with your dusty browns
and shady grass
all moving past,
with parks astride
the freeway's side
and hearts that know
and streets that glow
in summer sun
at half past one,
our hasty gait
while moving on
to where we're from:
you watch it all,
while freeway's call
denies the chance
to meet your glance.
The moment gone,
we part unknown.
I wish I knew
the half of you.
There was nothing else he could tell Pa now.
Nothing else, because words could not convey the kind of knowledge he now held. It was knowledge of an utterly certain though intangible kind, yet it carried with it also the equally palpable certainty that none would believe it. He could not tell you how he knew, yet he did know: that the man he had directed to Burden Street had been the killer, that he was in some unavoidable way to blame for the death that had taken place there, and that his life was now forfeit because of what he had done. Indeed, he had already known this in some way prior to this moment; known, that is, that his life was forfeit because of something unspeakable within him. Was that not the reason his classmates mocked him, why they called him “Savage”, why that name always seemed so apt for him, why Laura kept her distance, or why he knew he had to keep his distance from her? It all made sense. It always had made sense. Yet, like Cassandra before the fall of Troy, what he knew was never to be believed, however disastrous the consequences.
And so silently he took the book from Pa, said, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing,” and made to get ready for bed. If Pa was unconvinced, he said nothing, only paused briefly in the doorway to add, “You know where I am if you want to chat.” It was one of his common lines – whenever he could see hints of unhappiness in Philip’s face – and Philip would reply, “In the backyard”. Only, not tonight. He said, “Yes,” and looked at the cover of the book.
He had read A Christmas Carol some years ago, and images from it were still burnt into his mind, most powerfully the Ghost of Christmas Future, that figure who was all the more terrifying for being silent and invisible. Yet he was haunted too by the image of Marley, the ghost whose face first appeared in the door knocker and who Philip somehow expected to see each time he went to his own front door. He had been haunted too by the ghosts that had hovered in the night air after Marley’s appearance to Scrooge, those souls tormented by unresolved wrongdoing, doomed to linger in that tortured half-life of theirs, a life that, for months after, Philip had believed himself condemned to.
No-one else knew why. At school, he was without fault. Yet that faultlessness was a trial to maintain, especially when it was nothing like the world within. And now, he felt sure, the world within had caught up with events outside of him. The murderer inside him had crept out and taken hold of circumstances, even against his conscious will, to take another life, just as he had done so many times in his own head, when mocked, when ridiculed, when set up for failure again and again. Each time he had wished death upon another: each of those times had culminated in this moment when a murderer had seen him in the street and, knowing at first sight the murderous kinship they held, had asked him for direction. There was no doubt in Philip’s mind: there would be ghosts for him tonight, and ghosts more brutal than any that Scrooge had seen.
The court was in session. The witnesses, ghoulish but familiar all of them, were summoned one by one. First, the swimming instructor Philip had wished dead when he was nine. Second, the emergency teacher who always found reason to tell him off when he was in Grade Six. Third, a convoy of his peers. Fourth, Laura. She could not even speak. All she could do was point at him. And then, fifth, the Burden Street Stranger. And sixth, the dead man at Number 12 who, though Philip had never seen, was emblazoned in his mind. He had no face, only eyes, and the eyes stared into Philip’s.
Seated at the head of the court was the judge. He too was faceless yet saw everything. And when the witnesses had all spoken he raised his gavel and beat Philip’s resounding judgment into the table, into the earth below. There was nothing Philip could do. Panicked, he ran from his bed. Only water could save him, if even that would do.
Hurriedly, he entered the bathroom and slammed the door, stripping his pyjamas from his body, now drenched in condemning sweat. The sweat knew. The bathroom mirror knew. He did not wait for the water to heat before standing under it. He did not close his eyes. He simply stared through the shower screen at the sight of his face in the basin mirror. The water gathered around his face. The shower screen began to mist. Still Philip stared. Still the face and the mirror knew.
