[I wrote what follows as my “thesis” in divinity school. I hesitated quite a bit before publishing it; here's hoping it will be useful.]
Just as the infernal forest of razor leaves, just as the winged creatures from hell are really brought into being by my actions.…
When I was 18, I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Since then, I’ve occasionally considered writing about my experiences, but I’ve tended not to trust my motives. Writing about my experiences, I thought, would be a way to redeem them, to justify an early adulthood that hadn’t measured up to my adolescent hopes and dreams. I may not have been happy in my twenties, I thought, but at least I’d have a book – and perhaps the beginning of a writing career – to show for it.
It was a cracked notion, of course. I was so caught up in the grip of OCD – and in my flight from it – that I could never have written about those experiences. I didn’t want to spend any more time with them, didn’t want to be anywhere near them.
But at some level, I felt like I was owed. I’ve had to suffer day in and day out for years. Maybe I can cash in on that suffering. This didn’t feel like the noblest of impulses, of course, but I was floundering: what else was I going to do with myself? I was in my mid-20s, moving around a lot and working a series of jobs that didn’t mean much to me. I hadn’t found much direction, and when I looked, OCD was usually in the way.
As I came to see, however, the idea of cashing in on my suffering was itself compulsive – a way to feed an insatiable feeling of insufficiency, to measure up to some external (and endlessly receding) standard. I wanted to write a book because of what it might teach me or might allow me to express, yes, but also because I suspected that lurid stories of suffering would sell, and because I couldn’t imagine how else to feel good about myself. When I saw this – that part of my desire to write was a product of OCD – I decided to treat it that way and did my best not to give in.
More recently, though, things have shifted. I feel less and less need to apologize to the world (or to myself) for the way my life has unfolded. And as I’ve begun to feel more free to live this life – as opposed to something more grandiose – I’ve also begun to feel more capable of spending time thinking about some of my more painful experiences.
These new forms of resilience have many roots. Some of them – including five years of intensive cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as an exposure to Buddhism and the beginnings of a meditation practice – are quite specific. Others feel like more general products of growing up and listening to the lessons of my life.
The upshot is that I have begun exploring my OCD in a public-facing way. I started by making a series of videos entitled “What OCD is Like” and publishing them on my blog. (There are five in total; they’re available here.)
As the series title indicates, these videos focus mostly on the phenomenology of OCD – what it feels like to undergo an often-constant assault of painful, intrusive thoughts. When I made the videos, I didn’t feel comfortable prescribing anything, musing about the meanings of mental illness, or delving into contemporary neuro-psychological research. Instead, I simply tried to relate what it feels like to have a brain that works the way mine does.
Making these videos was surprisingly gratifying, and more gratifying still were the responses I received. Every now and again, I would receive a blog comment or an e-mail in which someone thanked me for sharing my experiences. Often, my correspondents would offer up deeply personal experiences of their own. I didn’t have a phrase for it at the time, but looking back, these dialogues were the beginnings of what felt like a mutual ministry.
* * *
The work you are reading now represents something slightly more ambitious. In the pages that follow, I attempt to weave my first several years of experience with OCD into the larger story of my life. In doing so, I hope to provide myself a bit more coherence about where I’ve come from and where I might be headed.
Just as importantly, I hope to offer up a raw and naked account of a disease that is too often trivialized or misunderstood. I want to share something that others can relate to – both OCD sufferers and those who simply wish to understand more about this condition.
Along the way, I’m going to describe some episodes in graphic detail. When I do so, I will always strive to keep my eye on the true and the useful. Our lives are far too precious for me to waste yours by rendering mine as some exotic grotesque.
* * *
One open question for me has to do with the therapeutic value of writing works like this (or reading them, for that matter). As my advisor, the anthropologist Michael Jackson, has pointed out, our culture places a great deal of faith in the power of storytelling to untie mental knots. Sometimes, however, that faith is misplaced, and OCD can be one such venue. I have described my experiences hundreds of times to friends and family, often at the risk of re-living those experiences. On occasion, doing so has helped me escape my own dimly lit inner chambers, connect to the people I love, and enjoy momentarily relief.
Many times, however, sharing in this way has functioned as a trap, a covert way of seeking reassurance by tracking down evidence that my worries are ill-founded. Seeking reassurance in this way is deeply counterproductive for OCD sufferers; doing so exacerbates tormenting feelings, strengthens obsessive and compulsive patterns, and undermines successful therapy.
All that is to say, then, that I’m not entirely sure what the effects of writing in this way will be on my efforts to deal with OCD. Still, I do have a deep faith that changing the way I experience the world depends on scrutinizing how my consciousness works in the here and now. This means creating situations in which I can replay my experiences without feeling drawn in or taken over. Thankfully, writing has often proved to be a good medium for doing so – a way of creating just enough distance from the howling maw to see things a little more clearly.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that I look forward to reliving some of the experiences I will describe. But I’m not sure I see any alternative. Creating change has to begin by reckoning with what is.
* * *
One last note: at the outset of this work, Professor Jackson gave me a great piece of advice. Write the chronology first, he said. Get the whole story down, the full sequence of events, from OCD’s first appearance to your latest efforts at therapy. Then, separately, record your reflections on these experiences – the philosophical, theological, and poetic self-inquiry that will show readers how you’ve come to understand what you’ve gone through.
It was excellent counsel, I thought, and I would have followed it if I could. But as I’ve discovered, I can’t keep the categories separate; I simply don’t know how to keep events distinct from my thoughts about the events. In one sense, this dilemma encapsulates OCD itself (or at least my variety of OCD): the thoughts – and a certain way of responding to them – are the disease. Exploring the implications of this truth will form a significant portion of what follows.
“But,” we might ask, “if our real condition is an awakened state, why are we so busy trying to avoid becoming aware of it?” It is because we have become so absorbed in our confused view of the world, that we consider it real, the only possible world.
–Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism
When I was a boy, my mother would tuck me in bed each night. Sometimes, she would then go back to her knitting or paperwork. Other times, however, she would go around the house, checking each of the closets for burglars. After she had checked all the closets, she would check them again. And again. And maybe one final time.
* * *
This isn’t going to be about blame. For a long time, parts of me wished it could be – that I could just lay all of my guilt and frustration at Mom’s feet and say, “I’m like this because this is what you showed me, because this is how you taught me to understand myself.” But of course, the next clause is, “Because you are like this.” I wanted it to be her free will that could have averted all of this, if only she had exercised it properly. I wanted her to be responsible.
The trouble with that line of thinking, of course, is that blame and responsibility go together. If I’m off the hook, then so is she.
