The Games Children Play
It started out as many things do: When I was just a child. I guess as evil as he was, Hitler was on the money when he said that the best way to indoctrinate is when they’re young. Though, in my case, it was my own brain trying to warp my sense of self before I even had it.
I’d probably say my first memories of a problem were of the games we all played as children. The first one I remember was classic:
“Don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your mother’s back!”
While, sure, I initially was horrified that my arbitrary carelessness could have put my mother in the hospital, I learned quickly that it made no difference. I mean, I stepped on plenty of cracks in the floor but my mom was still healthy enough to chase after me when I clogged the toilet.
The thing is, even if I knew it wasn’t true, I couldn’t stop playing the game. For some reason, there was a very real sense of dread that “something” might happen if I lost my footing. I remember at the time wondering what was wrong that I kept playing long after the kids around me moved on, stepping on cracks in the pavement with abandon. After a while, I chalked it up to superstition and hummed a few bars of Stevie Wonder’s big hit while avoiding gaps in the pavement.
The next time I really remember obsessing was when I was a little older. Moving in the middle of Elementary School was stressful. I mean, moving is stressful for anyone, let’s be honest, but kids never take it well. Much later in life, Pixar’s Inside Out would even have me crying about it. At the time, though, I just didn’t understand. I was too young to get that you move with your job and my father, as loving as he was, didn’t always explain things well to me. Starting over with no friends didn’t help. Probably also didn’t help that every kid’s seen an afternoon special so it’s considered standard procedure to bully the new kid. It’s sacred tradition. Plus, that’s how the new kid becomes the hero, right?
I didn’t learn much those last couple of years in Elementary. The random acts of knocking over my stuff or punching me in the gut in the middle of the classroom kinda put a damper on a proper public education. I did learn one thing, though. Another classic game:
There’s always the standard “girls” or “guys” have cooties idea but my class was relatively forward thinking! No gender ostracizing here. “Only weird or gay people have cooties!”
So much better.
The weird thing I get. Bunch of kids see someone different and think that they must have something wrong with them. So pretty much, if you didn’t like someone, you’d avoid them almost literally like the plague. Luckily, once the spread of disease started, it didn’t matter who it originated from. Patient Zero was never found. Most likely the first victim.
The gay part of that I never really understood, though. I didn’t even know what “gay” meant as a kid, and judging from syntax clues and it’s free use on the playground, I don’t think anyone else did either. It didn’t mean homosexual because none of us even knew what sex was, let alone the culturally oppressed version. Yet indoctrination is a funny thing. Kids think it means “bad” so later in life those same people associate it with “the devil”.
Anyways, the fun of avoiding death by cooties was in full effect. Scrub well and it might come off but the best way to get rid of them is to tag someone else. It became pretty obvious that the game was just a game when the rules started to pop up like, “No tag-backs” and such. As young as we were, we understood that diseases didn’t play by the rules. It’s not like we could say,
“Hey! No tag-backs, remember?”
And then syphilis is just like, “You’re right, we did agree upon that.”
We kids kept playing, though. It was something to do and small towns don’t always have the best facilities on playgrounds so we do what kids do and get creative.
“Josh has cooties.”
“Crap, really? I touched him just a minute ago!”
“What? Get away, man! I don’t want that jun- Aw, dang! Alright, just a sec. Hey, Jessica! I need to ask you somethin’!”
Sadly, Jessica was never heard from again… Until the bell rang and we all went inside.
Being the go-to kid for bullying, I would sometimes end up with prolonged infections. If the bell rang and everyone got inside and sat down before me, I’d have to sit down without passing it off, festering in silence for hours.
It didn’t feel right.
Inside my head, I was infected. I needed to get rid of this and reaching across the row to tag someone would get me in trouble with the teacher. Plus, the people next to me I didn’t like. They probably had cooties anyways. I had to wait. And wait.
Meanwhile, in my head, I was feeling very… Unclean. A few years later, I learned about the “Untouchables” in India, a caste of people considered so karmically (and also sadly considered racially) bad that they had to ring a bell and yell “Unclean! Unclean!” as they passed through crowds. This was, of course, so no one would catch their karmic infection.
