There are some parts of your book that are downright gross. You brush your teeth with Ajax and peel off your psoriasis scabs. Who wants to read about stuff like this?

There’s nothing wrong with Ajax. It gets the disinfecting job done and smells great! Of course the scab thing, yeah that’s not so pretty. Having to go back in my mind to when my OCD was at an all time high (as a teenager) was a scary place to be (and yes, most of the time–disgusting) for sure, but it wouldn’t have been an honest account if I didn’t go there. I don’t think I could have just told you about the times I had to carry around water in glass jars because I was afraid of spontaneously combusting without taking you through the whole process as it happened. I didn’t particularly enjoy writing about scabs. But it’s out there now. What can I do?

 

One blogger’s review called you Augusten Burroughs with bleach and you can kind of see that in the parts where you write from the point of view of a small child. Is that good? Do you like Augusten Burroughs?

A lot of people don’t know this but Augusten and I are secretly married. It doesn’t matter that he’s gay. We’re married and that’s how it is so it’s not like being compared to my husband who loves me because we’re married? Of course that’s good. As far as what it’s like to write in a child’s voice, I’m pretty immature anyway so thinking like a kid wasn’t exactly a chore. Plus, there’s still so much of that spazzy girl in me who has to do a lot of receptive OCD stuff every day. I still have most of the problems I write about in the book, like it takes me an hour just to get ready for bed because I have to make my “rounds”—you know, checking things, touching things. I’ve got these routines I have to follow to comfort my brain.

 

So you’re cleaning the house at eleven o’clock at night?

Usually, I try to wait until at least midnight until everyone in the house is just about to fall asleep so no one gets in the way of my vacuuming.

 

That’s a little not normal don’t you think?

Sure. But I don’t care anymore. It took me a long time to get to that place. It’s basically a place of, “screw it!”, meaning, I can’t live by a code that’s going to get me approval of what living a “normal” life should be. People who have bad panic attacks or feel nervous all the time—so much of it comes from the constant running dialogue of, “Will they see me mess up? What will they think if I still wear Zips because I’m into Velcro buckles?” Once you can let that go, even if you let it go just a little, I swear, it’s the most freeing feeling in the world. Medication helps that a lot. I try to stay doped up as much as possible.

 

What would you do if didn’t write? Are OCDers better at some things than non-OCDers?

Well, I heard the entire board of directors of the League for Promotion of Even Numbers has all had their share of OCD. As for myself I can’t multi-task anything because organizing pencils according to size and frequency of use can get in the way of answering phones and sending out emails.

 

Do you have any hobbies?

I never excelled at much except for writing. I can act a little, like in the theatre. Which is basically just lying with extra makeup on so of course I’m good at that. Other than looking up symptoms on wrong diagnosis dot com (right now I’ve got a weird pain in my left side which I’m pretty sure is the onset of pleurisy) I don’t have a lot of ways to keep myself busy. In the book I talk about my first real job at a dry cleaners. I couldn’t count back change and I busted a super expensive embroidery machine then just walked off the job because it never occurred to me to do anything else but run away.

 

Interesting you should mention running away. In the book you do a lot of it.

Before you judge let me tell you about the time I was 13 and I was sent to live at a nursing home my grandmother owned. I ran away from there, that’s true, but I had to share a room with an old man who called me Whore all day. That was just his name for me. He said, “Hey Whore, come change my diaper.” And it’s not like when Augusten calls me Whore. This was completely degrading, so yeah, I bailed from that scene in a hurry.

 

But you don’t write like a victim. Nothing in the story gives us the feeling of Woe is Me.

I throw myself onto Facebook and update my status to passively aggressively hint that someone has done me wrong. That usually brings the gratification I’m looking for. But for the book, I guess I just had to get over myself. This starts to happen the more you look at the complete absurdity of OCD. If you can step outside yourself for just a few minutes and really look at yourself doing things like counting all the red cars in the parking lot before you settle on a parking space ‘cause if you don’t something bad will happen to your best friend— I mean even Keasy’s Cheify would call that weird. Besides, I’m not going through anything millions of people aren’t going through right at this very moment.

 

So what keeps you going?

Working on new writing projects. Reading. Feeling cross and jealous of other writers who have what I don’t, then friending those writers on Facebook and spending an embarrassing amount of time looking at pictures and status updates of where I think I should be in my life in order to be happy. That and hand sanitizer. And of course being Augusten’s wife.

 

 

I don’t like being out of my comfort zone. Not only does it make me uncomfortable, it makes me regress.

