At 8:54 in the morning, the thought occurs to me that I might get more done if I write in the library instead of at home, and I know beyond any optimistic doubt that this thought will consume my day in a synaptic grease fire. By 9:06 I’ve put all of my notebooks into my backpack, and by 9:12 I’ve taken them all back out. By 9:15 I’ve tied and untied my shoes twice and I’m googling the effect of different auditory and visual environments on learning and attention. I know that, even if I leave by 9:40, I will have wasted the day’s first two hour-and-a-half ultradian rhythms—and that the longer I sit here googling the more I risk wasting the third. I could stay home, but then I would run the risk that my upstairs neighbor has the kids today and that would be a disaster. The only certainty is that when I finally do make a decision, I will regret it. What are those construction workers doing? What is that shit they’re spraying? That has to be toxic. Smells toxic. Smells like nail polish. Nail polish is toxic. Gotta get Carly to stop using nail polish. Fuck, that shit really smells. I shouldn’t be breathing this. I should’ve stayed home. By 12:20 I will have spent the last 45 minutes googling the neurotoxicity of sidewalk sealant. This too will be regretted.
The terms of this mental struggle were first laid out to me in metaphor at the age of twelve. The diagnosing psychiatrist described my OCD as a broken record, referring to the inability of the obsessive mind to let the thought process play itself out naturally according to factory settings, instead skipping over any fact, idea and observation deemed curious, threatening, hopeful or damning. Pedagogically useful, this metaphor was next to useless in practice, since I believed that the skips owed not to faulty manufacturing, but to the work of an unseen disc jockey.
In the 1600s, the symptoms now associated with OCD were known only in religious contexts, where they were usually called “scruples” or “melancholy.” In 1660, an Irish bishop wrote of what is now called “religious scrupulosity”: “[A scruple] is trouble where the trouble is over, a doubt when doubts are resolved.”
Nine months before my diagnosis, in June of 2003, I decided to prop myself up precariously on a decorative wicker chair in the living room and wrest a theretofore unopened Children’s Bible from the shelf above the TV. Part of me was clawing for the cultural identity that my perennialistic “do unto others” upbringing in suburban Pennsylvania had so far failed to provide. Another part was reaching for Pascal’s wager. I didn’t know much about God, but I’d been to church a few times, at least enough to know that omniscient power wasn’t something to be fucked with. Getting a handle on the book God had written seemed like the least I could do.
I started setting my alarm to go off an hour earlier, so that I’d have time to pray before school. I turned the shower on so the noise would cover my movements, fully aware of the shamefulness of prostration, and knelt before the window adjacent to the shower to recite the Lord’s Prayer to the rising sun. If I misremembered a line, I’d go out to check my Bible, then repeat the prayer. I started bringing the Bible into the bathroom with me, just to be safe. (Placing it on the ground seemed blasphemous, so I made sure to place it on top of the hamper instead.) Sometimes my mind wandered—the Devil, what about the Devil? I hadn’t read much about him, what was he up to? Invading my thoughts, that’s what he’s doing, that’s what he does, this is a test—I’ll repeat the prayer until he goes.
It wasn’t long before these repetitions tested my parents’ patience. As far as they knew, I was just taking absurdly long showers and shirking my responsibility to catch the 7:30 school bus. They reprimanded me, but were understandably hesitant to open the bathroom door—after all, I had just turned twelve. When my dad finally did burst in to tell me to get the fuck out, his eyes fixed nervously downward, he found me kneeling in my pajamas, hands clasped in my lap, face red with confused frustration, mumbling the Lord’s Prayer.
On the way to school, he tried to explain to me that God didn’t care about “things like this.” I was skeptical. My dad was a pseudo-deist who went to church once or twice a year, usually on a whim. If anyone was biased as to whether God cared about prayer, it was him. I continued my routine of saying the Lord’s Prayer perfectly every morning, breaking it only when I knew it would make me late to school. I justified these instances to God by citing the Biblical imperative to honor thy mother and father.
