Some Say the World Will End in Ice
And when the smoke cleared away, and I sought to look upon the earth, I beheld against the background of cold, humorous stars only the dying sun and the pale mournful planets searching for their sister.
—H. P. Lovecraft and Winifred V. Jackson, “The Crawling Chaos”
Unless you or someone close to you has been affected by obsessive-compulsive disorder, or you have taken a course in clinical psychology (I take great satisfaction in the fact that my school’s psychology department no longer considers me “abnormal”), you probably know only the basics of OCD: superb personal hygiene, exceptional organizational skills, an inclination toward solving mysteries. For many, a number of alleged professionals in mental health issues among them, any understanding of the disorder ends here. Before I proceed I want to give a short explanation of OCD.
I regret to inform you that we have reached the “interactive” portion of the text. I’m going to propose a thought experiment. If it isn’t too much trouble, I need you to look up. Do it. Now. No one’s watching. Look around you. Study your surroundings. Now consider the possibility that, at any moment, the end of the world could occur. The ground cracks, the clouds spark with red lightning, hungry waters rise. The sky hums with annihilating angels. Feel free to incorporate details from your preferred apocalypse, as long as they fit the overall scenario. Imagine the final crisis of man. Let us pretend that the sky is falling.
Now I would like you to prove, with absolute certainty, that this is not true and that you are not about to be owned by God. Never mind if you are inside, or even in some kind of reinforced bunker, because for the purposes of argument the hypothetical bullet the universe has aimed at you will pierce any barrier. No rational force can protect you. You have literally moments to live, and you are wasting them reading a memoir.
Now, no one is saying that the world is definitely about to end. You could probably construct a strong argument that my impending doomsday is actually pretty unlikely. You could cite research studies, endless statistics, and I’m sure all of these would be very accurate and science-y. But you have to recognize that all of this goes only so far. You can present your evidence to me and I can ask, “How do you know that’s right?” and then you can show me your citations and your annotated bibliography, but I can ask, “How do you know that’s right?” I can ask this again and again, as many times as I need to. A 5 percent margin of error is all well and good but will be small comfort if you are the unlucky one in twenty around when shit gets real.
The truth is that you cannot prove anything one way or the other. Everything is possible. We live in a world not of certainty but of endless incalculable risk. The music of the spheres is chaos.
Now, before you panic, I’m going to suggest a possible resolution to this situation: The end of days will not occur until you close the covers of this book. You can postpone the apocalypse for as long as you like just by keeping the book open. The instant you shut it, however, everything will be destroyed. Again, I can’t prove to you that this is the case, but considering that we aren’t sure about the end of the world to begin with, I don’t think this is unreasonable. I know it will be inconvenient to keep the book open, and I am sympathetic, but it’s such a minor inconvenience considering what is at risk. Just keep it open, at least for a few more minutes. Then, when you get a chance, you can put it facedown on your desk and forget about it. Or you could nail it open to a plank of wood and hide it in the attic or something. It’ll ruin the spine, sure, but that’s a pretty minor sacrifice, considering you now hold in your hands the trigger to the extinction of all worlds.
But you tell me, “So what?” And you forget about the possibility of imminent destruction, and you go on with your day. May I congratulate you on your apparent sanity. I can continue the narrative, secure that your brain is functioning as advertised. But imagine that “so what” was not good enough. Imagine that you could not live happily without absolute certainty, and that it seemed reasonable for you to keep the book open as long as you could. In this case, certain additional preventative measures would be prudent.
Fortunately I just thought of some additional preventative measures. They won’t make or break the deal, of course, but they’ll help. Maybe. They shouldn’t hurt, anyway. Listen: When you hit page one hundred, make sure you lick your finger before you turn the page. Actually, you’d better do that every ten pages. And when you do put the book down, make sure you shut the lights off before you leave the room—although it would probably be better if you flicked them twice first. Also, next time you’re out, make sure to write down the remaining time on any parking meters you see. And you know what? I’m going to need you to count things. Like, red shoes or milk or something. Seriously, it doesn’t really matter what. Just start counting shit. Like maybe you see three cars go by, just fucking one two three, like that. Just to be safe. Trust me, it’ll help, maybe.
