achieve realistic expectations of our ability to influence the paths we take. In other words, realizing that everything is random, and — as one of my favorite writers puts it — we are only a few millimeters between life and death at any given moment. Rituals cannot keep us safe. Societally determined structures are not the safeguards we are led to believe they are. So why not spice it up a little?
Improvising for me these days looks like ending a conversation with a joke and walking away. It looks like leaving the dirty dishes on the counter in favor of grabbing yogurt with my sister. It looks like skipping a step of my skincare routine (even though all I do is complain about my skin) because I am so, so tired.
It looks like not always being the last one to text back.
Of course, sometimes improvisations don’t culminate in the results I want. Leaving dirty dishes on the counter for too long will result in bugs. Skipping sunscreen too many times will result in skin damage. If I’m never the last one to text back, my friends might think I don’t care enough.
Addiction and ritual are vastly different, but they share a few key characteristics. As someone who feels a compulsion to perform rituals in my everyday life, I feel an undeniable urge to do the thing that will make me safe. As an addict, I feel an undeniable urge to consume the substance that will make me feel safe. If I don’t do the ritual or consume the substance, untold horrors will occur. And so rituals were born within my addiction. Or was my addiction born from a compulsion to perform rituals?
Once again, I feel trapped in a tumble cycle of circular thinking.
My current recovery journey has been incredibly nonlinear — whose isn’t? — but I dare say more successful than past attempts. I can’t say why that is, and if I’m being honest, I fully expect the house to crumble at any moment. But lately I’ve been attributing much of my growth to the idea that I don’t have to live by the rules anymore. Furthermore, maybe the rules are actually just as real as the deity of which I was so afraid.
In the end, it’s not rituals that keep us safe. It’s the ability to say “Yes, and…”
Christina Jumper writes about addiction, eating disorders, harm reduction, deconstruction, and recovery. She is the creator and cohost of Pickles and Vodka: a Mental Health Podcast, where she embarrasses herself weekly.