Carrying out my life in a foreign language has made me revert to the awkward, shy teenager that I try so hard to forget I was. Being a thirtysomething who is not guaranteed to put together an entire sentence, let alone an entire thought, gramatically correctly has made me self-conscious all over again. I speak minimally, do not expand upon thoughts in a profound way, and am constantly worried about my accent and whether people can understand it. Even if people compliment me on my French or assure me that my accent is charming, it is exhausting at times to be constantly reminded how I am different. Of course being unique is great but not every time I open my mouth.

When I first moved to France, I did anything I could to avoid vocal interactions with other Frenchmen. Thankfully, buying a baguette is formulaic, e-mail and texts have replaced phone calls, and more and more things have become automated, like buying movie and metro tickets.

However, since doctors are not machines I knew that I would eventually need to carry on a medical conversation in French, something I was not dying to do. But after seven years of chronic knee pain it was time to see if the French could cure what the Americans could not.

I liked my new primary care physician, Dr. Martin, from the start. He set aside a few hours each day for unscheduled appointments which allowed me to avoid phoning a secretary to make one. I was surprised to see upon my arrival, however, that a secretary was nowhere to be found. The door opened onto a waiting room with 10 other patients already inside.

There was nobody there to explain which doctor out of the three in this particular office I was there to see or why. There was no patient information form to fill out nor was there was a sign-in sheet. I took a seat and waited my turn, hoping it would be obvious when that turn would come.

I’m often scared of conversations I’m not convinced I can have, and get tongue-tied when around people of authority. In this case, I was not only worried about spitting out the right words and articulating clearly, but was anxious that I wouldn’t understand what the doctor had to say back. Sometimes doctors have relevant things to say concerning our health and I didn’t want to miss anything important.

I had brought a book with me to help pass the time but I was too busy repeating medical vocabulary and formulating practice sentences in my head. MRI, physical therapist, cortisone, shot, pain, limp, anti-inflammatory…the translations for these words were all pirouetting through my head in a stressed-out frenzy.

When I finally made it into Dr. Martin’s office an hour later I did my best to explain that I had had pain in my right knee every day for at least seven years. An MRI (accompanied therewith) led an American doctor to determine that I had bursitis (in layman’s terms, an inflammation). Said doctor gave me a painful shot of cortisone and sent me to a physical therapist. The physical therapist showed me stretching exercises that should cure me and then sent me to a podiatrist because I walked funny and needed custom-made insoles for my shoes. [At 28, this walking funny business, and possible culprit, was news to me.]  Hundreds of dollars later, none of this worked.

Dr. Martin simply gave me the name of a specialist, wrote me a prescription for an anti-inflammatory, and sent me on my way. That wasn’t so hard. Then he asked me for the 22€ I owed him for the visit, which I would be reimbursed for later. Through my domestic partnership with Luc, I’m in the French health care system. Even if I wasn’t, I could afford a doctor’s appointment.

The bad news was that I now needed to go to the pharmacy. I don’t like pharmacies here because there’s no Advil, Tylenol or NyQuil — no recognizable comfort drugs that remind me of home. They also don’t sell chocolate candy, cigarettes, school supplies or lawn chairs.

Once there, I silently handed over the prescription for the anti-inflammatory, praying for a simple exchange. No such luck — the pharmacist asked for my government issued medical ID card. I obliged. Since I was new, I wasn’t yet entirely in the health system. Instead of not having to pay anything upfront, he explained that I would need to pay for the drugs myself and that I would get reimbursed later.

“Will that be possible for you?” he asked with sincere concern.

I quickly calculated how much money was left in my checking account and subtracted the amount I guessed the drugs would cost based on past experiences in the US.

“That should be ok. What will the medication cost…80, 100€?”

“14.”

My leg specialist, while very kind and American-friendly, did not do much to cure my bursitis which he decided was tendonitis (in layman’s terms, an inflammation). After more drugs, cortisone shots, and useless months of physical therapy he sent me to a surgeon. Although I was scheduled to see the surgeon at 11am, I didn’t enter his office until 2. Not only was he behind schedule, he made me wait while he ate lunch.

Within 5 minutes, the well-fed surgeon with spinach stuck in his teeth determined that an operation would be too risky and advised against it. When he told me the cost of my consult, I thought he had said 120€. I was not shocked because I figured surgeons earn more than primary care physicians so I handed over my cash. Later, at home, I looked at the bill and saw that my consult actually cost only 80€. Not only did the good doctor waste my time, he ripped me off.

