“I’m a bit OCD”, meaning “I even hoover under the rug when I clean my room and I do it at least once a week”, no longer bothers me like it used to. It’s a losing battle to fight against the evolution of language anyway. Things can’t just be, they must ‘literally’ be, and we are all ‘retarded’ and ‘crippled’ and ‘starving’ and so on. We constantly rob words of their strength and power, but who am I to say if that’s a good or bad thing? Why when I tell someone that I too have OCD do I need them to know that mine is the bad kind, that I am not just trying to tell them that I like my pen pot more organized than your average bear. There are, of course, lots of people who have actual OCD too, and far worse than mine. What is my attachment to this problem though? I suspect it is because it makes me feel special to have the [delusion that I have the] ability to control the world in a way that other people can’t. I feel like an unrecognised superhero sometimes, it’s how I’m sure Clark Kent must feel when he’s at The Daily Planet. In fact I am so attached to this feeling of control that when my doctor sent me to cognitive behavioural therapy I freaked out after one session that I would be left totally powerless if the therapist trained me out of everything that I refused to go back again.
The earliest I can remember engaging in any of my rituals is aged four. I have always assumed that the reason I developed OCD was due to watching my dad regularly beat the shit out of my mum when I was little. I would try to intervene and stop but I was too small to make any real difference to what was going on. So it makes sense that I would latch onto any sense of power or control I could have over my surroundings. I tried to control my surroundings using what is known as magical thinking. But the world can be a scary place for anybody, young or old, it’s chaotic and hard to make sense of and seemingly impossible to control. So many people experience upsetting things as a child and are helpless to do anything but they don’t all develop obsessive compulsive disorder, or behaviours. According to this article though traumatic events may have helped bring on the onset of my OCD but they were unlikely the cause of it being a part of me in the first place. The OCD org places the blame on genetics, which sounds like it should be unrelated to events and upheavals in your life but probably isn’t totally separate. If you have a few spare hours and want to learn some really interesting stuff about how trauma you go through and even traumas your great granny went through can potentially affect your genes you should google ‘transgenerational epigenetic inheritance’.
I developed ways, as a kid, to stop my mum from dying, or running away and deserting us. I chewed every mouthful a hundred times, like I’d read Tibetan monks did. When we had to put our chairs on top of the tables at the end of the school day I would spend an eternity moving my chair into the exact right position to please the gods of OCD. On the walk home from the spot where the school bus dropped me off I had a series of dirty chewing gum marks on the ground and drains I had to walk over at specific angles. There is an internal voice, it’s not audible but it is very much there and I’ve known him longer than any of my friends. “your mum’s going to die if you don’t touch that” he’ll tell me as I am walking past a grimy lamppost, then bolstered by my compliance he’ll urge me “four more times”. There’s not much point arguing since he’ll point out that looking like a mental case and getting dirty fingertips really isn’t as bad as losing your mum. I mean he’s a dick, but he has a point. Once when I was 10 years old I disobeyed him and walked over a particular drain on my route back home at an angle I wasn’t meant to, my mum wasn’t there when I got home and I felt sick with guilt and grief. She was fine, just late home.
When I told my best friend Sophie about this voice, she insisted we name him. I can’t remember who came up with Barry, I think it was her. It’s an appropriate name, my second least favourite, after Colin. I know that Barry isn’t real or at least he is real but he is me and I am him. It helps, I guess, to disassociate myself in a way from the batshit things I do. When my internal monologue, against my will, veers into suicidal territory or starts saying awful things about old people I just blame it all on Barry. I can’t be suicidal, I can’t be an asshole, but that bastard Barry can.
