Over at The Redeeming Things

Today, I am blogging over at The Redeeming Things, the blog of Trinity City Church, where I am blessed to worship and fellowship here in the Twin Cities.  I’m blogging about the intersection of my faith and my mental illness.

Here’s the beginning:

RedeemingThingsJLSLast week, while listening to an audiobook by Anne Lamott, she mentioned a line she tries to live by: “And may the free make others free.”

I had to rewind a few seconds and listen to it over again. And again, amazed at the stark and beautiful way these few words summarize the last four years of my life.

I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, an anxiety disorder that preyed on all I most value: faith, friendships, vocation. Forget all media has ever taught you about OCD—it is not a funny, quirky, bothersome nuisance. Instead, it is a hellish, tormenting thief and tyrant. It caused me to question whether God was real, if he loved me, if I loved him, if I was going to hell, if writing fiction was sinful, if people were demons, if real life was real life– but not in the normal way that all or most people question such things. With “normal” minds, thoughts come and go freely, but with OCD, the gate is broken, and the thoughts get trapped inside the head, never making progress or finding resolution. Without the resolution, an obsessive-compulsive becomes lodged in a perpetual state of panic and terror. OCD is slavery, and I was in bondage to it for over twenty years. I was a tormented pot that complained to the Potter, “Why-why-why did you make me this way?”

To read the rest, jump on over here.
photo credit: izarbeltza via photopin cc

OCD, ERP, and Christianity

ocd and christianityI often hear from obsessive-compulsive Christians asking, “If my OCD is centered around my faith, will ERP still work even if my therapist is not a Christian?”

I’ve written elsewhere about how OCD is an arsonist, setting fires (obsessions) in our minds and how our compulsions are like shortsidedly trying to put out the fires instead of going for the arsonist directly.  You don’t need a Christian cognitive-behavioral therapist.  You just need someone who knows ERP and knows it well.  In other words, you need an OCD assassin.

If you are obsessing about the unforgivable sin or something else faith-related, you don’t need a great theologian to dialogue with you about it.  (In fact, chances are that you’ve already discussed this with all your Christian friends and maybe even a respected pastor.)  After that conversation with the theologian, you’re probably just going to start obsessing again, either about the same thing or something else.  You need someone who can take out the OCD, and yes, I mean “take out” in a sniper kind of way.

“But I’m worried that ERP is just going to cover up my real issues.  I don’t want to just forget about these things.  I want to solve them.”

First of all, you’re misunderstanding ERP.  It doesn’t sweep issues under a rug.  It’s not like you’re brainwashed into believing that life is now perfect.  Not at all!  It rewires your brain so that you can think the way “normal” people do– less circularly.

Secondly, you’re misunderstanding life and faith.  These things aren’t “solvable”– at least, not generally.  Sure, you might be the one person in a million who has God audibly speak to you one day– but probably not.  Life is full of uncertainty.  It’s a FACT.  And faith is about TRUSTING God even in uncertainty.

You need to get it out of your head that you will ever be rid of uncertainty in this life.

Back to the original question …

Your ERP therapist is not going to talk you through theological issues.  That’s not his/her job, and actually, it would be counterproductive to what ERP is all about.

If you can find an incredible cognitive-behavioral therapist who is also a follower of Christ, then yes, by all means, go to that person!  But if healing and health are your goals, then your first order of business is finding someone who knows how to do Exposure and Response Prevention.  You are looking for an OCD assassin, not someone to have tea and Bible study with.

Thoughts?  Further questions?

 

Redeemer

I am being mentored at my workplace, and Monica, my brilliant mentor, said to me the other week, “If we are being conformed into the likeness of our Redeemer, then we should be little redeemers.”

I like that idea.  I think.

Remember John Coffey in The Green Mile?  How he could siphon illness and even death from people with his touch– and then would expel it from his mouth like ashes?

Sometimes I wish I could do that for the readers of this blog.  Just steal your suffering away.

Reminds me of the verse from Galatians 3: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (emphasis mine).

I love that RESCUE is God’s work, and I will count it an honor if he grants that I be used as a tool in that work.

