Okay, now that you’ve noticed, we might as well discuss this thing. Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about; you looked right at it and cringed. My long pinky fingernail, that’s what! I was trying to keep it hidden, tucked into my palm, as I always do when I’m in the presence of people who cut all their nails to be the same length—“omni trimmers” as I call them—but, the more I think about it, I really shouldn’t have to hide. I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.

In an age where everybody seems to be diagnosed with something, it still surprises me that very few people are educated on the vast array of mental illnesses from which one can suffer.  It happens like clockwork – about once in the span of every six months I inevitably hear someone say, “Oh, [s]he’s extremely OCD.” I’d like to believe that some higher force is pushing these people towards me so that I can be faced with the opportunity to educate them on what actually constitutes OCD; but, I know that in reality, this “test” is merely further evidence of the lack of awareness and education regarding this debilitating disorder.

The DSM IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) primarily characterizes OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) as being comprised of either obsessions or compulsions (or, in some cases, both). The DSM IV defines obsessions as “recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are experienced at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and inappropriate and that cause marked anxiety or distress” and compulsions as “repetitive behaviors (e.g., hand washing, ordering, checking) or mental acts (e.g., praying, counting, repeating words silently) that the person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession, or according to rules that must be applied rigidly.”

Now that we have the definition out of the way, I would like to take some steps to humanize this disorder. The “efforts” by mainstream media to demystify OCD and bring it into the eyes of the general public (e.g., A&E’s Obsessed, As Good as it Gets, The Aviator) have forced the majority of our population to even further stigmatize OCD. The disorder is something that is either viewed as terribly funny and eccentric or otherwise something that should be shoved underneath a bed to rest amongst the dust bunnies. People don’t want to see other human beings repeatedly checking their locks or washing their hands – although intriguing, this behavior becomes boring and redundant; and, those who do want to see this type of behavior seem to be at least slightly entertained by the strange, all-consuming, mechanical nature of the disease.

Personally, I grew up watching my father exhibit these behaviors on a daily basis. At eight years old I would watch him repeatedly lock and unlock the doors to our house. We would drive away to our destination and then return a few seconds later to check, once again, that the doors were locked. In my still-developing brain, I came to equate the checking of one’s locks with security. Once in college, I was checking the locks to my apartment door 45 times. I would recite a phrase that had fifteen syllables (“The door – it is locked. It is locked now. The door is locked right now”) and I would have to repeat the phrase at least three times for various reasons (e.g., I didn’t lock it right, a siren was going off nearby, someone was watching me, something interrupted me, etc.). All of this occurred only after I was able to make it outside of the house.

While still inside my house I would begin my checking process. First, I would have to check inside my bedroom closet to make sure that I didn’t light a match and throw it on the floor of my closet to start a fire. I would go through this routine knowing full well that 1) I had not, in fact, lit a match that day and 2) I had no matches in the house to light and 3) I would never do such a thing. Still, like a child who checks nervously for monsters under the bed, I would have to open that door and stare (not peek, stare) onto the carpeted floor. After that I would check the bathroom and make sure that I didn’t leave my hot iron on (as you might be able to guess, I would check this even if I hadn’t used the hot iron that day). I would check the wall sockets and repeat, “Off off. Off off. Off off. Off off. Off off.” Sometimes, if I was feeling extra anxious that day, I would add another “Off off off off” for good measure. I would then grab the hot iron and press it onto my hand several times so that I could feel that it was cold (and thus not plugged in). Then I would continue to the kitchen of my apartment and make sure the oven and stove were off. I would check all four dials (and burners) in the same manner as I checked the two sockets upstairs (“Off off / Off off” recitation) and I would, once again, do this knowing full well that I hadn’t touched the oven that day. Still, oftentimes after locking my door, I would have to return to verify that the oven was, in fact, off. You get the point.

Now, I did all of this knowing that it was all completely irrational. I was a smart girl. I made As all throughout college. I knew, that if I simply turned the key in the lock and heard the click, the door was locked. Yet, I still had to check. I felt stupid and frustrated. My OCD continued to progress from fears of burning my apartment down (a surprisingly common OCD fear) to fears that I had killed someone. When I was driving I would suddenly have the feeling that I ran over someone, even if the drive had been smooth throughout. I would circle parking lots and go back to street corners to make sure a body wasn’t lying in the middle of the pavement. This behavior was taking over my life.

Furthermore, I could not stand being alone. I would constantly try to surround myself with people who could verify that I did not, in fact, light a candle in our friend’s house and leave it in their closet or that I had not run someone over. These are questions I would ask people! On a regular basis! And, like the good friends that they were, they would reassure me and calm me down every time. The problems came when there was no one around to verify any action (or lack thereof) and the only mind I could trust was my own shaky head. I sought out a therapist at 18 knowing I needed help. I went to her and opened my first therapy session by confessing that I thought I was losing my mind. She introduced me to a book called Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive Compulsive Behavior, which I think may have saved my life. The people in it were just like me! They had thoughts just like mine! I was not alone! Most importantly, I was not insane.

I still struggle with OCD (and with bouts of panic and depression). Some days, I have to fight just to get up in the morning and face the absurd barrage of fears that surface from within my very own mind (e.g., Did I write “Fuck you” on a bathroom wall? Do I have a tumor growing inside my brain that would explain my constant headaches?, etc.). I still wrestle with face-picking (a former nightly ritual that I would call “Fixing my Face”) and hair-pulling. I’m still anxious. I still blame my father. I am not, however, silent. I am not ashamed of this disorder; however, I wish that others knew more about it and could help those who suffer from it.