Funny how some adults never grow up.
This was basically how I felt, though. I might as well have been ringing that bell all class. As soon as break came around, I tagged the first person I could. A slow catharsis came over me. I was cured! I hated feeling dirty. Not in the literal way because I LOVED being outside and rolling around in the dirt. More like a mental way was how my mind defined it at the time.
Well, like any fad, Cooties lost its glamor so kids stopped doing something so immature, though not six months before they totally thought it was still fun. Funny thing was, I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t shake that feeling that something wasn’t… Right. People had stopped playing so I couldn’t call it cooties but… I was infected with something. That feeling of dread came back.
Mostly, I felt that anytime someone I didn’t like touched me, hit me, or brushed my shoulder, that I inherently got something nasty from them. I knew it wasn’t an actual disease and really, with my love of happily coming home from the woods bruised and covered in grass, I cared very little for actual germs. Even still, the more people bullied me, the more I hated them and the more that every time they touched me, I felt unclean. A vicious cycle that continued long after I graduated from that class of kids. I’d continue to feel that dread of someone I didn’t like touching me until even just thinking about them made me feel dirty, like I might somehow turn into them if I kept thinking about them, becoming something I hated.
Funny how some adults never grow up.
Disturbed and “Getting down with the sickness”
You ever seen the movie The Aviator? It’s a great film by Martin Scorsese about Howard Hughes, a pioneer of aviation during some of the very earliest days of mankind’s venture into flight, creating and funding breakthroughs that led us to what we have today. Now, the movie itself showcases a lot of great things Howard Hughes did (not to mention a lot of the really shitty things) but something it excels at doing more is touching on an idiosyncratic disorder that I don’t think any other film has done properly: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
See, Howard Hughes had OCD and it destroyed a vast portion of his life, especially since he refused to ever get help for it. Because he allowed himself to go on without treatment or help, the film is able to showcase through this man some of the extreme problems an individual with OCD can face and how that person may try to deal with those problems through strange rituals and particular routines that are followed religiously.
I have rarely ever associated so immediately with a person than when they showed Howard Hughes naked in his home discussing how he desperately must not to touch the sides of a chip bag.
…Out of context, that sounds really weird but trust me, it makes sense if you’ve seen the movie.
OCD affects everyone differently because it preys on the individual’s quirks and personality. So what someone might see with Howard Hughes will actually be pretty different to what someone might see with another person with OCD. Howard didn’t like touching people or certain things, among many other individual quirks such as thinking he didn’t say a sentence right and repeating it until it had perfect inflection and specific phonetics. I don’t really do those things. I don’t care about sentence structure nearly as much and I mean, if I’m going to be honest, I’m a hugger. I’ll give ya a hug and you’re just gonna have to get use to that because dammit! Sometimes people just need a hug! So while touching started off as a symptom, it usually isn’t a big deal for me now. At least, not as much as it used to be as other symptoms started to pop up.
What started as just “touching” setting me off quickly turned into worse. As far as cocktails go, stress, depression, and anxiety is pretty potent a mixture and is one hell of a drink, always leaving me shaken if not a little stirred.
I managed to mostly get touching under control (Whoo! I can get hugs!) but things evolved into thinking about the person I don’t like forcing me into a bit of anxiety. You ever have that friend that says “Don’t think about marshmallows!” which then just forces you to think about marshmallows? That’s me to myself on a daily basis. It’s like in Ghostbusters when Gozer shows up and says that whatever the team thinks of shall be the form their destruction takes. In the case of my brain, there’d be a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man every five seconds.
So when I do think of someone I don’t like, what happens? Well, the first is an existential fear that somehow thinking of that person will make me more like them. It sounds weird, I know. The fear is that my own identity is so fragile that thoughts about others could lead me to behave like them. So because I think of someone I hate, I may adopt the personality and thoughts of that person. It’s completely unfounded and ridiculous, says the sane part of my mind, but the thought is still there that it may happen and it has the backup of an oppressive anxiety reinforcing that unfounded fear.