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A Closer Look at HOCD

Since I first blogged about HOCD, more and more people have been coming out of the woodwork in my life to say, “That’s me.”  I’m realizing every week just what a common OCD theme it is to struggle with and question one’s sexuality, even when there is really very little reason to do so.  When I talk to obsessive-compulsives with HOCD, it’s very clear to me that they are straight (they want to be straight, they are not generally attracted to the opposite sex, etc.), but OCD– that old bastard– won’t give them any rest.

I decided to conduct a small, not-scientific-at-all study on my own so that I could compare responses and see what trends I could see.  I asked the same 8 questions to 4 of my friends– one male and one female, each with HOCD, and one male and one female, both who are homosexual.  I’m so grateful to them for their thorough and honest responses, which I have edited down without changing any of the meanings obvious in the larger context.

I’d like to share them with you.

1. When did you first start to wonder if you were gay? How old were you? Was there a particular experience that “triggered” your questioning?

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2. When you first suspected you were gay, how did you feel? What emotions went through you, both as you considered what it would mean for yourself internally and for your relationships externally?

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3. How long did the debating (am I gay/am I not?) last? Was this something you knew or something you were/are trying to figure out?

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4. When you pictured yourself interacting romantically with someone of your same sex, what emotions did you experience? Also, how sure of those emotions were you? (Did you waffle back and forth between your reactions, or were you certain and set on a particular reaction?)

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5. Did you/do you want to be gay?

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6. Do you struggle/have you struggled with any OCD-related obsessions (HOCD or otherwise)? Have you been diagnosed with OCD?

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7. In general, do you find yourself primarily attracted to the opposite sex or your same sex?

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8. Do you find people of both genders attractive? 

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I’d be so fascinated to hear reactions to these answers from my blog readers.  What did you notice?  What surprised you?  Are there any trends you are seeing or sensing?

A couple things I noticed:

* In both the male and female HOCD answers, their sexual questioning was triggered by a relatively minor event.  In contrast, the homosexual response from both genders was more of a large-scale “I knew I was different.”

* My gay friends seemed to fear people’s responses and reactions more than they actually feared being homosexual.

* Both HOCD responses toward imagining romantic interactions with the same sex were primarily negative– disinterest, nausea– even though there may have been physical reactions that seemed to say otherwise.

* Those with HOCD thoughts were already deeply struggling with other areas of OCD.

Everyone agreed that both genders can be attractive– but note that doesn’t equate being attracted to them.

I’d love to hear from my readers.  What are your thoughts?

Disclaimer that I should probably have put at the top: I think it is obvious that this blog post is not at all about discussing the morality of homosexuality.  This blog post is about discovering what we can about HOCD in comparison to homosexuality.  All four of the people who so graciously agreed to be interviewed are my friends, if you think I will so much as let you breathe an insult in their direction, just get ready to feel my wrath.  There are avenues for you to debate homosexuality and/or homophobia; this blog is NOT one.  >calms down, flashes big smile<

Related posts:
Interview with a Former HOCD Sufferer
Another Interview with a Former HOCD Sufferer
No One Wants to Talk about HOCD
A Big Ol’ HOCD Post
A Third Interview with a Former HOCD Sufferer

Satan is the accuser; Christ is our defender.

Recently, one of my blog readers asked me how I could tell when a thought came from OCD or from God, especially because one of my formerly intrusive thoughts was of a Bible verse that seemed to condemn me.  She wrote, “I keep reading that Bible verses spontaneously popping into one’s head is a prime way God speaks to people.”

What a great question.  One I’m not entirely sure I’m qualified to tackle, although I do know that the more I learn about and understand my OCD, the easier and easier it is for me to spot it.  I can recognize its tell-tale voice from a mile away now.  And while I don’t think that OCD = Satan (at all), they are both my enemies and they are both accusers.