He barely heard Sarah knock. He barely had the presence of mind to cover himself as she came in. He barely registered what she said; was it, “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before”? Perhaps. At least he gave up covering himself then, and let her enter the water to take him out.
And then, “Mum, Dad.” Yes, she called, “Mum, Dad.”
And where were they? Did they come straight away? Draped in towels, he felt himself be taken. He felt the couch beneath him. He heard his mother say, “Dad, can you keep an eye on him while…”
And then the phone. It was a noisy phone. The numbers always beeped when you touched them. He heard her speak but not her words. “Easy there, mate,” said Pa, as he sat. And Pa’s soft arms enveloped him.
No answer was forthcoming simply from passing the crime scene. Nor did his family know anything about it when they came home. It had to wait until the six o’clock news for anything official, though Pa had a friend visit his caravan out the back with word of what had happened. The story was that the police had arrived around midday after a tip-off that someone had died at number 12. No-one could remember who lived there now. The old family had moved a few years ago and there had been a stream of tenants since then. Pa’s sources had no information about the current tenant or who it was that had died. Had it been suspicious? Suspicious enough for the police to be there. Had anyone heard anything? Had anyone odd been seen around the house? Many questions were asked, many theories shared. Philip had ears only for the ones in his head.
As far as he could see, it all made sense, and it was all traced back to him. The lines were so clear that, when the police officer on the news was heard asking for all who knew anything to come forward, Philip’s face was sweaty with the urgency of the moment. Yet nothing came out, not even a confession to his parents, not even a mumbled question about what the police might be after. Although he rehearsed many such questions in his head, and at a speed that defied the movement of light, only silence seemed a clear enough response to what he had heard. While the rest of his family had nothing else to talk about but the death at Number 12, Philip had no desire to talk at all. After the news, and after dinner, he took himself to his room, where he sat on his bed and tied knots inside his mind.
Pa found him on his bed, the light still on, around 9 o’clock that night when he came to say goodnight. He didn’t, of course, see the knots, but he did see Philip staring blankly into the wall as though seeking to see through it. He paused in the doorway and asked, “Is everything okay, mate?”
Pa was the only one who called him that, “mate”. Philip looked over at him. He had a book in his hand. Philip looked at the title. An Advent and Christmas Treasury, it was called.
Philip didn’t reply. Pa stepped in closer to him, close enough to pass him the book, but he held it briefly suspended between them, letting Philip’s hand touch it but not quite giving it to him.
“I brought you this,” he said. “I knew I had it somewhere. I remembered it when you talked about ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ the other day.” He moved in now to sit beside Philip and, taking the book back, he opened it. “Look,” he said. “It’s got some other Rossetti poems in here that I thought you might like more. There’s one…” His hand hovered over the pages, as though trying to summon up the exact page from memory. “‘The end of all things is at hand’,” he said, then chuckled. “It’s a grim name. But it’s a beautiful poem. I think – ” He turned to a page near the centre of the book and, finding the poem, looked over the words to remind himself of them. “Yes, I think you’ll see her skill more if you read this one.”
Only then did he look up at Philip, whose eyes were directed towards the book but focused on nothing.
“Phil?” He paused. “Is there anything…?”
The question hung incomplete, slightly inflected, with Pa’s eyes asking the rest.
“Pa,” said Philip. “If…”
“Yes?” prompted Pa.
Philip paused, rearranging imagined words somewhere above his head.
“Is it…can someone be arrested for helping…for making a crime possible?”
Pa’s eyes turned more intently toward Philip’s.
“Do you mean…being an accessory?”
“Maybe…” said Philip. “I mean, if…”
Pa closed the book. Philip saw the picture on the front cover. He recognised the scene: Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present. He stared at it while he spoke, though the image slowed his words, almost blocking them somewhere in between brain and mouth.
“If…what happened at Burden Street…if someone had done something…not meaning to…something that helped…”
“Phil,” said Pa, moving closer, “have you done something?”