* * *
Starting in high school, I spent a lot of time arguing with myself and my friends about free will and determinism. I suspected that most people are overly invested in the idea that they have control over the choices that they make, and that choices themselves are a kind of illusion, a disguised wish to believe that we are in charge of our lives.
My friend E would ask me what I was talking about. “Look, I’m eating a candy bar,” he’d say. “I could have chosen not to eat this candy bar.” And in one sense, he was right. It was easy to imagine things having gone the other way. There was no visible obstacle, nothing we could see that would have prevented him from choosing licorice or ice cream instead.
But that wasn’t enough. Yes, we could imagine things having gone differently. But imagining things didn’t make them possible. After all, the moment in which E reached for the candy bar didn’t just happen. Rather, a whole history and set of forces had led up to that moment. For something different to happen, wouldn’t history itself have to have gone differently?
In college, the work of the philosopher Peter van Inwagen would help me find voice for these intuitions. For van Inwagen, it wasn’t enough to imagine a world in which E had left the candy bar uneaten. Rather, we had to go further, to imagine how an alternative choice would have been made. And to do that, we had to trace history backwards, to find the exact point at which the decision had been made, in which factors had been weighed and an outcome calculated. Some of that history was easy to track down – I want the candy bar; I’m hungry; I saw this advertisement for Snickers bars last week; etc. But the closer we looked for the actual decisive moment – and the more I looked for these kinds of moments in my own life – the more elusive they seemed. Yes, I could relate to moments in which options presented themselves. And yes, I could even relate to moments in which some of them were eliminated, and in which I found myself embarking on some course of action. What I could not relate to was the sense that I had any control over what happened in those moments. They just seemed to happen. There were options, and then there weren’t.
It felt just like remembering a phone number (or anything else, for that matter). You can try to jog your memory – cycling through associations or sequences of events – but the moment in which the memory actually appears is always mysterious. It simply appears from the murky black, without passport or stamp.
* * *
Each summer growing up, my mom and step-dad and I went to the beach with another family for a couple of weeks. We would get up early on a Sunday morning and drive the six or seven hours to Southern Shores, North Carolina, a small town on the Outer Banks. Many years, our first stop was a restaurant called The Black Pelican.
It was the kind of restaurant that makes kids feel like they’re getting one over on their parents – How did we talk them into this? For us kids, it was crab legs by the pound and pizzas with fancy cheeses. But our parents liked the place too – there were oysters and Bloody Marys, and a view out onto the sand dunes. The rustic, fisherman’s-house atmosphere didn’t seem overdone like so many of the places down the beach, and we all had our own ways of loving it. (The mens’ bathroom also gave us boys and our dads one more thing to agree on, if ever so obliquely: just above the urinals was an artsy photograph of a naked woman rising up on her belly from beneath impossibly white sheets.)
The restaurant also had a tee-shirt shop, something I now find tacky but at the time found almost overwhelmingly cool. During one of our visits, most everyone in the group decided to get one. I had a difficult time deciding, but I settled on gray.
When we got home, however, my decision didn’t sit right. I began to think more and more about the shirt I should’ve gotten – the pink one, with faint horizontal stripes. My dissatisfaction grew as I realized that my friend Colin wasn’t worried about his tee-shirt at all – he liked it just fine and probably hadn’t thought about it for days.
A few days later, my fixations had grown to the point where Mom offered to drive me back to the restaurant so I could exchange my shirt for the pink one. I had turned her down once or twice before, but things had gotten pretty tumultuous in my head, and I relented. Fine, I thought. Let’s just get this over with. Maybe then I’ll be able to go down to the beach and enjoy things.
When we got to the restaurant, though, my doubts multiplied. I could feel a tension building, a fizzy pressure in my head. I weighed the pros and cons of each shirt: the gray one was more traditionally cool, but the pink was bolder, full of a weird, preppy swagger. Gray wouldn’t turn any heads, but maybe I didn’t want heads turning – maybe I just wanted to get in under the radar. Pink was edgier, but it ran some real risks.
Mom tried to talk me through the decision, telling me to ask myself which one I liked better. She angled her head forward in determination, smacking her hands as if wiping them clean: “Just go with it.”
I knew, at some level, that she was right, that thinking about things this way was tormenting me to no good end. But I couldn’t decide. I didn’t know which one was better. As soon as I leaned in one direction, I felt terrified that I might be missing out on everything the other shirt had to offer. After ten minutes of indecision, I burst into tears.
Mom stayed with me, but I suspect she was more unsettled than she let on. I’m not sure there had ever been an instance like this one, in which my indecision and ambivalence rose to such acutely painful heights. I felt silly sitting there, aware of how privileged and prissy my concerns would look to most people. Here I was, a young boy on a nice beach vacation with his family, with a totally unnecessary T-shirt already in his possession, thrashing about because he thought there might be a slightly nicer one out there.
I was also aware of what I was missing. Everyone else was at the beach, playing or reading or crashing around in the surf. The beach itself was only a small road and a short sand dune away. I didn’t want to be here, but I didn’t know how not to be.
* * *
[Here I omit an episode from 5th grade; I'm not sure I'm ready to share it yet.]
And that was true – I didn’t know. But that wasn’t particularly comforting; the stakes were too high. I ransacked my memory, looking for clues that would help me distinguish real memories from the junk shooting out of my geysery brain. And every time I tried to retrace my steps and arrange the events in sequence, the fog and spray reflected back into my eyes.
Over the course of the year, I found myself getting tied up in these thought-storms more and more. The wind in my brain would pick up, and I would quickly lose control of my thoughts. Ideas and feelings and images would sweep down my mind’s thoroughfares, flipping cars and smashing storefront windows. After it had happened several times, I learned to see signs of the gathering clouds, but it didn’t matter – I didn’t know how to get out of the way.
* * *
[Here I omit another episode.] This wasn’t the first time that I had felt afraid of my own thoughts. But it might have been the first time that I felt afraid of not knowing my thoughts, of not knowing what kinds of thoughts I was having. Had I actually wanted that? Or had it simply occurred to me that wanting that would represent something terrifying and evil-seeming, and then I’d become panicky about the possibility of feeling anything remotely like that kind of desire?
And wait – wasn’t I being too hard on myself? After all, these were just thoughts, right? Little things popping in and out of my mind like Mario and Luigi popping in and out of pipes. Just because I could imagine some desire didn’t mean that I was actually experiencing it. And I’d never felt this desire before, so it probably wasn’t happening this time. Right?
Over the next couple of weeks, I went around this hamster wheel hundreds of times – weighing, calculating, grasping after solidity. In moments, I was even prepared to countenance the worst – if I could only have some clarity. But regardless of whether I argued for the prosecution or the defense, that clarity eluded my grasp. I would approach slowly, cautiously, with the most airtight arguments I could find, and it would simply skitter away, vanishing into the murk.