Here is the (in flux) conclusion (is that an oxymoron?) I’ve come to:

I guess the big thing is this: when OCD would bring up that Bible verse, it worked like an intrusive thought and brought deep anxiety to me, but with God … his kindness leads us to repentance, not to shame.  The voice of God showers me with kindness, grace, conviction that leads to change … but I don’t think God’s voice is one of shame and accusation. In fact, scripture even tells us that SATAN is the accuser and CHRIST is the one who defends us.

Remember, Satan used and twisted scripture when Christ was going through his temptations, so we know that it’s part of the devil’s arsenal.

frustration4My friend Erica told me something fascinating she’d once heard: “The Holy Spirit does not motivate with guilt.”  Likewise, my incredibly wise writing professor Judy said, “I know the voice of God because that voice invites me to move closer without shame while the voice of Satan fills me with an electric dread that makes me want to hide.”

As always, I encouraged this blog reader to explore Exposure and Response Prevention therapy.  In the four years since my ERP, the voice of OCD has become so easy to recognize.  I finally know my enemy’s voice.

And better yet, I know my savior’s.

 

OCD and writing

Recently, my friend Tina at the Bringing Along OCD blog wrote about “reading OCD” — which she had in an earlier post described this way:

Imagine opening up a book to begin reading it. Chapter one. You read a paragraph. Then you reread it. Then you move to the second paragraph, but you realize that you may not have read the first paragraph well enough. So you go back and read paragraph one again. Then you read and reread paragraph two several times. You finally make it to the end of the page, and in turning the page, you think, “I’ve read page one adequately.”

  But you can’t be sure. Did you understand everything you read? Will you remember it?
  So you reread page one, reading and rereading the paragraphs again. After an hour of being on page one, you get tired and decide to put down the book. You’ll get through the book someday. It’s only the third time you’ve tried to read chapter one.
Tina said, “This makes reading laborious and sometimes unbearable. I find myself avoiding reading.”
I really, really hate OCD.  I hate the way it tries to steal whatever is most important to us.
For me, it tried to steal (and for a time DID steal) my writing.
At the time, I was working on my first novel, which was all about OCD, and my OCD kept reminding me of the Bible verse that says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
My head snagged on the verse.  I was writing about OCD … and OCD was not lovely; that I knew for sure.  OCD was not pure or commendable.  It was ugly, tyrannical … not worth of praise.  And yet, I was spending all this time writing about it, all this time thinking about it.
I started to obsess that my writing was sinful.
Writing, which had always been a lovely release for me, a respite … even that was being stolen from me by OCD.  This is the scene I ended up writing about it (eventually):

“Stella,” I said, reaching out and touching her hand.

She looked at me.  “What’s up?”

“I think it’s wrong to write my poems.”

She frowned.  “What.”  It was an accusation, not a question.

I tried to explain my logic.  “So I write about feeling scared about hell, for example, okay?  And then other people read about it, and I’m causing them to sin.”

“Neely, the Bible talks about hell.”  The brown eyes of Stella Bay-Blake were flashing—and looking dangerously similar to Trapper’s.

“There is that,” I said, pausing to think it through.  Maybe Christ’s brief mentions of hell didn’t warrant people’s actual dwelling on it, whereas a poem would.  In that case, I’d still be out of line.  “I don’t know.”

“Neely, there is rape in the Bible.  And adultery.  And murder.”

“But maybe not really in a way so that the reader dwells on those things, you know?”

“No,” she said.  She sounded angry, and with her curls falling forward into her face, she looked violent, like a lion.  “This is the one way that you can healthily process your stupid OCD.”

“Maybe I could try to dwell on lovely things.  Write about lovely things.”

“Yeah,” she said sarcastically.  “You can write ‘Walking on a Rainbow to the King: Reprise.’  Because what I want to read are a hundred pages about sunshine and puppies.”

“Not sunshine and puppies, not necessarily,” I said.  “But things like … like faith and confidence.”  Father God, I love You.

“You have OCD,” she reminded me, “and you are going to write convincing poems about confidence?”  She had a point.  “My gosh, I will really blow a nut if you quit writing.  I’m the writer who doesn’t write!”

But we sat in silence at the tiny table, my closed journal a symbol of all my failure.