Philip’s eyes settled on Scrooge’s face. He tried to see into them, but couldn’t. The Ghost of Christmas Present, large, jolly, full of yuletide cheer – what did his glowing cheeks seem to say to Philip that night?
That lunchtime, before Drama class, Philip had nearly lost a prop that he’d brought from home for the performance they were doing, and had spent so much time running around looking for it – opening up and emptying the contents of his bag and locker, checking his home room, everywhere he could think of – that when he had arrived in class, he had been more flustered than usual for an afternoon class. And, to top it all off, when he’d finally come to class with his prop in hand and sat down, the boy next to him, a new boy to the school called Simon, had said, “I thought I smelt something.” It had taken a few minutes to realise that this was Simon’s latest joke – he was using it on most people in the class that afternoon – but even then the joke had stuck on him like his sweaty shirt did. The whole lesson after that, he’d had that same feeling about him as though he were no longer inside him but watching. As he had lain on the floor pretending to be a paintbrush, talking about what a hard master Van Gogh was, with the coloured wool he had brought to school gathered around his head, he had felt as though that very well might have been true. Better to be a paintbrush than what he was.
And so, by the time Sarah had come to fetch him, Philip had nothing to say. There had been plenty of material for conversation throughout the morning: all the ridiculous and frustrating things his teachers had made him do, as though they mattered at all by this time of year. Yet the afternoon’s Drama class had overshadowed all of that, and done so in a way that words could not convey. The mute position he’d taken on the Drama room floor seemed somehow the most fitting way of expressing what had been and gone through the day. Sarah tried to make conversation a few times but, failing altogether, had settled into silence herself, though almost certainly a very different silence to the one that Philip inhabited.
Sarah would not, for instance, have been ruing Philip’s awkwardness with Laura that morning when passing the milk-bar had made him think of her offer to walk to school together. Nor would Sarah have felt that odd mixture of fear and shame that assaulted him when they approached Burden Street. Yet she would certainly have shared his surprise at seeing the police barricade outside Number 12, yellow-and-blue police tape marking out a temporary fence across the front lawn and white-and-blue cars in the street. And, in that moment of shared surprise, Sarah’s silence turned to now expressing Philip’s thoughts when she said, “What happened here?” But before she could speak Philip’s thoughts had turned to white noise in his ears.
“Hey,” called a voice from the other side of the road.
Reluctantly he looked over. It was Laura. She was crossing to meet him. But what was she doing here? She didn’t normally walk this way to school.
“I slept over at Stacy’s,” she said, as if she knew that an explanation was needed. “Are you walking to school?”
For some reason, he paused before saying, “Yeah.”
“Want to walk together?”
He looked over to where Stacy, a girl from his class whom he didn’t think much of, stood with some of the other kids from their class. They looked like they were waiting for a few more to join them.
“Aren’t you going with Stacy?” he asked.
Laura shrugged. “They’re waiting for the others,” she said. “I don’t mind walking ahead.”
It should have been an easy enough question to answer. Sometimes, since they had moved closer to school instead of coming from the next town away, he had wondered if he would bump into Laura while walking. It had never happened, though he had sometimes seen her in passing, when she had others with her or when he was with his family, and it had only ever been awkward. But now – now she was offering to walk to school with him – and he couldn’t answer her. He looked over at Stacy and the others, imagining what they would be thinking. It was always best to imagine what others thought, in case they thought something that might hurt you.
“It’s okay,” he said. “You go with them.”
And he kept walking.
“Bye then,” called Laura.
And, in an action that would confuse even him and circle around in his head in the days and weeks to come, he simply lifted his hand up in a kind of absent wave, not looking back, not even letting her see the side of his face as he walked.
The day after, he always felt like a wounded soldier. And, while there was a certain manly glory in the feeling, it was hard for others to see or understand it; and what good, really, was there in having survived a battle that no-one else knew you had fought?