Could I dare go back and question this man, a prominent surgeon? I had no paper trail to prove anything; it would be my accented-word against his.

I was reminded of the time when I chewed on glass in a restaurant while dining with friends visiting from home. No, the menu did not mention anything about glass so I was quite startled when I bit down onto that shard. The waiter was very apologetic but I was dismayed when the bill arrived with the cost of my meal on it. I was foolishly too shy and too concerned about being the “obnoxious American” to demand that my meal be free. It’s one of those things I often think about with regret.

So I knew that this time I had to go back, defend myself and get my money. I practiced the hypothetical conversation while limping back to the doctor’s office. I nervously explained to the medical secretary that I misheard quatre-vingts (80) for cent vingt (120) and that the doctor must not have paid attention to the amount I gave him. The secretary spoke with the doctor and after a moment of very awkward tension he conceded his error. I was proud of myself for not letting my timidness cost me nearly $60, the equivalent of 5 minutes with a cheap hustler [shameless plug alert — see Hey].

I don’t believe in hocus pocus, but when friends raved about a miraculous “magnetiseur” who cost only 25€, I was intrigued. Since such a person is not recognized by the government as a legitimate health care practitioner I would not to be reimbursed. But for 25€, I figured that I had nothing to lose at that point.

I’m still not sure what a magnetiseur is exactly, but Judith is some sort of healer who transfers her energy to her patients in order to cure whatever ailment they have. After listening to my medical history, which I had gotten quite good at recounting by then, she asked me to roll up my pants leg before she placed her hands strategically onto the inflamed portion of my knee. For her, the tendonitis v. bursitis debate was of little importance.

Judith seemed to be deep in concentration which I was quite uncomfortable with. I always feel the need to make small talk (even in French) with anyone providing me with a corporal service. I did not know if she could transfer energy and speak at the same time. I hesitantly asked her if I could talk; she replied “yes” while laughing [at me?].

“Did you study medicine to do this kind of work?”

She laughed, again. “No,” she replied with dignity. “It’s a gift.”

Whatever you want to call it, it worked. After 3 sessions, some weird plant extracts and shark cartilage imported from Luxembourg, Judith did what 5 doctors, 3 physical therapists and a whole lot of drugs and shots could not. Nowadays my tendonitis only flares up when it rains, like an arthritic 80 year old.

I’ve come to worry that Dr. Martin thinks I’m a hypochondriac. When I recently found out that there is lead in our tap water at home, I went straight to him insisting on blood tests. According to a very reliable source, the Internet, any amount of lead can be dangerous. When I explained why I was there, I could see his eyes rolling in his mind.

“Are you sick?” he asked me. “Any digestive or respiratory problems. Problems with your motor skills?”

“No. It’s not that I’m sick now, I just worry that lead will make me sick later.”

He took my blood pressure and checked my breathing. I must not have said what I thought I just said. He told me that I was fine.

My blood tests showed that I do indeed have lead in my blood, but not enough to warrant medical attention. I’m only halfway there; I always was an underachiever.

Then there was the time I found a lump. I was convinced I had cancer even if lumps don’t form where this one was. A few days later Dr. Martin took me down from the ledge of hysteria. I had a hernia, he explained — essentially, a whole in my stomach muscle’s lining which required surgery. Gulp.

My surgery was scheduled for a Monday morning, so I had to check-in to the hospital late Sunday afternoon. I’m not sure why. Once I was shown to my room, I had nothing but free time until my 5am wake-up call. Luc and I took a tour of the grounds since there is nothing more depressing than being a healthy patient in a hospital bed.

Although it felt like a prison, or boarding school, there was no kind of “lights out” policy in effect. I was warned that I may miss dinner if I returned to my room too late but I was willing to take that risk. In fact, Luc and I decided to have drinks and dinner in a small bistro nearby. Coincidentally, my surgeon [not the knee one] chose the same place. I was not sure if she recognized me from our one previous encounter but I wasn’t about to go over and say hello. But I did keep my nervous eye on the bottle of wine in front of her.

It’s not that I have a fear of hospitals, I just don’t care for them very much. In my experiences, nobody comes out of a hospital cured, they’re just temporarily fixed until a health issue becomes unmanageable again.

Sure, mine was a minor surgery, but surgery nonetheless which required general anesthesia. Not everyone wakes up from that. So, I’ll admit it — I was scared. Which was unfortunate for the unassuming woman tasked with wheeling me from my room to surgery. I was alone, in a foreign country, and about to go under…I needed reassurance.