The mission to satisfy an obsessive compulsion is a junkie’s quest at its heart. The germaphobic compulsive washes his hands until they’re cracked and bleeding, erring on the side of caution to the point of physical injury. Others sneak off to bathrooms to google symptoms (inconclusive) or fidget around on subways trying to eke out enough cell service to discover whether their pre-war apartment has lead paint (it does). The compulsive will achieve certainty wherever he can, by whatever means he can.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in March of 2003, I had just been named Stetson Middle School’s “Student of the Marking Period,” an award for exemplary character and commitment to our studies. I was also reaching new heights in my Christian zealotry. Following the example set by David and Daniel as closely as I could, I forgave militantly and offered the best parts of my lunch to the social lepers I’d taken to sitting with. A pathological rule follower, I turned myself in to the principal for eating brownies in the hallway, a crime for which I was confusedly and categorically forgiven.
When I first saw throngs of surrendering Iraqi troops on CNN, I considered carefully what the most righteous way to deal with them would be, mindful that my thinking be above the reproach of God’s observing agents. Surely, I thought, these surrendering troops ought to convert to Christianity. But here was a blasphemous thought: What if the Muslims were the ones who had it right? What if I should convert?
Soon my doubts devolved into paranoia as I negotiated the boundaries between Christianity and Islam. In class, I gnawed my pencils to their graphite centers, trying to reconcile my duty to listen with my possibly sinful urge to rifle through the pages of my World Geography textbook, in search of more information on Islam.
I was in my dad’s passenger seat, headed south on I-95 on the way home from a Flyers game, when I accidentally folded our parking pass over into a perfect crescent within the cutout at the top. I stared at this crescent, in slowly creeping awe, trying to discern what I was looking at. A sign? My first impulse was to look out the window, away from the confounding piece of amateur origami that sat in my lap. But as I turned my gaze outward, a perfectly shaped, burning crescent moon shone through the foggy window. Could this have been a coincidence?
I sent out requests for more signs, in the form of nonverbal compacts with myself. If the bus arrives at 7:35, then Jesus is God. If Joanna’s not on the bus today, then God doesn’t forgive me for not knowing. Every item I touched was a data point, and a potential source of unbearable angst. The only channel I could get on the grisly mid-eighties TV being stored in my bedroom was the home-shopping network QVC—a seemingly safe refuge from the infinite troubling-ness of CNN or anything else liable to pop my avoidant bubble. But QVC too eventually became a conduit, and a chore. If the price of this item is $45, then God surely wants me to convert. $44.99! What does that mean?!
OCD claws at your agency by presenting compulsions as a costly but better-than-the-alternative insurance policy against an array of possible disasters. During hockey season, I worried that eating pork or beef would be followed by a career-ending injury. When hockey season ended, I worried that I’d be buried under rubble until I promised to change my ways.
Two months or so after Shock and Awe, I began probing the periphery of other religions—just to be safe. With no way for me to be certain of God’s will, the fundamentalists were a logical starting point: by going above and beyond what was necessary, they seemed to have the most bulletproof claims to divine mercy. My investigations took me to extremist Islamic forums and Evangelical Christian websites dedicated to the desecration of the Qu’ran. My queasy stomach turned as I struggled to digest the violent histories of the world’s major religions: the fringes of each were stained in blood.
It was here that my hopscotch brand of polytheism reached both a logical and a moral impasse: Erring on the side of caution, it seemed, meant killing and or dying in the name of God. And to commit an act of religious violence was to sign your name in blood on a particular roster—the ultimate leap of faith. The middle ground crumbling beneath me, I started to cry nightly, often coming downstairs to unburden my albatross onto my confused and worried parents.
They sent me to talk to Pastor Bill, a Lutheran who was close with family friends. Pastor Bill responded to my concerns with a sermon on the similarities of the major religions and the oneness of God across them all—“different paths up the same mountain,” the perennialist truism goes. I carried this narrative around with me for the next few weeks, holding it up like a placard every time my OCD asked me why I was slacking off. But my confidence in Pastor Bill waned with the passing of time, and the arrival of Time magazines filled with masked men with Kalashnikovs and jungle guerrillas brimming with zeal. These men wouldn’t have bought Pastor Bill’s bullshit—why was I? When I started coming down the stairs again at night, my parents decided to seek the counsel of a child psychologist.