As a younger child, he had tried at times to get his parents or Sarah to understand. Sometimes they seemed to, yet only sometimes. It was easiest for them to understand when there was something tangible to explain the battle: a sickness, f0r instance; something that could be observed and diagnosed. Fear of sickness did not seem to amount to the same thing. Being convinced he had asbestosis because Pa had brought out a piece of asbestos at the dinner table one night and had shown it to them: that had not been legitimate. The night that the left half of his face felt paralysed, that night they had understood, for a time; until it had been revealed that there was nothing really wrong with him, only fear.
So, on days like today, he learnt to simply endure it. School would go on, the battle would go on. Perhaps, he reflected, he shouldn’t have read that book before bed. Perhaps he should have drunk his before-bed glass of milk. There were no explanations, only guilt. So he took it on his own shoulders, and went to school.
Sarah, although offering to drive him from school, had no intention of driving him there. “I’m on holidays,” she’d said, when he’d gone to her room to say goodnight. “I’m not getting up that early.” And so it was with some level of fear that he set off walking to school, passing Burden Street as he did, not sure if he was afraid of the stranger he had met or of the strangeness of his thoughts on going to bed. He could reflect now, in the relatively calm light of day, that there had been no reason to think that he had feared – what was it? What even had he feared? The content of the book? The face of the stranger? His own heart? Having no idea what, he could only try to shrug off the odd sensation that clung still about him.
It was another sunny day, likely to make him clammy and grumpy by the end. He hated the sensation of summer about his face and limbs. Only when he could be still and at rest in the sun did he not mind. When he had a fan and a book, or a beach to dip into, then the sun did not trouble him. But when his uniform clung about him and the sun beat down with the pulsating urgency of timetables and the scrutiny of familiar schoolyard faces: then sun was only torture.
So he did his best to walk in the shade, and shade there was if he crossed the road. The shade took him also away from the milk bar where some of his classmates met in the mornings to walk to school together. Crossing over, he averted his eyes from the milk bar and focused on the shade.
“Hey,” called a voice from the other side of the road.
A knock on the door. The door began to open. He hurriedly poked his head out from under the covers. It was Sarah.
“What are you doing?” she asked, looking a little oddly at him.
“Nothing,” he mumbled. “Just reading.”
“Under the covers?”
“Yeah, why not?”
A pause. He slipped the book under his pillow, hoping Sarah didn’t see the action, then slid the covers off and stood up, with a face that said, Nothing to see here.
“Do you want me to pick you up from school tomorrow?”
“Sure,” he said. It felt strangely grown-up having your sister pick you up from school. He wondered if Mark’s sister could drive. He didn’t know if Mark had a sister.
“Okay,” said Sarah. She stood in the doorway for a moment. “Are you alright?”
And, though he felt quite sure that he was, for some reason his voice squeaked a little when he said, “Yeah.” Was his voice breaking? He was a bit young for that, wasn’t he?
“You sure?” Sarah insisted.
“Yes, I am sure,” he said, thinking that a more formal reply might be more convincing. And Sarah, recognising at least that no other answer would be forthcoming, gave him a peck on the cheek and went out, closing the door behind her.
He paused before picking up the book again, but soon he was so immersed in that strange, staccato world that he forgot the conversation. So immersed in the odd and frantic world of the character’s brain – a brain that feared an eye, and the pounding of a dead man’s heart. Immersed, he must admit, in a mind that had resorted to murder. Nothing else could enter his brain until he reached the final words – Tear up the planks! here, here! – It is the beating of his hideous heart! – and had found in that phrase something that grabbed him and clung to him like an oddly caustic limpet.
He had carried it with him, wordlessly, as he said good night to his family, turned off the light for the night and crawled under the sheets, with Edgar Allan Poe still at his head, beneath the pillow. And as he lay there he found the limpet still present, though it seemed to be becoming larger, stronger, almost in the atmosphere around him. And he found that all conversations and all things that he had read, seen and known that day were replaced with the face of the man in the street – why was he there? – somehow changed, turned not so much sinister as knowing, and replaced too by the pounding thought, prompted by nothing but his own pulsating mind, that he, Philip Savage, was the real danger, and that a pounding, murderous heart, uninvited yet thoroughly expected, was beating all about him. Quick, the air seemed to say, listen to his hideous heart! And sleep, he knew, was unlikely to come that night.