I resisted telling Mom about the war inside for as long as I could. All of these horrible things might be true about me, I thought, but at least I’m the only one who knows. At least no one else was treating me the way I was treating myself.
Eventually, though, my anguish burst the dam, and I sat on Mom’s lap and cried as I recounted everything that had happened. Mom listened without judging, and she didn’t suggest that my suspicions about myself might be right. There might have even been something soothing about her response, if I’d been able to receive it. But while the telling partially relieved me of one burden, it saddled me with another: now I had become a mentally ill little boy, so shamefully addled by delusion that I needed my mother’s lap to cry my pathetic, childish tears.
* * *
Much more recently, I have come to understand that fear is the driving force behind obsessive-compulsive disorder. My therapist, Dr. M, has a perfect metaphor: OCD is like an overly active alarm system. It gets tripped all too often, and when it does, it fools the brain into believing that danger is lurking nearby. This triggers a wildly disproportionate fear response, which then reinforces the sense of danger. (If I weren’t at risk, why would I be afraid?)
As a set of intellectual concepts, none of this is particularly complicated. What is complicated is understanding what’s happening while it’s happening and responding in a healthy way.
Maybe complicated isn’t quite the right word; maybe difficult is more appropriate. Either way, developing the capacity to see your mind’s tumult in real-time takes a great deal of practice. Unfortunately, learning the basics of that practice was a good fifteen years in the future.
* * *
When I got my braces off at the beginning of ninth grade, my orthodontist sprang a trap: for the foreseeable future, I would now have to wear retainers day and night. Otherwise, my teeth might shift, undoing all the work of the previous three years and leaving me with a crooked, unsightly smile.
I felt like the victim of a bait and switch. Just when I thought I was being released onto the playing fields of high school, jaunty after rehab, I was hobbled with something worse – and far weirder – than braces: two discolored plastic retainers that made me lisp and spit. I had seen the finish line, and now I was being told that it was a mirage – and that I had months, even years, of feeling ugly and awkward ahead of me.
For the next several years, I oscillated. Sometimes I wore my retainers and felt resentful about it. Other times, I indignantly refused. But every time I failed to wear my retainers according to the orthodontist’s schedule, I felt a creeping guilt that I suspected would one day bloom into something much bigger. It was the beginning of a pattern – a sense that things were perfect just as they were, but that I was on the verge of ruining them (or already in the process of doing so).
For the most part, though, my attention was directed elsewhere. At some point early in high school, I had become fixated on the idea of going to a prestigious Ivy League school – Harvard or Princeton, or maybe Yale. I wanted to be around the smartest people I could find, and in an environment that would open up every possible door to success. I was sure that anything else would represent a failure to live up to my potential, and that I would spend my college years mired in frustration and disappointment.
In a certain way, I was repeating the pattern: I had been encouraged by my family and friends to think of myself as exceptionally talented, and I conceived of that talent as a kind of unblemished possibility, a perfect potential energy that would one day find expression in grand and noble ways. Until I found my calling, however, it was important to keep my options open, to keep climbing the ladder so that no one could deny me when my moment arrived. And for now, the only way to screw that up was by failing to achieve in school.
So I made sure I didn’t. Throughout high school, I got near-perfect grades and monitored my class rank like a CIA analyst poring over threat reports from an unstable nuclear regime. (The regime’s leader disguised herself as a kind, placid girl named Sarah. I sometimes found myself trying to calculate the likelihood that she would overtake me in the race for valedictorian based on the number of weighted AP classes each of us was taking. She never did.)
I stacked up extracurriculars, too. I was on the wrestling, golf, tennis, and quiz bowl teams and president of a stupidly large number of school clubs. I got elected student representative to the district school board, then president of the student council. I founded a countywide chapter of Students for a Free Tibet.
Some of what I did genuinely interested me, but I also did everything with an eye to how it would play on my college applications. I knew I wasn’t singularly brilliant at any one thing – I wasn’t an Olympian or an inventor – so I had to be very good at lots of things.
All of this left relatively little time, however, for normal high school antics and experiences. I was just passing through, and I treated school like an instrument, a means to an end. And I suspected that that’s how my classmates thought of me – a spectral, translucent presence, not someone who had any real investment in this place or these people. Luckily, I was often still included socially. But that inclusion felt thin, and I chalked it up to my close friends’ popularity. I didn’t know people very well; I didn’t have much to say to them, nor they to me.
* * *
During my senior year, I made the varsity wrestling team. It had been five years since I last made the varsity as a branchy 12-year-old on the middle school squad. That year, I had competed in the 80 lb. weight class. It was my first experience cutting weight, and I was hyper-scrupulous, refusing to eat anything more than my anxiety-driven standards would permit. Better to clear the bar by a good margin, my thinking went, than to eat a few more bites at dinner and then spend all day fretting over my crimes. Sometimes, I would weigh in as many as three pounds under the limit. I suspect that seventh grade was the year Mom’s hair began to gray.
I was never a particularly good wrestler, and after middle school, I wandered in the junior varsity wilderness, becoming accustomed to its unsupervised and indifferent terrain. For the most part, that was fine with me. I was juggling a million other commitments, arranging my battalions for an assault on the Ivy League, so it was nice to be able to skip practice now and again. No one relied on me, and there was a kind of casual sleepiness about the whole thing. JV wrestlers didn’t have to worry about our weight, for example – close enough was good enough, and no one conducted weigh-ins before matches. The matches themselves were held just prior to the varsity contests, and they unfolded on no certain schedule – as if the coaches and referees were stretching in advance of the main event. A few dedicated parents pockmarked the stands, the cheerleaders straggled in, and the varsity squad hung back in the locker room, waiting.
I wondered what it felt like to be in that locker room. I imagined solitary warriors in quiet, somber preparation, finding their ways into mental spaces that mirrored the moment’s import.
* * *
When a varsity opening at 145 lbs appeared during my senior year, I leapt at the chance. The wrestlers at 138 and 152 were district and state qualifiers, way out of my league. At 145, however, it was just me and one younger, less experienced kid. If I could cut seven pounds and fend him off, I would be able to enter the company of men.
In some ways, making the team was exactly what I’d hoped for. All of a sudden, I was taken seriously by guys who – in my eyes, at least – had crossed an intangible but definitive frontier into manhood. They were strong and talented, many of them chiseled through a physical discipline that I couldn’t fathom. They were also experienced; many of them drank, some of them smoked pot, and a few were having sex with impossibly hot girls. Most importantly, though, they had borne weight on their shoulders – the weight of wrestling under the lights, in front of crowds, and on behalf of the team.
