I know I really need a cigarette when the counting starts. Not of sheep or the cars passing by on Joey Ramone Place, but of the mundane and otherwise forgettable. It's as though the nicotine has flipped a switch in my brain, and all of a sudden my OCD covers me like a wetsuit. If I'm reading and want to go back to reread a character's name or a sentence I particularly enjoyed, I can't just do it once but rather have to flip the pages over and over, three times, five times, until it feels right. If I get out of bed to go to the bathroom, I have to touch while I'm standing, a sort of shortcut that gives the illusion of having gotten out of the sheets twice--a preferred number--to just once. If I pause a song, I have to pause it again, and then that makes the whole section choppy so I rewind about twenty seconds to enjoy the verse once more. Then I pause again.
I can't remember living without obsessive-compulsive disorder. When I was a kid it was really bad; I'd lie awake for hours, anguished over the alignment of pens on my desk or the angle at which the wastebasket faced the wall. I knew these things were unimportant but still I fixed them, suffering both the jitters of the disease and the humiliation it provided. My mom would knock on the door, having heard my little feet scamper across the carpet, and ask if everything was okay. "Yes," I'd tell her between tears. "I'm fine."
My OCD just gave me another reason to see a psychologist. I think what I liked most about seeing Ken was how un-psychological our sessions were. They were more like discussions, the kind I might have with my mother or the sole English-speaking cafeteria worker in my elementary school; only at Ken’s office I could talk about whatever I wanted. The weather, his shoes, my compulsive counting, my irrational nightmares about Ronald McDonald; all topics received equal treatment, and we would often segue from one to the next without even the tiniest transition. “Well it’s supposed to rain this weekend, which will be good for the humidity,” he might say. “Yeah,” I’d reply. “So I think I need to go on medication.”
If it wasn’t the conversation that kept me coming back, then it was the games. At the end of each session we’d play a board game or he’d perform card tricks. I think these were supposed to teach me valuable life lessons or show me that things weren’t always what they seemed, but I appreciated them as fun relief after forty-five minutes of emotional roulette. I’d often ask about the games far in advance; strolling into his office, I might bring up that I didn’t feel like playing LIFE today, or that I wanted him to do the trick with the four kings again. He’d remind me that cards weren’t why we were here, but the way I saw it they were just another form of conversation, and I saw no reason to hide my enthusiasm for the topic. We had already spent five minutes on the San Jose Sharks. Why was Card Sharks any less legitimate?
I suppose it’s telling that I remember the games more than the actual therapy, but maybe the things we were talking about were simply too much for my fifth-grade mind to fully grasp. And talking to Ken was so easy; he was large who sported a gray mustache and pastel shirts, like a jolly St. Nick who’s trimmed his beard for summer vacation. Someone once told me that you can gauge a man’s respectability by the cleanliness of his shoes, and if this is true then Ken was the most dignified man I knew. His penny loafers and oxfords were always shined if not new, and you could tell they were the expensive kinds, not the cheap barely-leather imitations my mother would buy me at Payless. Yet he always complimented me on my footwear, on my dirty Reeboks and rubber flip-flops, as though they were Ferragamos. And I still don’t know if he really meant what he said or if he said that to everybody. I think, had I realized at the time that he probably praised each of his patients’ shoes, I would have been crushed.
The one thing I held back from Ken was my budding homosexuality. I don’t know why; perhaps I feared that he’d like me less, that’d he would be uncomfortable by my sexual openness. I actually thought that he’d fear me hitting on him; I could imagine him pulling my mom aside in the waiting room, whispering, “Mrs. Becker, I think Josh…likes me. That way.” My mother would cup her hands over her mouth, as though she were in a hospital and had just heard that no, the cancer wasn’t treatable.
“No, doctor, I’m sure that you’re mistaken—“
“I just, I see it in his eyes, ya know?” Apparently my subconscious played out with all the spark and romance of a John Mellencamp song.
I know—and knew then—that Ken was such a nice guy that he wouldn’t have minded if I were gay. And it wasn’t like I was the most secretive closet case; I had a lisp and liked listening to the soundtrack from My Best Friend’s Wedding. I’m sure Ken knew, but I was thankful he never asked me how I felt about boys. Now, of course, I wonder what would have happened had I confided this information; would I have come out sooner, with less dramatics? Would I have found a boyfriend during high school, having long since accepted myself? Did this somehow relate to my OCD?