Of course none of these behaviors will definitely prevent the apocalypse, but they might protect you, and in these dire circumstances we need to do everything we can. These are inconveniences, but aren’t they preferable to the end of the world?
No. Not really, unfortunately. It is possible for a human being to reach a point where incineration in divine fire would actually increase cognitive and behavioral functionality.
It does not end here. It cannot. Tell me: How do you know that you won’t be killed by a falling meteor? How do you know that you shut off the toaster oven this morning? That one of the seething millions of bacteria on your hands will not kill you? That your friends don’t all secretly hate you? Do you have religion? Do you have the right religion? Are you sure? Are you a pedophile, a necrophiliac, a rapist? A murderer? How can you know that these tendencies do not dwell latent inside you, waiting for the right moment to evince themselves in the most horrific manner possible? How do you know that you are not a monster? How do you know that it isn’t the end of the world?
Everyone has moments when, against probability and common sense, we attempt to eradicate ordinary uncertainty using our minds. You get halfway around the block and then realize that you might have forgotten to lock the front door, so you drive back around to check it. It’s near the end of the seventh inning and things aren’t looking good, so you pull out your favorite baseball cap because sometimes it seems to help. You call your child’s phone twice to make sure that she got to the party okay. You cross your fingers, you knock on wood, you wish on a coin or a star or a stray eyelash. Everyone does this. It’s not a problem for most people.
OCD is called “the doubting disorder,” at least among people inclined to give cutesy alliterative nicknames to mental illness. OCD is the pathological intolerance of risk, however minute, and the surrender to protective ritual, however unbearable. No matter how unlikely a feared consequence, if there exists even the fraction of a percent of a possibility that it could occur, the disorder is able to find purchase. It seeks out the cracks in our perception of reality, it finds the tiny darkened territories on our internal maps; and then ceaselessly, tirelessly, it sets about expanding them. These cartographic elaborations are careful and clever. You will not notice that anything has been changed until the ink starts to bleed through onto your hands, and then suddenly every inch of territory has been marked inaccessible. Everything is made unknown and unsafe. Here there be dragons.
OCD presents itself as an innocuous problem-solving mechanism. If you have a problem, after all, you should try to find an answer. If there is danger, you should protect yourself. So when you are confronted with the possibility of an undesirable occurrence, the disorder suggests modes of defense. Its voice is like that of a beloved grandmother, recently passed away and resurrected by evil ritual. It is maternal, condescending, and affectionate, with a slight suggestion of righteous indignation. “I know what’s best for you, dear,” it says, a hint of formaldehyde on its breath, a tiny fly crawling on its unblinking painted eye. You listen, compelled by guilt and fear, despite the suspicion that this cannot end well.
The disorder promises what it does not have the power to give. As you accept its reasoning, as you begin to work with it, it tightens its hold on you. It exaggerates danger and then offers a modicum of relief through an ever-expanding web of regulation and restriction. OCD insinuates itself delicately until you are utterly constrained, until every moment of existence is a choice between submission to the rule of an absurd tyrant and absolute terror. Eventually the behavior of the sufferer is entirely divorced from reality. Hand washing is no longer a basic hygienic practice but a magic charm, a banishment cast against the immaterial, malevolent threat of “germs.” Strange trigonometries are calculated and then arbitrarily discarded at the disorder’s whim. The world is perceived through a fine mesh of obsession. Everything is connected; everything shines like a razor with terrible significance.
OCD demands safety and certainty, and the fact that nothing can ever really be proven is regrettable but irrelevant to its purposes. It is the anti-life equation, and it will demonstrate to you, if you allow it, that free will is illusory and that everything wants you dead. It wants life to become a chessboard and then for all of the black squares to be systematically removed. It wants the world to be as small as a room and then small as your head and then even smaller than that. I did any number of asinine, irrational things not because they would protect me, but because I thought they might, and I’d be damned if the one night I failed to properly pray the Lord my soul to keep was the night I died before I woke.