 

OCD. Is. A. Thief.  It will steal whatever you love best.  It will warp your mind into believing things that are so far from the truth.  It is a liar.  I hate the bondage it keeps so many people in.  I am so glad to no longer listen to and believe all those lies.

OCD and suicidal thoughts

Recently Janet at the OCDtalk blog posted about her friend whose obsessive-compulsive son had just committed suicide.  The post broke my heart.  It reminded me of earlier this fall in Boston where I met Denis Asselin, the winner of the International OCD Foundation Hero Award.  Denis’s son Nathaniel, who suffered from intense body dysmorphic disorder (on the OCD spectrum), took his own life in 2011.  It was beautiful but devastating to listen to him talk about his beloved son.  My heart is heavy as I think about these families, now missing an important member, and about the horrific pain that these young men were experiencing that made them see no other way out.

It’s a dark, heavy topic, but tragically important to discuss.

OCD is so often thought of as simply being neat or orderly– or sometimes even anal retentive about certain things.  Media portrays obsessive-compulsive disorder as a quirky, nitpicky, and sometimes comical disorder, but let me level with you: OCD is debilitating, devastating, and torturous.

Can you imagine feeling nothing but sheer, unadulterated terror for days, sometimes weeks, on end?

I remember some of my darkest, hardest, most terrifying days.  I lived in the Brighton Village Apartments with Becky and Tricia.  During the day, I was given the small grace of suspending my obsessions– at least enough to make it through work (most days– not all), for which I am grateful.  In the evenings, I would return to our apartment, where I would drown in an ocean of terror.  My soul felt untethered, lost, condemned; I felt the hot, ugly breath of hell on my neck all evening.  I felt unforgiven and completely cut off from the God I wanted so desperately.  (It is making me cry right now as I write about those dark days.)  And the torture of not knowing— heaven or hell?  saved or condemned?  found or eternally lost?  heard or ignored?– was the worst kind of mental anguish.

Those apartment buildings were built like an X, with the pool and laundry facilities at the center where all four wings came together.  I remember– and this is not an isolated event but something that happened every time I was in that third-floor laundry room– I would look over the balcony down to the first-floor pool area, usually empty, and I would thinkIf I threw myself off this ledge head-first, I would finally know: heaven or hell.  I would have my answer, instead of the torture of not knowing.

But what if the answer was hell?  I couldn’t hurry that on.  What I wanted even more was annihilation— to cease to exist.  I craved oblivion.  That is true pain for you.

I realized that I was already in hell– just of a different stripe.  I was living like a condemned person, in TERROR and heartache and loneliness, and in constant combat with the blasphemous thoughts that plagued my mind.

Most people wouldn’t have guessed it.  I smiled a lot at work.  I even managed to fool those closest to me who knew the anguish I was experiencing.  But I would look over that balcony at the hard floor, and I would think about it.  OCD is that devastating.  I believe obsessive-compulsives (even those who take their own lives) are some of the strongest people you will ever meet.  They fight a constant war.  It is no wonder to me that many want to lay down their weapons and surrender.

And yet, here I am, eight years later, happy and healthy and secure in my faith, enjoying life and friendships and a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.  I am not tormented by my own thoughts, and uncertainty isn’t anguish any longer.  I want to gently take the faces of the anguished obsessive-compulsives into my hands, stare them directly in the eye, and tell them, There is hope.  There is help.  It doesn’t have to stay this way.  I would hug them and cry with them and personally drive them to my cognitive-behavioral therapist.  I was once where you are.  Follow me to freedom.

If you are struggling today with intrusive thoughts, obsessions that plague you, compulsions that take over your life, THERE IS HOPE.  I promise you.  This is a disorder– just a disorder, albeit a powerful, ugly, life-thieving one.  Follow me to freedom.  There is Truth, and it is not what you are hearing from your OCD.  Rescue is possible.  Follow me to freedom.  Email me.  Joy, happiness, laughter, truth, peace, safety– these may seem like impossibilities, but they can be yours too.