My sessions with Ken helped me cope with the OCD, though they didn’t abolish it completely. I hear you can never rid yourself of the disease, just suppress it so much that it doesn’t both you anymore, but that sounds wrong to me, the exact opposite of what you should do. No alternative comes to mind, but still, “ignoring the problem until it goes away” is the sort of thing I do against other people’s advice, and it bothers me that such a cheap way out is the medically recommended method.
I did, however, suppress the fact that I had a psychologist. If any of my friends had found out, man—I’d be “the freak with the shrink” faster than the new girl from the special school had become “the retarded girl with glasses.” I suppose it was hypocritical, making fun of others while suffering mental illnesses myself, but in adolescence it’s best to fit in any way you can, even if it’s by pretending your mind is normal or wearing jeans a size larger than you’d like to. Besides, I never claimed to be virtuous.
I could at least take solace in being the only one from my school who saw Ken, or so I thought. It was one of my biggest fears to see one of my classmates in the waiting room. I felt as though the embarrassment would be worse for me than for the other person, that the social ramifications would hit me the hardest. I was already the queer—even at that young age, we all knew what “gay” was, and I’m sure half the school thought it was only a matter of time before I strutted into homeroom one day wearing leather chaps and a turquoise necklace—so being the crazy queer would undoubtedly ruin me.
So you can imagine my shock when one day, leaving Ken’s office, I saw a classmate of mine sitting in the waiting room. I recognized his posture as my own, as that of any kid who knows he’s involved in something way over his head. His legs were spread and his forearm rested on each kneecap, like a ballplayer returning to the bench after striking out. His head drooped, his eyes peeled on the gray carpet.
I thought I could sneak out of there without him noticing me. Sure, he’d recognize my mom; as a dedicated classroom helper and member of the Board of Education, she was one of those childhood celebrities to my fellow students, the kind of woman you often spot but rarely talk to. But if he asked me, I could always say she was there for her own therapy; Ken’s building also housed adult psychologists. But then Ken called out my name while saying goodbye, and I saw my classmate look up. I read both sympathy and schaedenfreud in his eyes; neither of us was popular, but we had drifted since first and second grade, and I now ran with a crowd that at least threw parties. I’d like to think we simply went our separate paths, the way you do with most childhood friends, but I’m sure he took my slight rise on the social ladder personally; now he had something to hold over my head.
“Hi,” I said, smiling. I tried to play it off like this wasn’t a big thing, like we weren’t in the waiting room of some crazy doctor, like we both didn’t have problems that, in the middle of the night and nobody else could hear, made us whisper promises of suicide. I figured that if I played it cool, so would he.
To my surprise, that’s just what happened. He returned my greeting and then I bolted out of there; I could see Ken’s curious reflection in the window, but the last thing I wanted was form him to acknowledge my familiarity with this other patient and…what? I could see him setting up a joint appointment; maybe he’d tell us to keep a dual journal. If there was one thing I owned with my OCD, it was the privacy in which I suffered, and I would not allow that to be prescribed away.
The next day in lunch, I saw Mike approach me while I waited in the pizza line. He came up to me with that look of shady recognition I’d later come to see on the faces of bouncers and drug dealers. He clamped his hand on my shoulder and moved his lips to within a few centimeters of my ear.
“Look, I know and you know what we both…have to do. I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.” I was disappointed that he had remembered the incident at all, thereby shattering my hopes that he had gotten into a car accident or developed a sudden, devastating tumor on the way home; I didn’t wish death upon him, just a small case of amnesia. And maybe a head bandage, to cover up an awful nest of curly hair.
“Okay,” I said, my lips barely opening. He then left as quickly as he’d arrived, and one of my friends who had witnessed the meeting asked me what had happened. “Oh…” I said. “It was nothing. I owe him some money but can’t pay him ‘til tomorrow.”
“Money for what?” He asked this as a sort of accusation, as opposed to sheer curiosity, as though it were already suspicious enough that I spoke to Mike at all.
“Uh…some old Game Boy game. He had it in his pocket while he was riding his bike, and he was riding past my house and I saw him because I was in the front yard, and he took it out to show me, and I dropped it in a puddle, so I have to get him a new one.” The ridiculousness of the lies I’ll come up with in the heat of the moment is amazing. I could have probably gotten away with owing him fifty cents for potato chips. Either way, it worked, and I prided myself of so deftly navigating a tricky social situation.