* * *
Only recently have I recognized how intrinsically fucked my childhood psychology was. My earliest years were relatively free of this mental constipation. I was born in Winchester, Massachusetts, a thoroughly adequate suburb of Boston. My parents got together some time after college. As they later explained to me, they found my name in one of those baby books while driving. “That’s it!” my mother cried out in jubilation when she discovered it between “Fleming” and “Flint,” presumably causing my surprised father to swerve the car in a manner inadvisable for his pregnant passenger, and ensuring that I would suffer ridicule from my peers for the next decade and a half.
My mother grew up in a home of prodigious achievers; her father ran the local Boys & Girls Club, accepting responsibility for an entire town full of wayward children. Because of this she grew up with constant constructive criticism from her parents. Her father, as she occasionally reminded me, would check her freshly made bed once a week and force her to remake it if he could not bounce a dime off the perfectly stretched-out sheets. As a result, my mother was often strict with me, sometimes unreasonably although never maliciously. Antiquated terms such as persnickety or flibbertigibbet are perhaps appropriate. My mother has a very goofy sense of humor and remains prone to making comments and suggestions so absurd that they demonstrate either a complete disconnect from reality or a desire to drive her children mad. As a child I was unable to leave the house each morning without her asking at least three times, in a little singsong chant, if I had remembered my lunch box. After I sneezed loudly in high school she once asked me, in the car pool and in front of my peers, what color my mucus was. It was irritating and endearing in equal measure. Her rigidity was always cut with whimsy.
My father came from a home constantly on the verge of fracture, though never quite breaking. You would never suspect this, to speak with him. He is easygoing, friendly, occasionally oblivious, and has a fondness for dumb jokes. But he grew up neglected, his own parents afflicted by depression, abuse, and alcoholism. I never knew either of my father’s parents, really, although I was very much a product of their genetic legacy. The cocktail mixed from my parents’ strains, these polar tendencies toward perfectionism and despair, would prove toxic.
My parents were good to me. Sometimes they were stern, but just as often they were kind and understanding. Under ordinary circumstances I would have no reason to fault them for my upbringing, but through the lens of my illness they appeared as strange heathen idols, distant and unyielding. Together, quite unintentionally, they nurtured the disorder. I learned from them to self-punish, to endure absurd trial. My father would work late into the night for his firm and for the town conservation commission, but it was really my mother who impressed upon me the obsessive-compulsive habits of highly effective people. One morning, for example, while locking my sister and me into the car, she accidentally banged her head against the door, suffering a sizable gash. Rather than seek immediate medical assistance, she chose to take my sister and me to school first, endangering herself and her children, the trickle of blood into her eyes obstructing her vision and driving her closer to unconsciousness. Later she would cite this incident as an example of endurance and fortitude in the face of crisis. My mother had a habit we referred to with begrudging affection as her “off-offs”: before each family vacation she would return to the house one last time to ensure that no stray appliance had been left on. She was also responsible, she informed us, for the foundation of a Ban the Beatles from Boston society as a schoolgirl in the early 1960s; despite its catchy name, B3 somehow reveals itself to be lamer and lamer each time I remember it.
I took careful notes on her meticulousness and her occasional moral panic, as did the disorder. It would gorge itself on my parents’ love and affection just as it did on their mistakes. Any reprimand or praise they gave me was multiplied a thousandfold in my mind, internalized and inflicted again and again. Of course, I cannot blame my mother and father for this any more than I can blame myself. If I criticize my parents in these pages, it is not out of malice or bitterness, but from a need to relate the psychological circumstances of my childhood as accurately as I can. Considering how vulnerable I was, it was inevitable that any parent, no matter how sensitive, would wreak psychic havoc on me. They loved me, and they did as well as they could under profoundly difficult conditions.
My younger sister was born two years after I was, and I was first introduced to her as a bespectacled, babbling thing. We got along pretty well. Later, when my friends complained of knockdown fights and drunken shouting matches with their siblings, I was always baffled. My sister and I did not fight, usually, and when we did it was followed by immediate guilt and then reconciliatory hugging. I love my sister, and it seems that the best way for me to express my affection in this book is to leave her out of it as much as possible. Again, I would have had no reason to complain about our relationship had the OCD not been present to exploit it. I loved her, and for the disorder this meant she was Something Important That Could Be Hurt.
