O.C.D. in N.Y.C.
(Originally appeared in The New York Times, August 11, 2016)
You’ve seen me. I know you have.
I’m the guy wearing gloves on the subway in October. Or even into April. Perhaps I’m wearing just one glove, allowing my naked hand to turn the pages of a book.
No big deal. Just another one-gloved commuter, heading home.
If it’s crowded, you may have noticed me doing my best to “surf,” sans contact, until the car comes to a stop, in which case I may knock into a fellow passenger.
Aboveground you may have seen me acting the gentleman, opening doors for others with a special paper towel I carry in my front left pocket for just such a momentous occasion.
No? How about that guy walking quickly ahead of you, the one impishly avoiding sidewalk cracks?
Or perhaps you’ve noticed a stranger who turns and makes eye contact with you for seemingly no reason. You may have asked, “You got a problem?”
Oh, I definitely have a problem. But it has nothing to do with you, sir or madam. (And, yes, even in my thoughts I refer to you as “sir” and “madam.”)
The problem here is what multiple doctors have diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder. You may refer to it by its kicky abbreviation, O.C.D.
I prefer to call it Da Beast.
Da Beast is a creature I have lived with since I was 11, a typical age for O.C.D. to snarl into one’s life without invitation or warning.
According to the International O.C.D. Foundation, roughly one in 100 adults suffers from the disorder. Each of us has his or her own obsessive thoughts and fears to contend with. My particular beast of burden is a fear of germs and sickness. It’s a popular one, perhaps the most common.
Other obsessions include unwanted thoughts, a fear of harming oneself and religious obsessions, all of which I’ve struggled with at one point or another.
I wash my hands up to 25 times per day. I perform intricate routines and complicated movements to avoid becoming contaminated. With what, exactly? Nothing specific, just a murky sense of something bad. But I also perform these tasks so that friends and family members — and even potentially you — don’t become contaminated.
It’s a lot of pressure, but I’m no hero. You can thank me later.
For about half my life, Da Beast and I lived in the suburbs. We were two kooky roommates with occasional squabbles, and I eventually learned to tune it out, much like the news scroll at the bottom of a CNN report. White noise.
The ’burbs are not a bad setting for O.C.D. — serene, very few surprises. A stranger is unlikely to vomit near you. Chances are low that a fellow commuter will sneeze in your face.
New York, where I prefer to live, is another story. It’s a difficult city for the handicapped, the elderly, the poor and anyone who lives beyond the reach of public transportation. I am able-bodied and relatively young, and I live close to subway stations and bus stops. I’m lucky.
Those who get near me, however, aren’t so blessed.
I’ve fallen into a few subway riders’ laps, either after forgetting my pole glove or while attempting to surf. In one instance, I landed in the lap of a large man, spilling his morning coffee onto his work outfit. Before I could explain about Da Beast, in a neutral but almost “What can you do about it?” tone, he had already shoved me into the lap of someone else, who was also not so keen on my sudden, shocking arrival.
One of the intoxicating things about living in the city is that it’s forever requiring Da Beast to add new and exciting tics to its arsenal. We’re both out of our element, constantly on guard, wending our way through a barrage of horror triggers. New York has become the setting for free immersion therapy.
Two years ago, while I was rushing to meet a friend at a bar, a child vomited close to me. After much thought and contemplation about how I could avoid suffering the same fate in public (and after much trial and error with various tics), I determined that my best course of action would be to perform the following: come to a complete and sudden stop, turn around to face anyone walking close behind me, and stare that person directly in the eye. Without sounding egotistic, I’d like to consider this particular move my “O.C.D. calling card.”
As you may have guessed, this series of moves does not come without potential problems.
Beyond the fact that the maneuver is exactly the opposite of what is recommended for New Yorkers — or, for that matter, anyone living anywhere — it is exhausting and time consuming. Also, it’s a terrific way to get yelled at, threatened and maybe even punched in the face.
I suppose part of the problem is my need to hold the gaze for as long as possible. I can cut it off only when it feels right. Five seconds? 10 seconds? 30? I do what it takes to guarantee I will never vomit in public. (Again, I’m no hero.)
More than once, a stranger has cocked an arm, ready to unleash a fist on my face. Apologizing profusely helps.
Pretending to search for a lost dog or missing child is also a good gambit, but it can call for unwanted attention — specifically from the police — that I’m not supercomfortable with, especially given my other greatest fear: being locked up. So I often end up muttering something incomprehensible. Or feigning mental illness.
Wait. I have a mental illness.
There is no cure for O.C.D. Researchers remain puzzled by what exactly triggers the disorder, although there is a potential link to childhood strep throat, among other illnesses. Medication helps when it comes to quelling the worst of the impulses, at least for me.
After consuming top doses of Prozac and Wellbutrin for more than four years, I’m proud to say I can once again use a kitchen knife without thinking it may one day be used to stab someone, which is great news but not something to brag about on a dating profile or in my college alumni magazine.
Da Beast may not love this dirty town, but I do. I suppose I could wear a full-body biohazard suit and be done with it (no germs for the rest of my life!), but that would be unwieldy, unsightly and expensive, unless I could find one secondhand. Then again, I’m in no rush to purchase a “gently used” biohazard suit at a stoop sale.
C’mere, we’re all in this together. Please stop looking at me like that or, at the very least, try to understand why I seem a little off. Let’s make this work. Give me a high-five and let’s call it a day.
But elbow to elbow. There we go, thanks.