It was to this last category that I was being admitted. There was a new affection from the varsity guys, a brotherliness. Some of that was just pragmatic, of course. After all, how I performed affected them now. But it was more than that as well. There was a respect, a quiet understanding that we were part of something important.
Of course, being a part of the team meant showing devotion in strange ways. Cutting weight was the least of it, and that alone could be pretty bizarre. There were the standard tricks – wearing plastic trash bags and layers of sweats to practice, putting a bag of ice on the thermostat. There was the yo-yoing around matches – salads and Freeze Pops the night before, McDonald’s afterward. (I once saw my friend Ben weigh in 10 pounds over the limit on the morning of a match. I don’t know how he made weight by 4:15 that afternoon, but I can guess.) There were some reliable desperation moves, like spitting in a cup throughout the bus ride to an away match.
* * *
[Here I omit a third episode.] I suspect that almost everyone on the team had at least one similarly outlandish tale. In general, though, that kind of behavior was rare. More absurd were the ways that cutting weight rewired our everyday brains. I thought about the weight of piss and spit and haircuts, and I became acutely conscious of my own fecal output. Because I wasn’t eating much, production was grudging. I silently placated the intestinal gods for bounteous harvests, and I rejoiced when they (occasionally) arrived. I also inspected them for size and density, doing my best to translate these qualities into pounds and ounces. (To this day, I find myself silently noting the total volume of shit in the bowl as I reach for the flush.)
Does it need to be said? High school wrestlers often have distorted and nonsensical relationships with their bodies, much like people who worry about their weight for other reasons. Sometimes, this proximity to bodily weirdness led to behavior that had nothing to do with making weight. This included a general indifference to minor maladies. One guy’s girlfriend showed up at school looking like Gorbachev, a continent of impetigo across her forehead. I watched another kid leave a two-hour practice soaked in sweat, ringworm tracks all down his leg, without so much as a shower. I wasn’t any better. Once I got cauliflower ear and walked around with pus-filled lobes for a month before the pain forced me to the doctors.
* * *
In December of my senior year, I got accepted to Princeton. It wasn’t quite the culminating, celebratory moment it might have been. Instead, it was a moment mixed with relief and regret. On the one hand, I could finally take my foot off the accelerator – nothing I would do or fail to do in school would matter nearly as much anymore. On the other hand, this was a victory in a battle I hadn’t really wanted to fight. I had wanted to go to Harvard, but I’d suspected that I had a better chance to get into Princeton. (Applicants were only permitted to apply to one Ivy League school early, when admission chances were highest.) And because the thought of not getting into either school was unbearable, I had played the numbers and done the ‘safe’ thing.
I realize it’s probably hard to be sympathetic with these concerns, and I’m not asking for sympathy. I know that going to either school – that going to college at all – was a blessing. But I didn’t have that kind of perspective then. My brain was wired to worry, and for three years, I had what felt like one very big thing to worry about. When my admission letter arrived, that worry dissipated. Unfortunately, an older and more insidious one re-appeared.
* * *
A few months later, I was returning to wrestling practice from a bathroom break when I caught sight of myself in a mirror. I must have smiled or made a face, because I noticed something that stopped me short: my top front teeth looked crooked. I moved closer. I was right – my teeth didn’t make a flat wall anymore. Instead, one of my front teeth stuck out a bit further than the other. Light caught on the protruding ridge, casting the recessed tooth into a slight shadow.
I headed back to practice and tried to dismiss what I had seen. And amazingly, given what was to come, I managed to do so fairly well.
Later that spring, during a tennis match with my friend D, I felt my tongue slip across a ridge on the back of my upper teeth that I’d never felt before. For a moment, I felt objective and detached about the situation. I was a journalist with double confirmation: there was some truth to this story. But detachment quickly gave way.
Over the coming weeks, I began to pay more and more attention to my teeth – feeling around them with my tongue, trying to convince myself that that ridge had been there all along, that I simply hadn’t noticed. One day, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, hoping to settle things once and for all. The truth of the matter was a high, cold wall: my left front tooth stuck out a bit further than my right, rising up like one tectonic plate submerging another.
I was distraught. This was exactly what I had worried about for so long, but I had never imagined that the guilt and regret would be nearly this intense. I had had a perfectly attractive smile, and now it was gone. I had put in years of hard, embarrassing work with braces and retainers, and I had nothing to show for them. I might as well have never had braces in the first place.
I’ve never been more conscious of time’s incontrovertible forward motion. I wanted to roll it back, but I could feel myself bumping up against an almost palpable barrier in reality’s temporal flow. This is how things are. Your life is like this now.
Unless – unless I could repair the damage. I stuck my hands in my mouth and attempted to wrench the teeth back into place, pressing the left tooth backward and torquing the right tooth forward until a bizarre pressure came from what felt like the insides of the teeth themselves. I removed my hands and inspected my mouth once again. My teeth didn’t look any better. And wait: were they now even more out of place?
I couldn’t quite tell, but the more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed. After all, what good could possibly come from trying to wrench my teeth around? There’s a reason that orthodontist take years to fix crooked teeth – because our bodies aren’t meant to be messed with in this way.
Guilt crashed through my levees, sweeping aside trees and homes. How could I have been so stupid and irresponsible, so wishful and naïve? This was an entirely new level of pain, a head rush of almost sonic intensity. I would have given anything to go back to the hell of five minutes before.
* * *
The pattern was now established: Step one: notice something that seems awry. Step two: construct a narrative in which a once-perfect situation has degraded through my irresponsibility. Step three: try to intervene, only to make the situation worse. Step four: feel overcome with desperate guilt and shame.
Over the coming years, this pattern would become much more elaborate, full of tendrils and filaments. It would also crop up in nearly every area of my life – coloring my relationships, toying with my ambitions and desires, and colonizing past, present, and future. For now, though, my OCD was apparently satisfied with a head full of worries about a mouthful of crooked teeth.
As the school year wound down, life dismantled itself as I became progressively more obsessed with the state of my teeth. I made close friends with mirrors, inspecting my teeth at every opportunity. I had favorite reflective surfaces, both at home and elsewhere. These were the ones that provided the most charitable views of my teeth – whose light and angles could be made to flatter, so long as I cocked my head just so. I would spend minutes on end in front of the glass, yawning my jaw open and examining my upper teeth from every possible vantage point. Over and over I would search the same territory, eyes hungry for flaws, stomach terrified that I would find them.
I did most of this spelunking on my own, living for the little niches in the day when no one was around. Sometimes, though, the urge to inspect reared its head in company. In those cases, I did my best to be surreptitious, flashing my teeth at the mirror when backs were turned. And when I couldn’t be stealthy, I made up excuses for my behavior: Did I have food in my teeth? Just gonna check real quick. Huh! Nothing there. It sure feels like it – how strange! Better check again.
