Such, Such Were the Joys: OCD, Orwell, and Jerking Off

by Matt B. on May 26, 2014

I squeeze the brakes on my motorbike to come to a quick stop, and a brief pain slices through my fingers. That’s what happens when your mind wanders and you go too fast, asshole. You end up hurting yourself – exactly what you deserve.

This is a core element of my religion: the belief that I should never end up in situations where I have to act erratically (and that if I do, it indicates a failure of foresight, a recklessness). What did you care about more than preventing this? Probably something stupid, like a moment’s thrill.

My perfectionism wants me to be an expert at everything. Of course, it knows that this isn’t quite possible, so it makes occasional concessions: it’s okay to be a novice in some arena, so long as I approach that arena with the perfect mix of curiosity and beginner’s prudence. It’s the Goldilocks problem – no bowl is ever just right, which means I don’t get to eat very often.

*          *          *

Which brings us to masturbation. For me, jerking off is a kind of surgeon’s theater for OCD – the perfect vantage point for watching intrusive thoughts and their accompanying compulsions snip and pierce and shave and section my mind into quivering little pieces. So, you know – pretty damn sexy.

There was a heyday at 13, of course. But not too long into my career, I realized – vaguely at first, then more clearly – that I often felt like I was chasing something. Finishing felt good, but treating the end as a goal felt inconsistent with the spontaneous sexiness that usually kicked everything off.

Not that that stopped me. Like many of my friends, I was quickly hooked on porn. First came the magazine-and-VHS variety; two friends got into the habit of lifting Playboys from a mall bookstore, and I once followed suit. (Guilt quickly gobbled me up, so I returned to the store and dumped the magazine on the counter. Eighty-five percent of me was profoundly embarrassed, but the rest of me was more relieved than I’d known it was possible to be.)

Despite these tawdry episodes, there was an innocence about it all – I was just figuring out what my body could do, and apparently it could do some pretty amazing things. Perhaps because of the porn, though, that exploratory idyll didn’t last very long. Instead, I quickly developed a series of ideas about what my body should be capable of. It was the standard stuff: I thought I was supposed to be able to get hard at a wind’s whisper, come on command, and then repeat without delay. Even in the headiest days of pubescence, though, it doesn’t always work that way. As a woman was to tell me years later, There’s such a thing as feeling sexy.

*          *          *

These days, my motivation seems to be waning. There’s the initial impulse, and I get all geared up for the old game. But often, the momentum fades. Conjuring images is more of an effort, and the whole thing feels absurd. Why bother? Because it feels good, says the loop tape. Does it? I occasionally feel like one of Kundera’s old men, wanting to want things that I no longer want. Or feeling like I’m supposed to – which is basically the same thing. All of which would be fine, except at this point I’m often taken over by tunnel vision. As in sex, it’s orgasm or bust.

The tunnel is constructed of two fears – that I can’t escape my neurotic patterns, and that I’ll fuck myself up if I don’t. The argument begins with a threat: If you stop this time, maybe you’ll be more likely to peter out early next time. The tunnel will get narrower and dingier, and it’ll go on like that forever – until you reach the arid, sexless desert at the tunnel’s end.

Out of this threat comes an exhortation to a twisted nobility: If you stop, you’re going to feel cowardly – that you’ve been spooked into panic by your own compulsions. But that’s only going to make the tunnel smaller and more claustrophobic. Courage! Jerking off, then, is manning the barricades.

Eventually, though, the pendulum swings, and I acknowledge something else – that continuing feels compulsive too. You’re addicted to these ideas about the meaning of orgasm, and addiction always hurts. (That’s part of the reason you gave up porn!)

The Dalai Lama tells us that if we can fix a problem, we needn’t worry about it. And if we can’t fix it, well, we needn’t worry about that either. Fine, I think – but which is it!? Do I quit or keep going?

