Portrait of the Poet With OCD & Pogo Stick
Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Paige Lewis’s poem “You Can Take Off Your Sweater, I’ve Made Today Warm” appears in the January 2018 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.
After my mother saw The Aviator, she came home, opened my bedroom door, and stood in the doorway crying. She was scared that I was going to end up like Howard Hughes. I was thirteen at the time and while my obsessive compulsive disorder wasn’t as severe as Howard Hughes’s (I didn’t sort my food by size, and I didn’t wear tissue boxes on my feet), I did share at least one of his compulsions—I used tissues to pick up things around the house. I wasn’t Howard Hughes, but I was wasting many hours (and many tissues) on my obsessions and compulsions each day, and my mother was understandably worried.
I don’t have the space here, or the proper medical qualifications, to go into depth about what it means to have obsessive compulsive disorder. To put it (very, very) simply, someone who has OCD suffers from obsessions, undesired intrusive thoughts like, “That doorknob is contaminated, and I touched that doorknob, and now I will get a disease,” or, “I could just hit that old man with my car,” or, “My beloved is going to die today.” That person then responds to these obsessions with compulsions or rituals as a way to find relief from the intrusive thoughts and prevent them from becoming reality—by washing their hands repeatedly, or counting to a certain number, or repeating a phrase or prayer, or or or. The intrusive thoughts come back and the cycle begins again.
Last month, I started reading David Adam’s memoir about OCD, The Man Who Couldn’t Stop. I’m twenty-six and I’ve been suffering from OCD for as long as I can remember, but this is the first time I’ve ever read a book about someone else’s OCD. It was exhilarating to feel so known. I pushed the book under my partner’s nose countless times, saying, “That’s me! I feel that! I do that!” Of course, there were many moments that weren’t me. The difference that stuck out most came as a joke about halfway through the book: “I knew my OCD was bad when I decided to write a poem about it.” I laughed, but I was also a bit jealous of Adam because it’s the exact opposite for me. My OCD makes writing a poem terrifying.
Let me rephrase that—my OCD makes starting a poem terrifying. If I’m in the throes of writing the poem, there’s no problem; I’m so focused that there’s hardly room for intrusive thoughts, and consequently no room for compulsions. Everything is calm. It’s as clear as my mind ever gets. So for me, writing poetry feels like taking a break from my OCD, a kind of divine reprieve. The challenge is trying to push past the “getting started,” past the dread of sitting down without any plan for the poem.
So much of my OCD revolves around a sense of control. I attempt to control my intrusive thoughts and doubts with rituals (“My mom won’t die in a car accident today if I can say the Lord’s Prayer five times in a minute”). So when I’m faced with starting a poem without outlining it, without knowing where it might go, it’s stressful as hell. My brain tries to sabotage itself, asking, “What if what I write turns out bad?” “What if I’m accidentally unconsciously remembering someone else’s lines?” “What if I don’t have any more images in me?” This sounds like writer’s block, it sounds like what causes a writer to procrastinate by doing the dishes, or cooking a particularly time-intensive breakfast. But for me, these doubts leave the gate in my brain open to more intrusive thoughts, which then lead to hours spent fighting for a sense of control over my own mind.
It’s exhausting to be this anxious. Even before starting this essay, I had to fight off the thought, “Maybe you don’t know anything about OCD, and everyone is going to tell you how wrong you are.” That thought came from my brain. The one with OCD. My OCD brain told me I probably don’t know what it’s like to have OCD. Yeesh.
So, why write? Why go through all this frustration when I can’t be sure a poem is waiting on the other end? Well, the honest answer is that I love poetry. I need it. Every poem I write, even if I end up discarding it, is worth the hours of stress. And it helps, too, that I’ve discovered a shortcut, a cheat code, that helps me get into the throes of poem-writing much faster.
Letter writing is that cheat code. Starting a letter is a million times easier than starting a poem. My brain, anxious as it is, understands that a letter and a poem are entirely different beasts. If starting a poem is like charging at a lion, then starting a letter is like petting a cat. I know the exact size of my audience: one person will read my letter. I know my audience is kind: I do not write letters to unkind people. I know, on a basic level, what my audience expects: information about my life, and for me to inquire about theirs.
When I write a letter I’m not worried about coming off as stupid or trite or clichéd, and so I free myself to have more fun with my words. Yesterday, I wrote a letter to a friend and asked, “Is anyone actually a pro at pogo stick jumping?” I hadn’t thought about pogo sticks in years, but the act of letter writing loosened up my brain; made it more open to writing down this silly question. And that’s when I know I’ve done it. I’ve tricked my brain into opening up the fun writing part of itself, the unanxious, associative leap-y part. Then, pen in hand, I pogo on into a poem.