But that was much, much later. For about half a decade, my mind seemed functional, and my memories of early childhood are fond if indistinct. I made friends and I developed elaborate backstories for my stuffed toys. Through a freak accident of child-care administration I became the oldest student in my kindergarten class—not necessarily something to be proud of in high school or college, but at the time it seemed pretty sweet. Most vividly I remember my mother, each morning during our ride to school, entertaining my sister and me with improvised stories. We demanded that she invent further adventures for our favorite cartoon characters, and she acquiesced, and soon the three of us had developed an instant-oatmeal oral tradition, a sprawling fan-fiction mythology that spanned the width and depth of children’s media. My sister and I enjoyed this tremendously, and despite constant demands on her creative faculties, I think that our mother did, too.
I started first grade at a local public school, where I lasted about four months. My parents tell me that I outpaced the curriculum, that I wasn’t being offered sufficient academic challenge; my primary memories of this time are of terror and boredom and wishing that I could go and do the whole kindergarten thing over again. Partway through the year, I was informed that I would be plucked from my local public school and transplanted into the flowering educational hothouse of a “progressive” private school in Watertown. Here I would call my teachers by their first names, and would be strongly encouraged to compose interpretive poetry about clouds instead of learning long division. This all sort of made sense at the time.
Unfortunately, I had difficulty making friends in this new environment. Loneliness would be something of a recurring motif throughout my otherwise happy childhood. I may have been the big-kid badass in kindergarten, when an inclusive birthday party and a convincing fake belch were the only prerequisites for popularity, but after that I often found myself alone. As the disorder began to develop, I experienced greater difficulty allowing myself to make friends. How could I not, when even the mildest suggestion of disapproval from a peer became a scathing insult? The OCD could pick out an overheard comment or a hostile impression and then use it to convince me that I was universally despised. If I did not have proof that I was loved, then I thought I must have been hated. I was so terrified of social rejection, of the scorn and mockery of my peers, that I began a preemptive campaign of comprehensive self-criticism to protect myself from their judgment. Rather than risk isolation, I shut myself down entirely and so ensured it. If I told a joke, it was carefully scripted, rehearsed countless times in my head before I could take a chance repeating it out loud. I would not allow a single word to pass my lips unless I could convince myself, with scientific rigor, that my discourse was irrefutably awesome. I am told, by those who knew me, that I was a quiet child.
(Oddly enough, one of my classmates also had OCD, although he was fortunate enough to find a therapist who recognized it early on. His name was Gus: he was a counter and a cleaner and so was quickly diagnosed. I feel about Gus now the way a young child might feel about a baby sister or brother who arrives and suddenly wins all of the parents’ attention and is showered with gifts and surprises. His symptoms were quickly identified. He published a little picture book about OCD for kids, and he went on a nationally televised talk show and everyone told him how brave and special he was. My resentment is petty and bratty and basically entirely unjustified, but still: The kid scratched off most of my life’s ambitions by age ten, more or less by accident.)
My social paralysis did not, at least, interfere with my class work. Insomuch as we were actually graded at the progressive elementary school I did well, and the squares I received far outnumbered the circles and X’s. But recess, instead of a daily break, became a period of unique and quiet unhappiness. For one half hour a day I was necessarily silent, and thus alone. I found ways of passing the time, of course, by counting pebbles on the playground or building makeshift toys from bits of garbage. Occasionally my desperation led me to play with the younger children, my acceptance predetermined by my advanced age and my presumably sophisticated vocabulary of swear words. But just as often I was alone.
I remember once in fifth grade, on a particularly grim and rainy afternoon on the verge of breaking into downpour, I demanded that recess be canceled so that I could stay inside and use the computer. This would be just as solitary but probably more entertaining. When my demands were not met I still refused to leave the classroom, and rather than submit and play outside with the other students, I let myself be taken to the principal’s office. I accepted this punishment with unwarranted self-righteousness, like a political dissident persecuted for my beliefs. Yet I was not the only prisoner taken that day by these innovative and sympathetic fascist educators. In the office, I found an equally frustrated sixth grader whose class was instructed to remain inside and work instead of playing in the rain. He amused himself by making paper planes and subversively wrote on the side of one that at our school “you can’t go to hell because you’re already in hell.” I grinned politely, as if there were a joke to get. Even as a child, the absurdity of this situation did not escape me.