And at around this point, a third feeling arises – a sense-certainty that this internal debate will never end. With this feeling comes a thought – that the pain I’m enduring is somehow perfectly appropriate. You are an addict, and this is an addict’s fate. Descriptively, that feels true, but there’s also more going on – a deep judgment, a sense that I somehow deserve all of this.

Such thoughts are the children of madness, and the counter-evidence is everywhere. Most pertinently: after living with physical and mental addictions my whole life, I’m basically healthy – working limbs, good eyesight, stirrings down below. But you don’t expect any of this to actually register, do you?

*          *          *

I show up to a party at a bar, but I can’t find anyone. Am I just early? No – forty-five minutes late is plenty fashionable. The music is crazy-makingly loud, and I feel my nerves unfurling. What to do with myself? How to pass the time?

This is the perpetual dance. Always greedy for more time, always resentful of constrictions and obligations – and then, when I have time, wondering how to fill it.

But that’s not quite right. At home, I’d be fine – I’d have books and my computer and podcasts and a chair for meditation. Here, I’m without resources. In particular, I’m without a sense for how long things will be like they are right now. Five minutes? 30? The bar is enormous – how will I know if anyone’s arrived? I could check my phone every so often – but HOW often? And won’t that quickly land me in a compulsive spiral? I feel like I can put up with most things, so long as I have a general sense for how long they’ll last. This, of course, is the first thing the torturer learns: keep ’em guessing.

I pull out my phone to check my email. I have a phobia about using my phone for this purpose, and I’ve developed a rule against it. But at the moment, I can’t remember why. Gmail begins to load, and my nerves splay from a different angle. Yes, this is okay. Your hesitation is probably something compulsive. Just go ahead.

But I still feel halved. I sense the g-forces, the old loop of discomfort and self-condemnation. And now I remember: I don’t like checking email on my phone because it takes so damn long. What’s meant to be a reprieve from boredom becomes a stressor for precisely the reason that I pulled out my phone in the first place – because everything takes forever to load, and it’s not clear how long forever will last. So I end up waiting, wondering whether my checking intervals are savvy or compulsive, wondering…

By my dim lights, I’ve now made a mistake – You shouldn’t have given in to temptation, jackass – and the usual consequence algorithm kicks in. You’ve fucked up your fingers, and the night is now compromised. Oh, you’ll probably get through it, but all your efforts to enjoy yourself and connect with others will be undermined by your mind’s slow decomposition.

In other words: You knew better, once. And once is all you should ever need.

*          *          *

“Such, Such Were the Joys” is George Orwell’s essay about a childhood spent in the cruel bosom of an early-twentieth-century English boarding school. Among other torments, the headmasters of Orwell’s school enjoyed mocking him for his family’s relative penury. He had no right to be treated like the wealthier children, they informed him, and if not for the headmasters’ own large-heartedness, he would have it much worse.

To grasp the effect of this kind of thing on a child of ten or twelve, one has to remember that the child has little sense of proportion or probability. A child may be a mass of egoism and rebelliousness, but it has not accumulated experience to give it confidence in its own judgements. On the whole it will accept what it is told, and it will believe in the most fantastic way in the knowledge and power of the adults surrounding it.

I have long since joined the dubious ranks of adulthood, but one group of adults continues to hold sway over me. These are my thoughts. They are my conquerors and my caretakers, a brutish judge and jury possessed of unanswerable power. I have spent a lifetime under their rule, a sequence of days that often end in exhaustion.

On this particular day, I wander out of the bar, craving nothing more than rest. I pocket my phone, squeeze into a tiny plastic chair by the roadside, and watch the kaleidoscope of nonsense in my mind. I idly consider going home. I’m here, aren’t I? I came out, gave it a college try – isn’t that good enough? Several minutes pass, and I’m paralyzed with confusion. I don’t know any of the things I need to know – how to sit, where to put my hands, what to do with these thoughts.

On a whim, I check my phone again. People have arrived. I rise to find them.


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