I Named My OCD “Steve”
Finding forgiveness for self.
Posted Oct 08, 2020
A month after my wife and I returned from Peru, in my parent’s bathroom in Minnesota, I’ve torn up a cardboard toilet paper roll and am poking through my shit in the toilet bowl, looking for blood.
In the backroom of my brain, I know this is a lunatic and disgusting activity, with potential connotations for the state of my sanity. But in the forefront of my brain, I know it’s absolutely necessary. If I do not dig in my poop, I won’t find the blood. And if I don’t find the blood, I’ll be terminally ill without knowing I’m terminally ill. The only thing that can save me from this unknowing is finding the disease in my poop.
Located on the ground floor of our centurial farmhouse, the bathroom is no bigger than an airport toilet stall. It was added in the 1950s when the farm moved into the future with indoor plumbing. The flower and bird wallpaper, the aroma of the particular soap, and the quality of the light are as familiar to me as my mother’s face and voice.
Tiffany is knocking on the door. She knows I’ve been in here too long. She suspects what I’m up to. But I need to discover proof that even though we left Peru, Peru hasn’t left me. It has given me the gift of typhoid or malaria or yellow fever or Oroya fever or the plague or some as-yet-undiscovered killer disease. And even if it’s not Peru, I definitely have colon cancer.
Tiff is knocking with more urgency now. My mother has come to the door, too, and they are both calling my name. With a tremendous burst of effort, I flush the toilet and open the door. My face is ashen, my body trembling.
“I need to see a doctor,” I say.
To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about life post-Peru. I was too certain I was going to die there to give much credence to the future. I expended all my energy on getting through each day and had little left for a hazy, indistinct homecoming.
But Tiff, ever the organizer, had. We were moving back to Minnesota to be near family and friends again. Tiffany had already secured a new position with Teach For America and tasked her brother, Chris, with scoring us an apartment and a very used car. When we land at the Minneapolis–St. Paul Airport—miraculously, to my mind, not dead—he picks us up in our “new” car. Driving down the freeway, looking out over the all-too-familiar skyline of Minneapolis, I remember thinking, Well, what the fuck now?
It turns out that I don’t have much agency over that. As we try desperately to settle into our new lives, I start looking through my shit for blood. And I can’t stop. All the relief and relative calmness that I’d felt deep in the Amazon fled away like a spirit scared by the urban clamor.
I know with that special kind of knowledge given to the clairvoyant that I’d picked up something in the forest, a hitchhiker in my body that is slowly killing me. One day I’d shit and there’d be nothing but blood, blood emitting from the stool like steam.
For months this was our routine: I’d come out of the bathroom, shaking, heart pounding, sweat pouring, and I’d tell Tiffany that I was dying. And I didn’t understand why she didn’t believe me. It’d take me hours to come down. I stopped eating anything vaguely red in color—no more tomatoes or strawberries or raspberries or peppers. I’d force Tiffany to take me to doctors. I’d bring them samples of my shit. They’d run tests and tell me, “You’re all clear. You’re fine. No parasites. Nothing wrong.”
But I didn’t believe them. Whatever it was, it was just waiting for the right moment to reveal itself and say those three magic words: “You’re fucked, dude.” It may seem that it’s easy for me to admit all of this now because I’m writing about it somewhat matter-of-factly. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you have mental illness, you learn very quickly and adeptly how to hide things from family, friends, coworkers, and even therapists. Madness can make you do mad things, and the last thing you want is for others to know what mad things you have done. Madness made me, for months, dig through my shit. And even when you can begin to accept that it is the illness making you do those things (it was Steve!) the stigma of shame, fear, and revulsion at your own actions doesn’t vanish. It lingers. Probably forever.
Thinking of that time now, more than ten years later, my immediate, knee-jerk reaction is “Christ, Jeremy, you’re a pathetic and disgusting human being.” It’s only by sitting with it a little longer that I can find a bit of forgiveness for myself.
“Okay, Jeremy, why don’t you tell me what’s going on?” the psychologist asks a few weeks after we arrive in Minnesota from Peru.
It’s the first time I’ve seen a therapist in years. And doing so, admittedly, feels like a failure, an admittance of my weakness, a bending toward my family and my past, encased by mental illness.
In truth, I’d become complacent, almost arrogant, thinking (hoping, really) that maybe I’d never again need to deal head-on with mental illness. Maybe college and growing up and getting out into the world had done it for me. Maybe I’d solved that whole thing, and it would, in later years, become just memories of a misshapen youth. But sitting here, looking at this stranger before me, I know that dream has been decisively proven an illusion.
Still, if there is one thing I’m good at, really freaking good at, it’s therapy. From the chair, I describe the last year in more candid detail than I could’ve to my parents or even Tiffany, from doctors in New York City to puppies in Peru to digging through my shit in Minneapolis.
In the end, the therapist looks at me. “Well, it’s clear you have obsessive-compulsive disorder.”
“Okay.” Deep breath. “I’ve heard of that. What is it?”
Mental illness is much more common than we think. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), around one in five adults experiences mental illness in a given year in the United States. So if you have five friends or five family members, chances are that one of them, at the very least, has struggled with mental illness. Why isn’t this more evident? Because those of us who live intimately with mental illness become so goddamn good at acting, at pretending, at smiling through the pain or laughing through the fear. And the longer you live with mental illness, the better you become at throwing a veil over it. Most of my friends, even close ones, know I’ve struggled with mental illness because I’m casually open about it now, but only a handful have ever really witnessed its manifestations.
But get this: Nearly half of the homeless people in the United States suffer from a severe mental illness, while nearly a quarter of prisoners have had a recent mental illness. Worse still, 70 percent of juvenile offenders suffer from it. Is it any wonder that some have called this a mental health crisis?
After my new diagnosis—which piles on my previous ones of severe depression, anxiety, sleep disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder—comes months of immersion therapy. I have to force myself to watch medical shows like Grey’s Anatomy and House and follow my spiking anxiety. I have to ascribe numbers to my feelings: Gregory House running a scan for multiple sclerosis, that’s a four; a patient dying from a record tumor on Grey’s, yeah, that’s a niner. I have to force myself to look at my poop until I grow bored with looking at my poop, something that takes longer than you’d expect. I have to read memoirs from cancer survivors. I am
supposed to go for walks in hospitals to see people who are, you know, actually dying. But I lack the courage to reach this final step.
I go back on the psych med Escitalopram, the first time since the millennium. It helps with my OCD and depression (which had reared its head since landing in Minnesota) but makes me about as interested in sex as I am in Advanced Calculus. I also want to sleep all the time.
And I have to meet Steve formally. I have to say, “Hello, Steve.”
“I see you now. I know you’re not me. I know you’re something else. An imp. An imposter. A disorder. I know your weapons and your tricks.”
“Cool man. Cool, cool. But your stomach feels a little upset, doesn’t it?
Have I told you how stomach cancer is the worst of the cancers?”
“Oh. Okay. Oh . . . uh . . . Tiffany? . . . Tiffany! Maybe I should call the doctor?!”
I still have a long way to go.
This post is an excerpt from the book Baggage: Confessions of a Globe-Trotting Hypochondriac.