Another time I became so caught up in a geometry problem before recess that I accidentally stayed inside, working, through the duration of the period. When I tired of studying I demanded to be compensated for my “overtime,” and my instructors agreed and took me outside. It was winter, and several days after a heavy snow, so the school grounds were covered with a thin sheet of ice that I could just stomp through if I tried. I spent the period alone on a field of uninterrupted white beneath a cloudless sky, punching out shards of ice and piling them into towers and castles. Our school grounds were not large, but in the shining contrast of unbroken white and blue they seemed almost infinite. Throughout my life I would suffer countless episodes of torment at the hands of my disorder, but I cannot recall ever feeling quite as lonely as I did that afternoon.
* * *
Things were better at home. When I was very young my family owned a miscellany of elderly cats, each of which I remember positively but without much affection, but around third grade my mother decided to indulge us by purchasing a family dog. One night she coyly informed us that we would be driving out to pick up a friend of my father’s, and we drove to an out-of-state breeder to find that our mysterious guest would not be a smelly middle-aged lawyer, as we’d expected, but an adorable black Labrador puppy. Our exhilaration was short-lived, however, for soon after we began the ride home poor little Bear (as we named him) suddenly realized the implications of his rapidly shifting fortunes and began to wail like a banshee. “Take him back!” I shouted, convinced the little screaming thing was defective. “Take him back!”
In retrospect I am grateful my parents did not heed my demands. Our family would have been poorer for it. Bear was a champion dog: loyal, affectionate, and alternately gentle or ferocious or joyous as the situation demanded. He was also incredibly stupid. Indeed, his certification as a pedigree-bred black Lab was the only way to explain his epic imbecility because frankly there is no way his ancestors could have survived in the wild. You could take his bowl of supper, lift it to your mouth, and make scarfing noises, and this would send him into fits. Or you could fill his water dish with seltzer and he would drink it and then spit it out, scowling, only to return a few moments later to drink from it again, apparently having forgotten the whole ordeal. If you convincingly mimicked a throwing motion during a game of fetch without actually releasing the ball, Bear would tear out after the imaginary ball and then look back, dumbfounded, incapable of comprehending your betrayal. And when you did throw the ball, there was always a chance that he would chase it headfirst into a tree.
A few months later, after some consideration, my parents informed me that I would be allowed to have a pet of my own, provided it did not tear open the garbage or incite random barking fits in the middle of the night. Although I was sorely tempted by the horrible, hideous leopard gecko, I eventually relented to my mother’s suggestions and picked a kitten from a local animal shelter. He was a soft, pliable thing, a Ragdoll Siamese mix. I called him Moonbeam, the “moon” in reference to his cream-white fur and the “beam” to his electric blue eyes; the name evoked for me images of occult mystery, the bright concentration of lunar energies, and I thought that it sounded pretty badass. I was wrong, of course, but no amount of gentle parental suggestion could persuade me of this. Anyway the name fit for a little while, for the month or so before he began to grow. Then it became inappropriate, and then embarrassing, and then hilarious, and then somehow improbably it circled back around to fitting him perfectly.
I was a very sensitive child. As I grew I remained soft, for quite a while, until undesirable circumstances forced me to change. As Moonbeam grew he also remained soft, but he compensated for the constant of his pillowy density with an ever-expanding variable diameter. He grew dark and enormous, his coat more coffee than cream and sagging around his thighs and gut. The bright, sweet kitten disappeared, assimilated into mounds of doughy flesh. When he sat down, it was a collapse, a sudden deliberate collision, the sheer force of it audible even through his layers of padding. Only the eyes remained the same, still sparkling with wicked intelligence.
As he grew older, Moonbeam began to play games with us, some gentle and others cruel and psychological. He splayed himself out over household appliances, he threw down his weight in undesirable places—on newspapers or fresh linen, in bathtubs. He had a remarkable habit of materializing on a stair an instant before you could step on it, forcing you to maneuver quickly in order to avoid him. He fetched and carried small objects and toys. He might approach a book or a glass of water and then nudge it gently toward the edge of the table, send it tumbling, and then stare at you, mocking and indifferent. His games were never for his own amusement. They were a means to an end. He wanted our attention, demanded it, and it did not matter to him whether it was won through affection or aggravation.