“I’m scared.”

“I’m sure that everything will be fine.”

If the surgery didn’t kill me, the cliché would.

In the operating room I was greeted by the anesthesiologist. I’ve seen every medical show created for television since “Trapper John M.D.” so that gas mask was no surprise, the suffocating sensation was. No instructions were given, at least none that I understood. I was breathing, and then with the mask on, I was not. I panicked and gesticulated for them to remove it. They confirmed that I was meant to breathe normally, even with the mask on. They replaced the mask, I breathed in twice, and then woke up what felt like one second later in recovery. That was cool.

It’s worth mentioning that I had absolutely no out of pocket cost for this entire process which included a consult with the surgeon , two nights in the hospital, one surgery and two weeks of much needed pain killers.

*****

Then there was the time I went to the proctologist…

Happy is the new skinny. Being happy is cool. Being sad, unsatisfied, depressed, lonely, moody or anxious is totally unattractive. Being bubbly, funny, enthusiastic, imaginative and wild is hot. Everyone wants to be happy, and everyone believes they deserve to be happy. We read books, listen to podcasts and subscribe to blogs all about how to be happy. I’ve listened and re-listened to Gala Darling’s podcast on happiness, and I find it inspiring. I’m even following some of her advice, and I’m starting to believe that it may actually be as simple as choosing to be happy. But it strikes me as odd that as a culture, we Americans claim to believe happiness is a natural right. We even wrote it into the Declaration of Independence. We are pretty dedicated to happiness, and yet, we have an awful time finding it.

Of course, there are the naysayers. There are people who believe we have become happiness addicts. There are people who believe that our obsession with being happy is naive, childish, and a waste of time. I wonder if they are happy.

They have a point, though. Our obsession with being happy can make us unhappy. Perhaps you’ve had a period of depression in which the realization that you are depressed actually makes it worse. It goes from depression to despair. “Oh God,” you find yourself sobbing into your pillow. “I’m a lost cause! I’m a mess. I’m going to end up killing myself one day!” The really nuts thing about it is that you never had any real intention of killing yourself, but the despair over your mental state, and the thought that you might be capable of committing suicide, actually drives you toward it. You start to think things like, “How will I know if I’m really suicidal?” And that thought doesn’t even make any sense. If you actually did want to die, you’d probably know it, Yet, you’ve seen those commercials with people sitting on the couch looking sad as the voice over says, “If you experience sleeplessness, loss of appetite, lack of interest in things you once enjoyed or thoughts of suicide … “

You begin to evaluate yourself as you watch the commercial. You tick off the list: You are, in fact, sitting on the couch looking sad about a sad looking person sitting on a couch. You sometimes have trouble sleeping. You once loved baking, finger painting, paper dolls and anything involving Elmer’s glue, all of which you have lost interest in. Are thoughts of suicide next? And then you realize you’re thinking of suicide right now.

“In fact, I think of suicide all the time: when I’m watching commercials for anti-depressants, when I’m stuck in traffic on a rainy night and no one will let me merge, when I don’t want to pay a bill or when I think about losing all my teeth in old age. Also, sometimes when driving on an empty road late at night, I wonder what would happen if I ran my car off the road. I don’t particularly want to die at that moment, but I’m sort of OK with the fact that it’s possible; so I probe the possibility with my imagination, but I have not yet intentionally swerved off the road. Not even just out of curiosity. So I guess I have no real death drive at the moment. But I could. And for that, I might need Wellbutrin or Lexapro or Zoloft or Prozac. Maybe I should ask my doctor, just in case.”

No one wants to be unhappy. If you’ve ever experienced true unhappiness, you know it’s not only miserable but sometimes terrifying. You feel alienated from yourself and everything that matters to you. Something always seems to be missing. You become insecure. It is not fun times. But the kind of happiness pushed on the public in the form of products, services and medications is not the kind of happiness that treats these wounds. Well, ok, for some, the medications help. But not for everyone. Drug companies know that deep down all of us have a bit of unhappiness, and that’s exactly why they invest in TV commercials. We see the sad person getting happy on TV thanks to some miracle drug, and we identify with that and think “Maybe they can make me happy, too.”

Just like the drug commercials that promise to change you from a sad little blob to a happy little blob (both mostly mindless but one clearly preferable), beauty product manufacturers promise to enrich your life by bringing out your natural beauty. I laugh when they end with faux fierceness: “You’re worth it!” Right. Worth what? An hour and a half of bleaching your scalp, poking yourself in the eye with a stick, and razor burn? Oh, those tricksy advertisers, trying to tell me I am worth the trouble of going out and buying their products and maiming myself with them. Oh yes, that is how I express my value.

