by Justin E. H. Smith
I tend towards a fairly hardcore social constructionism about most mental-health diagnoses. I've read Michel Foucault and Ian Hacking, and I'm well aware of the historicity of ways of classifying and enacting whatever it is that's eating at our souls. World War I ends and young men stop fuguing; no one has come down with an attack of St. Vitus' Dance for some centuries now. These days PTSD is in fashion, the proximate causes of which range from surviving heavy combat in Iraq to having to read Ovid's Metamorphoses in a humanities survey course.
I'm not saying we aren't all feeling something, that we don't all have a current running through us that at one minute charges us up with the life force only to send us convulsing to the ground with its cruel and insupportable shocks the next. I'm saying that how we describe this current has much more to do with the way the people around us are chattering than with the way our own private neutrons are firing.
Except when it comes to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This, I maintain, is a real illness, like diabetes. I know because I suffered from it for a few years in my early twenties, and the experience of it remains one of the most basic autobiographical facts in my repertoire, the talking-point I pull out most readily when it comes to the difficult matter of who I am and what my whole thing is.
When I was an undergraduate I was so obsessed with getting perfect grades that I developed a web of elaborate rituals designed to absorb the letter 'A', and to cast out the letter 'B' (and to a lesser extent 'C', 'D', and 'F', which seemed less threatening because they were so far from any real possible outcome of my academic work). So I would swallow whenever I read an 'A' on a page, and I would make a sort of retching noise whenever I came across a 'B'. When I wanted to stop reading a book, I had to stop at the first line on the top right hand page that had, as its final grade-relevant letter, an 'A'. I had to quickly close the book at that point, to ensure that I did not see any lower grade-letters after finishing the 'safe' line.
I would similarly swallow and reject letters on street signs as I was driving down the road; if I accidentally passed a sign on the highway on which the last letter I saw was a 'B' rather than an 'A', I would be required to get off at the next off-ramp, go back two on-ramps in the reverse direction, and pass the problematic sign again in order to get a glimpse of an 'A'. The announcement of upcoming avenues was always a breeze, while boulevards were tricky, and their abbreviation as 'blvd.' enough to trigger a full-blown crisis.
When I spoke, too, and had to use the bad letters, I had a whole mantra, a sort of prayer, that I would mumble under my breath after nearly every sentence, which contained only 'A's and helped to counteract the negative charge of the other letters. (If you must know, the precise sentence was: That's not great, lovely man. I have no idea what it meant, or how I landed on it. Its interest to me was entirely phonetic, containing as it did just the right combination of linguo-dentals, nasals, plosives, and glorious open-throated 'A's, to lift the miasma.)
I also could not handle odd numbers. There was a sort of innate metaphysics to this: I wanted everything, everywhere in the cosmos, to be paired off with another thing. Sometimes, when faced with a lone object, such as a piece of chalk, I would break it in two, so that the two could be friends, or perhaps lovers. If I walked past a bush, and brushed the side of it once, I would have to return to brush it again, so that the first brushing could have its eternal partner in the second brushing.
I am not exaggerating when I say that these rituals consumed my whole life. I spent these years without friends. Who could have friends under such circumstances? My chalk and my brushings all had friends, thanks to my solicitude, but I was deeply alone.
I do not mean to boast when I say that this disorder, however apparently rooted in dumb superstition, afflicts the intelligent at far greater rates than the dim. This has long been my prejudice, anyway, but it was powerfully confirmed in my recent reading of Matt Bieber's In the Loop: Essays on OCD. These days, the only lingering symptom of my own OCD is that I am unable to say 'no' whenever I'm asked to write something. I'll write the very worst letters with abandon, too. I'll write strings of F's if I feel like it, and swallow them up. I'm cured. Or, rather, I'm no longer showing symptoms of obsessive compulsiveness, but only symptoms of severe graphomania, which is probably an evolved stage of the same old illness. Anyhow, on occasions like the present one I'm grateful for this relatively mild form of enslavement.
People with OCD are smart, as I've said, but for the most part they keep silent about it, because it's embarrassing as hell: the gaping abyss between our conscious beliefs (enlightened, scientific) and the things we find our bodies doing, between our goal-directed and hyper-efficient management of our time and the gross inconvenience of the rituals; the unshareable privacy of it all; the ridiculous side-effects of the tricyclics.
So we ordinarily just keep quiet, and direct our intelligence elsewhere. But this is not what Bieber has done, and I for one am extremely grateful to him for this. His is a revealing, honest, humorous, and moving account of what it is like, what it is really like, to be an obsessive compulsive.
I'm not going to join some support group or in any way seek to reify this dumb quirk any more than I already have here –and I was joking about the diabetes comparison; I don't have a fucking clue what the ontological status of OCD is, I only know that the medication didn't help nearly as much as just getting older and growing out of it did–, but the sense of solidarity that Bieber's essays instills in me is really something quite remarkable, and reminds me again, as the best writing about bad things can do, that what's bad is human too, and whatever is human is not so bad.