It has been suggested that the opposite of love is not hatred but apathy. While I am not sure if a human being is capable of positively expressing disdain or indifference, I am certain that Moony could. There is nothing so utterly dismissive as the “fuck off” of a cat. It is untempered by compassion or restraint. When he wanted to, Moonbeam could be utterly apathetic, so disdainful that he would actually still suffer you to stroke him and utter endearments, your presence so loathsome as to be beneath his contempt. If you held him he would squirm until free. Restriction was offensive to him. If you left the front door open and unattended for even a second he would bolt outside, and then after hours of calling and crying and printing lost-cat posters, you would watch him saunter up as if nothing had happened. If you locked him in a room he would search every crevice for means of escape, and failing this he’d shit in a corner to demonstrate his displeasure.
He was a bastard animal. His affection could never be demanded, only freely given. But he could perceive pain the way he could hear the sound of dry kibble poured into a dish from across the house, and he was generous to his companions in our moments of unhappiness. He would climb in uncomfortable places, gently head-butt your shoulder. He would roll at your feet so suddenly and enthusiastically as to threaten to trip you. He would swat at you or sit up and stare and mew, once, with considerate restraint. He was kind, but in his kindness he demonstrated lunacy and joy. In these moments he was absurd but never cruel, gentle but never maudlin. He would comfort you and, in the same moment, remind you of the absurdity of your sorrow. This was his greatest trick, more than fetching rubber balls or mysteriously pressing through seemingly tightly shut doors.
I loved Bear and Moonbeam in different ways suitable to their natures. Bear was a dog, and although I was not our family’s alpha (it was my father he regarded with unwavering, slobbering devotion), I was a brother, another member of his pack. We would run and wrestle, and he was oddly undismayed if I kicked him in the face. I loved Bear like a dog. I loved him for his devotion and idiocy and for the immeasurable joy he snatched from every instant of his life.
Moonbeam was a more complicated creature. He was capricious. He snarked and teased. But despite his reflexive hostility toward restraint, he was an incredibly affectionate animal. I loved him like a cat, sitting with him in silence when he allowed it, propping him up on his hind legs and forcing him to do little dances when he did not. The animals would do much to distract me from my condition. They were kind to me when I was sick.
* * *
While my family and animals helped me retain my sanity, other powers conspired to undermine it. A significant barrier to my social acclimation was that I lived beneath a dangling sword of soul-obliterating guilt. I understand that Irish-Catholics have something of a reputation for self-recrimination, but I took special pride in the absolute cruelty I inflicted on myself. Anything even slightly objectionable that I did, or even saw, would trouble my soul until I confessed it to a proper authority. I could not hear a classmate cuss without feeling the overwhelming urge to cleanse my tainted thoughts. (These were not mind-blowing swears, either. A “butt” or a “fart” or even a meager “shut up,” without any scatological implications, was enough to send me into fits of self-flagellation.) Sometimes I would confess to a teacher or a priest, but most often for reasons of convenience I sought clemency from my mother. She became a figure of divine forgiveness, dispensing absolution with a single shrug or eye roll. School was a silent moral vigil, as I was burdened with a growing litany of imagined transgressions over the course of each day. Each afternoon when my mother picked me up she would ask me how school had been, and each afternoon she suffered through a torrent of impure thoughts, overheard oaths, and unacted violent urges before any actual information was exchanged. I would convey to her my daily confession of entirely forgivable sins, and she would absolve me with a murmur of “that’s dumb” or “don’t worry about it.”
(It should be noted that I was not the only member of my family afflicted by crippling guilt. Bear, in his youth, was a prodigious consumer of forbidden foodstuffs: garbage, a pie, or stick of butter left unattended on the counter. Once I came home from a classmate’s birthday triumphant, having kicked royal ass against the piñata, but when I awoke the next morning I found only a few scraps of candy wrapper remained of my spoils. Once Bear ate crayons and shat rainbow for a week. In each of these cases, he was visibly overwhelmed by guilt. Each time we discovered evidence of one of his crimes, Bear would inevitably be found cowering only a short distance away, paralyzed by shame and indigestion, his tail wagging nervously and his body jerking away from the mildest scold as if struck. We all had a good laugh whenever this happened, and Bear inevitably got off without much of a punishment, so in retrospect he may have benefited from his expression of atonement. Not that I think he feigned remorse to soften us up. He was far too honest and far, far too stupid for this.)