We have our suffering and our insecurities, and we keep them quiet so that when advertisers at them, we’re ready to buy whatever they’re selling to medicate or mask our secret shame. No one talks about their weaknesses; that would leave them exposed to scrutiny. You don’t tell your boss, “I don’t feel good about my work, and I’m deeply concerned about the direction of my career.” That doesn’t usually lead to a promotion, and a promotion is what we want, right?

A promotion would make us happy … maybe. It’s the kind of happiness toward which we clamor when we come up short on ways to soothe that deep soul ache. If not a promotion, then at least a good bikini body, and if we can’t have that, then at least we can milk all the pleasure there is to be had from a cupcake. But is there a happiness that lasts longer than a cupcake? Something that can stick with us when we no longer want to be ogled on the beach? Is there anything in the world that, unlike that promotion, will ask nothing in return? I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost money, doesn’t go away when I age, and doesn’t require me to be on call to answer to come corporate jerk who cares not a whit for my personal time. And I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost sixty bucks a month because the drug is so new that there’s no generic alternative. Where can I find that kind of happiness?

What do I even mean when I say I want to be happy? I want to be healthy. I want to be skinny and pretty and smile a lot. I want to make enough money. I already make enough money, but I would really like to make a little more money. Or a lot more money. Enough money to buy a bigger house and not have to DIY all the renovations. That would be enough. Oh, and enough money for a new car because mine is getting old, and a pair of diamond earrings because every girl needs a pair of those, and one pair of really good expensive shoes. And a job that’s closer to my house so I don’t have to drive so far, but it should still pay me well and involve doing cool stuff with cool people. I want to spend more time with my family and friends, but not too much because most people annoy me after a while. And I want another drink, but I don’t want a hangover, and I don’t want to cross that line into being an alcoholic, although I’m not sure where that line is, and I’m not sure anyone else is either.

We seem to think we can’t live without happiness, but we’re not even sure what it is, so how would we know? Was Mother Theresa happy? What about Michael Jackson? George Washington? Your grandmother? My grandmother was extremely poor. She dropped out of school after the seventh grade, married young, had six children, and raised them all in a house the size of my first apartment with one bathroom. Her husband died 20 years before her, and she never dated again. She didn’t have a dishwasher or an air conditioner. Was she happy? Did anyone ever ask? I think it’s a safe bet that “happiness” was not the priority for her that it is for me, and for this, I feel rather foolish and selfish. Her life is anathema to me — tiny house, no money, no education, a boatload of kids — but perhaps in avoiding what I view as her pitfalls, I am denying myself a certain organic kind of happiness. After all, her kids grew up to be good people, each successful in their own way. All of them married and had children. She became matriarch to an ever-growing family who loved her. But I don’t know what that meant to her or if she was happy.

In a recent interview with Oprah, Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hahn said, “It is possible to live happily in the here and the now. So many conditions of happiness are available—more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.” That thought is profound and genius, but a bit over my head. I instinctively reach back to the experience of my day and think, “Is he trying to say I can be happy even with a full time job? Even without my new running shoes? Even stuck in traffic?”

When Oprah asked him to define happiness, he said “Happiness is the cessation of suffering. Well-being. For instance, when I practice this exercise of breathing in, I’m aware of my eyes; breathing out, I smile to my eyes and realize that they are still in good condition. There is a paradise of form and colors in the world. And because you have eyes still in good condition, you can get in touch with the paradise. So when I become aware of my eyes, I touch one of the conditions of happiness. And when I touch it, happiness comes.”

Reading his words stops me in my tracks. It makes me forget what I thought I knew. It pours the thoughts right out of my head and leaves me sitting in my skull like a lightening bug in an empty jar. I’m just blinking around in the emptiness.

And then I remember this: I was searching for happiness, and I was motivated by fear. The fear of unhappiness. The fear of unhappiness causes unhappiness and sends me on a wild search for that which is not my fear, but because I don’t know what it is, I can’t see it even when it surrounds me. The search is dizzying and distracting, fun and frustrating, and thoroughly intoxicating. The search is elating because it sometimes leads us to art and orgasm. Other times, the search is a bad trip and leads to sobbing into pillows, terrified at the thought of what we might do to ourselves if we had the courage (and we are quite glad we don’t have the courage).

Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet on Flickr