Mere visual observation wasn’t always enough. I expanded my toolkit, inserting fingers and feeling around for signs of movement or evidence of instability. Of course, there was always a Heisenberg risk: as I sought to observe, I might well move my teeth even more. But the analysis simply had to go forward. Amid the emotional firestorm, I did my scientifically rigorous best. And while I recorded the results, I felt the lab burning around me.
* * *
While parts of me were closing down, others were opening.
It had happened quickly. K been a friend, but there had always been more in the water. When my prom date canceled, I asked K. We attended with another couple, but K and I couldn’t see or hear them, our eyes and thoughts searching out one another’s. We danced and goofed around, and at one point she chased me outside. I let her catch me, and when she did, we collided and slid down a small swale. We lay in a heap, stunned, looking for our bearings and knowing they were very nearby. When I dropped her off at the end of the night, K told me she thought she was falling in love.
* * *
As the summer wound down, it became more and more difficult to hide my suffering from my parents. One day, as we sat and talked about what college might be like, I let a little water through the dam, hinting at my worries about my teeth. All of a sudden, I found myself talking and talking. I told them about the scenarios I envisioned – about the hordes of beautiful, young, prep-schooled Aryans who would take one look at my wretched smile and judge me an ugly peasant. About how even my professors would see my smile as a kind of stigmata, evidence of profound unworthiness. In the elite world of Princeton, I imagined that perfect teeth were a shibboleth. And because I didn’t have them, I would be excluded from all of the intellectual, social, and sexual experiences that I most wanted. I had ruined college before it even began, and I had done so from the depths of my own degraded character.
As I choked out half-sentences, tears crashing down my cheeks, I felt another kind of shame. I was going to Princeton, for God’s sake, and I didn’t know how to appreciate my own good fortune. Across the room, my dad sat quietly, looking at me with an expression I found hard to read. I imagined all kinds of disgusted thoughts running through his head. After all, he hadn’t grown up with nearly the same advantages I had. He’d been first person in his family to go to college, and he’d done it more or less alone, chinning his way up as best he could. I, on the other hand, couldn’t have had it easier. How could I be such a fucking softie?
Mom sat next to me on the couch, tender and patient and rooted to her seat with concern. She looked me square in the eyes, trying her best to see what was going on inside. She knew she couldn’t quite see it, couldn’t comprehend what had such a grip on me. She suggested a visit to the dentist to see if we could get my teeth fixed. She also suggested we make an appointment for me to see a psychologist.
* * *
Mom ended up reaching out to Dr. K, the same woman I’d seen a few times as a little boy when Mom and Dale were getting divorced. It was strange going back to her office. I had driven by it thousands of times since those visits a dozen years before, but I’m not sure I could have even pointed it out.
Dr. K’s office was in her home, and going in, that seemed too casual. As she guided me up the stairs to her office, I felt the presence of the rest of the house, all that mundane domestic stuff undermining what we were about to do. I wanted more distance between the kitchen where she cooked SpaghettiOs for her kids and the office where she would try to rescue me from hell.
These feelings didn’t last. I took a seat in a soft chair and she was kind to me, and in a few minutes, I was falling through space, that silhouette in the opening sequence of Mad Men. My head felt lighter, looser, as if the tension that I’d been storing there was burning off. I couldn’t tell whether any of this was good or bad, but it did feel like I was seeing a little more clearly. I wasn’t just a spoiled, weak-willed boy with no self-control. I wasn’t just infected with bad ideas, and I wasn’t just incompetent because I couldn’t think my way around them. There was something real here, something true and wildly awry. And as I glimpsed its edges, a frightening new thought bubbled up: what if this wasn’t the kind of thing that I could overcome?
None of what was happening seemed to surprise Dr. K, though, and that was a comfort. She had seen this before. This was something that could be seen. Maybe it was even something we could name and respond to. We talked for a little while longer, and then Dr. K led me into an adjoining room and left me to complete a test with several hundred multiple-choice questions. The questions seemed designed to get at my basic mental patterns – When did I worry, how long did the worries last, and how much anxiety did they cause? How might I respond to such-and-such a situation? Did I believe this or that?
Like a polygraph, many of the questions were repeated with slightly different variations – perhaps to try to catch out the truth, to make sure that I didn’t just answer in the ways that I thought would sound best. This struck me as funny. I’d already done the hard part, I thought – unfurling my private embarrassments in front of a stranger. It seemed silly to undermine myself just after overcoming that resistance.
That day, Dr. K hinted at what she thought was going on, but I don’t think I received her final diagnosis until a few weeks later. I had OCD.
* * *
In the meantime, college was barreling closer, and I couldn’t stop thinking about my teeth. We went to see my dentist, and he performed a cosmetic procedure, adding a small layer of material to my recessed front tooth to bring it in line with the others. (He also suggested a whitening treatment, confirming my anxieties about my teeth’s yellowish tinge. I agreed.)
After the procedure, I went to the restroom to inspect. All things being equal, I suppose things looked a bit better. But my smile also looked enormously strange to me, like it had been made for a slightly different face. What were these swoops and angles? I couldn’t tell – was I newly beautiful and simply unable to appreciate my movie-star smile? Or was I monstrous, my every grin revealing a dental toupée, a freakish badge of overpowering insecurity?
The dentist, his staff, and Mom all assured me that things looked great, and thankfully, I was more or less able to believe them. I was embarrassed as hell about what I had done – particularly around my dad – but most people didn’t know. All they saw was a pretty smile, and that seemed alright.
Except, inevitably, it didn’t stay alright. My teeth looked nice now, sure. But they would continue to shift, and soon I would be right back where I started. (I had asked the dentist about inserting a permanent brace behind my teeth to hold them in place. He had told me that I would need to see an orthodontist for that, and I just couldn’t bear the thought of displaying my weakness to another doctor.)
So I quickly resumed my habits – gazing into the mirror, running my tongue over my teeth, feeling about with my fingers like a scholar studying runes. When I talked, I often knew exactly where my upper and lower teeth and tongue were in relation to one another, and how much pressure my tongue was exerting on my most vulnerable teeth. When I ate, I placed my food in my mouth delicately and chewed deliberately, keen to avoid any unnecessary clacking. When I kissed my girlfriend, I modulated the way our lips collided, making sure I was leading equally with left and right sides and pulling up into lighter kisses to give my teeth a break every so often. Risk was everywhere, and if I was going to slow the pace of my smile’s decay, I had to be vigilant. I became ever more observant, noticing subtler and subtler risks to my teeth’s positioning and developing elaborately detailed beliefs about my oral anatomy.