While obsession was sometimes blunt and cruel, at other times its influence was subtler. When I was very young, I became fascinated with dinosaurs. I understand such preoccupations are not unusual among young gentlemen of a certain age, but my enthusiasm was beyond anything reasonable. I memorized facts and figures, Latin names. I read every book in the library—even the ones from the seventies, which showed sauropods wading in suspiciously deep swamps and tyrannosaurs upright and pudgy like monstrous file clerks, just so that I could revel in how outdated the illustrations were. I saw dinosaurs everywhere—in clouds and trees, in bits of trash. It was as if these animals were deliberately created, by evolution or by an intelligent but petty designer, to captivate me. They were huge and powerful, but they were classifiable, and I could master and control them with my mind.
My obsession with dinosaurs became the model for a recurring pattern of consumption as I grew. Every year or two, I would find some new subject or corporate intellectual property and devote myself utterly to its study: floppy bean-bag animals that I adored and then remorselessly shoved into my closet, a sixteen-bit videogame series that I would never actually touch outside of brief tantalizing moments at toy store console displays. I flirted with Star Wars, but ultimately preferred the Wagnerian-but-with-robots Sturm und Drang of Hasbro’s Transformers. I collected the physical objects associated with the franchise—videos, toys, chintzy fast-food promotional giveaways that did not “transform” so much as “hinge” or “sit immobile”—but these were never the point. These were relics, graven images, important only in that they allowed access to a profound state of being. It was the collection in my head that mattered. It was like having a wonderful toy box in my mind, full of objects that I could take out and play with whenever I was bored or sad or hurt.
My parents were deeply ambivalent about my consumption of this pop-culture junk. My mother was supreme judge of all entertainment, and guilt prevented me from enjoying any book or television program I knew she might disapprove of. I remember once when I was thirteen, my father offered to take me to The Matrix. Although he had reviewed the film and determined that it was appropriate, I could not be content without endorsement from both parents. “Wow,” I said a little too eagerly, desperately hoping my mother would overhear my cleverly veiled confession. “My first R-rated movie!” She heard it. “John,” she said to my father, “it doesn’t have any … boy-girl stuff, does it?” A short quarrel followed, and my mother confirmed my suspicions that the film would seriously unhinge me. Such exchanges were common. My mother recognized I was oversensitive, and throughout my childhood she risked overprotecting me. I cannot blame her.
My father’s concerns were not psychological but practical. He encouraged me to save my allowance instead of spending it, and referred to the toys as “unnecessary plastic objects.” This was anathema to me. It was agony. The idea that I could do something to displease my parents, the people whom I loved most in the world and whom I had to obey at all costs, was excruciating. I was addicted, and I knew this and I was profoundly ashamed of it. It was not enough that I was obsessed with Transformers. I was tormented in my obsession with Transformers, I was filled with guilt and forbidden longings about plastic robots. Several times I tossed the things from my room in a pile, consumed by self-loathing and rage, only to scoop them back up to my bosom later like a junkie.
At other times my parents seemed perfectly happy to use my fixations as an unnecessary plastic carrot to encourage good behavior. Around the time I was in third and fourth grade my mother served on a town volunteer committee. During meetings my sister and I would be left in the town hall with a book or a homework assignment, asked to busy ourselves and stay quiet. I thus developed a deep Pavlovian reaction to certain back rooms in old buildings, to ugly houndstooth rugs and stacked plastic chairs, to the hum of fluorescent lighting punctuated by a ticking clock. These things still summon for me feelings of isolation and anticipation. When we were good (and we learned very quickly to be good) sometimes my mother would take us out to buy a toy afterward. I believe that this practice had a profound influence on my moral development. Being good meant being quiet, and obedient. Suffering, especially pointless suffering, was rewarded. I remember as a child pining for these moments, looking for new ways to be hurt and abandoned. I sought out pain so that I could survive it and be rewarded.