Dinner had passed with congratulations all round for his sister’s success at her license test and corrections from his grandfather over his reports of the ridiculous song that had been inflicted on Philip in music class that afternoon.
“That was ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’!” Pa had said. “Christina Rossetti and Gustav Holst. The greatest English poet of her century, and one of the greatest English composers too. Strangled cat indeed. Ppphhhh!”
He never quite knew how Pa managed to make that sound, really just a blowing of air through pursed lips, into something so affectionate and admonitory at the same time, but it had had its desired effect. Philip already contemplated changing his listening diary in the morning to reflect a growing understanding of the song’s value. But then dinner had ended, he had been asked if he had any homework, to which he had replied in the negative, and the conclusion had been that he was therefore in the perfect position to do the washing up. Unable to suddenly acquire homework without raising suspicions, Philip had slunk off to the kitchen in reluctant obedience and had begun the laborious task, finding as he got underway that the act of splashing dish suds around in the sink was quite restful and restorative. Only, when he had finished and his shirt was covered in water, Sarah said, “Did you wet yourself, Phil?” and his dad found several plates that still had food-scraps left on them, and the job, when he returned to complete it, seemed much less pleasurable the second time around.
So, when Philip was finally released from the responsibility, he retreated quickly to his room, where the book he had borrowed that morning from the library was waiting for him. It was entitled Tales of Mystery and Imagination and had a particularly gruesome picture of a man skulking around a four-poster bed with a bloodied heart in his hands. He felt fairly sure that his parents wouldn’t want him reading it, which was why he had placed the book under his pillow as soon as he’d come home, and why he decided to read it now with the added precaution of hiding under the covers. The caption on the back cover told him that the cover painting was called “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and, finding a story in the book by that name – and finding that it was relatively short – he started the book there.
True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them.
He was compelled from the start. The phrases – short, sharp, almost staccato – and the odd, frantic punctuation arrested him somehow, as though he himself were in the mind of the narrator. He had no idea what he was reading, yet he had to continue.
Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth…
A knock on the door. The door began to open. He hurriedly poked his head out from under the covers. It was Sarah.
“Sorry to bother you, mate,” said the man. “I just need some directions.”
Philip remained where he was but tilted his head a little towards the man. He didn’t recognise him, but something about the man made him seem harmless enough. He looked like someone his parents would invite over for dinner – though that was hardly a guarantee of safety. “Even if someone you know well makes you uncomfortable…” his teachers had said – at which Mark had called out, “Ben makes me uncomfortable!” and the lesson had changed from being about stranger-danger to Mark’s stupidity. Not unusual, he reflected. Though it had made the moral of the lesson a little hard to recall at this moment.
“Can you tell me where Burden Street is?” the man continued. “I…” A pause. “I got the train here and thought I could walk there from the station. But I’m lost.”
Philip lifted his arm to point in the direction of Burden Street, before realising that this meant the man was going in the same direction as he was, a thought that made his head spin a little. This could be difficult, if they found themselves walking close to each other. How was he to avoid stranger danger in that case? Perhaps he should just tell the stranger which way to go and then wait until he was gone before walking further himself.
“It’s up that way,” he said, still pointing. “Turn right, then left, then right again.”
He’d given the directions without really thinking about them. But were they correct, he wondered? Suddenly he doubted himself, but didn’t want the conversation to go on any longer. It made little difference if he sent the man off the wrong way. He’d never see him again. So he said nothing more.
“Right, left, right,” repeated the man, still from behind.
“Yes,” said Philip, looking straight ahead once more.