For the most part, I kept these ideas to myself. No one would take them seriously, I knew, and I didn’t want to hear about how I was being silly, how the world didn’t really work this way. Had anyone else thought about their teeth the way I had? Had anyone else really considered the risks we took with our jaws and mouths every day? No – they just blithely ate their spareribs and fell face-first into pillows, twirling and dancing on the edges of cliffs.
“Ugh, ow,” I thought, “will I get to like this? And if I don’t, how do I get to leave?
––Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
At the beach when we were young, Colin and Adrian and I would play a game called Deadman. We’d lay facedown in the surf where the waves crashed onto the shore, letting the water take us where it would. Coming up for air occasionally was okay, but it was far better to go limp, to surrender, to allow yourself to be flipped and twisted and served up onto the sand.
During my freshman year of college, I forgot how to surrender entirely. Instead, I fought a never-ending struggle with wave after wave of intrusive, obsessive thoughts.
* * *
I arrived at Princeton early for a university-organized camping trip. We would spend the first night on campus before boarding a bus and heading to the forests the next day.
That night, my group spread out our tarps and sleeping bags in the grass just outside the university’s gates. The late summer air was still pleasantly warm, the clear sky above speckled with occasional stars. Alongside us, the blue and gray Gothic stone walls patiently supported slate roofs.
For just a moment, I felt cocooned. This place was no longer an aspiration – it was ours. We could sleep outside these walls, confident that we were welcome within them. We could go away camping, and these rooms would be waiting for us when we returned. I registered the buzz among my fellow students, excitement rocketing around inside us. Most of us had probably worked very hard for this moment; now, I suspected, each of us was absorbing its truth in his or her own way.
I tried to soak it all in, but it was difficult – my teeth kept blocking the way. Soon after we spread out our pillows and sleeping bags, I excused myself and jogged up to a second-floor bathroom inside the towers for a tooth inspection. Luckily, not many students had arrived yet, so I had the bathroom largely to myself. It felt surreal, importing my routines from home into this place that I had dreamt about so much. This wasn’t what I was here for.
I went back downstairs and tried to rejoin the conversation, but every half-hour or so, my worries would get the better of me. When I plopped down onto my pillow, had I undone my smile? When I made a hard ‘g’ sound, had everything changed? As the students around me went to sleep, irony and disappointment squabbled bitterly in my mind. I had sacrificed so much to be here, and I wanted a chance to play the astronaut strutting across the gangplank with his team, about to board the vessel and reveling in the moment just before. But my worries didn’t care about my schedule; launch would be delayed.
* * *
I was assigned to an eight-man suite, and we paired off into tiny rooms with bunk beds and lockless doors. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by bodies, and I no longer had the private space that I had come to rely on. If I was going to continue to monitor my teeth, I would have to change my tactics.
So after lunch each day, when few of my roommates were around, I would return to my room for a thorough tooth examination. Were things where I expected them to be? Or had the situation deteriorated? On occasion, I would feel pleasantly surprised by a first impression – Look at that charming smile, those well-aligned teeth! But as soon as I turned the kaleidoscope, looking for confirmation from different angles and under different light, my initial confidence would disintegrate. It was like watching a theater crew deconstruct a set – for just a moment, I had been buoyed by the illusions on stage. Quickly, however, the truth of the matter, the whole Potemkin disappointment, would be revealed. I would stand transfixed, captivated by the rotting, crooked, yellowing floorboards, and sensing the abyss beneath.
It wasn’t all ineffable, of course. There were words, too, a ticker-tape narration. Girls won’t want you, your teachers won’t like you, and you don’t belong here. Your whole presence here is a sham, and the only way you can keep it up is by running at speeds that you’ll never maintain. You’re a masturbating, nose-picking, shit-smelling disaster, an ugly, entropic little pinball playing a game you can’t possibly win. You don’t deserve sympathy, and noone feels any.
* * *
You can see how things would balloon. I would start by fixating on my teeth, but soon enough the worries would expand, an angry universe unfurling outward. My teeth weren’t just teeth; they were a proxy for the rest of me, a referendum on my entire disgraceful character.
During most of these sessions, nothing existed outside that bathroom; I might have been Charlie in the Great Glass Elevator, an astronaut floating through space in a dingy, yellow-lit box. Thoughts came in panicky pulses. Time slowed. My entire being – past, present, and future – lived in the space between me and my reflection. And the mirror was a pissed-off oracle, dispensing predictions that sounded much more like sentences.
But while the future seemed desolate, I wasn’t entirely without options. I was a man. I had a mind for imagining things and hands to make them real. Reshaping my teeth with my fingers was off the table, but what about other tools?
I began to brush my teeth strategically, applying heavy pressure on the right tooth from behind and assaulting the left tooth from the front. Sometimes, I would pause mid-brush to see whether my efforts were taking effect. (This always felt like cheating, though – the weak faith of the cowardly.) Other times, I would simply brush, spit, and walk away, hoping that my petitions would be answered.
At one level, I wasn’t fooling myself. I had simply found a loophole in my own legal code, a way to do what I felt I had to do without feeling quite so bad about it. After all, brushing my teeth in this way was little different than inserting my fingers into my mouth – it was all in the name of dental rehab. On the other hand, I had to brush, and there was no way to tell what effects mindless brushing might have. What if my default brushing patterns actually compounded the damage by applying disproportionate pressure in the wrong places? Things were already out of joint, and becoming more so all the time. Even if I brushed my teeth with perfectly even pressure, wasn’t that likely to make things worse?
So I made my compromise. I wasn’t going to intervene directly, but if it just so happened that my teeth shifted back where I wanted them because of my tactical toothbrushing, well, what could be the harm in that?
In some ways, I had founded my own little religion. I’m not sure there was any object of worship, exactly, and I didn’t really think anyone was going to answer my prayers. But I certainly had established a great many rituals, and I lived by them.
* * *
“Ritual” is a curious word. Psychologists use the term to describe the behaviors that OCD sufferers take up in order to relieve the pressure caused by their intrusive thoughts. Please – anything to make this feeling go away. Take another look in the mirror? Of course! Feel around with my tongue just to make sure that nothing moved during lunch? No problem!
For me, these rituals began improvisationally, ad hoc ways of propitiating vengeful deities. Pretty soon, though, they became ingrained patterns, rules that couldn’t be broken. What do we do after lunchtime? We go back to the room and check our teeth. And what happens if we don’t? Let’s not think about that – that shit show is the reason we created these rules in the first place.
All of a sudden, these stopgap solutions to my mental floods had started to look more like wisdom. No, it wasn’t pleasant to make my daily pilgrimages to the bathroom. And yes, it was shockingly painful to open my mouth for inspection under those harsh lights. But these were the things one did – these were the things I had to do – if I was to maintain some kind of order.
