The post I swore I’d never write …
It’s Saturday morning, 6am. I just woke up, in the gym clothes I put on 24 hours ago. I’m tired because I dozed off in our rec room, with no pillow under-head, but woke with an urgency. Not the panicked urgency of an accident, but the urgency of clarity. I calmly marched upstairs to my office, turned on my desk lamp and my MacBook Air, logged into the guts of this site, and began writing. The words come easily today, as they do when I know what I want to say. They’ve been coming easily for weeks. But then suddenly, this week, the spigot was shut off. I have allowed stretches like this to perpetuate themselves, but this time–as they say in the movie trailers–it’ll be different. But the only way it’ll be different is if I do something I promised myself I never would.
I’m not one for confessions. I don’t really mind when friends and strangers share their struggles on social media, or in an article, or even for the length of a book. But, if I’m honest, I’ve never admired it. In fact, if I’m really honest, I’ve found it undignified. I share openly with my friends, in private, but beyond that, I’m of the stiff-upper-lip school. Suck it up, show up, get your work done, and present a facade of strength, even if it’s a complete fiction. But that hard-ass, judgmental intrasigence has been bumping up against a few realities the last few days. One is that I recently committed to posting every Monday and Friday here and failed to do either this week; the other is that I have decided that I want a deeper relationship with my readers, but have stubbornly kept one of the defining factors of my adult life under the rug. So, because I don’t know how else to move past this moment, and have this sudden belief that this will in fact get me there, here’s the post I swore I’d never write:
About 17 years ago, with great reluctance, I went to see a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with OCD. (I feel a twinge of remorse as I type that, but moving right along.) Just going to the doctor was tough. My therapist had concluded that there might be something biologically off with me. Have you ever been told that there might be something wrong with your brain? We rarely think of ourselves this way, but despite all the rest of us, when you get right down to it, we are our brains. And so even the possibility that something might be awry up there–in here–was more than humbling. It was scary and depressing. Because I was less than forthcoming with the doctor, the initial diagnosis was depression, but was soon revised to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
OCD is not what you’ve seen in the movies. The hand washing, the counting, the checking. Or rather it is that, but that’s only one half. The compulsive half. The obsessive half is the part they don’t tell you about on Monk. (Or maybe they do, I literally never watched it because I knew I wouldn’t be amused. It for sure wasn’t acknowledged in As Good as It Gets.) The call-and-response of obsessive-compulsive disorder is that you have obsessional thoughts, often about doing harm to yourself or others. Importantly, it’s not that you want to, or would, do those things, but you can’t shake the dread that you will lose control of yourself and do them. This is why my initial diagnosis was wrong: Because I was so ashamed of my thoughts that I lied to the good doctor when he asked me the intake quesitons. In my case, for reasons nobody will ever know, a suggestion was planted in my head by a story I saw on an Italian news program in a Venice hotel room in 1999 and an intrusive, unshakable fear that I would imitate what I’d seen in the story kept me up at night for more than a year. The compulsions–the counting and checking and hand-washing and other rituals–give you a sense of control over the obsessions. OCD. Wouldn’t you just love to have been the doctor who cracked that code?
Once diagnosed, I looked back over my life and realized that I had engaged in compulsive behavior since childhood: I had to say goodnight to all my stuffed animals in the same order, and there were a lot of them; I had a very specific way of setting my alarm clark, turning the knob in various directions like a secret handshake, rather than just to “on;” and so on. For some reason–again, we’ll never know why–this all got much worse around the same time as I saw that television show in Venice: I became a “checker,” returning home, sometimes from more than a subway stop away, to make sure the oven was off, or the iron was unplugged, or that I didn’t leave something potentially poisonous within reach of our dog. I also became almost metabolically indecisive: I couldn’t pick out new clothes, or even shoes, instead re-soleing them over and over. This also seeped into my work as a confidence at the keyboard was replaced by insecurity and a pathological need to endlessly polish and edit.
I took Zoloft for a time, and it helped, dramatically. But it made me tired, and I hate being tired. So I did what I could with behavioral therapy, then weaned myself off the medicine. I was okay. It was tough for me to deal with QuickBooks every tax season, or pack for a long trip, but on most days, I was doing fine. At least I was for years. But eventually some bad habits began creeping in again–who knows why–and a little less than a year ago, I went back on the medicine. It’s a low dose, for what I describe as a “low-grade” case of OCD, and it helps. I still have challenges, and “bad days,” but it helps.
