OCD in Twelve Fragments

by Matt B. on November 12, 2014


First Movers. The universe was created, or it has always existed. We have no justification for believing one over the other.


Speed’s Oblivion. I lived in Hanoi for a while, bumping around town on my motorbike, sidecar full of worries. Around Hoan Kiem Lake, I would merge into the whizzy traffic, hungry for speed’s oblivion. I crashed twice; was this my good fortune?


The Meaning of Pain. I badly want the freedom to get things wrong, to feel like mistakes aren’t always followed by consequences. Just now, I sat down to dinner. The fish was too hot, but I ate it anyway. I wanted to screw up, to scald the roof of my mouth, to experience discomfort as a transient state rather than a down payment on endless punishment. To believe that experiencing pain doesn’t prove that I’m irredeemably flawed.


The Aftermath. I’ve been through countless little hurricanes at this point – hours or days or weeks when I’m picked up by the winds and thrown through walls. The impact leaves me speechless, a husk amidst the scattered trash. Like water, my mind seeks its lowest level – dark, quiet, stillness. I lay prone in bed, covers pulled, white flag flapping.

After an uncertain interval, the winds retreat, and my body picks up on the pressure changes. Itchy energy returns to my limbs, non-traumatized thoughts to my mind. I rise and walk outside – for an ice cream, perhaps, or just to remind myself that the rest of the world exists. At a certain point, I’m more-or-less out the other end, wobbly but recovering. I feel my feet advancing, one after the other. No tremors rumble, no chasms open. I’m braced by trustworthy streets and bobbleheaded children.

I’m also left with the feeling that nothing happened.

And in a sense, nothing did. I felt a bunch of fear, and my mind generated a heap of terrible thoughts to match the underlying emotion. In other words, my brain short-circuited, and then it invented a backstory to explain why. There was no there there – only panic.

But often, I only feel this kind of sobriety after the storm winds have settled down. In the moment, things are much too vivid for that; it’s very hard to doubt the waves as they crash down on you. Even if it was, as we say, ‘all in my head,’ I still went through something – and I want explanations. I’m bloodied and shaking here – something must have caused this.


The Event. The proper study of history is about much more than identifying the causes that lead to events. It is about asking what constitutes an event. The things most people wouldn’t notice and certainly wouldn’t think twice about – a twitch here, a twinge there – are the things OCD wants to think about forever. OCD is a 30’s newsboy shouting from streetcorners, a melodramatic newsanchor interrupting my regularly scheduled programming to bring me an important announcement. Something has happened here, he says. And it’s a big fucking deal. Behind the teleprompter, OCD types its shitty revisionist history.

I find myself plunging backward, sifting through fragments of memory, trying to track down the first instance of suffering. Was it when I lifted the pencil with two fingers rather than three? Or was it earlier – perhaps last night, when I stayed up too late and left myself exhausted, unable to respond to these thoughts skillfully? This, too, is part of OCD’s game – the obsession with the moment when life went wrong, the second before the Fall. And as with Eden, it’s a set-up. Here’s a tree full of super-tempting fruit! But don’t eat any of it. Why not, you ask? Oh, no reason – except that I am a petty, small-minded god, and I will hurt you very badly if you do.


To Switch Metaphors. I want to understand why the rock rolled down the hill so I don’t have to keep pushing it back up. But there’s no such thing as science here. As I scrutinize the rock, as I replay its endless downward tumble, I find myself bumping downhill as well.


Why So Seductive, Then? It’s partly the unpredictability of OCD experience that leaves me so stupefied, like a rat jolted with electricity at random. It would be easy to learn helplessness here, to retreat from all the places I’ve been shocked and skitter into the smallest corner of the cage. I’ve often done exactly that.

Other times, though, I see the claustrophobia coming, and I find myself asking questions instead. Where is this coming from? What triggered it? Why now? And when will it come next? It’s tempting to believe that answering these questions will provide me the resources I need to respond better next time, but usually this isn’t so. Instead, it’s an invitation to re-create the trauma, to etch it more deeply in stone.


The Unattractiveness of the Past. Thinking about the past rarely leads me anywhere good. There are images that stand undiluted, of course – scenes, faces, feelings. But if I gaze at them for any length of time – or if I scan forward or backward for even a second or two – I detect the anxiety that’s shot through it all. I watch from the volcano’s rim for a moment, and then I find myself sliding down into the red. Old fears bubble out of dormancy, new ones shudder and flash, and I no longer remember what it feels like to be anywhere else.


What’s at Stake Here? I regret that things weren’t different, but regret’s metaphysics make no sense. Regret becomes lament, but lament throws good money after bad. Lament morphs into grief – a sadness for that tortured boy, and a sadness that I can’t stop thinking about him.


The Future’s No Better. OCD’s greed isn’t satisfied with the past. It demands the future, too, assuring me that things will never be much different than they are now. Or, rather, that they’ll never be better, but that they could be much worse. It’s up to you, OCD whispers. How badly do you want to avert the suffering that’s barreling your way?


All of this Happens in the Present. (Where else can things happen?) But feeling things in the present and being in the present are very different matters. OCD only permits the former. Sure, you can feel things, but those feelings will always refer you back to the sins of your past or reveal glimpses of your coming ruination. Yours will be a starved and desiccated present, the furthest thing from a gift.


Another Kind of Present. It’s possible to live in a present that doesn’t make reference to past or future. That interprets the brain’s flares as nothing more than signals sent by drunken sailors. That watches their fiery arc, their trailing smoke, their fading and disappearance into a murky sky.

I’ve seen this; I’ve known it, if only for moments.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Janet Singer November 12, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Wow, Matt, I’m speechless. As someone without OCD, I’d say you have given me as clear a vision as I will ever have of the disorder. I hope you experience “Another Kind of Present” more and more often.

Matt Bieber November 13, 2014 at 7:18 am

Thank you very, very much Janet. This one felt like it had been a long time brewing. And I hope so too!

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