It’s not just my mum that I have been protecting with this wizardry. Ever since I learnt that death was something that everybody had to face at some point and there was no coming back from, I have found ways to bargain with the Grim Reaper or God or Chance or whatever it is, on behalf of everybody I love. Loving anyone is stressful because they can be taken away from you (whether through death or desertion) and you’re going to be ripped apart, how does anybody deal with this thought on a daily basis and knowing that there is nothing they can do about it? Why doesn’t everybody else have to spend their day bargaining with voices inside their head? Maybe everyone is “a bit OCD” after all, maybe they’re actually hoovering under their rug for the same reason I’m walking in a circle 30 times. Barry spends a lot of time keeping the people I love alive, but he also likes to step in and ‘help’ me when I am worried I have AIDS and/or cancer, when I want some boy to text me back, or when I am anxiously awaiting the results of anything. The older I get the more rituals I develop, mostly tapping things and touching things, and finding new things to do in increments of four. I tend not to drop old rituals because even if people I’ve tried keeping alive have died (only one so far) or boys I wanted to didn’t text me back, I just assume I wasn’t trying hard enough before and keep doing them, just with more fervour. The better I know a place the more rituals I have develop there also. Childhood homes have become worn down with certain spots covered in fingerprints, but if I came to your house for the first time I might only need to tap the doorframe four times and adjust the way you put your shoes on the floor. You’re welcome.
It can be a bit of a thankless job, this OCD business. Doesn’t Clark ever get the urge to throw his specs on the floor, stamp on them and scream “it’s ME, it’s ME saving all your lives every day”? I know I did the day I saved the world from the Large Hadron Collider. When I learned about the LHC I was anxious every day. Actually, this was pre-medication so I was anxious every day anyway, but I was especially anxious, next level anxious, because of the collider. I’ve never been great at understanding scientific stuff, my brain just wasn’t made that way. I’m interested, I just need for things to be explained to me in layman’s terms, seventeen times. Any time that anybody explained to me why it wouldn’t cause a massive black hole to swallow us up I just heard the words “black hole” and went into panic mode. Almost 100% certain that the world was going to end the moment they switched it on and let particles smash together, I devised a way to keep everyone alive and stop the world from ending. All I had to do was reach 1000 (it may have been 10,000 or 100,000, I don’t actually remember the number now) on the tetris game that came with my shitty phone. It was a higher score than I had ever gotten at Tetris before, but not totally unachievable. I was living in Homerton at the time with my friend Nima and I spent the night in his room, sitting on his mattress while he slept. I didn’t want to die alone if I couldn’t reach my high score. I did it! But, you know I did it, because you’re all alive to read this. Again, you’re welcome, all of you.
Is OCD really that different to religion? A series of rituals to stop bad things from happening, blaming yourself (not this impossible-to-prove-entity) when things go wrong because you weren’t being good enough, you weren’t praying hard enough. My prayers are dirtying my fingertips, compulsively touching all the door frames in my house to stop terrible things from happening and make the things I want happen, and others pray by pressing their fingertips together to stop terrible things from happening and make the things they want happen. I find that the edges of OCD are blurred and bordering lots of things, like superstition, “luck”, and even just having mean thoughts. Where does the OCD stop and just a garden variety obsession start? Where is the line between my OCD and my actual personality traits, or is it a personality trait? What’s the difference between an intrusive thought and one I just don’t want to be accountable for?
If you feel like you’re missing out you can play the OCD game too if you want. Touch every wall in your house until your fingerprints are permanently stained on every surface. Put the volume on the car stereo on an even number and insist to taxi drivers that they do the same (if they ask why, explain to them that it’s the only way you know how to stop the car from crashing), because the weird look they give you is better than the feeling you get when it’s sat at 17 taunting you and you’re squirming in your seat trying to hold your tongue so you don’t look crazy. Insert words you don’t want to use into conversations, and sentences. If you’re not sure what words to use, don’t worry, Barry will let you know. Skip over that song, you can’t listen to that song right now because your ex will die if you do. Walk over that line, back over it, right way over, back. You want to stop? you look stupid? Okay, cool, I guess you don’t care about your mum dying then. That’s just my version though, ask around a bit and you’ll find there are thousands of variations you can try.
Religion, philosophy, luck, chance, serendipity, fucking Paulo Coelho books – I feel like they’re all ways of trying to make sense of the world and feel like what you do makes a difference. Don’t fly in seat 13 and your plane won’t crash, be good to people and good things will happen to you, don’t step on bugs and you won’t be re-incarnated as a bug, wear your lucky socks and your football team will win. Our dumb beliefs might make us look like idiots but it’s easier to live with them than the alternative, that everything is random and everyone you love will die and if you don’t live through them dying it will be because you die first, and there is nothing you can do to save anybody, including yourself.
* I made 51 revisions on this before it was ready, and just had to add this so I could make a further revision and bump it up to an even number.