In writing this piece, I am, for the first time, exposing my own shortcomings to the world. I am doing this in the hopes that others will come to recognize that there is nothing funny about this disorder. OCD is not a term that can be correctly used as an adjective. Unless a person is actually diagnosed with OCD, that person cannot have varying degrees of OCD-ness. A person cannot judge someone else to be a “little OCD” in the same way that someone cannot describe another as being “just a little post-partem.”  People need to understand this disorder instead of ostracizing others who already go through their days feeling ostracized. And with that, I will step off my soapbox and return to my more-than-tolerable life.

 

I.

I Live in a Seaside Motel

I live in a seaside motel. On nights that the ocean is lively I can lie in bed and hear it murmur midnight elegies. When I’m having trouble sleeping the sounds of the sea’s salty breath draws me out into the darkness with my miner’s torch atop my head. I cross Route 1A, scramble over the Army Corps of Engineer-constructed berm and stand before the Atlantic.

The ocean during the day inspires thoughts of nature’s majesty and human frailty. This does not change at night, but the darkness lends a sense that the massive, writhing body of water is sinister.

After I’ve stood for a spell and looked out over the black expanse I turn and walk back to the Pebble Cove Motel. Every time, as I scramble back over the berm and my feet touch concrete, I begin to run, as if unseen enemies are giving chase. The ocean’s booming and roaring seems mocking, telling me to go back to my little box and carry on being a silly human. In obeisance, I slip back into room 3 and lock the door behind me.

II.

A Modern American Family

When I tell people that I live in a motel, they typically react in one of two ways. They either say something like, “Don’t you get lonely?” or, “Cool, man, you’re living the dream!”

Because I lived at home for over a year before moving into the Pebble Cove Motel, I tend to view my life here as quite idyllic. As for the other residents, I can only surmise, but my guess is that any middle-aged or older person who lives in a motel doesn’t go around asking to be pinched.

When I responded to an advertisement on craigslist offering, “winter studio efficiency,” the man on the other end of the phone suggested I drive down to the coast and take a look at a unit that would soon be vacant. A silver-haired, no-nonsense type of guy named Steve greeted me in the parking lot and gave the tour. At the time, a Chinese business man was staying in the room. Steve said he would be out in a couple of days and that the room would be available in one week’s time.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “We’ll have the place spic-and-span for you.”

I think what he meant was that Chinaman odor would be purged by the time I moved in.

With few other short-term rental options, I decided on the spot to take the room. I gave Steve a check for one month’s rent plus a security deposit and he told me I wouldn’t regret it, that the Pebble Cove was like a little family.

Perhaps, if your family is a group of transients who get kicked to the curb come June 1st so that well-off vacationers can occupy the rooms for the peak summer months. Where the Pebble Cove diaspora goes to I do not know. I will go to Beijing because I have nothing or nobody to stick around for.

Living in the unit to the left of mine is my middle-aged sister named either Jill or Lisa who works at either Pier One or Pottery Barn. On the other side is Ulrich, my 70-something-year-old drunken, heating-man, moonlighting-Nazi of a grandfather.

Aside from them and Steve, the acting father of this little clan, I don’t know any of my other family members except by face and vehicle. There’s “Explorer Chick,” (and also “Mustang Dude Who’s Presumably Banging Explorer Chick”) “Green Honda Van Dude,” “Maroon Honda Van Guy,” “White Civic Lady,” “Young Asian Corolla Dude,” “New Jeep Cherokee Older Guy,” and “Early Model Mazda 626 Dude.”

To them, I am no doubt “Silver Subaru Forester Dude.”

It strikes me as being very American to know one another by the vehicles we drive.

III.

Excerpts From the Diary of the Woman Next Door as Imagined by Me When I’m Feeling Conscious of How Thin the Walls Are

6:34: Dear Diary:

Well, so much for sleeping in on my only day off this week. The guy in room 3 is awake and packing his dishes away as he does first thing every morning. He apparently doesn’t realize how paper thin the walls are. That or he doesn’t care. So that means he’s an idiot or a jerk off…an idiot or a jerk off with OCD. It’s bad enough that I have to talk about dishes and cookware and cutlery and wine glasses at work all day. The last thing I want to do is wake up in my goddamned pathetic motel room of an apartment and listen to the sounds of that little OCD neat-nick asshole rattling kitchen wares around. Oh well. Since I’m awake I might as well pleasure myself.

8:08: Hello Diary:

So much for falling back asleep. I was hoping he’d take a day off from the weights but his compulsive little self is back at it. I mean, I’m assuming that he’s lifting weights vigorously. That or he’s masturbating in a suit of plate mail. I really think this guy is some sort of psycho. There are probably dismembered hookers hanging up in his shower. He probably eats hooker jerky for protein after workouts. And there he goes with the music. What the hell is he even listening to? Die Die My Darling? Your Own Personal Jesus? What kinds of lyrics are those? Oh God, now he’s singing along. What, is he serenading the hookers? But he must have a pretty sweet body from all of that working out. Mmm…the thought of his young, engorged body dripping sweat all over his little box is making my little box drip. I’m going to pummel my unfruitful womb with the Black Emperor for a little while and hopefully he’ll be done by the time I get off.

2:24: Hey Diary:

What is he yelling about? Every hour or so it’s “fuck” or “shit” or “cunt” or “fuck shit cunt.” Is he playing video games? Is a hooker trying to escape? Does he have Tourette’s? One thing he obviously doesn’t have is a job, because his silver Subaru just sits there all day.

