A Non-Exhaustive List of Intrusive Thoughts I’ve Had
I once saw myself extracting hypothetically contaminated blood from my own veins and injecting it into a lemon drizzle cake in order to poison an office full of people.
I saw it in my mind, just so we’re clear. I was pretty sure it hadn’t actually happened, but that never means much to me. All I knew was that if it had happened my life was ruined, so that was my operating assumption — as it so often is.
To calm my nerves, I retreated to my bedroom and used my phone to video every inch of my naked body to make sure I had no puncture marks, no open wounds, nothing I could bleed from. I also took a video of the cake to make sure there was no structural damage. No blood in the icing or the sponge.
If you’re like me, you’ll know this methodology of reassurance doesn’t work.
Once you believe that your blood is diseased and that you are, unbeknownst to yourself, using it to poison food in an extremely convoluted (and ineffectual) way, video evidence is not going to save you. You are too far gone.
The voice in your head will quickly ask how you can be so sure that you didn’t take the video before your little Great British Bake Off Blood Transfusion challenge. You won’t have an answer.
Our consciousness relies on our senses, and the ability of our minds to correctly interpret what our senses are trying to tell us. It’s by knowing what you said that I can respond. By knowing that you are smiling that I should smile back. By knowing that I didn’t insanguinate a cake with my own blood that I can comfortably sleep at night. Alas.
OCD, like many mental illnesses, is a failure in the above system. My senses are like a barking Lassie trying to warn me that the old mill is on fire, and my brain is essentially getting on all fours and woofing right back.
A few examples.
For a time, I believed each coin and bill I touched became instantly carved or marked with suspicious words that would imply I was involved in some kind of underground sex trafficking ring, prompting a nationwide investigation of my fictitious crimes. It rendered me unable to pay with cash, which is actually a pretty major inconvenience, in addition to the whole riddled-with-demons thing.
I couldn’t return plates in restaurants or put receipts in the trash for similar reasons. Everything was stained with evidence of my monstrosity.
I couldn’t fill out forms or write birthday cards or sign my name. I couldn’t put pen to paper at all, for fear I would lose control of my hand and write “I hope you fucking die” rather than “Enjoy your first Holy Communion.” I would print letters and scan the spaces between the ink to see whether I’d somehow left an invisible code in the gaps, revealing my true nature as a monster full of venom to anyone who read it. I’d take photo after photo and interrupt friend after friend with image after image of things I couldn’t trust my own eyes to see or trust my own mind to interpret. Sweat and tremble in the line at the post office as if I were signing my own death warrant by sending a letter I’d touched into the unknown. I’d leave the Lexington Avenue post office and make for Grand Central, ready to throw myself in front of the first train I saw.
If I looked at a piece of paper long enough, I’d have to take it and keep it with me. I knew that even being present in the muddy trenches of my brain would cause a crumpled business card to become a horrible threat to me once out of my sight. Once a bus driver had to ask me to get off his bus at the last stop while I struggled to retrieve a slip of cardboard from down by the side of my seat. I pried open the handle of my apartment’s front door with two knives in order to free a piece of paper from behind it lest it turn out to be a marker for an assassin, who would know which door to kick in before killing me as I cowered in a ball on my bed.
The number of times I have lain awake, pinned to my mattress like there’s a sandbag on my stomach and A Clockwork Orange clamps on my eyelids, thinking that I am to be the victim of a murder plot? Innumerable. I have cast myself as the target of drug dealers (even though I don’t know any), the FBI, the CIA, friends, family, exes, exes’ exes. On countless occasions I have believed that irate motorists would find me and kill me after I accidentally stepped in front of their cars.
I believed myself to have contracted so many diseases simply from touching a glass of water beaded with sweat or thinking about HIV as I bit into a taco. Stepping into a gym shower. Being hit by raindrops, or lying on the grass.
It is an onslaught. An abandoned freeway overrun with feral horses, jolting, their powerful, mad hooves kicking in every direction. No pattern to their violent and jerky galloping. Trampling me. Leaving me paralyzed.
On several occasions I have lost a hat on the bus, or a sock at the gym, and thought for days about a murderer or a rapist finding my misplaced garments and wearing them as he tortures his victims before leaving them at the scene to implicate me. I hold on tightly to the things that are mine, because out of my grip they are nothing but a noose around my neck.
I once tried to sell my guitar for $100 and eventually ended up ghosting the girl I was supposed to sell it to, instead smashing it into so many pieces. I had done my best. I had videoed the inside of the guitar in an effort to make sure it wasn’t haunted with whatever ghosts I leave behind, but that wasn’t enough. It had to be destroyed. I can’t give my old clothes or books to charity. When I pick up an item in the shop, I cannot put it back down; I have to buy it. The demons are a financial burden as well as a mental one.
I once crashed my dad’s car into a railing at a very slow pace, with absolutely nobody around, and still needed him to come to the scene to make sure I hadn’t killed anyone. I sat there staring at the twisted steel and the totalled vehicle and didn’t know what I was looking at. Was there a dead body there? Was the hood covered in human viscera? I just didn’t know. I mean, I was looking at it and I couldn’t see that stuff, but I also couldn’t walk away from it and tell you I was sure.
Once I leave it behind and step out of that moment, anything can happen. A fissure opens up in my memory and the crude oil of intrusive thoughts gush from their reserves to fill in the blanks, suffocating all of my thoughts like that duck from Saved By the Bell.
Which leaves me with a desperate need for control, or at least the illusion of it. The sense that I can hold close to my chest whatever the voice in my head has told me I need to keep me safe. That if I can keep this bus ticket in my left hand until I make it through my front door, nobody will be killed tonight, and I won’t be blamed, and maybe I can sleep soundly, and maybe I can wake up and not need to worry or panic or scream or cry ever again.
It doesn’t work that way.
The need for control leaves me tense, like a living rigor mortis. At the worst of times, it makes comfort feel like a cruel joke about a long-dead loved one. There is no warmth deep enough to infiltrate the fears that have made their home in my bones. The cold carries the whole way through.
Writing about mental illness isn’t easy, not least because the tenses jump back and forth as you realize you’re still suffering from problems you thought you’d overcome when you naively started writing a sentence a few seconds ago.
I hate doing it, and my hatred for it only increases. My writing doesn’t make me feel any better, and I’m not sure it achieves the goal of helping anyone else either, though I hope it does.
But that’s what mental illness is, in my case at least. A suffocation of the living, breathing, beautiful parts of the brain that love, dream, and create. A shutter pulled over the future so you can’t see the things that make you happy or hopeful. And you give into it because you want those parts back, and maybe if you bargain and acquiesce and play by its rules, you can reclaim yourself. All of yourself. But there is no you that exists without this disease.
So you try something else, and something else, and something else, like hollering from the rooftops about your pain in the hope that somebody out there hears you and realizes they aren’t alone. Maybe they’ll holler back or holler at someone else. And maybe somewhere in that chorus, some harmony will be found. Just another stubborn, intrusive thought of mine.