By RICH MONAHAN MARCH 15, 2018
“You must really love that song,” my mother says, and for a moment my heart stops.
Both of us are plainly aware she need not be more specific than that. I attempt to read her body language out of the corner of my eye. Does she know? There’s no way, right?
“Yeah, it’s a favorite.” I nod, smiling, before turning back toward the television with what I hope is all the nonchalance of a typical 14-year-old boy.
What I definitely do not do is glance back and say, “Funny story about that song, while you’ve clearly noticed I’ve listened to it every single weeknight this entire school year, would you believe I only ever press play at exactly 8:38 p.m.?
“And check this out, once that cable box hits 9:52 p.m., I will casually retire to my bedroom to initiate the final sequence of what has recently ballooned into a nearly 90-minute nightly routine of humiliating compulsions: I’ll touch the same four CDs laid out on my dresser in ‘order’; turn the stereo on and off; move to the entertainment center; touch the ‘Twisted Metal’ video game case; turn on the TV; boot up the PlayStation; shut it off once the load screen finishes; press ‘channel up’ on the cable box until I hit channel 20, then 22, then 40; turn off the cable box, then touch nothing else until it’s lights out at 9:58 p.m.
“And that’s not even the craziest part; the craziest part is that I do these things because I believe they will somehow increase my social standing among other ninth graders. Anywho, Mom, the song’s called ‘Daysleeper,’ and
It started in seventh grade, when two childhood friends aged out of hanging out with me. Already depressed and on the verge of friendlessness, I was desperate to preserve life as it had been.
“Well,” my brain misfired, “Last time you all hung out together, you wore that one pair of Hanes tighty whities. Put those on.”
I did. Then I wore them again the next day, and the next, for 30 days straight.
Soon, it snowballed into an impossible amount of rituals, all infused with a bizarre sense of causality: “If I do X, Y and Z today, then tomorrow my classmates will like me.” As if I’d uncovered some grand cosmic game of cause and effect, and could suddenly influence the natural chaos of the universe by displaying three years’ worth of used deodorant sticks chronologically.
My entire day was an effort to recreate the patterns of the previous one.
On the good days, obessive-compulsive disorder can just feel like a bunch of extra chores. On the bad days, when nothing is “working,” you are trapped in a living nightmare, helplessly enslaved to an oppressive and delusional belief system that has swallowed nearly every moment of your waking life.
On the bright side: I always knew exactly where my keys were.
I tried not to examine the bigger implications of it all, though I was aware enough to know I should be absolutely ashamed. So I told no one.
I mastered the art of deflection, expertly turning every response into a joke and steering every conversation into being about the other person.
By the end of high school, I had friends, won superlatives and no one knew a thing about me. Mission accomplished.
But college threw an unexpected curve ball: I finally had a girlfriend.
Michelle and I met when I started performing improv comedy every weekend.
“Is that the same Power Bar that’s always there?” she asks a few weeks into our relationship, staring at the twisted energy bar sitting in the cup holder of my Corolla’s center console. “Oh, that?
No, that’d be really funny, but no, I just bought it,” I grin.
Trying to pass this contorted energy bar off as new is akin to peeling roadkill off the highway, bringing it home and announcing we have a new pet. It is of course the same Power Bar I have kept in my car for months, though to be fair, only on Fridays and Saturdays when I have a show, as during the week I store it in my underwear drawer.
Her brow furrows.
As the relationship progresses, there are only so many ways to sidestep her gentle and utterly normal getting-to-know-you questions. I’m eventually forced to tell her about my O.C.D. and depression, but I pretend it’s over: “When I was a kid, I did these rituals so I would have good days.”
She buys me a book about O.C.D. I never read it.
When we’re among friends I’m a delight — sane and gregarious. When we’re alone, I shrink bitterly.
We date for four years but break up annually. Each time, I fall apart and swear I will go to therapy, for real this time.
In the back half of college, I transfer to the school of my dreams and take over my deceased grandmother’s Brooklyn apartment, exactly as she left it.
Michelle suggests painting, I refuse. She asks for closet space, I say sorry, we cannot move Grandma’s oxygen tanks. I cannot risk any fluctuation in my recent streak of positive outcomes.
Imagine looking in the eye the one person on earth who has been instrumental to your success, then turning to your meticulously organized DVDs and thanking them for their service.
Michelle dumps me a final time. I crumble. “No, I was ready for change,” I tell her. Thankfully, she knows it’s a lie, and sets us both free.
For months, I am in free-fall. As someone who chases patterns where there are none, I finally catch a glimpse of one that is very real: This is not the only relationship my mental illness will detonate. It’s just the first.
Ten years into my condition, I am at the end of my rope. I start therapy in earnest and begin to see that — although this might not be true for everyone — for me, all the power I give the rituals lies in shame.
So I do the unthinkable. I go nuclear.
I tell everyone everything.
“So wait, what was the shaving-with-no-pants-on one about?” my friend Nate asked.
“So people would like me.”
“I thought that was carrying the broken Garfield watch.”
“No no, that’s what I did so you’d pick up the phone when I called.”
“Oh. Did it work?”
“Did it work? Nate, I think the whole point of this conversation is that I am absolutely ill-equipped to make that assessment.”
In sharing with friends and family the weirdest things about me, I expect humiliation, or at least some solid recoils in horror. Instead, they mull it over, ask a couple of questions, then tell me the weirdest things about themselves.
Over time, I even become a trusted resource for friends newly tackling their own mental health.
I spent a decade lying, secretly rearranging the objects in my bedroom in order to keep friends around. But opening up enough to tell them so brought us closer than ever.
I have not had a single compulsion since.
Rich Monahan is a writer and storyteller living in Los Angeles.