Life isn’t fair, diary. Here I am breaking my middle-aged ass working at an unspecified home furnishing store while he gets to hang around and work out and play video games and fillet prostitutes. I’d masturbate again but I’m too goddamned depressed. I think I’ll go to Burger King, order two doubles with cheese and hope I choke to death on a piece of mechanically separated beef.

11:46: Hiya Diary:

You’d think that somebody who gets up at the crack of dawn would go to bed early, not stay up all night watching TV. His “friend” in the black car just drove off. I could smell the dope smoke billowing out the door as he left. They probably had drug-fueled unprotected man sex, the sounds of which were masked by a sports broadcast played at high volume. Sometimes I can hear what sounds like German coming from his place, and last week there was that strange incident where a woman left his room shouting, “You’re fucking crazy!” And I’m inclined to agree. Only a maniac would stay up all night getting stoned, flipping back and forth between science fiction thrillers and Mother Angelica. Weirdest of all is the way he sometimes disappears into the dark with a light perched atop his head, only to come running back a bit later and slam the door shut. Meh. I guess if I’m awake I may as well diddle myself one more time.

IV.

Just Another Saturday Night Blitzkrieg

I should have suspected that Ulrich works in the trades by the way that he backs into his parking spot every evening. All of these handy types of guys—men’s men—back into parking spaces.

Ulrich is a heating man. I’m pretty sure I heard him say, “Hello, this is the heating man,” on the phone. He might have said “beating man,” though. Or “eating man.” Maybe even “cheating man.” I’d like to think he said “fleeting man” but Ulrich doesn’t strike me as much of a poet.

It must have been a tough day at the office, whether heating or beating or eating, because ol’ Ulrich moved straight into the fleeting, into the beer, and is finishing them off at a clip of roughly one per 12 minutes.

I hear the fridge door open and the rattling of bottles inside. I hear the “psssst” of a bottle top popping. I hear Ulrich’s bed sag as he falls onto it. I hear the clanking of glass as the empty gets tossed into the bin. I hear the TV growing louder with each successive brew as the alcohol insulates him to his neighbors’ desires for quiet. I know where this night is headed.

I should probably jet before it gets there. There’s that new martini bar down the road where the older women hang out. It’s no secret that I’ve been coveting older women of late. It seems like all of the women my age around here have this creepy faraway look in their eyes which is their biological alarm clock going off, demanding a baby stat. I feel like I’m wasting their time. I’m most certainly not that guy. I mean, Christ, I live in a motel. I’m hardly father material.

But the older women aren’t biting tonight. Something about the blonde girl in the corner screams she’d go home on the first night. Availability is smeared across her face like too much foundation.

Just a few years ago I was flummoxed by women. Now, I obey the simple fact that most people have a hard time saying “no” to anything. Especially when alcohol and licentiousness are involved. It’s just a matter of getting her to say, “yes,” to the right series of questions, starting with, “Can I sit down?” and culminating with, “Do you want to get out of here?”

When she asks where I live I say the Pebble Cove, because it sounds like a charming little place where successful people live, not a brick motel built in the early 1970s that rents to a collection of Recession-products during the off-season.

When we arrive there she says, “You didn’t mention that you live at a motel.” I say, “That’s because you don’t seem like the kind of girl that would come back to a motel on the first night.” This is a lie, however, as she seems precisely like the kind of girl who would come back to a motel on the first night.

But she thinks what I said is funny and this provides an opening to kiss her, which I do, and we stumble around drunkenly while making out until we fall backwards onto my bed. Once her top is off it occurs to me that I don’t want to have to wash my sheets on account of sex stains so I pick her up and move her to the smaller double bed that mostly serves as a hamper and magazine rack.

As the magazines and books and fall to the floor with a racket she giggles and Ulrich cranks his TV up. I hear the sounds of strafing machine guns and a narrator’s voice saying something like, “Hitler’s forces turned upon France in May of 1940 and using Blitzkrieg tactics were able to occupy Paris by June.”

Hitler’s voice rattles, distorted, through the flimsy TV speakers as my tongue encircles nipple. Then come the sounds of artillery being fired, the narrator’s voice, a portion of a Wagner composition, boots marching in step.

“What is that?” she asks, sitting up.

“My neighbor likes to get drunk and watch Nazi documentaries,” I say.

“Oh. Like, a lot?”

“Like every weekend.”

I had a small window to fire her up to the sexual point of no return, where she could ignore the fact that she’s gone home with a stranger to his motel room. Now I can sense that there’s some serious doubt creeping in, doubt that’s compounded by the sounds of Nazi war propaganda.

The way she looks around the room tells me this thing is doomed. I give her nipple one last lick.

“What did you say you do? You’re a writer or something?”

“I write advertising copy.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I try to convince people to buy things they don’t really need.”

“Oh. And you do that from here?”

“Yes.”

“That must be kinda lonely.”

“Sometimes. That’s when I go to the bar and pick up a woman.”

She laughs awkwardly, probably hoping it’s a joke. I made the comment because I really want her to leave now that I know she’s not going to fuck me. I could probably cajole my way back into a tug job, but despite my targeting her on the assumption that she’d come home with me on the first night, I’m actually disappointed that she did. I think I can do better than a woman who comes back to a motel with a guy on the first night. I tell her this.

She gets out of bed and puts on her clothes to the sound of Hitler’s fiery oration.

“You know,” I say, “I’ve always suspected that German men of a certain age take great pride in the whole Nazi thing. Even though they can’t admit it, I bet you some of them view World War Two and the Holocaust in particular as the ultimate expression of German intelligence, industrialism, orderliness, thoroughness, and efficiency, which are the very cultural traits that make Germans proud, some even arrogantly so. What do you think?”