Just thinking about someone I hate, I usually am able to push the thought away but there’s an element that’s harder to shake. See, if I think about that person while performing an action, like turning on and off a faucet or going through an open doorway, my brain thinks that because I’m thinking about that person, I’m performing the action like they would, which in turn makes me more like them. If I’m more like them, I’m more like what I hate and that scares me. So I feel like I have to do something about it in order to stay myself and keep the stress and anxiety away.
To add to the problem, at a very young age, I developed a go-to strategy for not thinking about the people I didn’t want to think about:
If I didn’t want to think about someone I hated, I’d think about someone I like!
Initially, as a kid, I thought this seemed like a great idea. Just replace one thought with another! Unfortunately, that’s not really how the human brain works and I found out very quickly that memories and thinking are done through associations. The more someone associates one thing with another, the more interconnected those become in the brain. So, anytime I tried to replace the bad thought with a good thought, I was actually just linking the two together in my head, further causing issues.
Because I kept linking X person I didn’t like with Y person I did, I could no longer think of one without thinking of the other. Once I found this out and realized what was happening, it was a mad game of replacing the positive Y person with positive Z, which after a while would then be linked again back to the person I hated, X, in my head. so I’d have to then replace Z with A. Then B. Then C. And so on.
This is sort of turning into a math equation:
Don’t want to think of X, so Y.
Eventually, though X ≈ Y so I replace Y with Z.
Eventually, though X ≈ Z so I replace Z with A.
And so on and so on.
In fact, because it wasn’t just one person that I didn’t like, I was doing this same exact thing in my head for every person I didn’t like and because the amount of people I liked was limited, I’d have to swap out people all the time which lead to more associations with people I didn’t like. This whole thing became a web of associations of people that if you mapped it out, would probably look like those stereotypical conspiracy theory walls with the red string everywhere. And it all led to the milkman who faked the lunar landing, causing us to make inexpensive jet fuel that couldn’t melt steel beams, which was made with the same fluoride they put in the water! It all makes sense! Ocean’s Eleven was an inside job!
On top of this, OCD is a funny thing. Even if I did finally think of a good person and didn’t immediately jump to thinking about someone I didn’t like, sometimes my brain would just be like:
“Nah, son. You didn’t do it right. Do it again.”
So I’d try again and- whoops! Just thought about the person I don’t like. Guess I’ll try again and- whoops! Did it again!
This goes on and on until finally I somehow magically follow the arbitrary rules in my brain and I escape whatever I’m doing. (Reminder: I’m stuck going through doorways or turning off a faucet the whole time this is going on.)
It’s not like I don’t realize what’s going on, either. I’m not just stuck with my thoughts on repeat while I walk back in and out of a doorway like a Roomba that keeps bumping into the same wall. But that’s the interesting thing about OCD. I can understand perfectly well that what I’m doing is ridiculous, that it’s arbitrary and completely insane. I can know all the facts about biology, brain chemistry, and even know full well from a psychological standpoint that this is just not how the world works. It doesn’t matter, though. There’s a distinct feeling that hangs over me, oppressing the ideas I hold true about reality and screaming into my brain:
Do it again.
And I’d better do it again, or that oppressive cloud over my judgement sends a massive fit of anxiety that I just fucked up and am cursing myself to become something I’m not or that I’m going to be less of myself, slowly devolving into the very things I hate. All the while that I’m being struck by that feeling, the other side of my brains realizes that this is crazy and that I need to just get on with my life, which in turns gives me more anxiety because I start to question why I’m even stuck doing this. Why don’t I just move on?
And even if I somehow break free and swap the thought of that person I like with the person I hate, I don’t necessarily feel better. I just feel like I can finally move on, like I did it correctly so cool. I’m done. Let’s move on. The stress I feel doesn’t go away and I might even trip up again. I get stuck turning on and off the faucet, finally break free, and then get stuck going in and out of the doorway to the bathroom. It’s the circle of life and how it moves us so!
So what do I do now?