While unmistakable in retrospect, at the time my symptoms resisted easy diagnosis. They transmuted, slipping through the fingers like quicksilver. Many of my early obsessions fixed not on illness or uncleanliness but on imminent apocalypse. In first grade, an overzealous classmate claimed that countless generations from now our sun would overheat and explode; the same year a visiting musical environmental group made the (retrospectively somewhat dubious) claim that given our current rate of deforestation, the Earth would run out of oxygen by 2005. I spent weeks paralyzed by dread, arguing against the possibility of these hypothetical apocalypses. I tirelessly debated with myself, determined to prove that these scenarios could never occur, never quite succeeding.
But my first full-blown bout with OCD I owe to Kurt Vonnegut. My third-grade teacher, thoughtlessly neglecting the handful of her charges suffering from undiagnosed madness, told us about a book she was reading. That book was Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. In her predigested version of the novel, the world was threatened by the evil molecule Ice-9, which would supposedly freeze every nonwater substance on the planet once released. I imagine that Kathleen (we called her Kathleen, never Mrs. or Ms., as we drew pictures of symphonies and continued not learning long division) had forgotten this by the end of the day. I imagine the other students forgot it, too.
But oh Lordy, I did not forget it. I could not forget it, no matter how hard I tried. The threat of Ice-9 was real to me, even though I understood that the actual substance of Ice-9 was emphatically not; if some hack sci-fi writer had imagined the stuff, then surely it could be re-created in reality. More to the point, could I ever prove to myself that it couldn’t be? Ice-9 consumed my days, it suffused into my schoolwork and my dreams. The threat of Ice-9 could not be eradicated, no matter how many times my parents assured me that the stuff did not exist, no matter how many times my therapist had me write its name on a scrap of lined paper and burn it or tear it or flush it down the toilet. My only strategic recourse, the only thing I could do, was to spend every waking moment examining my surroundings and considering my course of action, should the hypothetical cryopocalypse occur. I spent hours studying the position of sinks and flow of water from leaky fountains, planning how I would contact my parents and gather supplies in the frozen wasteland. No matter where I went or what I did, I was haunted by an invisible wave of cold blue, driving forward, uncontrollable and unstoppable because it did not exist. I bathed ice and showered ice, I slept, drank, and breathed it. My brain seized up and solidified, tattooed by frost, a cool blue chemical pearl.
What eventually saved me was my father. After I’d suffered several months of crippling anxiety and fruitless counseling, my father offhandedly mentioned that I’d had it wrong the whole time. Fans of Vonnegut will have seen this coming: In the novel Ice-9 didn’t freeze everything except water. It froze only water. And suddenly, just like that, the paralysis was shattered. Of course! Triumph! The imaginary freezing molecule I dreaded was only made up, completely different from the imaginary freezing molecule that actually imaginarily existed! Ice-9 froze only water! Of course! It was all a big misunderstanding. My family and I could certainly survive that kind of chemical doomsday. We’d cross the frozen oceans and hunt penguins. No big deal. Problem solved. The reasoning behind the whole process was aggressively nonsensical, of course, and could be dismissed easily by any sane individual. “Why didn’t you just stop worrying about it earlier?” I can hear you ask, and my only response is that I was psychologically incapable of doing so. I am not sane. I wish I could offer a more satisfying narrative explanation, with character development and such, but for what it’s worth, the whole mess never made much sense to me, either. This is why we call it a disorder.
It was in this moment of release that my OCD seduced me. This was the moment when everything it had promised me finally came true. This is how the disorder perpetuates itself: by occasionally rewarding trauma and neurosis with brief moments of relief. Every so often, everything will work, and you will somehow convince yourself that you are safe, and the disorder will claim credit. With Ice-9 I had encountered a scenario that caused me tremendous anxiety; I writhed and fixated, obsessed, for several months, trying to discover a way to disprove it; and then finally, finally, I learned an arbitrary piece of information I had previously overlooked that somehow eliminated my anxiety entirely. The fact that the obsession and my eventual relief were not related in any way, by cause or effect, never occurred to me. I had struck a bargain with the OCD, and after long months of struggle the disorder seemed to fulfill its promise. The transaction was complete. In that moment I became subservient to it.
Copyright © 2012 by Fletcher Wortmann