“Um, I’m Jewish,” she says as she buttons her blue overcoat and pulls on a pair of brown UGG boots.

“So what? You must still have an opinion on the matter.”

“You want to know what I think? I think you’re fucking crazy!”

She slams the door and leaves in her Volkswagen Cabriolet. Imagine that, the indignant little Jewess in her German coupe. It reminds me of those rich Jews who drive around cars made by BMW, a company that once upon a time made Nazi war machines.

I hear gravel crunching under her tires as she pulls away and then the only sounds are of alcohol abuse and German domination.

V.

Of Troglodytes and Men

I know how much forklifts cost. Warehouse forklifts, narrow aisle machines, telescopic, telehandler, straight mast, electric, internal combustion, fuel cell, with inflatable tires, pneumatic tires, heavy-duty off-road tires. I know all of the major suppliers of phone systems and how much they cost, the difference between PBX and VoIP systems and how each can help your business streamline its communications, improve customer service, and boost its bottom line. I know how much point of sales (POS) systems for night clubs, restaurants, retail stores and pizza shops cost, that Comcash has been a leading provider of POS solutions since 1996. I know how much air compressors, ATM machines, trade show displays and digital copiers cost (although individual prices may vary based on location, requirements, and individual vendors). I can give you price quotes for home improvement projects ranging from plumbing to construction to hiring an interior designer. I can explain the benefits and drawbacks of various countertop, roofing, fencing, and flooring materials. I can explain seven projects for a Japanese wood saw and why you should insure your Golden Retriever. And I can tell you without question that if the negligent actions of another caused your injury, you may be entitled to compensation.

What I can’t tell you is how the people reading this information would react if they knew it came from a guy in a motel room who neither owns nor can afford nor has any use for any of these goods or services, who is wearing only a pair of frayed soccer shorts.

“Fuck.”

The computer cursor lags on the screen.

“Shit.”

It stops completely.

“Cunt.”

The computer is frozen again.

I can tell you how much it costs to repair an overheating computer, but I can’t tell you how I’m going to come up with the money to have mine repaired.

“Fuck shit cunt.”

I shut it down, close the lid, and decide to go for a walk.

As I step out of my front door I shoo away a male cardinal who is attacking himself in my car’s passenger side mirror. When I first moved in to Pebble Cove I thought that the handsome red bird perched atop my passenger side mirror was a good omen. Now, it mostly annoys me because he scratches the glass and poops all over the door. But I also feel bad for the bastard. He doesn’t realize that persistent rival male is actually himself. The instinct to protect his turf has failed him.

I nod to Green Honda Van Dude as I make my way out to the road and walk the ½ mile to Odiorne Point State Park. It is the site of the first permanent European settlement in New Hampshire, founded in 1623. The U.S. government seized control of the land through eminent domain in the early 1940s to construct a battery that could adequately protect nearby Portsmouth Harbor. It never saw any action save for the firing of practice rounds and in 1961 the land was transferred to the State of New Hampshire for use as a state park, with all military structures demolished or exhumed except for the concrete casemate. The displaced millionaires never had a chance to reclaim their land, an enduring source of bitterness in a part of America where people don’t need much of an excuse to be enduringly bitter.

I come upon the remaining concrete fortifications which are mostly buried now under fill and secondary growth. The grey stonework peeks out from under fresh spring greens like a confused old man among a gathering of teens. Graffiti stains it in its usual forms of louche wisdom and second rate artistry.

Passing under the entombed structure I notice a breach in the metal door that leads into the casemate. I stick my cell phone into the hole and attempt to use its light to see what lies beyond, but am afforded a mere foot of visibility.

At that very moment two 20-somethings on bikes pass by and the curly-haired lead rider says, “Hold on a minute bro, we’ve got lights.”

I follow them into the hole, squeeze through the jagged-cornered opening with care and step into an environment that is dark, cold, and musty, in stark contrast to the bright, muggy day outside.

The men pan their flashlights from side to side, revealing rusted pipes and ceiling tracks that were used to roll artillery out to the guns. Duct work, beer cans, bottles, and other debris is strewn across the ground, requiring that every step be taken with care. But it’s a challenge to focus on anything except for the walls covered in charnel imagery, made more ghostly by the vertiginous shifting light and amplified sounds of the dank, asbestos-ridden chamber.

“This place doesn’t open up very often. Maybe every 10-15 years somebody finds a way in,” says the curly-haired guy. “You can tell by the dates on the walls and the can designs.”

His friend, with a dark complexion and a thin beard, mutters something about the place being like the Mines of Moria.

Off of the main hall are several rooms, one of which leads down into a wide-chambered basement. I can see my breath in the nebulous light. We descend an oxidized ladder into a small passageway that we waddle through in a squatting position. Only when crammed into a dirt-floored boiler room of approximately 4 feet tall by 8 feet wide by 8 feet long do we introduce ourselves.

When I tell them I live at the Pebble Cove Motel the dark-haired guy says, “You live in a motel? Cool, man. It’s like a movie or something.”

This is the only room where a dedicated mural exists. The rest of the bunker is a cacophony of visions that overlap and choke out any attempts at artfulness. I think about the artist who spent hour upon hour hunched in this cramped chamber, inhaling toxic air and paint fumes, to create a sepulchral work that few eyes will ever chance upon. Could their endeavor be the result of a failed instinct?

