Devoted to Disorder
On the repetitive similarities between OCD, love, and trauma.
When we were growing up, my brother and I were reticent. Since we couldn’t say it aloud, we expressed our love for others in attempting to become fluent in what they already knew best. A crush on the son of a Ukrainian oil magnate was followed by a sudden fixation on learning Cyrillic. Interest in a handsome composer resulted in the meticulous transcription of his life’s work. We wanted to win affection by being measurably excellent. Perhaps this was the immigrant’s lot: assimilating one’s interests in hopes of being better understood. In that case, we were especially, by necessity, precocious.
Earlier this year, I made the questionable decision to visit Boston during a news-making cold snap; both my best friend and my brother had relocated there to study. The day before my departure, my GP prescribed me some anti-neurotic medication, insinuating that my noncommittal request for help had come as no surprise. I recalled that my brother had been awarded a similar prescription earlier this year – a fact that I gleaned not in any sort of earnest confession but by accidentally sitting on the little slip of paper, riding shotgun in his car.
Over-ordering plates of dumplings at a popular Cambridge eatery, I initiated a line of conversation about what I could now acknowledge we had long shared. When he mentioned, smiling, that he might try a run of lithium (“like Carrie Matheson”), he was expressing not only an affinity with a smart, manic character, but a self-aware pride in diagnosis. The latter was a phenomenon I had consistently noticed across the board, from contemporary writers that I admired to my hardworking peers, the whole pharmacological lexicon tunnelling down the great American throat. Was it that we struggled to parse mental health out from mental illness that made us stubborn in the admission of the latter? (We do not desire to hold on to pneumonia out of sentimentality.) I had been aware on some level that mental illness affected our ability to love. Now, I considered the possibility that how we thought about our disorders was a kind of love in itself.
Colloquial knowledge of OCD is preoccupied with its most linear iterations – a fear of contamination neutralized by an elaborate hand-washing ritual, for example. Rarely is its true extent restricted to these legible forms. As the diagnostic manual goes: frequent intrusive thoughts, or obsessions, had to be neutralized by repeated actions, or compulsions. The disorder’s two distinct elements, perfectly counterbalanced in their hyphenation, formed the overarching framework along which the entirety of my cognition was organized. As I fumbled my way through adolescence, the concerted effect of these interruptions arrested my ability to form a coherent self. I needed to exert complete control over all psychic and physical worlds.
Following my first diagnosis, it sounded simple enough to follow the therapist’s exercises, subjecting myself to incrementally greater risk in order to acclimatize myself to reality’s continuous gamble. But over the years that I gave it, exposure therapy proved ineffective. At the beginning of every day, I found myself returned to the start – like I’d been playing a game for hours, but failed before I could hit ‘save.’
“Nothing is more appalling and at the same time ludicrous than the individual condemned to the same action over and over again,” writes Gilles Deleuze. Repetition is often associated with failure: to do something again is to not have done it correctly the first time. But repetition can also suggest devotion, from teenage crushes to religious rituals. In her essay on Lana Del Rey for The New Inquiry, Nina Power links Del Rey’s “emotional labour” to “the creepiest form of devotion.” Power posits that devotion and obsession are two sides of the same coin: a life force and a death drive. What does it mean to be devoted to disorder? And if, as Power writes, “love is a repeated performance, one that is often miserable,” how does obsession differ from love?
Obsessive-compulsive rituals follow a self-determined logic that don’t hold outside of their enactment. On one level, this neurosis resists the shortcomings of memory, polishing a detail until it is clear as the vision incanted by the girl who writes her crush’s name repetitiously, daydreaming of his arrival into her life. Circumventing the mind’s inclination to prioritize, repeatedly revisiting an incident makes a love-like space. One hates one’s trauma, but one can’t help but touch it – gently, resistingly – with the illuminating gaze of one’s mind’s eye. The traumatic image arrives in high relief, though its basis, like the first inklings of attraction, remains obscured or mystified.
Popular culture is well acquainted with the manic nerd and his abject lovelessness, as if to be fixated on perfection is to be wed to it. The idea that a perfectionist lean warps one’s brain out of loving is an oversimplified device, vacuum-sealing subject into object. In practice, neurosis presents a much more dynamic problem. It does not cancel love, but instead compounds its anxieties. Typical relational worries – does she love me, or doesn’t she? – can take on the looped, unquenchable character of obsession-compulsion circuits. A constant line of interrogation can prove exhausting for one’s partners, whose intentions are questioned even as they lavish the neurotic in sheaves of earnest kindness.
Coming across Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers in a local bookstore, I was struck by its formal resemblance to OCD’s relational structure. Kapil asks her subjects the same questions about love and loss repeatedly. Each response is divergent. Her stylistic tics – a scattering of half-revealed images and self-questioning dialogue – are tied to postcolonial theory, namely the notion of the self fragmented through (societal, historical, geographic, physical) rupture. In interviews, she describes this tactic as “an initiating gesture of a new structure” by which she, her subjects, and her readers might escape the insistence of trauma.
That love might provide the ticket to leaving it all behind is a common trope. When my brother and I fled into the lives of other people, we enacted this desire. New partners presented an alternate trajectory into which we could absorb or at least soften the hard edges of our behavioral circuits. Obsessiveness was transmuted easily into romantic devotion, and my best matches were the ones who equalled or exceeded me in this capacity. To some, the vigor of another’s fascination can quickly usher forth fear. But I was interested only in the devouring type of affection, consuming constituent details in breathless gulps, feeling the same familiar tic of satisfaction that came with playing a beloved song over and over until I was sick of it. It still came down to control: in these particular relationships, there was a call-and-return of questioning and reassurance that, though widened to include two people instead of one, created a zone of safety in an otherwise unreliable environment.
In asserting that “disorder is the new global normal,” Paula Gardner and Chris Reeves mean not only chaos but the prominence of mental illness in contemporary life. Gardner and Reeves stipulate that the increasing incidence of these psychic climates is the product of “unworlding” – the continual dehumanization of globalized industry and international relations. Our endlessly fluctuating reality is characterized by the loss of individual agency. The recursive nature of anxiety disorders such as OCD or PTSD are not only symptoms of, but reactions to our global normal. Counterintuitively, the re-enactment of trauma, and other repetitive behaviors, provide an illusion of control. If we are reluctant to be proactive about our mental illness, perhaps this is the real root of that hesitation. Without a mind palace, there is no world by which to erase the chaos of this one.