OCD and the Art of Motorbike Maintenance

01/13/2014 11:00 am ET Updated Mar 15, 2014

When I came home from my first stint living in Vietnam, people frequently asked me what my favorite thing about the experience had been.

"Motorbikes," I would say.

It felt a little silly -- thin, even superficial. Five months in a (nominally) Communist country with 1000+ years of fascinating history (including a torturous war with my own country), and the most important thing had been something I could have done on spring break back home?

But it was true then and, after spending a couple of weeks in Saigon over Christmas, it remains true now.

It isn't just the thrill -- I'm sure there are a million ways to jack more adrenaline into your system (though accelerating through gaps in traffic is a hell of a rush). It's deeper than that: Riding helps quiet the ongoing assault of intrusive thoughts crashing into my mind, because it requires a kind of concentration that leaves very little mental space for anything else. It's a thousand quick decisions and no time to revisit them, because you have to make another one now, now, now, now.

There are lots of things in this world that require concentration, of course, but almost all of them are optional. This is part of why I find it so difficult to run long distances or read Continental philosophy -- I know that very little is at stake, and that I can bail out at any moment.

Activities that involve other people -- team sports, say -- can be more helpful, if only because bailing out means bailing on others. Still, though, I'm often very aware of the game's ultimate triviality. I don't need to be playing, so it's easy for me to imagine everything that might go wrong -- a twisted ankle, an exacerbated shoulder injury -- and preemptively blame myself for taking unnecessary risks.

This is how OCD tends to work for me -- to treat everything I want as decadent, to equate pleasure and whimsy with foolhardiness, to strip life down to its skinniest bones. To undermine and infect.

But what happens when there's nothing left to ruin? No matter how bad I feel, I still have to eat, to sleep, to move my body. I still have to get around, and when I'm in a place like this, there aren't many alternatives. Public transportation is incomprehensible; walking is absurd; and little 135cc Hondas are the only option. It's just what's done here. The paradox of choice, sliced through.

I realize that the goal of the best OCD therapy isn't to get away from painful thoughts -- it's to become more accustomed and less reactive to them. Amen to all of that -- I'm not recommending that we hunt for more effective ways to distract ourselves from pain. But it is nice to break the tension every now and again.

OCD loves options, loves to turn a debate into a dilemma. But when there's nothing to debate, there's no dilemma; and without a dilemma, there's nothing to ruin. Things just have to happen. Necessity breeds freedom. Errands become fun. The breeze hits my chest as I lean into a turn.

This post originally appeared at The Wheat and Chaff.