This place brings to mind prehistoric caves and how scientists try to glean those peoples’ cultural knowledge from the images drawn on the walls. If nuclear Armageddon or another endgame of humanity transpired this wartime structure would likely survive. At some point it would be discovered and the eggheads of the day would begin to surmise its meaning and what it says about its creators. They would be forced to conclude that our race was obsessed with death and fermented beverages, that we were sacrilegious, contrarian, perverted, resentful of authority, immature, would-be soothsayers, false prophets, plagiarists, charlatans, hopeful yet pessimistic all at once, that we possessed a darkness of spirit that was given expression by our creative impulses. If those surveying this relic of 20th and 21st century Homo sapiens didn’t know any better, they would swear that we were somehow rooting against our own cause, that like a cardinal pecking itself in the passenger side mirror of a Subaru, some instinct of our race had collectively failed us.

As for my own instincts, it seems that at least one of them favors driving me into small, claustrophobic spaces that I share with the company of strangers. The first of June is nigh, and when I turn the page on the calendar I will also turn the page on the next stage of my life. As the vacationers arrive to enjoy the finest New England months the troglodyte slinks into the shadows, holes up in a Chinese ghetto to fester in the heat of summer. The instinct that tells me to do this is the same one that told me to leave Her behind and stare down the barrel of life alone. Only in time will I be able to judge whether this instinct has failed me.

***

It is a humid late-May evening and I am unable to sleep. Listening to the ocean hum and haw in the darkness I decide to head back to the bunker.

With my miner’s torch secured atop my head I proceed to Odiorne Point State Park. When I get to the bunker I find that the opening has been sealed, consigning the paint-splattered interior to memory and posterity. I sit down there in the darkness under the bunker’s arch with my flashlight and my flesh and my instincts and wonder why the hell I can’t sleep, and decide that it’s the same reason why the ocean can’t sleep.

On the way back home I stop at my usual midnight overlook and see a sliver of moonlight break dancing the heaving chest of the sea. When I turn around and head back towards room 3 at the Pebble Cove I don’t run this time.

Click to view a complete photo gallery of The Bunker

In the hallway, my mother held me while I sobbed. “I’m just so tired,” I said. “I can’t sleep, Mom. I’m so tired. You can’t even believe how tired I am.”

My Grandmother leaned over my mom and rubbed my back.

“She’s not feeling well,” my mom said. “I don’t know what it is.” Then she whispered, “Something is really wrong.”

Grammie said she was worried about the insomnia. “She’s up at all hours, typing all night long—I try to make her hot toddies but she won’t drink them.”

“I don’t know if I like the idea of giving her alcohol,” my mom said. “Maybe half a Halcion would help.”

Sleeping pills.

I knew some of the residents of the nursing home took them from all the times I lined up and counted everyone’s medication bottles. I also knew my mother liked them almost as much as M*A*S*H and Jesus Christ. That one time I snuck one from her purse, it did help me. I couldn’t deny that. But now it was being discussed as something that would no longer have to be kept secret. How was I supposed to respond to that?

I rubbed the snot from my nose and said to my mom, “Maybe you’re right.” That felt weird. Secret things were all I knew: the embarrassment I thought I would die from if anyone found out about my obsession with Ethiopian hunger spreading to America and killing everyone in my family; how Gorbachev would let loose his missiles if I didn’t keep writing down song lyrics with the word war in them; my new way of shaving my legs hard and fast so that each bloody scrape along my shinbone represented one person in the world who wouldn’t succumb to famine or war.

Now the 8pm  med round would include me and my sleeping pills. I’d wait like everyone else, ticking off the minutes until peace floated in as pure as a changeling through the window. I would get excited about shows that came on at six o’clock because that meant I only had two hours left—the evening news meant one hour—and so on. I would never again be able to associate the opening music to Punky Brewster with anything other than T-minus thirty minutes to blastoff.

At first it was easy. At first Halcion was gorgeous. All warm eclipses and moon breath. I would lie in my bed and wait for sleep to cover me. These weren’t the Bible flames I was used to, no Devil bombs being cast down to crush the skulls of the non-believers. These were slow blooming candle flowers. This was the word b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l lined up across the sky.

My pills actually gave me three days in a row of good sleep. I took a shower like a regular person, stayed out of the nurses office in school for a full week and completed all of my math homework. I even finished a long division quiz in class (only got a 46 percent but I finished it).

Then, just like that, the pills stopped working. I downed my little 8 o’clock half, laid in my bed with some Edgar Allan Poe or my taped reruns of Bewitched and waited for my fading.

Nothing happened.

“Sometimes they do that” my mom said, but more than half a pill was never offered.

One night, while waiting to see if my half pill—and the whole one I took from the medicine cabinet—would kick in, Marisol caught me coming out of the bathroom with my eyes all puffy and full of my familiar woe-is-me-will-this-ever-end tears. “Joo come here, honey.” She clutched my arm, sat me down on her bed, and told me all I needed was a giant gulp of Nyquil. “I never in my life have good rest with no somesing to help me.” She opened her nightstand drawer and pulled out an econo-size bottle of bright green slush. The light caught the liquid inside and made me think of magic trees and enchanted bugs. I took a long swig. Tinkerbell was all lit up in my mouth. Under my Strawberry Shortcake comforter I was a little flying thing—then a great big flying thing with my own wings and ambitions. A leaf sparkled from the ceiling then dripped into my face. I caught it under my eyelash then blinked it into two leaves, then ten, then a hundred. I did this until I couldn’t count anymore, until I was so smart and glowing you could have made a whole woodland poem out of me. One that you would eventually know by heart and want to hear again and again.

