A Pure O story. A slice of my life in the 1990’s, when I didn’t know what OCD was.
You wake up fully dressed on your bed, tongue dry in your mouth, eyes wandering around the room. Dried blood stains your shirt, missing skin on your knuckles, a distant drum banging in your head – another busy night, more hazy memories to file under embarrassing moments, another hunk of meat to chew over for the rest of your life. Part of your brain is still asleep, but the portion that is wide awake and paranoid whispers that you may have been a naughty boy. Previous experience and the dried blood on your fist suggests that this time, the demon on your shoulder may be telling the truth.
“I was drunk,” you blurt out to the empty room.
Coffee would go down well, but that means getting out of bed, and your anxiety is already scratching at your membrane, although not as much as most mornings – must be the remaining alcohol in your system, continuing to perform, feeding you confidence on a drip. By ten o’clock you’ll be dry, back to staring at walls, fighting grizzly bears in your head.
“I hate you, Crow.” An image of a girl laughing dances in your mind. What did you say to her? And is it the good kind of laughing, or the fake sort that adds to the self doubt already circling in your head? Multiply and multiply again.
‘Sarcastic,’ suggests Crow, your cruel, self doubting OCD avatar. ‘Probably thinks you’re a c*nt.’
The coffee is ruined by negative thoughts spiralling out of control. One particularly nasty spike is something you’ve been struggling with for five years now. How can your memory be true to an event that happened so long ago? Every time you go back to that field in Norfolk, Crow adds another ingredient to the pot. You convince yourself that you’ll be dead this time next year anyway. Not in the mood for breakfast now – nerves too jittery, stomach too heavy. Why was that girl laughing? Was it at you or maybe something her friend had said – maybe she just happened to look up and innocently catch your eye?
‘Definitely at you,’ sneers Crow, and of course, you believe him, ritualising internally, imagining blinding white light to eradicate the insidious thoughts curling around your mind like smoke. In the kitchen, a coffee stain on the counter reminds you of a picture you once saw of a tumor on a lung. The memory of the laughing girl is yanked to the back of your head by an invisible wire, hair billowing in front of her face by the force of the removal. Replaced by a doctor sitting in his office staring at a computer screen.
“It’s terminal,” he says. And you know he doesn’t give a damn about the test results.
If you look at the coffee stain and picture a blinding white light, would the cancer shrink to nothing? Ridiculous, and you know it, but choose to imagine that brilliant white light, nonetheless. It eases the stress of dying.
‘You got it this time,’ says Crow. ‘But it’ll grow back.’
Football Focus is on BBC1 but you can’t enjoy it, or your coffee, because you’re thinking such awful thoughts. Things like, I could kill my grandad today. And maybe you will just because you can. Push him down the stairs, sink a kitchen knife into his belly. Imagining the grisly details of the kill turns your stomach, but you’re convinced the potential threat will only go away if you continue to think about it until his final breath feels ‘real’ enough. Forty minutes later and your coffee sits cold on the table. But at least you’re not going to murder your Granddad. Not today, anyway.
The afternoon is spent laying on your bed, recovering from the chemical abuse you subjected your body to last night. You’re trying not to think about anything other than football, because thinking is always a risk, a chance you’ll remember past delusions, trigger old obsessions.
Why was that girl laughing at you?
Luke calls you early evening. “You OK? How’s your hand? You gotta stop punching things.”
“Feels a bit sore,” you say. “I drank too much.”
Arrangements are made for tonight. Seven o’clock in The Five Bells. A couple of pints and a taxi into town. Sounds great, just gotta get those twisted images out of your head, and stop worrying about last night. Did you punch a window out of frustration? Maybe a wall? Or did you pummel your fists into the floor like last time? Have to be more careful, you promise the weary reflection in the mirror. Shit, is that a mole on your forehead? A lump on your neck? Burn it out with that blinding white light…
‘You’ll die if you don’t,’ promises Crow.
“Don’t be fucking ridiculous.” But a tiny doubt is growing like a puddle in the rain, a pool spreading into a lake, becoming a small sea and finally an ocean. Takes you fifteen minutes to imagine a sheet of pure white light that you are satisfied with. To get the ‘right’ feeling.
You should really have a shower but you’re feeling too lethargic. Feels like energy is dribbling out of every pore in your skin. You imagine a vampire sucking the marrow from your bones. Such pressure in your head. Sadness and sorrow are like sacks of lead, but fear weighs the heaviest. Feels like you’re dragging a bag of cement everywhere you go. You decide to spray some deodorant over your shirt instead. No-one in the pub will notice.
“Here he comes, crazy little fucker.” Almost a hero’s welcome at the bar. Friends saying hello, recalling tales of the night before. They think you were so funny when you punched the side of that bus. So that was it. Not the first vehicle you’ve assaulted, but certainly the first public transport. Don’t they ever ask why you do these things? Would they care? It’s not an excuse but it’s certainly a reason. Should you tell them what you think about all day? Those intrusive thoughts, the triggers and compulsions, the fear and the loathing. Crow vomiting lies into your ear all day long.