The man smiled as he walked past Philip to go up the hill. “Thanks, mate,” he said, and kept walking. He didn’t look back. Philip stood still and watched him go up the hill. He’d wait until the man was out of sight before continuing on his own way home.
There wasn’t much time for Philip to regain focus on his time travelling. At first, he found himself altogether unable to return to the adventure on which he had been embarking only a minute ago; somehow, his brush with possible, real-world danger had taken his focus off time travelling and smoking without health risks to wondering if he would ever see that man again and if, indeed, seeing him again would be a safe or perilous thing. Yet there was no time even for reflecting on that, because he was startled again by the sound of a car horn behind him. Looking back with a jolt (and no small fear that his decision to give directions might already be having treacherous repercussions) he saw his sister, who was surprising him not only by honking her horn but also by being alone behind the wheel of a car.
“Get in!” she called, pulling up beside him and leaning over towards the passenger window.
“What are you doing here?” he called back, too surprised for that moment to have the presence of mind to get in.
“Driving!” she called back, an answer that was, for that moment, sufficient reason for him to get in beside her, although not particularly informative.
They were halfway up the hill that the stranger had only just surmounted when Sarah said, by way of explanation, “I got my license!”
“But why aren’t you in Melbourne?” asked Philip, still confused and reluctant to accept the facts set out before him.
“I came for my license test,” she said. “Surprise.” Then a pause. “Aren’t you going to say, ‘Congratulations’, or something normal like that?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Philip. “Congratulations.”
They sat quietly for a moment, Sarah too focused on changing gears at the top of the hill, Philip too thrown by all these unexpected encounters to know what to say. Then he remembered the question that had most been on his mind since getting in the car, and asked, “Were you driving to get me?”
Sarah laughed. “Nah, I just wanted to go for a drive. I only finished my test an hour ago. But I saw you there and you looked so forlorn. I thought I’d give you a lift.”
“Thanks,” said Philip, not liking the description forlorn, but, in truth, too forlorn to think too much about it.
After a moment, Sarah said, “Were you talking to that guy before?”
Philip sat up. “Which guy?”
Sarah pointed ahead of them. They had caught up with the stranger, who had taken the first right and was heading towards the next turn.
Philip swallowed and, for some reason, said, “No.”
Sarah paused, and said, “It looked like you were.”
“No,” said Philip. “I wasn’t.”
And that was that: a pointless lie, a conversation that went nowhere. They turned the corner and Philip avoided the man seeing him as they drove past. That, as far as Philip was concerned, was that. Yet his heart pounded particularly hard as he entered the house when they arrived home.
Wanting to keep things neat and tidy is not OCD. Straightening crooked pictures is not OCD. Demarcating your work-space clearly is not OCD. All of these things might point to OCD but they could just as likely not. Having invasive, repeated and unwanted thoughts that drive you to perform compulsions in an attempt to control them – THAT is OCD.
It was a small town in South Australia near the Murray River. My wife and in-laws were still in the coffee shop finishing their lunch and I needed to pick up some medication before we left town; I would need it by the morning, and there was a chance that there would be no pharmacy wherever we were going that night. So I left my family in the shop and wandered down the street to where I had seen a small pharmacist.
There was a trainee at the counter. He seemed warm and friendly and had been a local boy before moving to the city to study. He greeted the other customers like old friends or long-forgotten neighbours. I was the odd one out for sure, but he didn’t let it show. He was friendly enough and, once he had fetched my medication, he was careful – painstaking even – in how he wrapped up the packet inside the white paper bag he gave me. I must have looked at him in a way that made him feel scrutinised, because he smiled and said, “Yeah, I’m just a bit OCD about that.”