Pretty soon the only thing I wanted was Nyquil. One capful every night. Eight o’clock. I promised myself that this much happiness would have to stay at one capful, and only at bedtime, and even if I could divide fractions better with two capfuls I made myself say it out loud: “Only when it’s bedtime.”

Then I got a lead role in my sophomore class production of The Matchmaker and I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking or my stomach from turning or my throat from tightening every time I thought about passing out on stage.

It only took a week for me to change my mind about that one capful.

My only real panic attacks had been limited to a sharing circle in the sixth grade when someone threw a Lando Calrissian action figure at my face while I read a poem about my cat, and once at the Burger Pit with Mom and Grammie after realizing I had already eaten half my cheeseburger before noticing the middle of the meat patty was so uncooked even a zombie wouldn’t be okay with it. Running to the girl’s bathroom with Lando’s body indention bright red on my cheek, scampering under the restaurant table to hyperventilate and throw up in my napkin—it didn’t matter where I was or what circumstances had whipped me up into a panicky spaz, the attacks always began the same way: everything dark and shrinking, shadow gnomes laughing at me through the filthy periscope lens of my brain. Sometimes my whole body would tingle, sometimes only my chest and hands, but each time it was the tightness that would never let go. Like the whole of me had been wrapped in an Ace bandage. I could actually feel the valves in my heart open and close, my pulse spewing out my blood, taking it back.

In and out.

Hiss and growl.

They’re going to see you faint. They’ll know what a loser you are. When my dad found me in the bathroom of the condo he was now sharing with his girlfriend, I was breathing into the paper bag I carried around in my purse.

“What’s this all about?”

“I feel so sick,” I answered. “My burrito tasted funny. Did yours taste funny?”

Ask questions. Take the eyes off you. Say something clever.

“I think Mexicans are in some sort of conspiracy to spread diarrhea to everyone in all bordering states.”

He laughed a little, but I could tell he didn’t believe me. When you’re used to falling apart, you start to get really good at that sort of acting.

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.

 

 

Scientists are baffled by the recent discovery of a disturbing and potentially fatal childhood disorder known as “Suicidal Tikes Under-Utilizing Protective Indicators Dysfunction”, or S.T.U.U.P.I.D.

Diagnosis of S.T.U.U.P.I.D. children is on the rise no one can figure out why. Some experts say it is the result of environmental toxins. Others argue it has been around for years.

Karen Lahey’s daughter was diagnosed as STUUPID last December. “It all happened so fast. At first we noticed she liked to climb up on the kitchen counters then we caught her hanging out the second story window waving at the neighbor’s kitty. She could have killed herself! It was devastating.

” What makes a child STUUPID? We asked Dr. Emily Nolan a prominent pediatrician from Beverly Hills to explain. “Children’s brains work like a game of marbles. Each marble has the ability to tell another marble where to go. What to do. Each marble reacts naturally to another. When a child is STUUPID, they don’t make connections. They don’t see the indicators of danger all around them and their brains don’t trigger the crucial instinct to protect themselves. Essentially, for STUUPID children, some marbles are missing.“

How can you tell if your child is STUUPID? Despite the fact that their parents tell them “no”, STUUPID children feel the need to hurl their bodies through space, across slippery floors and into wall units containing crystal, limoge and other breakable objects. They’re unable to control their impulses and are oblivious to potential risk.

“My grandson, Kyle, could see a wall right in front of him and just keep running. It’s heartbreaking really.” Said a grandmother of a STUUPID child who asked not to be identified.

We interviewed one child who was born STUUPID and asked him “What is it that compels you to jump off the sofa over a glass coffee table and onto a slick hardwood floor right in front of a lit fireplace. The child simply answered, “I want to.” Apparently, total disregard for safety is the most common theme among children who are STUUPID.

“There is still so little we know about this disorder and we’re learning more every day. There doesn’t seem to be any correlation between race or religion and children who are STUUPID. In fact, studies show that children of all races are susceptible to being STUUPID.

As of now, there is no known cure. Experts recommend that if you see signs your child is STUUPID, the best way to proceed is find a STUUPID support group in your area, hide sharp objects, and put your local fire department on speed dial.

Okay.  I am not an orderly, neat-freak sort of person.  Though I have an inexplicable, longstanding repulsion of bathtub drains, as in if I accidentally touch one I will spend at least ten minutes convincing myself I’m not going to vomit by thinking happy thoughts about polar bear babies with my eyes scrunched shut.  There’s just something about a bathtub drain being the equivalent of a bathtub’s anus, maybe, that implies it will never, ever be clean no matter what you do to it.  But I am not neurotic nor fastidious nor particularly organized. I mean, you should see the rest of my bathroom.  Maybe once a year, we chisel into five inches of residue to remind ourselves the bathroom countertop is white.  Things stick to it.  Cotton balls.  Band-aid wrappers.  And stay there for months like bug carcasses in a barnyard web.  I should be repulsed by the toothpaste tumor amassing in the bottom of the toothbrush cup.  My friend showed me an animation of what happens when you flush the toilet and your toothbrush is nearby.  Think nuclear fallout in a bathroom-shaped radius.  Think fecal matter instead of ashes.  I should be repulsed by that.  My bathroom says it all:  I’m a mess, but there’s a small, bathtub-drain-sized chance I could completely flip out and be anything but.  I am an O.C.D. time bomb.

compulsion
n.
1c./1d. An irresistible impulse to act, regardless of the rationality of the motivation. / An act or acts performed in response to such an impulse.