But describing it like this – as an effort to maintain order – might give you the wrong idea. I wasn’t assessing my options, evaluating the pros and cons of each potential course of action. These weren’t choices that I was making – not on the first day, and not on any of the days thereafter. Does a kettle choose to let off steam? These were simply things I did. I would eat, I would flood with fear, and I would find myself walking to the bathroom. I would open my mouth, I would flood with fear, and I would see myself leaning in for a better look.
My rituals were a way to cope. The trouble, of course, is that they didn’t work like they were supposed to. And how could they? OCD is a tripwire calibrated to the faintest touch. When the alarms go off, my tendency was to check and see what had gone wrong, to inspect the premises for intruders. But of course, this inspection was never objective or scientific. Rather, it was conducted under conditions of panic.
And that may be the most fundamental thing to understand: OCD is a kind of self-imposed emotional extortion. The trouble is, extortion doesn’t happen on your terms – you don’t pay protection money to the mafia just once. First, you pay a one-time fee. Then it’s a regular, monthly transaction. And soon enough, you pay whenever the hell the mob shows up.
* * *
I also took classes. Princeton had its share of famous professors, and I had what I took to be the good fortune of taking courses with several of them during my first semester. I applied for and was accepted into an ethics seminar with the philosopher Peter Singer, and my introductory economics course was taught by New York Times columnist (and later Nobel laureate) Paul Krugman. Other prominent intellectuals and social theorists circulated too, electrons in a cloud of intellectual ferment.
Before arriving on campus, I had looked upon some of these figures as oracles – beings who could dispense the secrets of the world if you were lucky enough to find your way into their company. The first semester, then, provided some important disillusionment. Peter Singer may have been a powerful thinker – his book Animal Liberation had led me to convert to veganism a few weeks before arriving on campus – but he was also very clearly human, with an endearing awkwardness about him. When he spoke behind a podium, he rocked side to side on his feet, the tic of a nervous middle-schooler presenting before an untrustworthy class.
Krugman’s economic analysis may have earned him the respect of his colleagues, and his writing skills may have earned him a column in a prestigious newspaper, but as a professor, he wasn’t much to speak of. His lectures were both doctrinal – dry recountings of conventional economic premises – and full of academic inside baseball that meant nothing to a first-time student like me.
Sometimes, Professor Krugman wasn’t even there. At the time, Argentina was in the midst of an economic crisis, and Krugman missed several classes in order to fly down and provide assistance. I didn’t begrudge him his absence, exactly, but I was beginning to get the sense that the teacher-student relationship in college wasn’t going to be exactly what I had imagined. Students simply weren’t always our professors’ first concern. In many cases, they had been teaching their courses for years; when the semester rolled around, some instructors seemed to do little more then pull their lecture notes out of a drawer.
Even the basic concept of a lecture – that staple of college curricula that had once seemed so romantic – began to feel strange. We students would walk through stone arches, climb creaky wooden steps, and find seats in beautiful rooms, just as the brochures and websites had advertised. But then – and it became harder and harder to look past this reality – we would listen as a professor would read off a piece of paper for fifty minutes. Sometimes, there was room for questions, but in other cases, professors simply delivered uninterrupted monologues. I found myself wondering: why all the pomp and circumstance, all the anxiety and competition and prestige, for information I could have spent ten minutes reading in my own room?
* * *
I had always read a great deal, but in college, my habit acquired new dimensions. Here I was, with the opportunity to read and learn alongside brilliant and original thinkers. I felt responsible for reading every page of every book or article that had been assigned, and that anything less would represent a failure of character.
Over the next several years, this habit would metastasize to the point where it was no longer about assignments. Reading was its own end, and everything else – socializing, relaxation, whatever – had to be sacrificed at its altar.
Later, when I moved to New York after college, my reading would reach comically absurd levels. I was working a job that didn’t mean anything to me, so I leaned on reading to provide my missing sustenance. I read in the three minutes before the subway train arrived, then during the two bumpy stops before I arrived at my destination, doing my best to not slosh too aggressively into my neighbors as I kept one hand on the overhead grips, the other ping-pong-paddle-gripping my book. I read during the one-to-four-minute period between signing in at the dentists’ and answering the assistant’s churruppy call (which, really, was barely enough time to get situated in a chair, deposit my bags and coats and umbrellas around me in a half-gesture of respect for other patients’ space, find my bookmark, and begin). Elevator rides, sometimes. The wait at my halal chicken lunch spot.
Even in college, though, I was already reading huntedly, chased and chasing. I read constantly, in all the gaps of my day. I read to lose myself, to escape from the din in my own head and into the inferno of others’. (For this reason, I’ve never cared much about plot, and I’ve tended to feel bizarrely repelled by genre fiction. Ultimately, all I really want is to spend some time in the heads of characters who feel like plausible human beings, who aren’t irretrievable, villainous, one-note monsters. Which might be the same thing.)
Unless I was interrupted, I found it difficult to stop, no matter how terrible a book’s prose. But looking up, responding to my name, answering the phone – these could break the spell and help me get my distance. The trouble was, too much distance meant disorientation. What was I when I wasn’t reading? So I read to locate myself, too.
For all my devotion to books, though I was surprisingly disloyal to this or that book. When I found myself disengaged – either because I was unimpressed or actually repelled by what I was reading – I felt a deep stress. Should I continue? Why, when there are other glorious books out there, books that didn’t make me feel this way? But then, of course, the problem became distinguishing the rough patches in a truly good book from the rough patches that indicate that a book isn’t very good. And did it matter which was which? There were probably books out there without rough patches, so why not just read those?
Still, though, I frequently found myself torn about whether to continue a book. There was, of course, my respect for books broadly, which had a way of bathing even the most useless books in its rays. And there was my compulsive attachment to achievement – to the idea that finishing would count for something. As if other people were paying attention, and they’d notice that I was now the type of person who’d read Mrs. Dalloway or The Brothers Karamazov.
Sometimes, I would doubt that these accomplishments really accumulated in any meaningful way, or whether it even made sense to think of them as accomplishments. In these moments, reading was a conveyor belt running backward from zero – I had to keep at it, but the most I could hope to do was stay even.
Other times, though, I would imagine a better self beckoning me from beyond the final page. That self was wiser, more edified, more refined, more in control. Just a bit more, it whispered. You don’t want to stop now – a life-changing insight might be just a couple of pages away. What a tragedy it would be to miss out when you’re this close. Then, as I approached the end of a book, I’d realize that finishing wasn’t going to change anything; I was still going to be the same person I’d been – this straining, gasping little soul seeking instructions on how to live.