My first response was just to smile, pay, and leave with my medication. And as I walked from the shop I didn’t feel anything in particular. It’s a normal remark. It annoys me, but I’m used to it. I hear it all the time and, while you might hear it too and not really notice, I do because, you see, I have OCD. That was why I was getting the medication: an SSRI commonly prescribed to treat the condition. The same medication can be used for any of the related anxiety or depressive disorders; often OCD goes along with generalised anxiety disorder and/or depression, as it does in my case. Yet a training pharmacist should be expected to know that an SSRI may well be treating OCD or at least a number of closely related disorders. It was a thoughtless remark at best. At worst, it could have been deeply harmful. As I left I wondered if I should have said something. There was such a high chance that his remark would be highly pointed for me, and, while I have learnt to ignore comments like his, others may not know how to or even think that ignoring it is right. In the end it was too late to do anything. All I can do is hope and pray that he learns not to say such things.
But ever since then I have been thinking more and more about the remark, thinking about my own tendency towards brushing it off as “just something that people say”, and about the ways that such off-hand remarks can actually cause significant pain and distress to many. I’ve been thinking too about how few parallels there are, how few other serious conditions we have turned into idioms to describe our own eccentricities. Our society has generally moved away from calling things “schizo” or “retarded”. We might often say that we are “depressed” when we just feel temporarily bad, and some are inclined to declare themselves “suicidal” when that is a very long way from the truth. Yet there seems to be something highly pervasive about the phrase “just a bit OCD”, and not only does it diminish the pain of those who truly are more than a bit OCD, but it also shows a complete misunderstanding of what the condition entails. Wanting to keep things neat and tidy is not OCD. Straightening crooked pictures is not OCD. Demarcating your work-space clearly is not OCD. All of these things might point to OCD but they could just as likely not. Having invasive, repeated and unwanted thoughts that drive you to perform compulsions in an attempt to control them – THAT is OCD. And it is close to nothing like what the general public thinks.
When I was a child some of my family and friends would joke about me being “OCD”. I bought into the joke, not knowing how unhelpful it was. You see, I liked everything to be neat, and I was quite extreme in this. I once asked my brother if he had borrowed a certain CD, on the grounds that the disc was aligned differently in the case to how I would have done it. I also went through a stage of being almost obsessive in keeping my hair neat. These were, perhaps, signs of compulsions. The neatness, I’m inclined to think wasn’t, because in the end I could largely do without it. The hair was more likely a sign. But the thing that made it a sign wasn’t that I wanted neat hair. It was that there was a student in my class who was teased because his hair made an egg-shape on his head and, fearing anything that might give more reason for me to be bullied, I did everything I could to avoid such ridicule of my own hair.
The biggest signs of OCD, however, were entirely internal. When my head would be assaulted with a barrage of obscenities that were completely at odds with my quiet, Christian, demeanour, and I learnt to combat them by silently tapping out rhythms on my fingers or keeping a steady, circling version of the Lord’s Prayer or something along those lines in my head: that was OCD. Not just a bit OCD, profoundly OCD.
And it wasn’t until, at age 28, that a psychiatrist thought to ask me about THOSE thought patterns, not just why I was sad and stressed all the time, that my OCD was identified. Not because I liked things to be a certain way but because my head was filled with assaulting thoughts and I only knew how to keep them at bay through old (and increasingly ineffective) patterns that I had learnt as a child.
The word “obsession” actually comes from the Latin word for an army assault. That’s what an obsessive thought is like. Picture an army with a battering ram attacking a castle. And then picture the knights indoors trying to combat the battering ram by tapping out their own frantic rhythm to keep themselves from hearing the assaults outside. When that describes your mental state, and the habits you learn to combat it, that is OCD.
No-one ever describes a sore pimple or bump on your head as “a bit cancerous”. We’ve learnt not to call things “spastic”, and we’re moving away from “gay” and “psycho”. But, when we like things to be neat, we have no qualms calling that “a bit OCD”. Please, please – just don’t. If you don’t want to trivialise the agonising pain of a condition you barely understand, then find another phrase. Say you’re neat. Say you’re fussy. But don’t say you’re “a bit OCD”, because the chances are that you aren’t, and if you are (and you have all my sympathy and compassion if this is the case) then the problem is going to be much bigger than your neatness and deserves more respect than you or our society are giving it.