I, a full-tilt Virgo, have been inclined since the tender age of five, back when my chore of choice was folding laundry, keen (hell-bent?) on matching corner to corner, edge to edge, of The Wonderfully Right-Angled Bath Towel, to observe an indulgent amount of order in the course of a day. I’ve never really seen this as an impediment, however, considering the routine straightening of pictures, aligning of chairs, and, yes, still the fastidious towel folding, have never, like, axed friendships or lost me jobs or sent lovers fleeing in abject horror. At most/worst, these and other related behaviors have brought about the conspicuous rearranging of my office desk fixtures at the hand(s) of knowing coworkers. And that’s just kinda funny, you know? (Not that said fixtures aren’t promptly and vigorously returned to their rightful homes. Heh.)

Anyway, yeah: I’m scrupulously neat and I’m okay with it. It evens me out.

My friend Jenn has similar inclinations when it comes to linin’ shit up.

“My office/desk must be in order when I leave for the night. For example, when I worked in a law firm and had an entire room to myself, I could not leave at night unless the guest chair was angled just right and the pillow on top was fluffed and perfectly centered. Stacks of paper on my desk or side tables had to be so that all of the edges lined up exactly.”

Like me, Jenn covets the tension-relieving powers of a color-coded bookca—wha? Ur…

“It’s totally satisfying. When things in my spaces, especially my work spaces, become momentarily the opposite (i.e., disordered), I am physically tense and emotionally cranky. When things get back to order, I am at peace.”

And even though “things in order” doesn’t always equate with straight-up efficiency—“sometimes it makes me lose track of items because I order them for the sake of order itself and not for the purpose of later finding things”—Jenn says that chasing down “one clean line of papers’ edges” isn’t a bother. She doesn’t mind it at all.

“It makes me feel like I have control.”

Which I totally get. And as long as behaviors such as these outlie the parameters of certain diagnostic criteria, I say so be it: Let the wild ordering rumpus continue!

My friend Sandy has a thing of a different nature—definitely irrational, somewhat irresistible, and freakin’ adorable—a thing she has no name for but can logically be termed “crack jumping.” In her words:

“When I’m riding in a car and there are seams or cracks in the road, or if there aren’t any but there are driveways and intersections and crosswalks, I think of the ‘step on a crack, break your mother’s back’ thing. And since I can’t ‘step’ over the crack, I instead shift my body weight so as to mimic jumping over it. I also like to think of it as some weird sort of rhythmic exercise: up and down, up and down.”

Asked if this is a behavior she’s ever consciously tried to reign in, the woman’s emphatic.

“When I decide to do it or notice that I’m doing it, I just don’t stop. I’ve never even thought about it—it’s too fun. Actually, I think I may have tried stopping before, but it’s kind of hard to so I don’t bother. Anyway, it’s such a little thing. And I can carry on complete conversations while doing it, no problem.”

The word “quirk” dawns on me, and I’m surprised it didn’t occur off the bat. A logical descriptor—“a peculiarity of action, behavior, or personality”—and with an easy cuteness about it.  Yet I miss the specificity of, the appeal to mechanics in “an irresistible impulse to act, regardless of rationality.” It seems so… human. Especially if amended slightly to read “an irresistible impulse to act or think, regardless of rationality.”

Another friend, Matt, wrote me about his “number thing”: irrational and irresistible and (potentially) satisfying as hell.

“I am the proud owner of a Zenith DVD-2200 model DVD player—gift from my parents, Christmas 1999. In what I guess is kind of a throwback nod to the previous generation’s dominant home video technology, the VCR features an extremely large and absurdly bright digital display on its face, showing DVD chapter, time expired, and a small, rather unconvincing two-frame animation of a disc, spinning. That’s neither here nor there, except for the fact that its size and brightness make it kind of distracting, in the dark, when I’m trying to catch a flick. The point, really, is that I often become mesmerized looking for patterns in the display’s numbers. Sequences are good; the most basic is also one of the most satisfying—1:23:45. Sadly, our silly base-60 clock makes a long Fibonacci string impossible; 0:11:23 is there, but I’m sure that a decimal clock would provide a real adrenaline-loaded, fight-or-flight-type thrill.”

Surely. He continues, to dazzling effect—

“I also dig snagging a set of three primes, like 1:17:05 or 1:03:13. The good shit, though, is palindromes—1:00:01, 0:47:40. Every palindrome I catch is tasty, but my favorites are palindromes that are visual, not numeric. What I mean: on your everyday digital alarm clock/DVD player/whatever, each digit is rendered by selective illumination of an array of seven little bars, which means all the numbers look sort of boxy. One consequence of the boxy digits is that 2 and 5 are mirror images of each other: when that fucker hits 1:21:51 I experience a little symmetry-gasm that is approximately as satisfying as getting the perfect ratio of buttery crunchy sugary blueberry-crumb muffin and hot black coffee in one mouthful, while receiving oral sex and scratching the hell out of a fresh mosquito bite, damn the consequences. Anyway.”

Although even in the wake of an analogy like that, Matt notes that “visual palindromes” isn’t all blueberry-crumb muffins and blowjobs. It can also be downright distracting, leaving him “unable to give a film a fair shake because of it.”

My boyfriend Ray has anything but love for his own “making triplicates,” viewing the practice with utter contempt.

“I hate it. It’s only enjoyable in the sense that I’m completely used to it. It’s sometimes satisfying, I guess, but it’s like an addiction—not ultimately satisfying.”

Explained: “Nearly everything I take in (read, hear) undergoes a rapid metric scan, and that which fails to conform to a trisyllabic pattern I manipulate with additional words or sounds until it does. ‘Buy it tomorrow’ might become ‘buy it tomorrow yeah.’ Slightly less pressing is adherence to the typical beat emphasis of Western musical notation. So while ‘President Obama’ is good, ‘walking the dog today,’ with its front-loaded ‘measures,’ is great.”

Yikes. Problematic no doubt, but intriguing, foreign.

Me, I have this “looped thing,” which lies somewhere between neutral and positive on the experience continuum. It’s dropped off considerably in recent years, and in fact, I can’t recall the last time it surfaced. But man, back when it did routinely, it would really take hold. Strange and suggestive.

Basically, the only condition that had to be met in order for it to appear was some degree of out-of-it-ness, whether due to being drunk, stoned, sleepy, or otherwise impaired. In these scenarios, I would potentially encounter the following mental image: a small and slightly asymmetrical looping figure, which, some time after and no longer impaired, I came to associate with a whimsical bow like the one shown in the final illustrated square of a shoelace-tying tutorial, laces’ ends winking upwards. There was also a sortof “handshake” quality about the image, although this could’ve had more to do with the incredibly tactile nature of the thing as it presented in my brain (my “grip” on it was exquisite and complete and extremely satisfying) than with anything aesthetic.

Especially interesting personally was the implication of “something sought.” I would see the loop—see it and really scrutinize it—and always I would feel so close to figuring “it” out, to identifying and consequently deciphering the meaning behind this peculiar mental piece. It was an attempt to unlock something very familiar (and not simply due to past mental “sightings” of it), and I always came up just short. In the aftermath of the experience I would dig around more, though not being able to see the loop in the moment, the pursuit was for naught. At some point I convinced myself—or began playing with the thrilling and romantic notion—that if I could just get to the bottom of it, some profound self-discovery awaited me. I still like this idea.

Anyhow, it’s not really like crack jumping or visual palindromes or making triplicates; it’s hazier and less applied. But it has in common the recurrent and compelling nature of these behaviors and segues nicely into my friend Alex’s “spinning cube”: a persistent and poetic dream sequence.

“Every Christmas Eve from when I was a young child up through high school, I had the same dream—sometimes multiple times in the same evening as the adrenaline of anticipation coursing through my veins would dispel sleep as only it can in the mind of an only-child aware of the imminent prospect of tearing open presents! It was the simplest thing—gradations of gray, geometric, atmospheric—a cube of indeterminate size rotating top-like, spinning on one corner. It was if this cube had everything: untapped power and yet irresistible force, hypnotic slowness yet palpable menace, perfect smoothness of surface and yet a sense that it’d be made of the softest fabric if I could just touch it.

“If anything it seemed a simple monochromatic representation of desire. If my breath accelerated on account of impatience, frustration, I have a feeling it started spinning faster and approaching, but there was something in me that knew that if I let it get out of control, my self-preservation-drive would kick in and I would have to wake myself up, thus sabotaging the distorted dream time speeding me towards presents. I think it was those moments of subconscious and rational sides battling, that I could feel myself either encompassing or being encapsulated by the figure. It was another type of heartbeat almost.”

Asked about his feelings toward the spinning cube years later, Alex recalls a marked anxiety.

“I’d say it was more distressing than anything else. … On these nights of heightened anticipation, I was demanding something, trying to bend my subconscious to my greedy little will and most of the time I was simply toyed with.”

About a year ago, I came across this exhilarating little wonder. I’ve read it again and again since, and have feverishly passed it on a handful of times, eager to share its magic with people who won’t just think it’s weird and/or pointless. Because to me, it’s anything but that. To me, it’s sweet, funny, odd. Painstaking, lovely, painstakingly lovely. It’s terribly intimate. At least, that’s the way I receive it. And I think that’s what it boils down to: as much about the author’s willingness to put it out there—to give it language—as it is the thing/act/quirk itself. And although this Shya alludes to conversations about it among friends, it’s still no “what’s new in politics/the economy/my relationship/etc.” It’s not usual.

I don’t know—it’s sort of like reading a Lorrie Moore story, how I relate to these things. If you’ve read Moore, you know her knack for slipping in inner-monologue stuff that on initial read takes you aback, because it seems to come out of nowhere. Left field. But then, seconds later, you realize, wait, this is how it works. Nothing’s ever completely linear in my head, at least not for very long stretches at a time, so why shouldn’t these made-up people skip and trip through the day any differently? And, come to think, why don’t we see this more often in literature? Isn’t it sort of, like, the truest thing there is? Big beating (and small pulsing) thoughts that sprawl and skid and meander? Anyway, bit of a tangent there maybe, but what I’m getting at is the beauty of these non-sequiturs—the sharing of them—be them one-offs or more persistent, compulsion-type behaviors as those graciously offered up by a few of my friends.

It’s what prompted me to reach out in the first place, to pose the question, “What do you do that’s like this? And although I initially got caught up in the semantics stuff (the “what the hell are they?”), ultimately I was just touched. Deeply. Touched in a similar way to how I was on hearing my retiring boss’s speech at last week’s in-office party, all of us gathered in a drab conference room as David took a chance on a story about, several months prior, standing in a room on the top floor of the building, staring out at a series of water towers—strong and steely, wood-braced—and having this dawn on him: I want to be out there with them. Maybe it’s time to be out there with them.

Perhaps that sounds unrelated, but it’s very much not. It was, like the other shared experiences herein, something not easily described in a way likely to make perfect sense, maybe in part because it’s not all that sensible to the person expressing it. But it can still be understood—by you the expresser, and by others, vis-à-vis a shared humanity.

That, then, seems to be the connecting piece: that we’re all prey to this less-than-rational part of ourselves, and it can bring us closer.