That blinding white light.
Another pint, Crow not asleep but certainly dazed and confused. Leave him in the gutter, he’s dragged you there enough times. A few blinding lights to keep him settled, like stroking his feathers with the tip of your finger. You order a shot of vodka to keep him pacified. It helps him sleep but knocking back enough spirits can wake him too. So what should you do? If he stirs, you can always hold him to the ground with a promise of suicide. Going through the motions in your mind has worked before.
“Don’t tease me,” says Crow, and you wish that he was a physical entity, so you could drag him out of your eyes and drown him in a bucket of water.
Standing at a urinal in the pub bathroom now, your bladder is empty but you remain where you are, glaring at the wall in front of you – thinking, thinking, constantly thinking. Your friends are at the bar, where you’ll soon return to continue talking shit, joking around because laughter drowns out the self-doubt, the uncertainty of your actions, how you say particular words, touch certain surfaces. Yes, you gotta keep them laughing because silence nurtures fear and don’t you dare give that bastard crow a foothold. The door opens and in walks Luke. Can’t stay here now, unless you complain of an upset stomach and sit in the cubicle, pretending to shit but sitting with your jeans up and your head in your hands.
“Lucy’s just walked in. Daz is already all over her.”
“She’s leading him on,” you say. “He bought her three drinks last week and she went home with that twat, Shilton.” You shake your head, pretending to be concerned but not giving a damn because all you can think about is why the fuck was that girl laughing at you last night? Has that lump on your neck gone down yet? And maybe you’ll end up killing your Granddad, after all.
It’s hours later, your friends have gone home and you’re standing alone in the nightclub. But you don’t want the night to end because tomorrow is Sunday. No-one will be about, and then it will be Monday morning, and you lost your job so it’ll be a week on the sofa watching daytime TV, pulling out your hair, trying to work out which memories are fake, which ones mean nothing at all. And if they were all true, what could you do about them anyway?
A guy bangs into your side and tells you to watch your fucking step. It’s not fair because he walked into you and you’ve been thinking all day so he must be a c*nt. You tell him and he turns around and snarls, “What you fucking say, mate?”
You know that he heard every word but you tell him again anyway, but this time you shout it so there’s no doubt that your insult reaches him over the banging music. Suddenly he’s punching you and you’re hitting him back, but you’re much smaller and far too drunk and your fists fall like pillows on the side of his head. Thank fuck the bouncers are alert and pulling you both apart before he knocks your teeth out.
That girl again, watching you pick yourself up off the sticky carpet. She’s not laughing now but looking concerned. She’s coming over.
The next morning, walking back from the girl’s flat, you realise that your thoughts had distorted the truth again. You’ll feel better one day, never cured but at least able to do things other than lie in bed thinking of trouble and a million ways to die. But this is 1998 and you’ve not yet been diagnosed with OCD. Mostly because you’re too ashamed of your feelings to tell the psychologists the truth. Afraid of your behaviour too. You haven’t given the doctors a fair chance. You haven’t given yourself a fair chance. You’re keeping too many secrets. They’re here to help you – they won’t laugh or tell you to take it on the chin like a man.
Surely you’ve suffered enough? Your school education was the first to go. You left as soon as it was legal to do so and headed into the factories. But your condition got worse, and you spent a couple of years signing on, feeling sick to the stomach with an insidious fear of almost everything. And it’s not only your school education that was ruined but your life education too. How can you become a better person when you haven’t got the headspace to think about what’s right and wrong? How do you find the time to learn from your mistakes, to understand how the world works. Feels like there’s no time to ask questions about the life which is passing by without you. This will come back to bite you in the face a thousand times.
You watch TV in the afternoon, but an article on the news triggers a dark thought that was sleeping at the bottom of your mind – like a tiger in a well. Six hours lost in a ditch and when it finally ‘feels’ over another wildcat creeps into the abyss. This one will last the entire week. You’ll still be ruminating on potential consequences when you’re back in The Five Bells next Saturday.
The following three days are spent climbing in and out of bed. A bad smell follows you around because you still haven’t taken that shower. You promise to clean your body before you leave the house, but that won’t be for another two days. Your bed covers could do with a wash too. Watching your life wasting away from beneath the duvet makes you feel bitter, which makes your skin sweat and your teeth grind. Should you kill yourself? You’ve thought about it every day for the past six years. What the fuck is wrong with you? Somewhere in your future life, a doctor will tell you that it’s OCD, but you have no idea what that means yet.
Outside, a car honks its horn, a man shouts in the street, dogs are barking. In your room, the devil scrapes his claws along your back. You lay on your bed, fighting a zillion thoughts with flashes of bright white light that are never quite white enough.
Another thought stirs at the back of your mind.
You try to ignore it, push it away and forget about it.
But it’s not going anywhere.