Now here’s the part where I explain my reasons for telling you all of this. It’s not because it might help others. I’m registered as an organ donor and as a Democrat, and contribute to the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center, so I’m all good there. No, I’m sitting here–at 6:38 in the morning, now–simply because I don’t know what else to do. I’m sitting here banging away at this poor laptop like Jerry Lee Lewis at full tilt (and I must admit as painful as it is to relive some of this, it feels good to be writing so effortlessly) because after a few weeks of productivity like I hadn’t experienced in years–a steady flow of blog posts and podcasts and book proposal writing–I fell through what I used to call The Trap Door.
Here’s what happens: As is the case for everybody, there are myriad things that I need to accomplish on any given day. But rather than just getting them done, in a reasonable amount of time, and moving on to the next thing, I face several obstacles: One is that the tasks clutter my mind–I imagine the goings-on in there like a BINGO tumbler–and eventually things come crashing down: I don’t go to the gym in the morning because I get consumed by emails; I fuss over emails so I don’t get to the writing I assigned myself for the day; I start writing, but the first paragraph doesn’t read great, so I fuss over that for an hour (or a week) rather than completing a draft; I want to make dinner for the family, but I need to go shopping. And then I fall asleep in the clothes that never made it to the gym and wonder how it all went so wrong … again.
This will sound like exaggeration but I swear it isn’t: Unchecked, every day can feel like that Sunday afternoon in Goodfellas, but with deadlines instead of cocaine (or something like that; I’m not making a pit stop for a better explanation today):
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about what I want out of my writing, and my podcasting for that matter, and I’ve decided that it’s the same, main thing I want out of life: I want to connect with other people. But my need for perfection–which I connect to OCD–gets in the way of all that. Just so I’m clear, I don’t mean to suggest that my writing is perfect, at least not in the way that most people would mean it. But there are all kinds of perfect: There’s the perfect artistry of, say, David Foster Wallace, and there’s the perfect grammar of Andrew Sidney Friedman. I don’t sit on my posts waiting for the former, but I have been delayed for days by fear that a typo might slip by, or a factual error, or because I couldn’t find just the right picture to insert into a post.
Over the holidays, I happened upon a planner. It’s a paper planner and, as I learned in a New York Times article, there are now genres of them. This one markets itself as the “Best Daily Calendar and Gratitude Journal to Increase Productivity, Time Management & Happiness.” Yeah, I know: I laughed too. I mean, what sort of pathetic soul needs that? But when I read about it, I decided to try one with the same clarity and urgency with which I marched up those stairs 55 minutes ago.
It, literally, changed my life. I crossed off all the mundane tasks that cluttered up my head each morning, then methodically crossed off the bits of writing and podcasting and emailing that used to gum up the works. Along the way, I found myself jotting self-help thoughts in the margins of the page. “Distinguish between what feels hard from what is hard.” “Convert stress to excitement.” “My success depends on getting many things done efficiently.” Quickly, instead of writing those things down as they occurred to me during the day, I wrote them at the top of each page as part of my morning routine–self-correctives to keep me on track before I’d taken the first step. The calm and order this brought to my days gave me a powerful and unfamiliar sense of mastery and control. I slept like a baby and woke up excited to get to work.
After a few weeks, things were going so well that I decided I could take off the training wheels and ditch the planner. “I got this,” I thought. Plus, it felt so regimented to use that thing seven days a week. I wanted life to be more fun. But almost immediately–this brings us to my non-presence here over the last seven days–things went off the rails again, and I quickly realized that I need that planner the way an alcoholic needs a meeting. I need it so much that I’m fighting the urge to stop writing this post and start planning my day. While I’ve resisted, I have set myself a writing limit of 90 minutes for this, because, as I used to write in the margins of that planner, and will write again while I sip my coffee this morning, “My success depends on getting things done efficiently.”
Anyway, that’s why I didn’t post this week.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. I’m not going to promise you that I’ll be back with two posts next week, although I hope to be. If I’m not, please go easy on me.
Ok, it’s 7:25. Almost pencils-down time. I’m going to stop writing and get this thing up before I think better of it, or start editing it, which would make the writing better, but take a greater toll beyond the screen. (If you notice that it wasn’t posted at 7:30am, that’ll be because Ms. Toqueland sleeps in on Saturdays and I need to show this to her before I hit “publish.” Hey, this is real life; not Jerry Maguire.) Then I’m going to do do what I was supposed to do yesterday when I put on these clothes I’m still wearing: I’m going to go to the gym. Then I’ll follow my schedule, with blocks assigned to downtime and time with my kids and “watch tennis” time. I wish I could be more spontaneous but this is what works for me. Maybe some day I’ll take off those training wheels. I’d like that. All of that said, I do have Black Panther tickets for tonight because even OCD has its benefits and I planned ahead. Enjoy your weekend and see you back here … soon. Let’s just leave it at that, ok?