Who I am Now
I know this whole thing seems all doom and gloom. I mean, I’m not gonna lie and say this is easy for me. This is a daily thing and it sucks. It really does. Like, more than Mega Maid from Spaceballs does this shit suck.
But I’m not giving up.
My brain may work in this really weird and convoluted way but this isn’t who I am. It’s an aspect, sure, but it doesn’t make me… me. I’m a writer, dammit! I graduated college with a degree in computer programming and game design. I love movies and dissecting the cinematography for each scene. I enjoy long-winded funny stories from comedians like Mike Birbiglia. I love doggies and I watch a shitton of anime about cute girls doing cute things because it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside after a long day trying to troubleshoot people’s damn phones so I can keep getting a paycheck. There’s a lot to me!
Any writer will tell you the difficult but wonderful aspect of writing realistic characters is that actual people are multifaceted. We’re all not just one thing that makes us unique. That’s what’s interesting about us! Even the most negative aspects of a person are just one aspect.
So fuck you, OCD! You ain’t got shit! You’re just one part of me!
Honestly, that’s probably a good mentality to have to combat the issue, too. My old therapist talked about how one solution to overcoming people’s fears is to instead of fighting it, power through that fear, like a big ol’ “fuck you”. So if someone is afraid of spiders, a therapist can slowly expose that person to pictures of spiders, then videos of spiders, and then finally a real spider crawling near then. Then on them. Presumably, the next step is to then be flatmates with the spider and decorate the living room curtains together, finding harmony in the shared love of blue frilly fabric.
So anyways, this was how we, my old therapist and I, approached the issue of my OCD and how I try to approach it now, through exposure therapy. The thoughts aren’t going to go away and honestly, it’s healthy to think of negative things so that one learns from them and also appreciates the positive better. So the idea was that I would expose myself to the things I hated and then perform actions that usually tripped me up and caused me to repeat them over and over. Every session, we set out looking at or talking about things that tripped that OCD breaker in my brain. Then I’d go through a doorway or do something else.
It did not feel good.
Then again, I’m sure it doesn’t feel good for an arachnophobic to have a giant tarantula on their head. But hey, it can help.
Being serious, though, my anxiety would go through the fucking roof when doing this during sessions or after sessions when I was home. Slowly, though, that sudden jolt of anxiety diminished by tiny, tiny amounts as we continued on those same thoughts and worked our way towards powering through the harder stuff. Doing this every day, and for a long-ass time, I started to feel better and didn’t have as many knee-jerk reactions to sudden thoughts.
It’s not a perfect solution and the more stressed I feel or the more negative the thought, the harder it is to just power through whatever I’m doing instead of going through a compulsion. By the time this year of 2016 ends, I’ll probably have been batting 0 for 366 on days I didn’t mess up at least once. (This election got everyone’s stress up and I’m not that excited about the outcome.)
I’m not giving up, though.
I’ve been blessed my whole freaking life and I’ve been given too many kickass opportunities to just lay this all down and say, “Woe is me! How I tried but tis too difficult a task to venture more into this life of beauty and repulsion.” That shit ain’t me. I’ve got things to do, places to see, and things to procrastinate on for way too long while I just play Overwatch. I live a busy life!
So I’ll find a new therapist (had to move), I’ll work on powering through compulsions, and I’ll stay as optimistic as I can because I’ve been given a lot in life. I wasn’t dealt a bad hand. I just have a four of a kind instead of a royal flush. I can still beat most hands and if I can’t, you can bet your ass I’ll be bluffing like a motherfucker till I draw what I need.
… Really not sure what I meant by that metaphor but the point is that I can do this! And I will do this! I have OCD but it doesn’t have me. That’d be weird. I picture OCD somehow cradling me in its arms like a baby.
The point stands. I started this journey playing little games, trying hard not to catch cooties. Back then, I was afraid of what might happen if someone touches me. It’s weird how things like that can stick with you, how you can keep doing the same habits you had as a child. Sometimes it’s hard to leave those old habits behind.
Funny how some adults never grown up.
Well, I guess it’s time for me to grow up.