This has been one of those days when I’m acutely aware of my obsessiveness which makes me wonder about good obsessions versus bad obsessions. Everyone would agree that obsessing over a person to the point where you stalk them is unhealthy. (Everyone except stalkers, who feel much better when they’re stalking than when they’re chewing their cheek in front of Fox News drinking a Bud.) I continually come across people who don’t really “believe” in mental illness, as though it was some outrageous new religion and not an illness or a dysfunction of one of the most important organs in the human body.
A couple of weeks ago we were eating out at our favorite local pub and had requested a booth. We were willing to wait for a booth because none of us like eating out in the open which feels like eating in the middle of the Serengeti full of predators and hungry dinner-plate sized arachnids. The waitress made some kind of comment to us because once in the booth we also had to assume our usual positions: Max always sits on the side from which you can see the door, next to his dad and I always sit across from them. To do otherwise causes us all great uneasiness. The waitress told us she was kind of OCD about things and totally understood. Max launched into a hearty explanation about how he and both his parents have OCD and have to have things exactly the same every time, like how things have to be the same size and not messy and we can’t sleep without grey noise and how if it weren’t for the blessed tranquilizing power of dvds we’d probably all be in jail for weird crimes.
The waitress gave Max the look, the one that draws a straight strong line between her and us- she only meant to use the phrase “OCD” to indicate a kind of vague nod to being a particular kind of person. She didn’t mean to lump herself in the same corner as an entire family of crazies who have clinical mental illness and are more than happy to share their many many many many (etc) micro daily obsessions with space, order, and routine.
You can be like me, understand what it means to fixate on something, and still not be OCD. But if you really are obsessive compulsive you will most likely experience discomfort with your obsessions so I think there really is a line but I like to think that comprehension can cross lines.
I am the fly assassin this week. That fly problem: still out of control. I declared war. Either the flies go or the chickens go to make the flies go. Which means the flies go, no matter what. Fuck the flies! I’m not squeamish about bugs in general but I’m obsessively freaked about them specifically in large numbers. In great numbers they take up all the space in my brain. The coop is being cleaned regularly but the flies persist so I started spraying their flying clouds with Mrs. Meyers cleaner thinking it might kill them. It didn’t, but it afforded Max great enjoyment and would have got him obsessed too but I saw the early signs and told him some lame reason why he had to stop spraying the flies.
Monday I spent almost all day standing on my porch observing the flies. Trying to kill the flies. Single-mindedly fixated on the problem of the flies. When I wasn’t on the porch I was busy doing online research about methods of fly control. I started using the swatter. I made an immense discovery: flies go to sleep on the ceiling of our porch at dusk and are slower as it gets colder. I started actually killing in numbers. It felt like victory. I could barely attend to work, to food, to Kung Fu, to feeding my child, or to showering. Yet in the morning there seemed to be just as many as the day before. It seemed impossible, mathematically, to deal with such a swift breeding population and panic has been in my chest for two days.
I imagine this is how the crust of the planet earth feels about humans beings.
I have thought of almost nothing but the flies.
I haven’t even been able to write much or particularly well because so much of my mind is flooded with the fly situation, the problem of the flies, the panic of the flies, the death of the flies, and the feeling that I might end up giving up on this house just to get away from the fucking flies.
Cut and run! Evasionary survival tactics!
Every single time I go downstairs I HAVE to step out to the porch wielding the fly swatter and see what I might find and kill. Today the constant compulsion to engage in that one activity made me uncomfortable and got me thinking about obsessive minds and obsessions in general. It also made me tired. Tired of my head filled only with flies. It feels unhealthy. This new obsession. It feels unhealthy like the dermatillomania* which is disturbing, incessant, and uncomfortable on enough levels to make me want to crawl out of my own skin.
I like to think there is such a thing as a healthy obsession; little obsessions everyone engages in which cause no mental or physical harm, like always sitting facing the door in a restaurant, checking that the stove is off five times (as opposed to fifteen), and not being able to sleep until you’ve prayed that George Bush will yet become so poor he has nothing but ramen to eat and ill-fitting Goodwill suits to wear to interviews for jobs at Texas fast food joints or that he has to go fight the war he started. These things are all fairly innocuous, aren’t they?
