“I hate exposures,” I texted last night, along with a picture of my lit menorah, to some friends who also have OCD. They, of course, replied with encouragement and love, and validation that fire also scares them. Still, I kept my eyes on the candles while letting myself feel the anxiety.
I haven’t lit a menorah for Hanukkah in two years, since I moved into my own apartment. I was (and still am) afraid of a fire starting in my apartment and maybe even spreading to other apartments if it gets really out of control. This fear of fires is not new. It was one of my earlier OCD themes as a child. I would repetitively check that light switches were all the way down and make sure nothing was touching an outlet because OCD told me this would prevent a fire. In college, I would unplug everything before I left my dorm room, as if some how my absence would start a fire and my presence could prevent it.
I’ll be honest, I still occasionally check light switches or move things away from outlets. So, you have to understand that it is a big deal that I lit a menorah this year. I don’t even own a menorah, or any candles, because I never thought I would light one in my apartment. But this year I felt encouraged for some reason, so I borrowed a menorah from my synagogue.
I was quite scared to light it the first night. It was only two candles, the shamash and a candle for the first night, so not as much fire as there will be on the eighth night of Hanukkah, but still, fire is fire. But the important thing is I did it. And then I surprised myself by not immediately then blowing out the candles. I let them burn all the way till they were done, as is tradition.
And then the next two nights, I didn’t light the menorah with shaky excuses of “being too busy.” But the fourth night I wanted to try again. My partner came over, and I wanted to continue sharing Hanukkah and this tradition with him. So, we lit the candles together, I said the prayers, and then I immediately asked when I could blow the candles out. He asked, right on cue, “What would be the exposure?” And I jokingly grumbled, “Fine, I’ll leave them lit for twenty minutes. Then, I’ll blow them out.” He was right.
My SUDS (subjective units of distress) hovered around a 7 or 8 most of the time, which is pretty high for an exposure. Of course, in true Morgan fashion, on the outside I appeared totally calm. My 2 and my 8 look about the same, but I am much better now at verbally communicating when I am stressed. After about 20 minutes, I put forward blowing them out again. Again right on cue, my partner mentioned, “But you’ve come so far already.” He would have supported me either way in my decision, but he was right again. The candles had already shrunk considerably. It would be maybe another 30 minutes tops for them to finish burning. So, I agreed to let them finish burning.
Was it compulsion free? No. I starred at the candles just about the entire time, making sure nothing somehow came near them or no candles fell and started a fire. But I did it, and I sighed with relief as the last candle burnt out.
This is an important exposure for me. Not only has it been years since I lit any sort of candle anywhere, but I made a values-based decision rather than a fear-based decision. Yes, I was quite scared and my SUDS went quite high. Still, I did it. I was able to continue a tradition I’ve carried out since childhood and celebrate my Jewish culture. And as a helpful bonus, I had a lot of great encouragement to face my fears along the way.
On a related holiday note, I wrote an article for The Mighty about the OCD-themed gift exchange some of my friends do every year. Read it here!