OCD Abroad: I Went to Cambodia and All I Brought Back Was This Stupid Blog Post

by Matt B. on May 4, 2014

A few days ago, I published an essay that I’d been working on for several months. It had been a long and challenging process, and I’d felt a quiet excitement as the project wound its way to a natural conclusion. As soon as I hit ‘publish,’ though, the usual ego-oriented anxiety arose. I found myself craving reactions – checking Facebook for ‘likes’ and ‘shares’, counting retweets, and hoping against hope for the golden ticket – commission requests from magazines.

Because I’d poured so much of myself into the essay, the anxiety was greater than usual. I’m on a brief vacation at the moment, but I had little interest in seeing the sights – I didn’t want to be far from my computer, didn’t want anyone to wonder why I wasn’t responding more quickly to their comments. A few times, the anxiety became claustrophobic enough that I had to force myself into the streets and onto a moto-taxi. Take me anywhere, I thought, but get me away from that tiny little room.

Gravitational force is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between two objects; out among the pagodas, my computer’s tractor beam was weak. Eventually, though, the heat or hunger would send me back indoors, and there sat my computer – a smug little idol surveying its realm.

I would be casual at first – Just a quick dip into email, no big deal. Soon enough, though, my anxiety would take the form of the usual OCD schoolmarm. Can I afford to wait a few days before responding to some of this feedback? Might waiting be a good thing, in fact? Might it even be the best thing? If it is, then it’s probably required. So why are you still at the keyboard, asshole?

None of these thoughts or feelings about the situation felt quite accurate, but that didn’t make them any less persuasive. I’d feel fifty-one percent drawn in one direction, and I’d begin to move that way. Then the margin would start to feel flimsy – What’s two percent? – and I’d find myself moving back toward the ballast of the other, now-neglected forty-nine percent.

After ping-ponging for a while, I saw that I was stuck in the same old pattern, acting out a craving for assurances that my choices are right, true, and good. Usually, of course, such certainty isn’t available, but that doesn’t occur to me. What does happen, I now realized, is that I simply blame myself – I believe that there really are guarantees out there, and that I feel anxious because I’m too incompetent to find them.

And in this situation, that’s exactly how things unfolded. My belief in my own asshole-ishness was like any other repressed idea – just out of visual range, but completely in control. I was a disaster of a human being, spoiled to the core.

Alongside this existential judgment came a more situation-specific one. Broadly speaking, I was a jerk, but I only felt this level of anxiety because I was doing something wrong. And what was I doing wrong, exactly? Why, typing, of course. Yes – that must be the culprit. After all, I’d already begun to worry about the health of my hands, to wonder at the meaning of the little tweaks in my right ring finger. Now I’d ‘discovered’ that I’d been right to worry.

With this, my two worries converged. I felt anxious about responding to my readers’ emails because it might take more than my hands had to give, and I felt anxious about my hands because I was forcing them to serve my ego’s need for validation. The loop was complete – asshole behavior, all around.

Photo on 04-05-14 at 14.50

*     *     *

The circuit wasn’t just mental. It was physical, too – I truly felt pain in my hands as I typed. But I also knew that the degree of distress I felt wasn’t due to the pain alone. It was augmented by the confusion and suffering in my mind, to the point where I actually couldn’t distinguish the two. I couldn’t even locate the finger pain, exactly – it was larger than my fingers themselves, and it was visual, floating in a multi-colored haze somewhere between my head and my hands.

I vowed not to type for the rest of the day. Compulsive, perhaps, but it was pretty clear that I wasn’t making any headway trying to figure out whether my impulses were sane. Just walk away, Matt.

As I sat in meditation later in the day, though, I saw just how much duress I’d been under when I’d made that pledge. You were terrified, and you made a fearful decision. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but you’re also not bound to stick with promises made under torture.

As these thoughts flitted around behind my eyes, I felt the typing ban lift; when my meditation session was over, I returned to the computer. And for the next forty-five minutes, I was able to type more or less pain-free.

*     *     *

But reprieves are always only temporary. By the next day, I was caught in the same bitchy argument between fear and defiance. This time, though, I began to notice something else. It wasn’t the typing that bothered me, exactly. It was what I typed. If I worked on this essay, for example, my mind gave me relatively little trouble. Clicking over into Facebook was much chancier, though. What began as innocent curiosity would quickly morph into something needier, graspier. I would find myself clicking down the rabbit hole, splashing and floundering through whirlpools of anxiety. As I did, the pain in my fingers would flare. I was beginning to see something: the pain wasn’t ‘real’, exactly – it was guilt, manifesting in coercive and underhanded form.

*     *     *

For me, an insight like this is next to meaningless on its own. Instead, I have to have it dozens of times – often over many years – before it begins to sink in. And so the pattern continued over the next few days: anxiety, confusion, and pain would tag-team, pummeling me from all sides. I would respond with my behavioral therapy mantras, leaning into and agreeing with the fears. Yup, you’ve fucked up your hands, and you’re not going to be able to type anymore. But I couldn’t keep up the slightly ironic attitude that the therapy demands. Rather than inuring me to my fears, I was beginning to believe them even more deeply.

At a certain point, I’d give up entirely, resigning myself to my diminished fate. And right about then, I’d feel something loosen. After hours of being thrown around in the merciless surf, I’d been tossed up onto a spit of rock. I lay there, watching the ragged edges of my breath begin to soften. I noticed my hands – my fists had unclenched. I wasn’t fighting anything. It was a depressive relaxation, but it was relaxation nonetheless.

And then I’d head back to the computer, and the cycle would begin again.

*     *     *

Driving through the Cambodian night is not so different from driving through the night anywhere else, if you let it be. The gaunt cows like old men, noting our bus as proof of that long-held verity: buses come this way. Kids, backlit on concrete porches, playing at karate. The rice fields, endless, and no less beautiful for their repetition.

Does anyone enjoy farming rice? I wonder. Do people still feel in tune with the season’s rhythms, rising and resting with the sun? Or does wading through the rows begin to feel futile after a time? (The farmer’s body ages, but the fields remain.) In a world of choices, would anyone choose this?

It’s an absurd comparison, I know. Yet in some sense, I feel the same way about the laptop in my bag. This work – this blank screen. I rise each morning, stumbling toward it. This tiny plot of land dying to bear its fruit, if I can only learn the patience that its harvest requires. The bus approaches its terminal, and I hoist mine onto my back.

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