Psychodynamic theories of OCD often view the disorder as a crackdown, in which the ego—after weighing a deviant and indulgent id against the demands of the outside world—decides to give the superego unilateral control of a shared body. Freud believed that it was the “imperfect success” of this negotiation that reinforced the obsessive’s symptoms.
I began seeing a psychologist, Dr. Valerie, once every two or three weeks. Mostly she talked about the broken record idea, which I bought for awhile, like Pastor Bill’s perennialism, until I realized that there was no way to prove it wasn’t God who was scratching the record. Still, months of self-imposed tyranny had left me exhausted, and after a few sessions I was growing increasingly open to Dr. Valerie’s calls for revolution. I started shirking compulsions with the cautiousness of a baby’s first steps. As time went by without plague or pestilence, these steps gradually became a walk, which became a run, which became a downhill sprint with untied shoelaces.
My liberation from this mental and emotional theocracy yielded a life dictated by the pleasure principle. I considered every moment of the school day not spent laughing with my new friends or playing Bubble Trouble—which we referred to in code as “bub-trub”—an unadulterated and mournable waste. Outside of school, I sought refuge in other momentary pleasures that I considered at the time to be benign: Xbox, fried foods, NFL football. My friends and I often hung out at Stadium Grille, an entertainment center jammed with enough 72” screens to throw off a sleep-cycle for months, where you could order barely-foods like mozzarella sticks by the twenty and quaff heart-palpitating refills of Mountain Dew—which I liked to make even sweeter by mixing with a grayish-blue fluid that Stadium Grille oversold as “Blue Drink”—with the purchase of a 99-cent cup that they usually just gave me for free.
My friends, reckless as they were, had an intuitive sense of when to “turn it off” that I seemed to lack. At Stadium Grille, they cut themselves off of Blue Dew after a few cups, while I drank myself into eye-fissuring headaches. I chased the gluttony past all of our curfews. You guys leaving already? Yo, stay ’til ten—I’ll see if my mom can drive you home.
The serotonin-saturated moments that I spent my days rabidly chasing were at once a celebration of my newfound freedom, and a reprieve from the certainty of its mortality. The screens, the chatter, the sugar, the spills, the spicy, buttery-sweet sauces dripping down my chin all served as a buffer against the catastrophic signs and visions that orbited the outskirts of my consciousness like asteroids, threatening to send me crawling back into my cave of self-flagellating misery.
My unwillingness to relinquish these fleeting pleasures followed me into high school, but my tattered superego proved rigidly if surprisingly resistant to the stock teenage temptations. When my friends graduated from Blue Dew to weed and shitty vodka, I remained stubbornly behind, perched on a booth with anyone else I could find who was similarly stunted, texting fantasy football trade offers to friends who were too drunk or stoned to field them. “Why do you care so much man?”
When I finally did decide to trade ten dollars for a water bottle full of the watermelon flavored liquid courage that I needed to talk to a girl I liked, I cared too much about those things, too. Sorry I was so drunk last night, wanna go swimming today? Does anyone know why Lexi won’t respond to my texts? Lexi told me that I probably had a drinking problem and should join her Young Life club and get right with God; I told her I didn’t believe in that stuff.
Freud saw pathology as the exaggerated expression of cultural norms. In this sociological sense, obsession is a throwback. What Freud called the “obsessive character” reached the height of its prevalence in the nineteenth century, carrying the abstract ideals of the Protestant work ethic—sobriety, self-discipline and self-improvement—to their logical, and illogical, extremes. At the nexus of spiritual and worldly success, this ethic, as Max Weber convincingly argued, implies that to fail to fulfill one’s potential is to fail the Divine.
By my junior year of college, my hedonistic veneer was beginning to crack. Desperate to keep my head above a welling tide of guilt and cognitive dissonance after a particularly indecent summer, I started to focus seriously on school for the first time since sixth grade, jury-rigging a patchwork Moral Framework from stoicism, mystical interpretations of Abrahamic religions and a variety of wisdom considered broadly Eastern. By the end of my junior year, I’d stopped drinking and started setting my alarm for the break of dawn. I’d resurrected my GPA from the depths of mediocrity with a slew of As won with discipline and attention to detail.