Every now and again, though, I encountered a book that seemed to promise the instructions I so badly wanted. The flashes of something at the end of Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain; the thunderbolts throughout Dostoevsky; Virginia Woolf’s conviction that paying attention might just be enough grist to make a life. But then what? The moment would pass, and I’d continue skimming along the pages, half-convinced that living in books was the only kind of salvation available. Nothing had any staying power. Books changed your life for an hour or two, and then you went back to living the same stumbling life as before.
* * *
Throughout my freshman year, a bowling-ball battery of teeth-related worries kept my pins tottering on their edges. Sometimes, I found myself hoping they would fall, if only to relieve the tension. (Once, I told K that I had pictured smashing my own teeth with a hammer. She moaned a soft “No” and hugged me tightly.)
Meanwhile, a second ball was hurtling down the lane. When it struck, the few pins left standing would explode outward, colliding against one another in a crazy-making thunderclap.
Every few weeks, K and I would trade visits – I would drive down to her school in suburban Philadelphia, or she would take the SEPTA/Amtrak train combination out to New Jersey. During one of these weekends, K and I were wandering around Princeton, looping and musing through the streets. Something in a basement-level shop window caught my attention, and I leaned over, placing my hands on my thighs and gripping the denim of my jeans between my fingers. As I did so, I felt – or thought I felt– a quick rub in my crotch. A worry arose: Am I pressing my testicles together? I frantically surveyed my consciousness: one search party flashed its lights across my memories from a split-second before, while another sought to pin down exactly what was taking place in the current moment. (Even now I’m not sure of the sequence of things. Did the feeling arise first, the first domino in a chain of subsequent thoughts? Or was there no physical feeling? Did the entire thing simply happen in my mind?)
I suspected that this was one of those times in which my brain was leaping the tracks, and I didn’t want to be too reactive. I held my position, bent over toward the shop window but insensible to anything outside my mind. Images and possibilities flashed across my field of vision, constellations of denim and soft tissue. I saw my testicles colliding and merging, a Venn diagram of beige and pink. No please no not this. Don’t take this away too. Not sex. Not now. Not at the beginning.
Of course, OCD infiltrated my budding sex life, just as it had set up shop in every other arena of my life. I could write about all of that, and perhaps someday I will. But for now, I have to bring this narrative to an inconclusive end.
Toward the beginning of this work, I described the suspicion that had discouraged me from writing about OCD. I didn’t want this to be about trying to redeem something, about trading my experiences in for the illusory security that might come with publishing a book. From a Buddhist perspective, I didn’t want this to be about ego.
* * *
A word of clarification about that term – ego – might be useful. From a Buddhist standpoint, ego is understood as a basic – but profound – mistake, one that undergirds everything else about how we experience the world. In the words of the contemporary Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa: “Confused mind is inclined to view itself as a solid, ongoing thing, but it is only a collection of tendencies, events.” In other words, when we talk about our “selves,” we imagine that there is something there – a “self,” whatever that might be.
If this were just a casual inclination, one habit among many, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But as Trungpa teaches – and as my own experience bears out – confused mind isn’t just inclined to view itself as a real entity. Rather, it holds tenaciously to this view, using an enormous variety of psychological and interpersonal tricks. And it does so because it imagines that a great deal is at stake.
As Trungpa would say, fundamentally, we’re afraid that we don’t exist. And most of the time, our minds are whirling at a thousand miles an hour in order to keep ourselves busy and occupied – anything, so long as we don’t have to glimpse the possibility that we aren’t real in the ways we imagine.
* * *
This work has become exactly that – an effort to prove to myself that I am real, a solid thing capable of producing other solid (and in this case, book-shaped) things. It is about trying to gain ground, to have a way to account for and defend my existence. And for that reason, continuing with the project has begun to feel aggressive and claustrophobic.
Now, that isn’t all that’s going on. To be sure, I have had a number of richly rewarding and illuminating writing sessions, moments in which I saw aspects of my life with new clarity and compassion.
But between each of those writing sessions, my mind tends to fixate on the baseball card stats: How many pages have I written? How many chapters? Have I written enough – and in the right ways – to put together a book proposal? What if I just serialized what I’ve written so far, published it on my blog, and hoped to catch a publisher’s eye?
In other words, there are at least two sets of motivations in play, and I spend far more time spinning around the unpalatable ones than writing from within the nobler ones.
My ego-oriented fixations have also begun to infect the way I approach the writing itself; I spend as much time worrying about whether my sentences are elegant enough as I do in looking into myself and and trying to see what’s going on. For this reason, I find myself avoiding the writing. And even when I do find my way back into those less ambitious and more exploratory states of mind, all of that is quickly swamped as soon as I hit “save” and walk away.
Ego is winning, and the more I look at my experience, the more it has begun to feel as if that outcome was baked into the nature of the project. After all, I was never writing purely out of inspiration and passion. I was also seeking to meet a particular set of institutional requirements – a page count, a set of stylistic considerations, and a range of concepts about what constituted legitimate or worthwhile work. In other words, I was seeking to produce a thing, just as my ego was seeking to use the project to reinforce itself.
* * *
During Buddhism’s early centuries, monks (known as bhikkus) developed the Pāṭimokkha – a code of discipline for monastic communities. This code regulated all kinds of things: how to speak, eat, avoid illegitimate sexual encounters, and so on. When I read the code recently, however, what struck the deepest resonance were the rules around possessions – in particular, the length of time bhikkus were allowed to keep gifts. A bhikku could accept certain minimal gifts – a bowl, say, or a bolt of cloth – if he could actually foresee a need for the item in the near term. Stockpiling possessions for some indeterminate future, however, cut against bhikku discipline.
These passages called to mind my own relationship to personal property. As a young boy, I collected sports cards. Like many of my friends, I amassed thousands of cards, rigorously organizing them and keeping close watch on their fluctuating values.
More recently, though, the impulse toward collecting – and even toward just preserving what I have – has reversed. Over the last couple of years, I’ve found myself taking enormous pleasure in getting rid of what I own – carting boxes of books to the library, ruthlessly plundering my closet for clothes to give to Goodwill, and deleting a music collection comprising thousands of songs. The pleasure even extends to more transient possessions – sifting through the mail and tossing junk in the trash.
Possessions have begun to feel like weight, like wildly overpriced insurance policies against the future. The fewer of them I have, the lighter I feel, and the more capable I become of living in a present that makes no promises.
* * *
If I’m going to continue to write, I suspect it will have to be in that same spirit – not in order to seek validation or collect something for myself, but as a means of clarifying something I’m seeing and then giving it away. While I was home sick recently, I found myself motivated to write in just this way. Some things came to mind, I explored them for a little while, and when ego-oriented anxieties began to clog my mind, it felt like it was time to post the piece and walk away. Here is what I wrote.