I think all people have some little bit of obsessive behavior or attachment to rituals, it’s human and connective, so theoretically all people could understand what it might feel like to have every activity in life become a potentially unhealthy obsession. However, the majority of people still don’t get it. They lack extrapolatory* powers. They can’t imagine such a normal tendency to observe ritual being out of a person’s power to control.
I think there are healthy obsessions. Obsessions that can’t hurt anyone and can give much comfort and pleasure. I will often latch onto one song and listen to it obsessively for 24 to 48 hours***. I use my headphones so as to not make my family require visits to imaginary padded cells. It hurts no one. It makes me happy. To find a song that suits a mood, that possibly inspires and elevates enough to bring something forward in writing or even just in my body- it’s pleasure and then when it becomes less pleasurable I can draw the line. I admit that sometimes I have to force myself to change the song long after the mood has shifted but I don’t know what to replace it with. Healthy obsession, for the most part.
Often obsessive interests are what lead people to achieve great things. Scientists obsessively focused on one question are the ones curing diseases and answering the seemingly unanswerable questions of the universe. Obsessions in color and texture lead people to create groundbreaking art and music. Obsessions with narrative voices, words, and something itching to be writ has given us the best literature on earth. You can’t achieve any of these things without a certain amount of obsessive aim.
I consider myself a member of a truly gifted group of human beings who constantly have to battle the line between healthy and unhealthy obsessiveness. It’s deeply uncomfortable at times, but like Max, I am unrepentant in my openness and acceptance that this is the way I was made and it doesn’t reflect a moral failing in me. This is the trick of my backwards wired brain.
It just occurred to me that I have always lived in houses where the previous owners did a lot of their own plumbing and electrical work. Every single time we’ve had a plumber in to fix something they have the dubious joy of discovering that everything has been plumbed backwards and by hand. Not to code. Not regulation standards, not boot-camp material. Our pipes are hand soldered and leak, the toilet is fitted wrong and can’t be unfitted, the circuit breaker lies and wires extend out to the neighbor’s house where we can’t see their dining room light turning off and on every time we toggle the switch that doesn’t seem to control anything in our own house. Mysterious pipes that seem to have no function and the pipes that have personality disfunction and try to be wires.
This is my brain. My houses always seem to be physical reflections of my brain. I wonder if that’s true of anyone else?
Days like today are uncomfortable, but I’m not feeling the least bit sorry for myself.
When we go out to the pub the wait staff comments on us, they seem to enjoy us. We enjoy them. We are friendly, accept who we are, live with it, work with it, and they say that every time they see us we are laughing and smiling more than any other people they see. No one ever forgets what we want because we order the same exact thing every single time. We’re easy. We love to be in each others’ company- we are used to each others’ quirks and obsessions and we try to be easy about the mild ones and coach each other when the less healthy ones take hold.
If I win the war against the flies (and I’ve got the diatomaceous earth now, Ann) and they reduce to the normal numbers for any yard with chickens, I’ll be out there obsessively stalking them long after such an obsession serves a useful purpose. I’ll have to find some way to reset myself. I’m okay with that, but it’s a curious way to live life.
*I have been saying this out loud a lot more lately because I believe the only way to make these issues less potent is to bring them to the light. It’s like admitting to being a leper in the 12oo’s. It isn’t cool, but how will anyone ever figure out that it’s curable if they won’t even acknowledge it exists? Even if it isn’t curable, wouldn’t it be a better world in which mental illness and its insidious manifestations were the kind of thing we can talk about easily like bad haircuts, the death of punk, and cancer?
**I made that up. I think it’s solid. Though I originally wrote it as “extrapolative” and I kind of like it better…but it’s too hard to choose at the moment. This will give someone great fodder to hurl at me when I post my advice to think very carefully about what words you choose to use.
***Yes, I’m still listening to “Clocks” by Coldplay. I’ve tried to switch gears a couple of times but essentially it’s been “Clocks” since Sunday. It’s Wednesday. I could easily have listened to it a hundred times already.