I’m no longer ashamed of my OCD; in fact, I kind of like telling people about it. I think it gives me a mysterious quality, a sort of edge that surely spices up an otherwise mundane get-together. I imagine my friends talking while I’m on my way. “Josh is coming,” they said. “Make sure all the drawers are closed, or he’ll really go off.” They might proceed to rearrange all the furniture in the apartment, solely to keep me from losing my shit when I walk through the door.
Actually, I’ve managed to keep those manifestations of the disorder to myself. Slowly but surely I trained myself to act normally in front of other people; if a shirt was sticking out from a drawer or the bathroom door was slightly ajar, I try to ignore it or move to another part of the room where the slight won’t be in my line of vision. It’s akin to craving a cigarette on an airplane; sure, you want your fingers to stop shaking, but you’ll only get yourself in trouble if you try anything too drastic. Sometimes, though, I’ll pretend to use the bathroom so that I may fix the door.
I think the heat makes my OCD worse as well, but I actually prefer unbearable weather. When the weather outside is extreme, I have an excuse to stay in: “Oh, it’s much too cold to walk outside,” or “Lunch sounds nice, but I just got the A/C working again and want to make sure it’s running smoothly.” When the weather is nice, I feel compelled to spend time outdoors and perform vague acts like frolicking and enjoying the sunshine. Worst of all, however, is the togetherness such nice weather implies; during a heat wave, I can feed my inner insanity in the comfort of my own privacy, but when it would be considered awkward and antisocial to stay indoors, I’m forced to curb my compulsions in the company of others.
It’s not that my OCD itself has diminished; rather, I think it’s simply imposed itself on my life in a broader sense. A misplaced fork doesn’t bother me so much, but a poorly received joke haunts me for days. My entire behavior must now conform to the rigid perfection my mind demands; I feel like I’m living a play, and every scene has already been choreographed, down to the turn of a hand and sip of a drink.
Take last night. I was at someone’s apartment, and a few of us had just smoked some weed. When I’m high, my social anxiety goes out the window in favor of the general awkwardness and disregard for social conventions that accompany a proper high. As we were walking home, my friend John made an offhand comment about what he perceived as my “social awkwardness.” I know he didn’t mean it as a damning criticism but rather a commentary on my behavior that evening, and objectively I couldn’t argue with him. But it bothered me, not so much what he said, but that I had acted in such a way that he felt the judgment appropriate at all.
“What do you mean, ‘awkwardness,’” I asked.
“Just, you know, you were a little awkward back there.”
“Yes, but awkward how? Did someone say something? Did I embarrass you?” My tone grew more annoyed with each question.
“Josh, I didn’t mean it like that. It was just, like, a joke.”
“No it wasn't. You don't say something like that and then not mean it. Why can't you just tell me how I was being awkward?"
I should have let the matter drop, but clearly I had behaved out of line; I’d messed up the scene. I wanted to know exactly what I’d done wrong, and until I did my mind wouldn’t rest. It was like craving a cigarette, only not knowing where you’d put your pack.
Later that night, my air conditioner’s constant rattling kept me awake, and John’s words kept me angry. How was I socially awkward? He’s the one with a stutter and a questionable fashion sense, and he’s the one who just got turned down by a girl he liked. Just as all the students like the dumbest kid in class because he keeps the curve low, so too did we all appreciate John, who lowered the bar a few centimeters for the rest of us. And then he, of all people, had accused me of being awkward. It was like Adam Sandler criticizing your acting.
Something had gone wrong; words had been misspoken, actions misinterpreted, and now the rest of the people in that apartment would surely remember me as “that really high kid who didn’t understand how the TV remote worked.” I knew I would never see most of them again, so the impression left was unimportant to me; rather, it was my OCD, my obsessive-compulsive desire to have everything go perfectly, that was making this a problem. Unlike the bathroom door or sock on the floor, however, there was no fixing my social faux pas. I was beyond anger at the situation or at Jonathan; I was mad at myself, for letting something so trivial bother me this way.
I went to the window, lit a cigarette, and stared at my neighbors’ windows across the street. One woman was watering plants; down the hall, a few people were dancing. Lights flickered on and off and the occasional noise drifted from the streets below, like steam. I wondered if anyone was looking at me, and I wondered what they thought if they were.
If they were looking, they would see a lanky, pale boy in boxers and a t-shirt from a friend’s Bar Mitzvah years ago. He is sitting in a chair pulled up to the window, smoking one cigarette after another. It looks like he’s been crying. And if they looked really closely, they would see the trembling fingers on his right hand tapping the microwave: one, two, three, pause, repeat.