Acquiring a taste for academic excellence, I set out to learn the finer points of cognitive performance, devouring any web content tagged “life-hacking” or “productivity,” and making daily pilgrimages to the blog of self-betterment guru Tim Ferriss. I kept a journal—teeming with chicken scratch and underlines—of what I ate, when I ate it, and how it affected my energy. I learned to jealously guard my most productive hours. I was going to graduate with honors. I was going to get my Ph.D. in history.
I succeeded in graduating with honors. I also managed to lose touch with most friends, long-distance girlfriend included, and land in the ER twice—once in an amphetamine-induced, EKG-confounding panic attack, and a second time when I concluded that a brain tumor was sapping my potential. A negative CT scan conferred no comfort—only regret over having unnecessarily ordered my head zapped with radiation, increasing my risk of brain cancer by trying to assure myself that I didn’t have brain cancer. The irony was nauseating.
Many OCD sufferers develop an additional pathology called obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). While there are many similarities between the “OCD only” and “OCD+OCPD” subtypes, OCPD sufferers demonstrate radically lower levels of “temporal discounting,” meaning that they make abnormally little distinction between the values of far-off rewards and nearer ones (for the OCPD sufferer, the future feels uncannily present). OCPD manifests much the way one expects that a fundamentalist interpretation of Poor Richard’s Almanac would: in a preoccupation with small details, “workaholism” to the exclusion of social activity, and a manic sense of urgency. Franklin: Never leave that till to-morrow which you can do today. French psychologist Pierre Janet attributed these traits to a specific emotional facet of obsessive-compulsivity known as “incompleteness.” Janet describes The Incomplete as someone “continually tormented by an inner sense of imperfection, connected with the perception that actions or intentions have been incompletely achieved.”
I never got or even tried to get my Ph.D. in history. A Ph.D. takes time, and after the CT scan I couldn’t be sure how much time I had left. According to my crude analyses of radiological studies, my chances of getting brain cancer would start to increase in ten years. Could I really afford to spend six of those years in school? What if I died with an unfinished dissertation, having made nothing of my fragile talents? I decided to move to New York to pursue a master’s degree in writing instead.
Certain pursuits are particularly suited to assuage the OCPD sufferer’s feelings of incompleteness—writing is not one of them. While someone with OCPD can find relief, even catharsis, in the defined procedures and self-evident goals of accounting or computer programming, writing offers no definitive measures of completion. Without a structurally imposed finish line, or any intuitive sense of one, The Incomplete’s only available recourse is to walk a path so straight that even if he can’t see or feel the finish line, he knows that at some point, he will have probably hit it. Aurelius: Run straight toward the finish line.
The writer does his best. W. H. Auden scheduled his days precisely, and checked his watch obsessively. Haruki Murakami adheres to a monkish routine at the expense of a social life. Jonathan Franzen famously wrote parts of The Corrections while ear-plugged, ear-muffed and blindfolded. I’ve modeled my own boundaries on such examples of literary rigor, declining ambiguously defined social invitations with sociopathic consistency, blaring meticulously chosen binaural beats through noise-cancelling headphones to silence the self-congratulatory whoop whoops of NYPD sirens, and adhering to a rigid schedule designed to leverage painstaking research into the brain’s rhythms.
The problem is that these boundaries are subject to the same feelings of incompleteness they’ve been designed to assuage. What if Auden, Murakami and Franzen had been even more disciplined and hermetic? What if they’d only scratched the surface of their cognitive abilities? These questions tempt me to take things further—on moderate days, to strip my apartment’s walls of any frills or colors that might be sapping my attention; on radical ones, to stop using a phone, to purge my life of all but the closest personal relationships, to flea to a barren and quiet landscape where trains of thought can run for hours, unfettered by even the possibility of diversion.
Then I remember that it was Aurelius who declared that a man who “worships the divinity within himself” seeks neither solitude nor the crowd: “most of all, his will be a life of neither pursuit nor avoidance…” The Prophet Muhammad, more simply: “There is no monkery in Islam.” Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
If you liked this piece
you might also enjoy “The Selfishness of Others,”
a review published in our most recent issue,
and the essay “Melancholy.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Image credits: Cover illustration – Rachel Wiseman; Phenakistoscopes – CC/BY, courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress and the Public Domain Review.