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holidays are hard for some of us

Last year, I posted that Christmas isn’t fun for everyone, and today I am thinking again how that is true.  And not only Christmas, but other holidays too.

Thanksgiving is just behind us, and to be honest, I am glad.  Mine was fine, very lowkey– I spent it with my sister and brother, eating pizza and banana cream pie, watching the Dallas game and hushing my voice when the Cowboys fell behind the Redskins and my brother raged at the TV screen.  It was fun, very chill, lazy, and we all met up at Mom and Dad’s house, even though the parents were in Missouri to see Grandma and the rest of Mom’s family.

But it’s these winter holidays that do me in.  While everyone else is giddy with anticipation, I am anxious mostly for them to be OVER.  Somehow there is an expectancy surrounding the actual holiday, something that stresses me out and makes me just want to return to normalcy.

I think, for me, it’s a combination of the cold weather (it snowed all afternoon in Minnesota on Thanksgiving), the claustrophobia of bundling up in jackets and scarves, real or imagined seasonal depression, and memories of high school, when the holidays were the hardest.

1997.  Thanksgiving.  It was the first real breakdown of my life.  I can remember it like it was yesterday and not fifteen years ago.  Was God real?  How could anyone ever really know?  And if I didn’t know, then wasn’t I hellbound?  (Such a paradox, I know– if there was no God or heaven, then there would also be no hell.)  I was in 10th grade, and OCD was swallowing me whole, and it would still be another seven years before it would even have a name.

I was in Missouri with the rest of the family, breaking away from the games and conversation and cooking upstairs to retreat to Grandma’s basement, lock myself in the bathroom, and sob.  The ground had been taken from underneath my feet, and all I could do was weep– all while hiding it from the rest of the family, all those happy Christians upstairs, secure in their beliefs.

I can picture myself now, doubled over on the bathroom floor, lost and sad and scared and not understanding that God Himself could supercede my disbelief and make Himself known to me.  It was a dark year that followed.  I was scared of everything, especially of dying without knowing that God was real.  I held my breath when I’d pass a car on the highway, knowing I was inches from my death– and maybe eternal death.

OCD, you thief.  I hate you with such intensity.

For years after that, I could not return to Missouri without being triggered into a complete relapse which would take weeks to recover from.  Once I went to college, I refused to return.  I wonder what my mom’s side of the family thought– if they wondered if I was stuck-up or selfish for not making that 11-hour drive to see them.  It was only once a year, for goodness sakes.  They didn’t know any of the background, didn’t know the way that just crossing that state border into Missouri had become the instant switch for me to question my faith.

Christmas stumbled along after Thanksgiving, and it was just as hard.  And so, these holidays over the years cemented themselves into difficult seasons that I would have to survive.  And even though November and December are nothing like they were even ten years ago, those memories are strong.

I know there are a lot of people out there who will have such a hard time this season, those of you who have Christmas hang over you like a stormcloud, who will breath a sigh of relief when you return to “life as usual” on the day after New Years.  I’m so sorry, and I totally understand.  I hope that this year will be different for you– that God will supernaturally supercede your painful memories and depression and general feelings of wrongness, and that He will give you joy in your hearts instead of these.

As Christmas approaches, my prayer for you is this: Jesus Christ, You are the Word that became flesh, a holy incarnation that blows my mind every time I stop to consider it.  Please overwhelm us with the sacred mystery of it all in ways that memories, depression, OCD, anxiety, and other mental illnesses can’t defeat.  Jesus, be the mighty redeemer that You have been and continue to be and REDEEM this holiday season for those of us who need a rescue.  Hold us in real ways that we can feel.  Amen.

the Sons of Korah get it

To me, there are two places in scripture that embody the depression and hopelessness inspired by OCD.

The first is in Luke 23:48-29, which takes place immediately after Jesus has died: “And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.”  This one is more implied than overt, of course, but I can clearly imagine the deadness in the hearts of his friends as they watched their great hope dangle dead on a cursed tree.

The second is Psalm 88.  I’m drawn toward the Message version, and I used to sob as I read these words, feeling their truth weigh on my heart like the worst kind of pain and loneliness that existed.

God, you’re my last chance of the day.
I spend the night on my knees before you.
Put me on your salvation agenda;
take notes on the trouble I’m in.
I’ve had my fill of trouble;
    I’m camped on the edge of hell.
I’m written off as a lost cause,
one more statistic, a hopeless case.
Abandoned as already dead,
one more body in a stack of corpses,
And not so much as a gravestone—
I’m a black hole in oblivion.
You’ve dropped me into a bottomless pit,
    sunk me in a pitch-black abyss.
I’m battered senseless by your rage,
relentlessly pounded by your waves of anger.
You turned my friends against me,
made me horrible to them.
I’m caught in a maze and can’t find my way out,
    blinded by tears of pain and frustration.

I call to you, God; all day I call.
    I wring my hands, I plead for help.
Are the dead a live audience for your miracles?
Do ghosts ever join the choirs that praise you?
Does your love make any difference in a graveyard?
Is your faithful presence noticed in the corridors of hell?
Are your marvelous wonders ever seen in the dark,
your righteous ways noticed in the Land of No Memory?

I’m standing my ground, God, shouting for help,
at my prayers every morning, on my knees each daybreak.
Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear?
Why do you make yourself scarce?
For as long as I remember I’ve been hurting;
    I’ve taken the worst you can hand out, and I’ve had it.
Your wildfire anger has blazed through my life;
    I’m bleeding, black-and-blue.
You’ve attacked me fiercely from every side,
    raining down blows till I’m nearly dead.
You made lover and neighbor alike dump me;
    the only friend I have left is Darkness.

I praise God that he faithfully saw me through the very worst throes of OCD, and I believe that he will see me through whatever else lies ahead.  But I have known deep depression, darkness so intense that I could see no escape, terror that ignited my heart with a wild fury.  And he has seen me through it all.

There is hope.  Even though those friends couldn’t imagine it in their wildest dreams as they stared at that lifeless body stapled to the cross, the resurrection was just around the corner.

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literature, time, and other thoughts

They were drawing me.  The books.

It was like my car was on autopilot– I thought I was headed to Dunn Bros, but when I drove past it, I wasn’t surprised.  Instead, I just let my car take me to Barnes and Noble.

It’s been a little while since I have been here.  Now that I have a membership and have free shipping, I’ve been buying most of my books online.  Today it wasn’t enough.  I had to be with them, surrounded by them, which is why I am drinking a banana chocolate smoothie, typing on my laptop alone, but feeling like I am in the company of friends– or future friends.

To be honest, I feel a little overwhelmed.  There are so many books I want to read, I don’t know when I’m going to find time to get to them all.  I perused the “Summer Reading” table and found more that intrigued me.  From where I sit, I can see the “New Fiction” shelves, and I wonder if I’ll ever have a book there.

I feel pulled so many ways.  I want to readreadREAD, but I am trying to balance that out with plenty of time for writing, which I love even more.  But my writing is informed and inspired by what I read, so I have to keep fueling that fire.  Those two activities alone could keep me busy until I die, I think, and yet– I have even more important things in my life than these.

People.  God.

I know everyone gets 24 hours a day, but I wish I could have more.  How am I supposed to be a loving, caring daughter and friend while working fulltime and writing a novel and feeding an obsessive reading habit– all while never neglecting my true love Jesus Christ and his church?

Praise God that OCD is no longer demanding so much of my attention.  How did I manage?  It feels like a different lifetime.

And yet, I have friends who do all this and take care of a spouse and children.  It boggles my mind.

I want my life to matter, want to leave a mark.  It seems difficult to do when my interests are so spread– I worry that my efforts in each area will be lacking because I didn’t have enough time invested into each one.

I think that one of the reasons I decided to keep a list of books I have read and reviewed (click THE READER tab above) was to try to organize at least one part of my life.  When I sit here in the bookstore, surrounded by all this brilliance, I know that there will be corners I never explore.  Somehow maybe this will help me keep better control of the labyrinth I’m in.

And what a beautiful labyrinth.