I want it out of my mind. The crazy. The crap thinking that makes me step over cracks five times, or two times, or ten times two times while I have to think of precisely the right thing or else I’ll call down some terrible fate upon myself. The paranoia. The OCD.
I don’t like talking about it, but my friend convinced me that mental illness needs to be cracked open so other people understand the stupid jacked-up shit that goes on – and that it’s misunderstood how stupidly debilitating it is.
I don’t want to tell you the effed-up fears that mess with my head, though, so I’ll do this: anytime I think of, say, butterflies, consider that a bad thing. Whenever I think of fuzzballs, that’s a good thing.
Butterflies – bad. Fuzzballs – good.
So, baseline: this a normal person washing their hands:
They turn on the tap – la di da – and think maybe of what they have to do afterward or some dinner date they have to arrange. They turn off the tap and dry their hands and off they go upon their happy way. Easy peasy!
Here is me washing my hands:
I turn on the tap:
Me: Fuzzballs fuzzballs fuzzballs butterflies – fuck fuck – fuzzballs fuzzballs–
Brain: Nope, you screwed it up. Wash your hands again.
Me washing hands again: Fuzzballs fuzzballs fuzzballs! There, finished.
Brain: Nope. You thought of butterflies!
Me: I did not! It was all fuzzballs!
Brain: Was not. Wash your hands again.
Me washing hands again: Fuzzballs fuzzballs fuzzballs meatloaf! There!
Brain: You cheated! No meatloaf. It all has to be fuzzballs. Again!
Me: Fuzzballs fuzzballs.
Me: Fuzzballs fuzzballs fuzzballs.
Brain: NO! AGAIN AGAIN AGAIN!!!
Me: FUZZBALLS FUZZBALLS FUCKING SHIT-ASS FUCKING FUZZBALLS!
Brain, with its mental hands clasped in front of it: Good. You may proceed, but if you touch the tap or the sink or a towel or your shirt or the door handle, you have to wash them again. Or if you touch that. Go back and wash your hands again.
Time to head to work. I’m walking down the street and–
Me: No, no, dude, don’t stand there! Ah, crap. I need to step over that crack where you’re standing and I need to think ‘fuzzballs’ while I’m doing it. Come on, move please. No, I’m not staring at you because you’re cute, but because you’re standing on my crack! Get off my crack! I need to step over it so I can catch the tram.
He’s not moving, though, smoking away and talking on his phone, so I keep going and try to use another crack, thinking fuzzballs fuzzballs fuzzballs!
Brain: Nope, not working. It has to be THAT crack.
Me: But that crack is occupied!
Brain: You need that one.
Me: But the tram is coming!
Brain: Look, he’s moved! Go, go, go! Now!
Me running frantically and stepping over the crack five times while thinking fuzzballs fuzzballs fuzzballs while the guy’s cigarette falls from his mouth because the freak right next to him is crack-hopping.
Brain: TRAM! TRAM!
Me: Aaah! I’m running! Aaaaah!
Laptop bag bouncing against my leg, my lungs huffing and puffing and my arms pumping.
Me: Shut up! You’re the one addicted to sidewalk cracks!
Rewind and repeat that scene probably five or six times on the way to work.
Shopping for groceries on the way home. I’m perusing the vegetables in the store:
Me: Hmm. Radishes. Here, I’ll take these.
Brain: Not those.
Me: Why not?
Brain: If you get those radishes, the butterflies will get you.
Me: How do you know?
Brain: I just know.
Me: But how?
Brain: PUT THE RADISHES DOWN OR THE BUTTERFLIES WILL COME!
Me: Okay, okay. What about these?
Brain: Maybe. Put them in the bag – QUICK before I change my mind!
Brain: Not quick enough. Put them back.
Me: Okay. How about these?
I have to pick packages of tuna based on the random decisions of my brain. Ditto for pretty much anything else. If a package of walnuts isn’t airtight, my brain decides someone has poked a syringe in it and squirted it with a disease.
