I grew up with an unhealthy relationship to sports. I never played sports beyond little league baseball1, and never cared much for being part of the sports playing culture. However sports fandom, that’s where the unhealthy part comes in.
My father was a rabid fan of our city’s Major League Baseball team. The results of their games affected everyone’s day in our house when I grew up. Losses meant anger, overall poor performance (and this happened often, as is the case with most teams) was akin to living in fear of what an irrational dictator may dole out next. Seriously—the structure of the family was dependent on a baseball team.
As I grew up, I rebelled against most of what my parents had taught me in terms of values. They valued money, conformity and a suburban lifestyle that I was absolutely at my core not set out for. However, I carried the same attitude towards sports as my father did. The only wrinkle: I had OCD.
While I always followed this particular Major League Baseball team, I spread out into basketball and football fandom as well through my early—and even mid-adult life. My specific relationship to these teams I rooted for was one thing, but let’s take a step back and look at how my OCD played—and still, at times, plays—out in general regarding sports.
One thing I noticed early on is that if I put on any random sports event on TV, specifically ones that did not affect the teams I rooted for—I became obsessed with one of the teams winning the game I was in front of. It could be for myriad reasons—one was an underdog, I liked the uniforms of that team more, I found a quick attachment to a player. Regardless, while I believe one has no real-life stake in any sporting team, I for sure had no stake in these random teams I would watch.
Yet, my heart would race and I would be in a complete mode of obsession over this team I’d just picked to root for a few minutes ago. I needed them to win this game. My world revolved around it, not unlike many of my other irrational obsessions that my OCD brings about—stains on clothing needing to be removed, people I work with needing to communicate with me at certain intervals. The same obsession. For one side of a truly meaningless game.
The core meaninglessness of sporting events is a great canvas to draw my OCD upon. While many of my obsessions always have a hint of rationality (most people don’t want a stain on their shirt), sports is meaningless other than for passing entertainment value. Yet, in this moment of watching a game—all would be right with the world if this team I picked won the game. I even ascribed real-life realities to these eventualities, though I could barely describe them. The underdog winning meant I had a chance at a decent life, being quite the underdog myself2. The team I picked to win, doing so, meant things could turn out for the best in life. So this win had to happen, or else I was left with the empty notion that life is a fog of randomness in which failure is the most common thing behind the proverbial doors being opened.
Yeah, that deep.
Then on top of that we add back in the teams I felt closest too—mostly ones in the city I lived in, as is the case with pretty much all fans—then you had a real obsession that wasn’t just passing.
I remember this baseball team’s first trip to the World Series. This was an event that I had dreamed of my whole life. And it was happening. And they were winning! Win number one, number two, number three—and one more to go. I awoke that morning more nervous than I’d ever been. More nervous than pending real-life stuff from my past.
Why? Because one thing about being a sports fan is that you have absolutely no control at all over the events you’re obsessed with. With every other event I’ve been obsessed with, I had at least a tiny bit of control—because these events involved me. I could take action. Often this action was the compulsion part of “OCD,” but it was the action I could take nonetheless and have my obsession quelled.
This is the root of the problem: compulsion. In this case, the compulsive part of my brain, which is subject to the same mental disorder, had quite literally nowhere to go. I did not play for this team, I did not coach this team, I was a fan. I was going to watch the final game of the World Series at my house. I could do nothing, truly nothing. I couldn’t even act irrationally and what some would call “crazy” to attempt to change the outcome of my obsession. I could do nothing but watch. This is hell to someone with OCD.
Now if something is hell to someone with OCD, why am I doing this in the first place? Because if the result is good, I have a vicarious victory which I can use to pin onto real-life situations. I’m not foolish enough to think I personally was on the winning team, but I am obsessive to think that the team I root for winning the championship was a realization that I too could do big things and succeed easily.
Problem. My teams often lost. The teams I rooted for all the time, and the random teams I picked up as my own for a day.
And with that came a visceral feeling of pure helplessness. It was deep, because of everything I ascribed metaphorically onto these games. It got to the point of being an existential issue with me and watching losses—especially those considered “heartbreaking” spun me into an existential crisis that had only the past to look back on—something that of course cannot be changed. Not even through my obsession with rewinding time.
As part of my own personal therapy—prescribed by myself for myself—I decided to tone down the watching of sports. Not completely, but to realize that I’d seen enough winning—big-time winning—that I needed to calm down the obsession. It still happens for sure, but I’ve learned to—and this is very rare for me—step outside myself and just watch my irrational self imbibe the nothingness of sports. And react to it. And…
…get over it.