At home, this is me picking out a tomato for dinner:
Brain: That tomato has a scratch. Someone probably injected some toxins into it with a syringe at the store and poisoned it.
Me: No, it just got poked in my backpack or something.
Brain: I’m telling you, you’re going to get incurably ill if you eat that scratched tomato.
Me: It’s not even a scratch. It’s just a blemish; the skin isn’t even punctured. Look, if I tilt it this way, the light reflects off that spot, too, so the skin is whole.
Brain: I’m telling you, it’s going to give you an incurable disease. If you don’t listen to me, I will bombard you with brain messages until you cry. I’ve done it before.
I either throw the tomato away or put it back in the fridge to try to reason with the brain the next day.
Sometimes it’s easier not to eat at all.
I’m terrified of the day when it’ll be easier just not to go out at all, either.
It sounds insane, but you know what? This video looks at anxiety not as a crazy madness of the brain, but as a normal response to an insane world, an awareness of how vulnerable we are to everything around us, how prone to accident, open to anything out there. While most people insulate themselves with padding to keep everything out, anxiety results from when our padding is stripped away and we’re exposed to the full danger and clarity of how things are around us: the pain and suffering of others, diminishing flora, dying fauna, ever-more-unbreathable air. It’s the view of chaos in the world as something veering too close to us, something able to affect us.
Anxiety as sensitivity to a chaotic world
As the video says, perceiving anxiety as something messed up “…depends on one assumption: that the normal response to the conditions of existence should be calm, but why should it be, given the obvious insanity of the world? The root cause of an anxiety attack is just unusual sensitivity to a madness in the world that most people dampen out. …
“George Elliot… reflected on what it would be like if we were truly sensitive, open to the world, and felt the implications of everything… all ordinary life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. …
“It is, as Elliot recognizes, both a privilege and a profound nightmare to hear that grass growing and that squirrel’s heart beating and also by extension to feel everything so deeply…
“Our anxiety attacks emerge from a dose of clarity that is currently too powerful for us to cope with. …
“We panic because we rightly feel how thin the veneer of civilization is, how mysterious other people are, how improbable it is that we exist at all, how everything that seems to matter now will eventually be annihilated, how random many of the turnings of our lives are, how prey we are to accident.”
This echoes what a psychiatrist told me when I was in therapy after my parents’ divorce. When I said I was crazy for getting OCD, she said she would be more concerned about a kid who WASN’T reacting to the situation in some way. My OCD showed that I wasn’t completely blocked off; I was affected by it and upset.
This in turn matches what a guidance counselor at my university told me when no one around me understood why I couldn’t just ‘get over things’. He sat me down, drew a line on the board, then drew a tiny squiggly line over that one. “This,” he pointed, “is where normal people are on the spectrum of feeling. They have slight highs and slight lows, but mostly they’re just floating along even keel and contented.”
Then he drew a sharp up-and-down line and pointed at it. “This is you. You’re perfectly normal; you just feel things A LOT more strongly than others. You go extremely high and extremely low, and when you’re talking to someone who is even keel, you can’t expect them to understand these extremes, because it’s beyond their scope of experience.”
After that, my friendships became so much better because I understood that trying to explain my moods to them was impossible. I also didn’t feel like a complete crazy person when I hid crying in the closet late at night, alone. I was just… not even keel.
This is one of the reasons I write. Besides the fact that it actually makes my brain happy and it calms the near-constant paranoia and OCD, it vents all the stress that builds up in me during the day while learning of how many animals are going extinct, how many rain forests are being destroyed, how many cities are becoming toxic from pollution – sometimes I even break down and cry about the state of the world, and when I write, I’m far away from it. There’s hope in my writing no matter how bleak the worlds become, as I dream there will be hope in our world if dark times arrive. And I just, you know, despite the crap my characters go through, there’s always a partner who stands by them, come what may, and I love that.
The idea of people standing by one another, no matter what, mental illness or not, gives me hope.
Fuzzballs or butterflies, can’t we face them all together?
And you know what I want to say to those trying to destroy our world? This: