I… am not very much right now. I am at a particularly low ebb. I find myself wracked by a melancholy and lassitude which is nestled in my pores like scratchy iron filings. Discomforting me, irking me. And each little pocket of it doesn’t seem like much excess weight by itself, but it sure adds up when there are dozens or even hundreds of them dotted all over my body, making my skin sit too heavy on my bones. It’s proving quite the hardy affliction. Showers definitely can’t wash it away. Rare blessings of an endorphin spike where things briefly don’t seem so bad can’t wash it away. The compassionate acts of others cannot wash it away either. It’s just there. And it’s not just present in the background, I’m actively thinking about it a lot. Resenting it. Wishing it gone. I dearly want to go back to how it was before this took hold of me. I just don’t feel like the full version of myself. I feel like an old laptop operating on low-power mode where only some of the features are still available and the charge light is insistently blinking to tell you it needs to be reconnected to the juice fairly fucking urgently. Only, when I go to plug myself in to the usual power sockets for at least a little trickle of salvation, I find them inexplicably dead. And so I just sit back down with a huff and try to use the little reserve I still have left sparingly. This is the state I’m trapped in. I am emotionally fragile. I am bleak and listless. And I am greatly, greatly struggling to find a way to climb out of this half-person funk, to bounce back. I just can’t seem to do it.
I don’t doubt that what I’m going through is partly the cumulative product of the last… let’s say… eighteen months or so, which has made an undeniably spirited attempt to be the hardest, worst period of my life so far. There are times where fate decides to be kind to you and times where fate decides to be emphatically unkind instead, and I have been dealing with quite a long largely-unbroken streak of the latter treatment. I think I’ve had some of the lowest moments of my life during this time, to be perfectly candid. I won’t go into the entire laundry list of stuff, because I can assure you it is various and I imagine it will be quite tedious and unavailing to try to catalogue it all. But I will say there was one point in particular where this gratuitous cruelty from the universe really peaked, and I found myself simply… well, dumbstruck, I suppose…. by the sheer sadism of the thing. My childhood dog had to be put down and then just a few days later my grandfather passed away, and I didn’t get the chance to see either of them before they died. That rather speaks for itself, I would think. As one-two punches go, it’s… quite the doozy. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt simultaneously so devastated and so shellshocked-numb as I did in the weeks following that. I didn’t really have much experience dealing with grief as an adult and, yeah, it’s quite the learning process. Grief is a bare and frigid cell, where one is imprisoned alone. Even if positioned in a row of cells just like it — occupied by other cellmates well known to you, to boot — one can barely feel the salve of shared circumstance or solidarity. And, let me tell you, living so far away from my family only exacerbates this effect further.
I’ve also found it amazing how stubbornly and how sneakily your mind resists the reality of someone being dead. It seems so deeply, deeply bizarre that this person could simply be erased from your life forever. It’s so hard to accept. On some level, it feels almost like by co-signing that it’s true, you’re somehow making it true or keeping it true — ridiculous as that sounds. So there’s a part of you which wants to withhold that assent, wants to do anything but comply (even just mentally) with the horrible new state of affairs. Here’s a good example of what I mean. For context, my grandfather still lived in my hometown, and though we’d speak on the phone and do videocalls and what have you, obviously there would necessarily be gaps of time between seeing him in person. When you live in a different place to someone, I suppose you just psychologically get acclimatized to not dwelling too much on not having seen them face-to-face recently because it’s just a sucky thing you can’t do much about anyway and, besides, you know you’ll see them again soon enough. And now, following his death, there are times when I can sense my mind is trying to protect me by subconsciously treating it like “yeah, you haven’t seen him for a while and it might be a while before you see him again but, don’t worry, it’s cool, you’re just apart right now, he’s still out there.” Naturally, it’s not like you actually believe this or it’s like some fleshed-out delusion. It’s just that by not actively thinking about the truth, you’re able to kinda absentmindedly sit in the comforting emotional echo of the old status quo. There’s great utility to that. Especially at a time when you’re still reeling and you’re longing for any form of relief, however hollow, however it must be bought. Aye, short periods of quasi-forgetfulness is perhaps not the most noble balm one can possibly reach for, but you take what you can get when you feel like you might burst. Your mind is doing what it can to allow idle moments to still be idle moments, filled with daydreaming and random thoughts rather than uselessly monopolized by simply the incandescent sorrow of loss. There’s only so much clothes-rending and hair-pulling and skyward keening one can physically bear to do, after all. The mind has to contrive ways to give you a fleeting break from the sheer awfulness of it all. But then sometimes you catch yourself and, realising this is what’s happening, you reflexively snap to and correct yourself. You can’t even help it. The truth comes flooding back in, like the concussive backdraft from opening the door to a room you somehow forgot was filled with a raging inferno. And it devastates you all over again. That person doesn’t exist on this earth anymore. What they were is gone. Brainwaves dissipated back into the ether. They are completely and utterly past-tense. So, no, dummy, you won’t be seeing them again. You’ll never get to talk to them again, never get to just savour their presence again, never get to show them appreciation or tell them they’re loved again. It’s only right that this should be so difficult for the mind to process, I think. Because it’s so brutal, so foully absurd. That so much of the religious and philosophical exertions of humankind have been spent on desperately trying to find some way to reconstrue mortality as anything other than the single most hateful aspect of this universe we find ourselves in is unsurprising. Though I’ve never for a single second felt any desire to collaborate on that project, I have to say. And, if it’s possible, I feel even less desire than that today. I abhor these fragile bodies, abhor that we are but temporary creatures. I remain flabbergasted by the stark evil of our impermanence.
And… shit… what else is there to really say, y’know? Death is death. It seems impossible to even attempt to write about it, in a sense. It stands before you haughtily, an unyielding brute-fact which defies deeper analysis or meaning-making, which laughs at anodyne sophistry that seeks to dull its sting with honeyed words. It’s just something which happens, and then what else can you do but go on living in the long shadow of the event? Moreover, I suppose the pain, even with the subsequent passage of time, is still too raw for me to be able to articulate anything intelligent about it. Its edges are still too razor-sharp to simply hold it in the hand and look at it like an object. All I know is that I loved both of them so much and still miss them terribly. I adored that fucking dog, man. He was just such a happy, loving presence. (Case in point: my girlfriend is extremely wary about dogs, but even she was won over by his gentleness and his affectionateness.) The world seems less joyful without him in it. And my grandfather, well I would risk wearing out this damn keyboard — not to mention my tear ducts — if I tried to eulogize him properly. And I can’t really handle that right now. I’ll just suffice with saying that, god, he was a good man… Really and truly, right down to his boots. Such a warm and giving person, who modelled decency for me my entire life. I quite literally have nothing but good memories of him. I’m grateful he got to live such a long life but I still feel the loss of him keenly every single day. I don’t know if there is an afterlife, I just know that it’s men like him that make you feel there ought to be. Either way, as I carried his coffin and as I sprinkled dirt on it once it was lowered down into the earth, I could only hope that he was now at peace having finally rejoined my grandmother. She had lay waiting a long time. There’s something nice about them being together again at last. I sometimes think that’s all anyone can really ask for. To share the same resting place as those you love, to sleep in the gentle waves of eternity together.
My ongoing battle with OCD has also really been a source of great difficulty and misery during this time. As it is periodically wont to do, it reached a fever pitch where it just became such a debilitating force in my life.
It’s a horrible epiphany to have: “my mind is just not as agile and limber and unencumbered as it once was.” Not by a long shot. It cannot perform the way it once could. You come to realize what a luxury it was in your pre-OCD life when your thoughts flowed effortlessly, carefreely. When thoughts weren’t just a vector for your own self-hindering. When thoughts didn’t sometimes have barbs that would catch the delicate milky-white lining of your mind as they passed by, and hook themselves in place and throb like an angry canker sore and just pester you and pester you and pester you and pester you and pester you and pester you and pester you and pester you and pester you until it’s impossible to focus on anything but them. And as much as it can feel like if you’ll simply surrender and fully give in to the fixation, however unpleasant it’ll be, that will at least be giving it what it wants and ultimately help speed its departure… this is a mistake. One you’ll probably have to repeat a great many times before you can identify it as such; its apparent logic is just too beguiling and your desperation for any ounce of peace is just too strong. The reality is there’s no ransom you can pay to detach these malignant thoughts even if you were willing to. The only price they hope to extract from you is your unhappiness and your flustered state of monomania in that moment. Evil things tend to seek the pleasure of control for its own sake, after all.
The OCD ravages my life in all kinds of ways. Ohhhh boy, does it ever. I was reading a book that teaches you how to utilize CBT skills to help with OCD — an undeniably useful toolset to acquire, but far from panacean… in case you care for my verdict — and at one point it lists all the different clinically-understood forms of OCD, so you can kinda map them onto your own patterns of behaviour and see what matches. This was an eye-opening exercise for me. Beforehand I felt like I had a pretty good grasp on the range of my OCD, felt I’d inadvertently made a fairly complete mental inventory of it by that point. It wasn’t a tiny list but it wasn’t all that huge either. And it was mostly comprised of… I suppose you could say, the ‘big’ forms of my OCD. The main ones. The ones whose effect on my life was most pronounced and extensive. However then I went through this book’s list and racked my brain trying to pinpoint what ossified habits I have which could correspond to each one, if any. This entailed a shocking expansion. I realized there were so many little need-to-do’s lurking in the crevices of my daily routine that were manifestations of OCD I hadn’t and couldn’t recognize as such before. All the minute fractal ways I self-doubt and double-check myself to death.
It’s a fucking mesmerizing kaleidoscopic cacophony of compulsions. Can’t leave the bathroom without looking back in to check the tap isn’t dripping and then as I close the door, I slowly open and close it several times so I can be 100% sure my bathtowel hanging on the back of it won’t somehow be touching the little bin that’s a few feet away once I leave. My girlfriend asks me to fetch something for her from the counter, I pick it up with a tissue even though I know it’s clean and quickly, redundantly rinse my fingertips afterwards for good measure. There’s a piece of dirt or cat litter on the floor in my eyeline? I can’t carry on with what I’m doing, I have to hop up and get rid of it. I just saved my game but I still have to go to the ‘load game’ screen and make sure there’s definitely a save at the top of the list whose timestamp matches the current time. Conversely, I sit down to play and load the most-recent save, but I fear that maybe my finger slipped and I loaded one further down instead, so I go back and reload that latest save a few times over so I can really closely watch myself doing it for reassurance. If I’m going to write, I have to ensure the rectangular base of the monitor is perfectly lined up with the edge of the table and dust it as well as the table, and if I notice some more dust has settled there during the course of day, promptly wipe it away. You think you’ve backed up a piece of work? Could be it didn’t save correctly. No particular reason to suspect that, just ‘could be’. Delete the backup file and then delete it from the recycle bin too and then very carefully make a new backup with a new filename so you can be sure it’s unquestionably the new one and not the old potentially-wrong, potentially-corrupted one magically reappearing as an impostor somehow. Can’t grab the item at the very front of the shelf at the supermarket, someone might have touched it or coughed on it, have to reach in and grab one of the ones from behind. Press the plastic-covering sealing the pack of meat at all four corners to make sure it’s still stiff and under tension and nothing’s indicating a tear somewhere. Check every side of the loaf of bread’s wax-paper wrapping to ensure there’s no gaps. After paying at the checkout, stand there and visually go through each card in your wallet one by one to make sure they’re all there, even though you only took one out. And on and on it goes. With, obviously, the addition of a few dozen new COVID-related habits too. (The advent of COVID being, as I’m sure you can imagine, like a psychological bomb-blast of infinite radius for people with OCD. Intensifying and multiplying symptoms like a motherfucker.) Most of which are ironclad sequences of cleansing and disinfecting performed with the fussy exactness of a religious ritual. Think that trademark scene in virus movies where the lab workers have to peel off their hazmat suits in the decontamination room and get blasted with disinfectant gas and scrub every inch of their body in the showers. But just a tad more thorough than that.
This is what my life is like. I am told how to be by a voice I didn’t create or authorize. By a voice I don’t understand. By a voice that can undo me. It speaks with my tongue and employs my idioms and knows precisely how to sweet-talk or alarm me with maximum effectiveness, but behind the semblance of me-ness I feel I can… on days of rare clarity when my mind is at its most unclouded… just barely perceive that this voice is merely a hollow impersonation employed by some doppelganger, by some mirror-self nemesis. It has a law to govern every decision and a verdict to offer on everything inbetween. And it won’t negotiate, won’t lower its asks to something more reasonable. And it won’t ever let one go. Won’t ever just shut the fuck up…
Wipe your lips after kissing, rinse your mouth out after eating or drinking, shake your pillows and sheet out before you go to bed and check the wall behind the headboard with a flashlight, shake your clothes out inside and out before wearing them, stuff tissues into your shoes when you take them off, raise your arm in front of your face when walking inbetween a lamppost and a wall in case there’s a spiderweb you can’t see stretching between them. Check your outbox to make sure sent emails have really sent, check your ‘orders’ page to make sure the order is being delivered to the correct address, if a download has to be paused it’ll have to be restarted from scratch rather than simply resumed, open fucked-up news stories in incognito tabs so they don’t stain your browsing history with their unpleasantness. Talk up how much you value the principles of defiance and self-ownership and autonomy; still obey these interlocking compendiums of rules which you know to be mere phantasma, which you know to be backed by no authority other than your faulty conception of reality. Despise magical thinking; be consumed by magical thinking all the same, merely finding ways to sanitise and disguise it. Sit in the murk of hypocrisy, feel it gradually effacing your self-respect like some kind of acidic smog. Feel harried all of the time. Do not know peace. Do not know the pleasures of a quiet mind. Be ruled by fear. Be scared of insects in unexpected places, scared of pollutants real or imagined, scared of contagions physical or mental, scared of uncertainty, scared your senses are unreliable, scared of being tainted in some inarticulable way, scared of tempting fate, scared of making the wrong choice, scared of embarrassing yourself, scared of not getting the best offer when you buy something, scared of things not being just-so, scared of unfixable errors, scared of unoptimized efficiencies, scared of unrealized potential, scared of unintentionally broken promises, scared of hard-drives failing suddenly, scared of not anticipating future requirements, scared that if you don’t periodically look in on your girlfriend while she’s napping to see if her chest is still rising and falling you’ll be responsible for failing to prevent her death. If at all possible, don’t touch things, don’t be touched by things. Be wary of any situation that will not unfold predictably. Try not to notice stuff because noticing irrevocably obligates action; long for blinders, long for inattention. Always reset yourself to default whenever you can. Assign a strange meta-dirtiness of ‘I don’t like it’ to this or that arbitrarily and unexplainably, and shudder if those objects come into contact with you. Have repulsion as a constant baseline, feel it simmer churlishly in your marrow. Get rattled by your own violent or disturbing intrusive thoughts, fret that they make you a bad or unstable person. It all meshes together somehow. I don’t know how. It’s like its own little solar system of fears, each tracing some dizzyingly baroque movement, each with some orbiting cluster of mandated safety-seeking behavior and self-mollification techniques. I can sense the outstretched grasp of their gravities as they pass by overhead, like a ballet of ice-cold shadows sliding over me.
What also really gets me about this shit is that it’s not some static, finite battle where you have a set number of problems to fix and then you’re good. It’s this ongoing thing, always elusive, always in flux. You start getting too cocky or too complacent? It’ll switch up on you in the blink of an eye and you’ll pay the price. It can knuckleduster sucker-punch you with the best of ’em, I can promise you that. Here’s a prime example of what I mean. Once upon a time, I used to think about people who have really bad handwashing OCD — the classic clichéd portrayal in film and television, of course — and feel lucky. So goddamn lucky. I’d recall the horror stories you hear about the uber-hardcore germophobes who scour the fuck out of their hands so many times a day that the cumulative skin-abrasion just leaves them with red-raw mitts wreathed in agony… and I’d just wince and knock on wood. (A superstition which OCD is very much happy to seize upon, let me tell you. But I digress.) I know, deep down, that I’m capable of those kind of extremes. Perhaps even harbour a certain propensity for them. So that stuff really scared me. I’d think “god, at least I don’t have that” with a shiver of relief. You know what it’s like, you try to find anything that’ll make you feel better about your own situation. And then, but of course, I eventually developed handwashing OCD myself. Pretty funny, right? Pretty fucking funny. My sides practically ache from all the laughter. This thing, this malevolent force inside my head, mutates unpredictably. Now sometimes I think about those poor bastards who have to flick the light-switch on and off a certain number of times whenever they leave a room in order to save their family from car accidents, which also scares the absolute bejeezus out of me, and wonder whether that will be my fate too someday soon. That’s what it’s like. Tomorrows have become frightening to me. Tomorrows and their unknown payloads. I do not know what alterations for the worse are yet in store for me.
I should say, I do occasionally have successes. Minor successes but successes nonetheless. Having educated myself a lot more about OCD now, there are times when I can really zero in on a given compulsion and diligently work on it and work on it and finally get rid of it for good. It takes quite a while, but I’ve proven to myself it can be done. And, yeah, you feel great when you pull if off. For that brief moment, you feel in control. You feel a little bit hopeful for once. Perhaps you can best this thing after all. Perhaps the tide is starting to turn, perhaps your luck is starting to change. I’m sure you can see where this is going… (Blogborne whinefests tending to follow a set formula and whatnot.) The depressing reality soon hits you. You eradicate one little OCD habit you’ve picked up — requiring great, sustained exertions of effort and discipline — and two more completely unexpected ones spring up in insouciantly hydralike fashion to take its place. Perhaps even popping up in ‘safe’ areas of your life you never thought you could develop problems in. And it’s just this horrible accumulation over time. Like some baffling, sneaky, constant influx of new barnacles clinging to the hull of a ship faster than the old ones can be scrubbed off, weighing it down and corroding the surface and making it less and less seaworthy with each passing day. It is a battle of attrition and you are losing it. You are being swarmed and overwhelmed. And of course it’s the mental domain where this applies doubly, triply so. When it comes to the physical world, there are thankfully certain limits to how many habits can accrete and where they can accrete, simply due to matters of practicality. It’s a little tricky to break down what I mean by that, but I’ll do my best. For instance, if a habit attaches itself to a particular activity or set of circumstances, it’s at least confined to that trigger and therefore can only reoccur as often as the preconditions do. If multiple habits relate to the exact same thing in much the same way, it tends to be the case that the overlapping ones will cancel each other out and leave only one most-prioritised habit remaining. Et cetera, et cetera. Your mind, however, is a much more elastic and capacious — and thus dangerous — playground in this regard. It isn’t subject to a lot of these same limitations. It can sustain you succumbing to multiple compulsions simultaneously. It can make compulsions pop up at random intervals, completely unconnected to any particular event or stimulus. It’s all great fun, I can assure you. A real hoot.
It’s interesting that the public perception of OCD is that it’s just an externalized thing. It’s just tied to physical actions. If you see someone repetitively picking up and putting down a fork before they can start eating, for example, then you know that person is experiencing OCD in that moment. (This being one of the embarrassing/aggravating aspects of having OCD: the difficulty of concealing it in situations where you really don’t want to draw attention to yourself and your mental illness.) Ergo, when you don’t see something like that, they must not be experiencing OCD. But the truth is quite different. There is a major invisible/interior component to it too. In fact, I can tell you right now that some of the worst, most impairing OCD spirals I’ve ever plummeted into were totally contained inside my own head. Someone could have looked at me sitting there with ostensibly a neutral expression on my face and they would’ve had no way to discern that I was being dragged through hell backwards mentally. It’s this aspect that I wish was better understood. It’s hard to explain this stuff to people though, these more esoteric or abstract forms of OCD like so-called ‘rumination OCD’. It’s hard to say to someone, look, I know we’re having a nice normal conversation and everything seems hunky-dory, but if you paid closer attention you’d see that my gaze is a little blank and all I’m saying back are really just robotic auto-responses. And why? Well, if you could CTRL-ALT-DELETE me and check my cognitive Task Manager, you’d see that shit’s gone haywire: the fans have kicked up into overdrive because my CPU is redlining, with 99% of its usage sucked up by an obsessive mental cleansing-ritual. Twenty-five minutes ago I had a really distressing thought and I can’t stop worrying why I had it, so I’ve had no choice but to very deliberately try to cancel it out with subsequent ‘neutralizing’ positive or unrelated thoughts ever since. A steady firehose stream of empty noise-data to hopefully stifle and suffocate the budding virus-file. The OCD is telling me this somehow makes perfect sense.
That isolated example’s quite useful actually. It’s like this whole condition in a nutshell. OCD is a disease which makes you assign too much troublesome meaning to your thoughts and which makes you unable to tolerate perceived risk whilst also disseminating a superabundance of perceived risk in every aspect of life. It’s some real “the call is coming from inside the house!” type shit. Think about it: how screwed would you be if you were the one tasked with devising a course of torment perfectly tailored to all your own fears and vulnerabilities? OCD is that. It is the internal, inescapable antagonist. It’s like some depraved portion of your brain which has seceded from the neural union in order to engage wholeheartedly in this project of precise, laser-guided immiseration. And, trust me, it’s staggering just how miserable your own brain can make you when it really commits to it 110%, really goes no-holds-barred.
Ah, but I’ve yet to even get on to the main event. Because perhaps most of all, the OCD wrecks my ability to do any sort of creative work, like writing. This is… no small deprivation. Next to my loved ones and my health, writing is the most important thing in the world to me. It being sabotaged is such a painful blow, it makes me just so wretched and despondent. When I cannot write I feel de-realized, I feel like a being of unproven existence; I share in the sorry fate of ghosts. It is a dissolution of self. For me, words are like the necessary exhalation of selfhood, releasing the held-breath of experiences, opinions, ideas, etc. Without that, I am undone. If I am not on the page, I am not. The space between my atoms seems to gradually expand and expand until I’m no longer a man, I’m just a hovering mist drifting to-and-fro, dumbly mournful and aimless. There are so many other aspects of my life that the OCD pillages which I would gladly cede to it wholesale — grant them it like appeasing tribute to some conquering force — if it would just fucking spare this one. But, as I think I’ve probably sufficiently stressed at this point, that’s not how this thing works. The OCD comes for whatever you value most. Latches onto it hard, drilling a tortuous burrow-system of instability into its foundations.
Now, to be specific, even when my OCD is at its worst it doesn’t affect the actual act of first-draft writing all that much, mostly just making it a bit less fluid. But it makes the subsequent editing passes of that work significantly harder and then the very final polishing/proofreading pass basically nigh-impossible. And of course without those, the first-draft is just an unfertilized seedbed. I know some writers can get it all out almost exactly the way they want it as soon as they sit down and put pen to paper. I envy them. Seriously, I’m practically #66FF00 all over, I envy those lucky sons-of-bitches so much. ‘Cause I’m not like that. Or, at least, I only get to partake in that during rare moments of hyper-inspiration, where it feels like you’re simply transcribing something sublime someone else is whispering to you. No, mostly it comes out as inchoate, inelegant fragments for me at first and then a lot of work is required to properly thread it all together and refine it and expand it and zero it in and make it something even halfway worthwhile. And when I’m denied that process, I’m denied the satisfaction of ‘having written’. (I was going to say: word to Dorothy Parker on that one. But the quote-sourcing police have apparently nixed that attribution. Which is a bummer.) I wish it weren’t, but it is indeed somewhat of an all-or-nothing proposition for me mentally. I never quite feel like I’ve actually said what I needed to say, actually disemburdened my mind of that string of contemplations, until I’m done with a given piece. I can’t breathe that euphoric sigh of relief until it’s definitely finished and I’m ready to move on. It’s all just furrowed brows and hopeful toil up until then.
As for the method by which the OCD trips me up here… I think I may have detailed it previously on this blog, I can’t remember, but I suppose I ought to cover it again for the sake of completeness. It is simultaneously the manifestation of OCD which causes me the most difficulty/anguish in my life and also the one which I’m probably least able to defy. And this double-whammy is what makes it the bane of my fucking existence. Here’s how it works: I read a sentence and then some pang of inexplicable doubt springs up at the back of my mind, hissing darkly “maybe you didn’t read that right! How can you be sure?! Maybe you skipped over a word or weren’t concentrating enough to take in the full meaning or something else like that?!” This ploy takes advantage of the fact — which probably hasn’t had reason to become as acutely apparent to you as it has with me — that the act of reading is quite a peculiar thing, in that it’s such an automatic process. You don’t have to try to read, you just glide your gaze along the sentence and absorb its meaning directly and immediately. But, crucially, the inverse is also true: if your mind is too specifically focused on trying to read, you’re not really reading properly. The more you pay attention to very carefully and very deliberately executing the mechanics of reading, the less you’re interfacing with the deeper meaning-layer of the words themselves. I know this extremely well, because the OCD sometimes goads me into slowly moving through a sentence word-by-word and concentrating on each word in turn, which is a terrible approach and pretty much a waste of time. You’re sort of just self-consciously imitating the act of reading rather than genuinely doing it. Thus, you come away from the sentence remembering the individual words more than the interplay between them which conveys whatever is meant to be conveyed.
So the irony is that if you’re reading something normally and then the diabolical OCD voice confronts you at the end and demands you prove to it in hindsight that you definitely read that correctly, you have no memory of doing it carefully because you didn’t, you did it effortlessly and without thinking. And that’s why it can stab that poisoned needle of uncertainty into you and you have nothing to hold up to defend yourself with. And remember the baseline it’s already set-up: the OCD sows a deep distrust of yourself, continually undermining your ability to feel perfectly confident that you really did the thing you think you did or really know the thing you think you know. (And boy it’s hard to overstate how much and how variously it can affect your life when something this elemental is taken away from you…) So you’re not capable of just casually overriding or disregarding its badgering. What it’s saying to me doesn’t make sense and I know it doesn’t make sense, but the OCD just has this awful power to compel me to buy into it in the moment. It’s not quite like I genuinely believe its argument, it’s more like my capacity to refute it has been stripped away, and so that ends up producing the same effect really. It browbeats me into submission through sheer persistence and vehemence. It’s like you’re working on a project and some obnoxious loudmouth prick keeps yelling at you that you’ve messed something up; it doesn’t matter how confident you are that you haven’t or that they’re just full of shit, if that’s what’s continually filling your ears and crowding out your other thoughts, it’s only natural to instinctively double-check just to be sure. But in the OCD-sufferer, that starts a runaway chain reaction. So then you triple-check. And then quadruple-check. And… so on. (Another really important lesson I’ve learned while reading about OCD is that research shows that, paradoxically enough, the more times you check something, the less positive you feel that you’ve checked it properly. You’re just intensifying your own anxiety about the importance of attainting certainty. This is a really vital point to take to heart. The OCD definitely knows it only too well; you ought to be forearmed too. And I use that word very specifically, because I wish I could tattoo this reminder on my forearm in big block capitals and with like seven exclamation marks. Come at it ‘Memento’ style, so I never forget.)
At its core, this is a problem of me not being able to trust that when I check something, it’s actually genuinely been checked. Hence the redundant repetition which follows. Now, there are homespun techniques I’ve come up with to try to break myself free from this cycle whilst it’s happening. One is where I basically work backwards up the flowchart of the causal chain and seek to remind myself of things which must be true. I have to take a deep breath and say to myself “okay, let’s take a minute to think this through. I can be positive I checked [BLANK] and didn’t see any problem because I know I looked it over and if there was something wrong, it would’ve unavoidably registered in my mind and I wouldn’t then have been able to even progress to OCD-questioning whether I did the check at all, given that I would’ve instantly started further investigating the problem and trying to remedy it.” That’s the sort of painfully elementary self-reassurance you have to resort to. Reminding yourself that you have working eyes and a working hunk of thinkmeat behind ’em. No matter how complacent you may have been while checking, they will have performed their duty to a certain minimum standard which you can take confidence in even in hindsight. There is a sort of unassailable logic to that, which is why it works as a circuit-breaker. Well, sometimes anyhow. But that’s still plenty good, compared to the alternative. Of course, eventually it does kinda dawn on you that these techniques can constitute their own sort of subtle trap too. I’m still checking the check. Which means that, to some irreducible degree, it’s still its own form of OCD style thinking. It resolves the situation a lot quicker than otherwise, but it’s a topical ointment not a cure.
Ah, I’m doing my best to explain all this involuted shit, but I suppose it might just be inherently hard to grok — I promise I try to only reach for such a painfully nerdy reference when no other word is quite right — if you’re someone without OCD. Because A) obviously this sort of irrational self-doubt about something so basic would seem totally bizarre/alien to them, but more so because B) even if they did encounter it one day, it would be so trivially easy to simply remind themselves that if they read the sentence, they read the sentence. It wouldn’t even require any effort, it’s just a gyroscopic self-correcting mechanism their brain can apply with breezy automaticity. I know how profound of a difference it is because I can still remember what that was like. I can put the before and after side-by-side and gawp at the gulf between them. Back then it was all so much easier. It was… nice. In retrospect, I realize what a luxury it was. Now I have this goddamn thought-disorder lurking menacingly behind every prospective choice or activity, making me want to just sit still and do nothing rather than risk triggering it and having to deal with this bullshit. Now I know what it’s like to very distinctly feel your mind malfunction in real-time. Like, there really is an actual quality to it. It’s as if you can palpably sense the neurons misfiring or something. Sorta like if there were gears that used to turn smoothly in sync with each other and now they’re stubbornly grinding against one another with a horrible little screech. It’s pretty wild. I don’t think I’d ever have imagined it would be like that, I have to say.
I’ve kinda not wanted to write about all this, to be completely honest. And it’s been tough to bring myself to do so. I can’t help but feel there’s something rather embarrassing and/or preposterous about saying “my OCD gets so bad it can erode my ability to fucking read,” you know what I mean? I suppose partly I’m ashamed — and, yes, I know this is silly, but just… I’m trying to be as real as possible here, okay? — that this thing has managed to best me so hard. I tend to imagine the OCD as a sort of opponent, and it’s almost like having to admit it scored the most humiliating defeat possible on you, like you couldn’t stop it reaching your most sacred inner sanctum and ransacking it. Plus, it’s scary to think about this whole thing too deeply, too comprehensively, which writing at length about a given topic will invariably make you do. It’s daunting whenever I have to restate all this stuff explicitly, as it just once again reminds me how much the OCD dampens my day-to-day existence. And, hey, it’s not like I don’t already know that obviously, but there’s something especially crushing about having to stare it square in the face all at once. The thing about living with severe mental illness(es — who am I kidding?) is that it intrudes in your life so forcefully and inescapably when it does flare up and fuck with you that the rest of the time you just want to do your best not to think about it, to sort of semiconsciously kid yourself that overall things aren’t really as bad as they in fact are. If real ignorance is bliss, strategically-employed cognitive dissonance is the next best thing. It’s what allows you to stay sane and even have upbeat moments inbetween the shitty ones. But then I write a post like this and you have to cram the ugly fucking thing under a microscope and examine with unbearable acuity all the even more ghastly substructures of it and… *sigh* I don’t greatly enjoy this task, let me put it like that. It feels like its own little sort of ordeal, quite frankly. Even the catharsis of getting my experiences down on paper — which, sure, is certainly there too — isn’t enough to counterbalance that. This stuff just bums me out too much. Staring at it too hard and for too long puts me in such a dour mindstate.
Of course, at the same time, I’m also distinctly aware that there’s something very valuable/useful about writing about this and trying to understand it better in the process. There’s still a lot about this very ultra-specific form of OCD that I’m trying to figure out. This is quite a, uh, independent endeavour. Not only does it seem to nary appear in books about OCD — and they’re usually absolutely crammed with illustrative examples of all kinds — it’s also surprisingly hard to find other people discussing it online. And believe me I’ve tried. (Gosh, nothing makes you feel more like a freak than dealing with something that you can’t even really find other people talking about on the internet. There are probably whole online communities dedicated to weirdos who like to, I don’t know, lick pennies after they’ve accumulated a few decades worth of grubby flavour or whatever, and yet I can’t find mention of this. I’m writing to my ISP for a fucking refund. They were supposed to furnish me with infinite knowledge. And this shit is proving to be decidedly sub-infinite. The law is sure to be on my side here, I can just feel it.) So ultimately I know I’ve got to just suck it up and do my best to break this thing down and get to the heart of it myself. The better my grasp of it, the better I should be able to combat it. Or that’s the hope anyway.
I’ve already long known that it’s especially effective on me because I’ve always had a very deep-rooted and powerful perfectionist streak when it comes to my own writing. One of the things that most attracts me to writing in the first place is that it can be made ‘perfect’, by which I mean that whatever you’re saying can be rendered exactly as you wish it to be. It’s a possibility-of-perfection relative to each individual writer and their intent. That’s writing’s siren song for me: it is a medium of absolute control. In theory… when you are at your best and sharpest as a writer… nothing is lost in translation between the sentence you compose and tweak in your head and the one you then commit to the page. It’s very different to other artforms in that regard. For instance, painting requires a certain level of surrender to the inexactitudes inherent in using physical substances subject to physical properties: paint drips or flicks or splats in complex and/or minute ways you can’t totally control or predict one-hundred percent. And this tradeoff is inevitable, because you don’t create pictures in your head with imaginary paints, so in a sense you’re trying to shift something from one format to another, which is understandably a lossy process. Whereas you do create verbal thoughts with words and then you print them on the page with those same words, so it’s one-to-one.
Words are such hard, pure objects. (In their written form, at least. When spoken aloud, you introduce the quicksilver adulterants of tone, cadence, etc.) That’s what I love about them. That’s what makes them so satisfying to play around with. You only have to find the right ones, put them in the right order, and sprinkle in the right punctuation. And bob’s your uncle, as we say here in old blighty. (And I do in fact have an uncle named Robert, so I can claim some authority on the subject.) It’s a bit like a jewellery-maker threading a row of precious stones onto a chain: the stones are pleasing in themselves, yes, but it’s the pattern they’re then placed into and the resulting juxtaposition with one another which unlocks the full potential of their beauty. Of course, I hasten to add, that’s not an ideal analogy because obviously there’s so relatively few permutations to choose from in that case, as opposed to the vast beast that is language. I’m just making a general point about how it’s all just a question of configuration really. Each piece of your artform’s material is itself fixed and static; it’s the interrelation between them which produces the magic. Again, that’s not at all meant to impute any depreciatory ease or simplicity to the act of writing. Hell no. Certainly, getting that sentence precisely right requires being willing to put in a fair amount of work.
Anyway, I didn’t mean to sidetrack to a little paean for the cleanly boundaried complexity of wordcraft, for the primacy of those good-ol’-boys diction and syntax (which I sorely wish were four-letter words, so I could get them tattooed on my knuckles to intimidate all the other losers at the seedy underground writers’ bars I frequent.) But, hey, that’s the type of digression which is probably only to be expected when it’s 2AM and you’re sitting typing a blog post in the meditative stillness of night. What I’m really getting at is this: knowing that writing can partake of a certain form of perfection is such a taunting, enticing challenge that it activates the part of my mind which sees ‘good enough’ as a loathsome failure. (I was going to chance a hat-tip to Voltaire here for “the best is the enemy of the good”, which is a really sublime maxim I think about all the fucking time and which has at least managed to help me in other aspects of my life. But then Google burst my bubble, informing me that he was just parroting an old Italian proverb and Montesquieu beat him to the punch anyhow. So I guess the most you can really say is that he popularized it at least?… Gee, this whole striving-for-accuracy thing is proving to be such a buzzkill.) I cannot step away from a piece of writing until I’ve given it all I have to give, until I’ve wrung every last drop of effort and creativity from myself. I just can’t. I am tethered to it by the chains of obligation, the solemn obligation of the creator to the created thing. Also, to be candid, I tend to think of my writing as, well, being the better part of me. It’s the part I’m most proud of and the part I’m most invested in making shine. But we’d risk venturing into another lengthy tangent if I were to elaborate on this point too much, so I’ll leave it at that.
What this all adds up to is that it’s incredibly, excruciatingly important to me that I’ve checked any given piece over enough to ensure it’s the best I can possibly make it and there aren’t any typos or solecisms and so on. Accordingly, the self-doubt which the OCD slips into my emotion-hopper — like an anvil wrapped in lit firecrackers thrown into a woodchipper to jam it and cause a scene — produces a momentary flash of panic. I suddenly feel sure that I’m unwittingly going to leave a howler of a mistake in or fail to have improved some clumsy sentence or something else like that. And so I give in. I re-read it with meticulous care. Because I must. Because I’m willing to take whatever pains seem necessary for the sake of my work. But of course then the merciless voice repeats its warning and I have to re-read again and on and on it goes. It’s a self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing vicious cycle: by treating the illusionary doubt as though it might be real, you only strengthen and enlarge it. And, moreover, we all know that the more times you re-read a sentence, the less sense it seems to make (a.k.a. ‘semantic satiation’), which just compounds the self-defeatingness even further.
This shit is so unbelievably awful, so unbelievably frustrating, I can’t even begin to tell you. Again, it’s perhaps the type of thing you have to experience for yourself to fully appreciate. The infantilizing indignity of the OCD making me re-read a simple sentence ten fucking times, and then the blood-boiling slap in the face at the end of it when it still does not permit me to believe that I’ve actually processed and absorbed it properly. And that’s just the emotional toll of it. The practical side is just as bad. If not worse. As you can imagine, being unable to read through your own work is tantamount to a goddamn nerve-toxin for a writer. As a sidenote, I should mention that this form of OCD also eventually started affecting me — though to a lesser extent — when I’m reading books that have a certain level of importance to me, which is also intensely galling in its own right. This sort of worst-case-scenario metastasizing is a turn of events I’m now so familiar with I’m hoping to patent it, and will hereafter be advertising it to potential licensees under the brand-name The Fun Just Never Stops™. Contact me now to find out how implementing The Fun Just Never Stops™ into YOUR business’ workflow can
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I swear to god, sometimes I hate and resent my broken brain so much I can’t even breathe, I am choked by my rage at it trying so hard to endlessly thwart me. There are days where I steep myself in this bitterness for too long and become saturated with its volatility. Days where I become absolutely lost in the self-loathing and self-enmity of it all. Days where I dearly want to take a scalpel and slice whatever vile circuitry is responsible for the OCD right out of my brain, to reach into my cranium and wrench it out inch by liberatory inch like some kind of slippery filament. Days where my hands practically tremble from the strength of this barbaric urge, and I have to keep them in my pockets to stop it from showing. (Hmm, occasionally I think I ought to move away from the poetics of self-mutilation being such a recurring theme in my writing. But then again, it has its utility: I write it so I don’t do it. I have a feeling that there are plenty of other writers — of similar temperaments, languishing in similar predicaments — who can heartily relate to what I mean by that.)
Alas, by dint of a lack of surgical expertise and certain questions of practicality, I am forced to resort to much less invasive interventions. Which takes me on to the next thing I have to talk about. I started a new medication for the OCD. I had to climb up to a very high dosage — which I had anticipated, because the studies on treating OCD do suggest this is usually necessary — before it started to have any tangible effect. But, yes, amazingly, it did actually lessen my OCD a noticeable amount. Halle-fucking-lujah. I really was stunned by this, to be honest. For various reasons I had very little hope that any pharmaceutical assistance was going to work. Granted, I don’t know shit about shit… believe me, I have no illusions on that score… but it just seemed to me intuitively understandable that something like depression could be partially caused by a chemical imbalance and therefore straightforwardly treatable in that dimension, whereas something more involuted like OCD just didn’t strike me like it would/could work that way. Trying to fix it with pills seemed as if to miss the point somehow. So it kinda just felt like a perfunctory step I needed to take simply to be sure of that. Just to check it off the list before I moved on to some other avenues I felt more confident about. So you can imagine what a pleasant surprise it was to be proven wrong. I mean, just to be clear, it wasn’t a night-and-day difference or anything terribly dramatic/life-changing like that, but even a relatively small amelioration provided me with some much needed breathing room. It was as though it became… hmm, let’s just throw a number out there… say, 30% easier to just swallow a compulsion back down and not indulge it. Now, for the bigger stuff I deal with, that’s probably not enough to push my ability to disregard them over the edge. Well, it might on occasion, but I would also need to already be in a really good headspace and surfing a high self-discipline tide. So at best it mostly just tamped that bigger stuff down somewhat, rather than outright removing them from play. But for all the smaller stuff, it did the trick a fair amount of the time. There were even some truly glorious chem-abetted days where they basically became a non-factor. And I think I’ve sufficiently stressed that I have an ample miscellany of those little compulsions, so I was pretty damn jazzed about that. Those were some serious red-letter, count-your-blessings, tell-your-grandkids-about-them days for me.
But of course, this development happened during a period where the universe was — as I touched on at the very start of this post — suffused with a hot swell of malice. So this unexpected boon was soon to be revoked. I should’ve seen it coming really, but you get swept up in the happiness of things finally starting to go your way and you let yourself believe. And reality is the cartoon bad-guy hiding behind the drapes, holding a big-ass mallet and sniggering to themselves as they hear you celebrating. When they step out and bonk you over the head, you almost can’t even be mad. ‘Cause you know you should’ve been expecting it all along. It was foolish not to. You should never have let your guard down, not even for a moment. That’s exactly how I felt when the medication eventually turned out to have a plethora of noisome side-effects. They didn’t turn up for a while, not until I’d gotten to enjoy that initial honeymoon phase, but once they came onto the scene, they were here to stay. Some were annoying but probably tolerable long-term. But one in particular ended up being a total deal-breaker. The medication just made me soooo tired and lethargic all the time. And that was on top of making me sleep — and I mean sleep, like a petrified log frozen in carbonite — for about 12-14 hours each day, which somehow still did nothing to lessen that effect while awake. So it was like “great, I can potentially write/edit with less difficulty now, but I’m struggling to keep my eyes open or summon up any willpower whatsoever, so I can’t even make myself sit down and start doing it anyway.” I did what I could to try to find some way to live with it nonetheless, because I was so intent on retaining the efficacious OCD-suppression of this medication. It just wasn’t possible though. I just couldn’t hack it. Being perpetually zombified like that was ruining my life in its own way. I felt like some cliché from movies about psychiatric hospitals, like I was the guy sitting in the corner blankly staring at the wall, eyelids drooping half-closed. This ain’t where you wanna be. It simply turned out to be one of those quintessential ‘the cure is worse than the disease’ scenarios. No matter how badly you want to find a solution, there are some things you can sacrifice and some things you just can’t.
To say this outcome was a real downer would be putting it mildly. To have finally found, after much searching and tribulation, a lifeline and then have to voluntarily relinquish it again is just so heartbreaking and dispiriting. I fell into a dark place again. In a way, it was so much worse to have actually felt what it was like to have a reprieve from the endless prickings of the OCD, to enjoy some fleeting moment of freedom from the cruel machinations of this insidious fucking mindtrap. It just made it even more painful to then face the prospect of returning to dealing with it full-force. But, hold on, before I could even deal with the joys of that, I had a whole other flavour of bullshit to contend with first. Listen, I really don’t want to belabour this ongoing theme of life making sure to gleefully kick me while I’m down, but as I think you’ll see, it’s kind of impossible to get away from. As I was researching the best way to come off this medication, I found out that it has quite the reputation as perhaps the very worst drug of this type to try to quit. In fact, I saw many references to it being “the [BLANK] from hell” in this regard. As well as many stories about how the stark misery of the withdrawals often causes people to fail to quit it and then they’re left stuck on it, tempest-twirled and desperate, with no idea what to do. Some especially luckless people even have years-long odysseys with this shit, where they’re just continually pinballing between these failed attempts. I’m sure you can imagine what it was like to come across this news at this particular juncture. (Especially given that I was on such a high dose I might as well have gotten each month’s prescription-delivery as a big saran-wrapped brick of compressed powder and just freebased pinches of it with a rusty spoon and a blowtorch. My reliance on it, neurochemically speaking, must have been pretty damn strong. A daunting peak to try to suddenly clamber down from.) You pretty much just slowly close the laptop lid, sit back in your chair, intertwine your fingers behind your head, blow out a long exhalation, and despondently think “oh yeah, that’s that, I’m totally super-duper fucked.” What else can you really even do in that moment, you know what I mean? It would have been great to have known this information beforehand, but you didn’t, and you can’t go back in time and fix it. There’s only inexorable forward-motion now. Declining to quibble with that fact is the best, most dignified recourse. You’ve unwittingly bought a ticket for this awful ride and let the weird greasy carny manning it strap you into the rickety death-trap itself, and all that’s left to do is grit your teeth and give him the nod to hit the go button.
The withdrawal process was indeed quite bad. Having been sufficiently scared by what I read online, I made sure to taper off as slowly as possible. Seriously, I wasn’t taking any chances with that crap. No way, no how. If I’d had fancy laboratory equipment on hand, I would’ve chiselled mere micrograms off those little white tablets at a time. And yes obviously that’s a joke, but that level of caution and trepidation really was the mentality I went into it with. I decreased the dosage so gradually that it took an annoyingly long time to get down to zero. But this approach was well worth it. I think I managed to temper the hellaciousness of the withdrawals quite a bit. (A lot of the worst horror-stories you come across are sourced from the free-spirited types who decided to just abruptly stop taking the medication altogether. Like, just cold turkey. And then they’re surprised when this doesn’t go well… Good grief. You’d hope people would have a little more common sense.) Yet I still got put through the wringer plenty, believe me. I could go into a bunch of things I had to deal with, but the standout here was unquestionably something called ‘brain zaps’. I do not recommend them. I repeat, they are a 0-star review from me on Yelp. If you sit down at a high-class restaurant and you see that they’re listed as an item on the tasting menu, I implore you to get up and GTFO post-haste. Don’t worry about leaving a tip, don’t worry about grabbing your jacket from the coat-check dude. Just jump up, turn around, and sprint to the door with reckless abandon. I don’t care if you have to resort to full-blown action-hero shoulder rolls over other people’s tables; whatever helps you maintain the fastest straight-line path to the exit, do it. Just trust me on this one, okay? I’m looking out for you here, dawg.
It’s tough to try to explain exactly what a ‘brain zap’ is. This is also not helped by its rather weird and dramatic name. Which will forever sound to me like some psychic power you can attack an enemy with in a sci-fi turn-based strategy game like X-COM. (I mean, tell me you can just picture it now. Your character drops into a crouch behind his piece of cover and closes his eyes, concentrating real hard, and then a wispy tendril of bright light extends from him all the way across the battlefield to some snarling alien, who promptly falls down clutching their head and wailing in agony from the electrokinetic assault on their grey matter. -9 HP and a significant debuff to their weapon accuracy for the next three turns. Good stuff. Smart to invest in making the enemy fire less effective so you can move your close-range guys nearer to the front more safely. We’ll make a savvy commander out of you yet.) A friend of mine — in case she’s reading this: what up, Naheeds? — recently asked me about them and I tried to tell her what they’re like, but as I was thinking how to phrase my description I realized it really is quite tricky to put into words. At least, in a way that properly conveys just how peculiar they are. I suppose the short version is: when you flick your gaze around too quickly, it feels like you incur a small… well, jolt behind your eyes. I’m talking low-voltage, highly localized, almost like a rapid sequence of electric pinpricks arising in a densely concentrated cluster. Again, I believe I endured a relatively lesser form of this symptom because I weaned off the medication at such a snail’s pace. Obviously I can only speak about my own experience of it. So don’t take this as in any way widely representative. It’s worth noting that some people recount it as being positively debilitating, almost like receiving full-fledged self-generated ECT against your will. I feel such deep pity for anyone going through that level of torture. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
When trying to drill down into what the sensation of the ‘jolt’ is like more specifically, I find it strangely brings to mind an old memory for me. Just bear with me, you’ll soon see where I’m going with this. (And, yep, I’m aware this has already been a tangent-heavy section so far. But, hey, welcome to my blog, that is par for the course. If I didn’t often resort to gratuitous elaboration, my posts wouldn’t be so long that they make your browser palpably wince when it tries to open them. I’m intentionally taxing your RAM so it gets bigger and stronger, like a muscle after working out. Next time you go to upgrade your computer, only to find that your 2GB of sad old DDR2 RAM has somehow transformed into 8GB of beefy DDR4 sticks, just whisper a belated thank-you to me on the wind.) I was walking home from school one day when I was a kid and I came across the remnants of a crushed cigarette lighter on the ground. And given that when you’re that age you’re kinda just endlessly looking for any excuse to waste time/fuck around, I picked up an interesting looking part of it out of curiosity and started playing around with it. It was the part which produces the spark to ignite the butane. And what this discovery then led me to try is fairly predicable. If you hold the spark-end against your palm when you depress the little lever, you can give yourself a little shock. This didn’t quite hurt per se — if anything, there was perhaps just the anticipation of pain creating a faint psychosomatic mimicry of it — though it also wasn’t particularly pleasant. It was more so just the very, very singular sensation of a tiny bit of electricity passing through your skin. It was such a bizarre feeling and so unlike anything else that I couldn’t help but keep doing it over and over as I went on walking, just trying to… get to know it better, I suppose… if that makes any sense. What’s more, if you want a good illustration of the mercurial fickleness of the childish mind, I also distinctly remember thinking how cool it was that I had stumbled upon this little trash-gizmo, how cool it would be to keep this itty-bitty thing that could produce a spark on demand tucked away in my back pocket, and then by the time I was almost home, I’d already realized this was stupid and threw it away. I mean, shit, I wasn’t an aspiring forester who always needed to have an ultra-last-resort backup option on hand to light a campfire with in a survival situation. Nor was I particularly drawn to arson, despite the many other clichéd boxes I ticked as a wayward youth. Nor did I need a miniature electroshock weapon to use as a pain-compliance tool to force mice to do my bidding, like some kind of mad sadistic Pied Piper. So what the fuck was I gonna hold on to this thing for, y’know?
Anyway, I treat you to this charming flashback of young Ryan doing some dumb kid shit because genuinely the best way I can think of to describe the ‘brain zaps’ is that they felt as though someone had implanted one of those little spark-sticks right behind each of my eye sockets and rigged them to activate like a rapid-fire camera shutter whenever my eyes moved too fast. By which I really mean any time my gaze flicked over to something in my peripheral vision with anything but exaggerated slowness and steadiness. Unfortunately, as you’ll soon realize when put in this predicament, that is a lot of what your eyes naturally do throughout the day, especially when you’re up and moving around. And in fact when you consciously try to suppress this, it’s not as easy as you might think; your eyes sort of innately resist the attempt; they really do want to be able to look around fluidly and quickly. Even when you do manage to keep it in check, you’ve gotta be continually mindful to keep that up. If this lapses for even a second, you can bet that your eyes will take the opportunity to immediately draw as herky-jerky a zigzag across the room as they possibly can… and then, yep, best believe your ass getting mega-zapped. So the only real surefire remedy is to sit still and keep your eyes fixed on a single point — or thereabouts, anyhow — simply due to the activity you’re doing rather than any proactive effort on your part. I am lucky that so much of what I do is highly compatible with that: reading, writing, playing games, etc. Still, no matter what you’re doing or how you’re doing it, it’s impossible to keep your gaze from wandering now and then, so you kinda just have to concede that your day is gonna be peppered with ‘brain zaps’ no matter what. The most you can really hope for is minimizing the number of times they occur. (As well as ideally spacing them out to the greatest degree possible, so you can relax a little and enjoy a bit of unbroken peace inbetween.) And, importantly, it also comes down to just trying not to let them fuck with your mood/state of mind too much. This was achievable after I’d already dealt with them for a few days and started to get used to them. They definitely sucked pretty bad but, as I previously alluded to, they’re not really painful in the literal sense, they’re more so just very unpleasant and irksome and a tad disorientating. It’s actually the psychological aspect that’s harder to get over. The zaps seem so distinctly… punitive. Almost like the medication is warring against you, like it’s rebelling, like it’s pissed you would dare try to ditch it and it’s lashing out at you now to get you to stop. And obviously there’s no getting away from this chemical compound that’s swimming around in your brain, so you feel trapped and rather resentful. You have, after all, no way to strike back at it — and nothing to gain even if you could — so it gets to smite you all day long with impunity and you have to just sit there and take it with a scowl. Relegated to little more than some jilted drug’s punching bag. This is galling, to say the least.
But I did manage to stay the course, and eventually I was able to wait out the withdrawals and finally get off that medication. Good motherfucking riddance, let me tell you. That one was called Paxil, by the way. (Or, at least, that’s its American brand name. Which is typically what I know my medications as, because that’s generally how they’re referred to when you google them. So it tends to stick in your mind more, I find.) To be honest, I do usually expect to be wined and dined a bit before I disclose the names of my
medications psychotropic dalliances to strangers, but for this post I suppose I can make an exception. Particularly because I just realized someone else with OCD might be reading this and find themselves eager to know its name so they can be appropriately wary of it too. And I’m not gonna do them dirty by being too demure or tight-lipped to share that info and make them go hunting for it themselves. So yes, I can fully attest to Paxil’s reputation as being perhaps the most troublesome SSRI. I can even say that with a certain amount of authority in fact, because — as I was just joking about with my girlfriend — I think I can now more or less claim to have completed the whole bingo card of available SSRIs, having tried pretty much all of them at one point or another over the last fifteen years. This is somewhat inevitable, given it’s a class of drug that is employed as the trusty Swiss Army knife in this space: I’ve been prescribed them for depression, prescribed them for anxiety, prescribed them for OCD, etc. It’s just the kneejerk response, it would seem. I sometimes think it would save a lot of time if GP offices just rigged up cameras facing the entrance and if you walk in with a frown or downturned corners of the mouth or even any of the myriad of barely-perceptible indicators of emotional distress, an ‘affect recognition’ AI detects that and politely directs you over the loudspeaker to go down a particular hallway. At the end of it is what looks like a big oversized gumball machine but is actually a coin-operated dispenser filled to the brim with colourful pills. We’re talking all different types of heavy-duty neurochemical fuck-you-ups; a full array of different doses too; all mixed together; just throw a coin in the slot and roll the dice. (I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the urban-legend about kids doing ‘pharming parties’, but this would be kinda like a government-approved, medicalized version of that.) Totally self-serve. No need to interact with a doctor, no need to listen to them uninterestedly rattle off their perfunctory checklist of questions where the only one they even pay attention to is “are you having any suicidal thoughts?” Just come in, get what you need, and be on your way. Benefits everyone. I mean, you’re taking some pressure off the sad old overburdened NHS, right? And might as well do it this way anyway, because it would only be fractionally easier than all the times I’ve walked in with a request and walked out with a script two minutes later. To say it the cool street way. If you’ll permit me. Which you shouldn’t and probably won’t. And that’s fine. I just need to test the boundaries once in a while and see what I can get away with as a pasty dork.
So yeah, I’ve had my poor, deficient serotonin’s reuptake selectively inhibited in pretty much every way on the books. (And take it from me: no option is a fucking picnic. It’s never cost-free to monkey with the inner workings of your brain.) Still, this is not at all an enviable position of experience, I can assure you. You really, really don’t want to be in this spot. You want the very first one you try to be golden, to be the perfect one for you. You don’t want to have to feel like some weary, beaten-down, bleary-eyed nomad trudging from one to another to another to another, never finding any lasting refuge or solace. A life of futile pharmaceutical wandering. It’s a trying fucking lot, believe me. I wouldn’t even wish it on people who don’t carry on seeding barely-alive torrents of hard-to-find porn once they’ve finished downloading it. And, listen, that’s saying something. I hate those selfish assholes quite a lot. I’ve had an uncensored Japanese tentacle-fucking video, ripped straight from a very rare 2003 DVD that was only sold in neon-soaked Kabukichō backstreets, stuck at 94.9% for like a month now. And I ardently want to find the guy who abruptly left me hanging and wring his neck.
I also regret to inform you that my expedition through the happy-pill badlands continues apace. I started a new medication some time ago, blithely hoping against hope that I might manage to get the same anti-OCD benefits without so many obnoxious downsides. This time it’s the famous Prozac. (I mean, gosh, I’ve been hearing it as the go-to byword for antidepressant in American movies for decades now. Might as well finally give it a try. If only to grant Big Pharma a good, if belated, return on all their advertising expenditure over the years. They succeeded in getting the word stuck in my mind; now they get to stick their pills in my mouth. Fair’s fair.) I don’t like to jump into these things blindly if I can help it, so I tend to do a fair bit of amateur research on them beforehand. Some deep-dive googling and reading about other people’s experiences. Making sure to, following this costly oversight during my researching of Paxil, also check out what discontinuing it might entail. And even some perusing of published studies and the dusty medical literature — where I freely admit I’m waaaaaay out of my depth, like comically so, and mostly just look at the conclusions or the figures listed in tables. All that kind of stuff. I pretty much just go down the rabbithole and see where it takes me, trying to learn as much as possible from as varied sources as possible. As it happens, I found out that ol’ Prozac’s widely reputed to be the most ‘energizing’ and least sleepifying option in the entire line-up, making it seem like the perfect next choice at this point.
And, once again, everything was going fairly well at first. I can’t really concur with the rather striking accounts I read where people describe the purported ‘energizing’ effect as making them feel hyper and even compulsively social and so on. In fact I’d go so far as to say that any such ‘energizing’ effect was basically totally absent from my experience. It didn’t really noticeably perk me up whatsoever, best I could tell. (Obviously, take that for what it’s worth. I’m just one person, just one data point. And I also have no way of knowing whether the alternate ‘control group’ clone of myself would have proved I was technically enjoying a small, hard-to-detect relative improvement here. But I suppose you can still argue about whether that’s even valuable if it’s nonetheless imperceptible to you in the moment. Feeling better without actually feeling better is a dubious boon, I tend to think.) This outcome didn’t really surprise me, quite frankly. I struggle to imagine how anything short of combining a caffeinated intrathecal pump with a cattleprod to the perineum would be able to shake me from my all-too-common problems with sluggishness and lethargy, because they just seem too strong to admit of less dramatic forms of redress. My suspicion is that it’s very possible I was some kind of sloth or sloth-like animal in a past life. And some of that essential indolence has been spiritually transplanted into my DNA like a vestigial keepsake. I really wish I had retained those big gnarly-looking curved claws too though, so I could open packages without always having to fish scissors out of the drawer, but, y’know, you can’t always get what you want.
However, all that being said, the much more important discovery was that the Prozac wasn’t a surreptitious max-strength sleeping pill like the Paxil was. It had very little trace of that shit, in point of fact. This was very exciting. Although… I should add that the flip-side was it didn’t seem as promising as the Paxil in terms of combating the OCD, but A) that’s hard to gauge for sure until you get back up to a high dose, and B) I was potentially willing to swallow my disappointment over that because I was so laser-focused on just finding something which didn’t completely zonk me again. Those first few weeks when the Prozac was playing nice and I was buoyed by finding out it had this advantage, I felt quite hopeful that I’d finally settled on a winner. Hopes being the sort of cosmic misfortune-magnet that they are though, I perhaps should’ve anticipated that this was bound to be a short-lived optimism. Because not long after, the medication started really kicking my ass. Like I owed it money. Like I’d spit in its daughter’s face. A real thoroughgoing, example-making beatdown. The type where the ER nurses give each other a look when you’re wheeled in on a gurney like “ain’t no way to know what the score is, but this guy definitely did something to someone; we better get security down here in case they come back to finish the job.” The adjustment period for SSRIs is usually rough at the best of times, but it was shockingly bad this time. The low mood and chronic feelings of emptiness you have to deal with as your brain-chemistry acclimatizes to the outside intervention were really turned up to 11 here. And, look, I know low mood. I can handle low mood. I’m a hardened veteran with a faded ‘Mom’ love-heart tattoo on my bicep and a thousand-yard stare, I eat low mood for fucking breakfast. At this point that crap barely even registers as a blip on my radar anymore. It’s just the habitual background noise to my quotidian existence. So when I tell you that this particular bout hit me crazy-hard I’m telling you that it was the type of lowness where it’s like a pulverising vacation at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Just having yourself a little tea party sitting amongst the ugly sightless fish in the pitch-black, while the relentless pressure gradually persuades your bones of the virtues of becoming dust.
For real, someone might as well have stabbed a lobotomy icepick into the part of my cerebral cortex that fosters and sustains happiness, ’cause I doubt I would’ve noticed any difference. It was really quite remarkable just how full-on it was. Even while I was suffering through it I couldn’t help but also detachedly marvel at the impressive severity of it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I obviously know this is a well-known and controversial aspect of antidepressants, that they carry certain pronounced dangers because they can often greatly increase your misery — and whilst it’s probably already at its very worst, given you were forced to seek pill-based rescue — before starting to even out and do their ameliorating work. But it’s just such a deeply strange type of medicine in that regard, I can’t help but feel. It would seem ridiculous and unsellable for there to be a treatment for, say, hair loss which was first pretty much guaranteed to made your remaining hair fall out even faster for a while, to the point where you might find yourself totally bald. Then once you’ve gotten through that, once you’ve paid that toll, it transitions to having some chance of giving your follicles a much-needed boost. A very dicey risk to be taking. There’s a lot hanging in the balance and you’re playing around with irretrievable loss. That’s what it’s like with these SSRIs, but with much more dire stakes obviously. It’s a… sobering gamble. You’re putting yourself at greater risk for suicide for a while, and then maybe it’ll start helping you out with your mental illness. Quite the deal, wouldn’t you say? It’s certainly one you don’t reach for unless you’re desperate and out of options.
Ah, but I digress. I’ve long since made my peace with this devil’s bargain, and even in its more extreme form in this case I could’ve dealt with it, could’ve stuck it out until it finally passed. But then came the headaches. The goddamn fucking headaches! Now, truth be told, they were actually quite mild when they first started happening, and I was accordingly able to tolerate them as a mild annoyance. I’d read about other people getting these as a side-effect, but it seemed like they were just another transitory entry-fee and tended to fade away before long. So I resolved to just put on my big-boy pants and wait it out. (By the way, in my mind’s eye I picture them as being those cool Kevlar-impregnated jeans for motorcyclists with the armoured pads at the knees and hips, where you can slide across asphalt at 60-70mph and not get absolutely cheese-gratered. Though mostly just because I think there’d be something really funny about the stratospheric poser-level of buying and wearing those without owning, or even being able to ride, a motorbike.) So I did just that. I waited. I prayed. I even threw a penny in a wishing well with a serious-but-hopeful expression on my face, nodding thoughtfully to myself as I heard the splash. And before long, the headaches actually went away! Can you believe it?!…
Just kidding. They got progressively worse and worse. To the point where they were easily some of the worst headaches I’ve ever had in my life. Granted, I’ve been profoundly lucky in that they’ve generally been an exceedingly rare thing for me on a normal day-to-day basis. As opposed to my girlfriend, who is — cruelly enough — an insanely well-experienced migraineur. I’m often in awe of her toughness and her resilience. She endures thunderous, carpet-bombing headaches which I’m quite sure would fell an ox. Whereas, yes, I must cop to whining like a little baby as soon as I get the slightest twinge of discomfort up there. You can count on me pretty much snorting lines of paracetamol if I think it might be a headache coming on. But still. I feel qualified simply as a sensate creature who has nerve-endings and can experience pain to tell you that these were b-a-d. I’m talking about the type of crippling headache where you basically can’t do anything. I couldn’t lose myself in playing games, I couldn’t focus enough to watch a movie. There’s two homuncular fuckheads jousting with jackhammers inside your skull and it’s all you can do just to keep yourself sane. And the kicker is that these headaches would literally be there from the moment I lifted my head off the pillow and they’d stay with me all the livelong day. They would just wear on me and wear on me to the point where it felt like it was pretty much just a choice between forcing myself to go back to sleep to escape the awfulness or finding a way to get my hands on some laudanum to guzzle. Sadly, I don’t have the faintest idea where to go to procure laudanum, I’ve really only read about it in Victorian novels. Presumably it doesn’t exist anymore. (Could perhaps try to befriend some kind of ye olde drug dealer who’s become dislocated in time and offer to explain how to sell on the darknet in exchange for access to his antiquated wares? I don’t know, sounds like too much trouble honestly.) So that made it a fairly easy choice. And thus the irony was that I ended up sleeping way more than usual, just like with the Paxil. Just for a different reason.
So I found myself at the same decision-point as before. Hang in there and gut it out and just meekly beseech future days to be more merciful? Or cut your losses and throw in the towel now? I can tell you that whenever I find myself in this kind of situation, I do typically hem and haw for a little while. I think I’m perhaps just overly susceptible to the much-too-sticky logic of the sunk-cost fallacy. Given what I’ve already gone through, the misery-tax payments I’ve already made to appease this damn medication, I really want to make things work if I possibly can. So I start going round and round in my mind, hoping to find some way to justify not calling it quits. But no matter how hard you try to cling to “this shit is supposed to go away eventually”, suppositions make for poor succour when the inescapable reality is that your life has become so damn miserable. So I told the Prozac to go fuck itself and resolved to throw it on the trashheap with all the other failed salvations. Just the latest in a long line of last-resorts that merely toyed with me and ultimately left me empty-handed and crestfallen.
Of course, once I finally pull the trigger on that decision, I don’t really feel relief at having decided to move on, I just feel a different kind of anger. When one of these medications doesn’t work out, it all feels like just such a detestable waste of time. You went through the unpleasantness of the initial acclimatization period, then you tried to tough out whatever the unpleasant side-effects were, and now you’re also going to have to suffer the unpleasantness of the withdrawals process to boot. And for what? It was just a period of neurochemical hardship which set up nothing, accomplished nothing. Yeah, it sure is upsetting to think about when you reflect on it like that. That’s why I really am only half-joking about how when you’re forced to quit a medication, you feel like giving it the middle-finger on the way out for all the grief it put you through.
If only you could just make a clean-break at that point though, once you’ve told it how much you hate it and served the eviction papers. But, alas, no. You have to sit in this acrimony as it gets to have a nice long last-laugh. Because, of course, you have to keep taking it for a while. And it’s in this epilogue period where you realize how much of a dramatic difference a perspective shift can make. Now the act of swallowing these pills is freighted with all new psychological implications. This is such a strange thing, the flip that happens. It used to feel like medication, but now it just feels like straight-up fucking headache-pills, like some hateful poison I’m ingesting. You’re just thinking “gee, if I take this, it’s gonna make me feel like crap and mess up my whole day,” but then you have to do it anyway. You’re actively choosing — well, sort of, but let’s not detour into the finer points of volition vs. coercion — to put something into your body that only seems to harm you, merely in order to gradually re-earn the right to one day… not. It’s a joyless, gruelling process, with no incentives to soften the blow besides sheer unvarnished necessity.
And even when you do finally stop the medication entirely, the thing about Prozac is that it apparently has the longest half-life around when it comes to SSRIs. Though I must say I’ve come across weirdly discrepant information about how long it takes to completely exit your system: some sources claim you’re looking at about three weeks, others say five weeks, and there was even one I saw which pegged it at more like ten weeks, which by my calculations is only very slightly less than an eternity. And I just don’t know anywhere near enough to adjudicate between these competing claims. I frankly have as much expertise in pharmacology as I do in xenogeology. (Actually, if you pressed me to venture some guesses about how a given Martian rock formation came about, I suspect I would probably get closer to the mark than when speculating on how and how fast the body breaks down certain compounds. And that’s coming from someone who took Human Biology, so I should really at least have an inkling. But boy was my teacher unpleasant, which sure is a powerful impediment to learning. I broke exciting new ground in the age-old art of zoning out during those classes, let me tell you. I could write a handbook of technique that’d soon become required reading for all neophytes after it gets glowing reviews in the top procrastination journals.) Still, whichever way you cut it, you’re in for a wait. And I must say, I find something about this drug having such a long tail to be intensely vexing in itself. Even if it’s just a symptomless postscript period, it pisses me off that the ghostly remnants of this malicious presence have the gall to try to cling on and drag this out as long as possible. Like, get the fuck out of here! Go! Depart! Vamoose! I wish we were in the far-flung sci-fi future so I could just inject a swarm of nanobots into my bloodstream and task them with dutifully scrubbing every last atom of this junk out of my system immediately. Only costs fifteen credits to get a little glowing canister of them from the nearest ‘Medi-tech’ brand vending machine. A fantastic deal, I’m sure you’ll agree. Don’t miss out. Set a waypoint marker on the mini-map and get going. Sell some shit from your inventory to the nearby roaming merchant bot if you’re dead-broke and need to raise some funds.
However long the wait though, eventually I’ll be back at baseline, back at step one. And as for where I go from there?… I’m not sure about that, as anxiety-inducing as that is to admit. Do I continue perusing the pharmaceutical industry’s many offerings? Possibly taking the tricyclic offramp? Or disappearing down the dusty MAOI side-streets? Do I really want to branch out into these more exotic or archaic alternatives? Maybe. Maybe not. I can’t say I’m hugely enthusiastic about the prospect. I’m so worn-out and demoralized at this point that I kinda just want to leave it all behind as a very long, very arduous failed experiment. But desperation will no doubt reemerge one day soon. And desperation has a way of flowing through you like a rousing current — reminiscent of the old concept of ‘galvanism’ for reanimating corpses — impelling you to leap up and clutch at any solutions. It’s like the inverse version of how a tazer-shot paralyzes your muscles and locks you in place, I suppose. And only a tad less unpleasant. So I guess we’ll see. I’m well aware there are other helpful things I should be pursuing in the meanwhile (and beyond) though. I know I really ought to keep reading about OCD, pick up a few more books. This is something I also don’t particularly enjoy, truth be told. It’s difficult for me. And I don’t just mean because I typically tend to get bad reading-OCD when reading about OCD, because even I can appreciate the dark humour of that irony, which does take a bit of the edge off. It’s more so that it’s emotionally trying. Reading about this shit, seeing the private hell I’ve been dealing with inside my head so thoroughly and clinically anatomized… it has a powerful effect on me. My chest gets all tight, my breathing quickens a little. It gets hard to keep it together. I sometimes feel like I’m practically on the edge of tears reading it. And, well, I’m not really the type of person who cries during regular day-to-day life. (Not for any stupid macho reason of course. God no. Although, to be fair, I suppose you don’t know what tripe of that sort you’ve internalised growing up, but I can tell you that’s not a conscious thought process at least. In fact, I rather envy those who have easy access to that little self-administered dose of catharsis whenever they like. I’m sure I’m just subject to some nice unhealthy subconscious blockages in the ol’ emotional plumbing when it comes to this.) So that does tend to catch one’s notice and give a fairly forceful indication that you’ve got some stuff to unpack and figure out.
I imagine it would probably be easiest to do that in therapy. I do have my reservations about therapy though, I must admit. I think it would take a lot of time and false-starts to find the exact right therapist who I really gelled with and could trust/respect enough to open up fully to. But… it’s not impossible I could indeed find that person, given enough luck and persistence. And I’m certainly not completely closed-off to the idea of therapy being right for me, so under the right circumstances perhaps it could work well. Alas, there are other practical barriers to consider too. Anyone who’s ever dealt with the NHS in this regard knows that waiting lists can stretch to years, not months. A timespan which frankly saps any excitement I could have to even get the ball rolling here. (Might as well put myself on the waiting list and then, that same day, cajole some naive employee at my local game store into letting me preorder ‘Half-Life 3’. And just sit back and see which happens first. It’ll at least make it interesting. Plus, hopefully it might kinda con fate into somehow giving me HL3 first, because even fate would be able to see the humour in that outcome and so maybe it’ll think it’s executing a sick joke at my expense. Meanwhile I’m laughing all the way to the
bank Steam page to buy and install it. That’s some fucking 4D chess right there.) And that demand-outstripping-supply problem has only been worsened even further by the explosion of mental health issues people have accrued over the pandemic and its lockdowns and whatnot. The NHS also have a noted habit of trying to push you towards group therapy or therapy done via phonecall, and if you’ll permit me to be a choosy-beggar for just a moment, those both seem disagreeable in their own right. I’m too socially anxious for group therapy to be much use, I would say. And I also rather resent the proposition that I should have to share highly-personal things with some collection of random strangers in order to get access to therapy. Sharing that stuff just one-on-one with a trained therapist will already be hard enough for me to get used to. And as for therapy conducted over the phone? Give me a break. I have to imagine it would only make you feel even more detached from the person you’re trying to build some kind of rapport with. Might as well get therapy via livechat, like you’re spilling your guts to some customer service rep from Amazon or something.
On the other hand, there’s private therapy. The problem there is that it’s often very expensive. I don’t know how the fuck we’d fit that into our already straining budget. (It’s like that classic Dril tweet. Only instead of candles, the line-item expense I can’t figure out how to get rid of is my weekly Fleshlight delivery. I’m telling you, this is the danger of ‘subscription service’ culture, folks. You can easily sign up to something on a whim and quickly have it become too integrated into your life to ever give it up. Beware.) So that’s pretty much a no go. At least, until donations to my Ko-fi account increase approximately 2300%. I don’t want this to come across as just impersonal panhandling, of course. It’s important you know I’m talking to you directly, human-being to human-being. Like, c’mon [INSERT NAME HERE], I know my
writing prosy ramblings mean a lot to you. And likewise, without readers as special as you, [INSERT NAME HERE], I just can’t imagine how I’d drag myself out of bed and get to clacking on this keyboard. Hopefully you can open your heart/wallet to me in my hour of need, in light of our unique bond. Or maybe I should take my destiny into my own hands instead? By which I obviously mean jumping on the bandwagon and branching out into selling feet pics on Twitter. I wonder, is there a particular niche for sellers who have hammer toes? If so, hopefully it’s an underserved one and I can just sweep in and make some good money real quick. I think I have what it takes to excel in this space, I really do. I see no reason why I couldn’t become ‘Foot Mommy’ — hey, it’s a non-gendered term, relax — to an army of simps and teach them how to set up a Direct Debit to me. I actually don’t know what that recurrent billing mechanism is called elsewhere in the world, but I’m sure we can figure it out. When enough people are lusting over the perpendicular fleshy extremities at the bottom of your legs, anything is possible.
Anyhow, for the time being, I figure hitting the books again is my best bet. Dabble in a little more education and self-treatment. Y’know, it’s funny, when I first started getting serious about trying to read more deeply about OCD, I had this thought — in hindsight, quite possibly preemptive sabotage-in-disguise from the OCD itself — that there was something almost kinda superfluous about having someone in essence just describe the thing I was currently experiencing back to me. Naturally, I see how dumb that is now. But at the time, it seemed to make a certain kind of intuitive sense. It also dovetailed nicely with the deep-rooted part of me, itself rarely ever lacking suasion in my decision-making, which feels strongly that I don’t need other people’s help to fix myself or even to understand how to fix myself. I’m specifically talking about psychological maladies there, to be clear. I’m not one of those geniuses who think that the healthcare system has been obviated because you can access WebMD or at-home testing kits or homeopathy or psychic surgery or whatever the fuck. I also fully realize this is a foolish instinct I have, probably born out of some charming combination of egotism and fear. It’s just… this is my mind. I’m the only one who understands all its idiosyncrasies, I’m the only one who can scrutinize its inner workings firsthand and go about altering them directly, I’m the only one who can see all the cobwebbed secrets/hang-ups/traumas/etc tucked away beneath the floorboards. There’s a simplistic logic to that which I find attractive. Though I’m doing my best to dispel its hold on me all the same.
It also really doesn’t help that books about OCD tend to spend quite a while first going over the really basic ‘duh’ info and you just feel like you’re wasting your time reading it, which is never a good impression to start off a book with. There are just some painfully obvious aspects about OCD that any old idiot could guess at. Like how people tend to develop OCD at times in their lives where they have, for whatever reason, less control over it than before or even just less than they’d like. The OCD being a way to subconsciously compensate for that by seizing upon new things to try to exert total control over — even if they have to be utterly trivial or even imaginary. And then, accordingly, the subsequent severity of their OCD will also tend to correlate with the rising and falling degree of control they have… or even just perceive that they have… over their life in general. Now, naturally this isn’t the only explanation for why people end up with OCD, nor is OCD necessarily monocausal anyway. My point is just that this is one of those aspects which anyone, even someone who has no real factual knowledge of the accepted etiologies here, could intuitively deduce without much trouble. It’s borderline self-evident. I’m not trying to be a dick here and, yes, I do get why the writers of these books might feel the need to be as comprehensive as possible… it’s just, like, I really don’t need thirty pages at the start of the book repetitively laying something like this out in great detail.
However, just to counterbalance that nit-picky complaint so I don’t seem like I’m being overly negative, there is also plenty of invaluable info I’ve garnered about OCD. Weird little facets of how it functions and how to counter it that I likely would’ve never organically figured out by myself. (And, jeez, I haven’t even read a small fraction of what’s out there yet!) Moreover, there are times where a book — and this is more frequent when they bill themselves as a ‘workbook’ or the like, in case you’re interested — will have you do some exercise where you keep track of certain habits in a log or try to jot down a makeshift diagram of how the feedback loop of compulsion plays out inside your head or et cetera, et cetera. And as much as there’s a “eurgh, homework!” reaction they’ll probably provoke in that whiny twelve-year-old version of yourself who’s forever present in the recesses of your adult psyche, you’ve gotta just push past it and make yourself do them. Yeah, they can be emotionally arduous because, hell, making a rigorous self-inventory entails staring some painful stuff in the face and not blinking or flinching. Be ready for that going in. These exercises can make you very, very uncomfortable, for sure. They’re worth it though, I promise. I’ve had some really important realizations sparked by them. Just being forced to think about something in a different way, or having to focus on it from a more objective perspective that causes you to re-evaluate it without preconceptions. These seem like small, very simple exercises in a way. And I suppose they are. Sometimes you’ll read the description of what it’s asking you to do and it seems so elementary that it’s hard to even imagine what the point could be. But, I’m telling you, they can serve as remarkably powerful catalysts if you really do them properly and follow the conclusions wherever they take you, however surprising or unwelcome they may be.
For instance, one of the really, really useful epiphanies those kind of introspection exercises helped me arrive at is just how strong an element of self-loathing and self-chastisement OCD carries for me. Here’s a counterexample to help illustrate what I mean: when it comes to my depression, I don’t feel bad about having it. It feels like something that’s being done to me by factors outside of my control, like I’m being victimized by some shitty phenomenon which is distinct from who I am as a person. A chemical imbalance has descended upon me. It’s no different than how the body betrays you when developing any other disease. But with OCD, it feels like something I’ve done to myself somehow. There’s a guiltiness attached to it, because it feels like a personal failing. I’m thinking wrong. I’m making myself miserable and hamstringing myself simply because I’m thinking wrong. If I could just rectify that… if I could just habituate myself to better, healthier, more correct manners of cognition… I could climb out of this ghastly hole I’ve dug for myself. In fact, with one big exertion of sheer will, I could theoretically be done with all this torment overnight. I could just choose to permanently stop thinking OCDly. And just like that, poof, it’s gone forever. However stupid this may sound to you — and listen buddy, I’m right there with you — when you’re in the throes of an OCD storm and you can’t think straight and you’re frantic for an end to it and doubly so for even the possibility of an end to its reoccurrence, there’s something so seductively simple and clear-cut about this it’s-in-your-hands, you-can-save-yourself rationale that it can bury its claws deep into you. It seems tantalisingly doable in that moment. So I try to do it. And then when it inevitably proves so unbelievably fucking hard that I want to saw off my own head with a bread-knife and throw it away like a crapped-out piece of junk beyond salvaging, I’m even madder at myself than I already was. I’m furious I let myself be fooled yet again, furious at still having no way to prevent myself being such an easy mark. The feeling of helplessness, especially when it’s made so mockingly multilayered like this, is one of the most loathsome things in the world to me.
Depression actually offers up another useful comparison, now that I think about it. Mood is such a nebulous and untameable thing. It’s like a series of differently-hued hazes you’re wading through, each one crackling with its own sort of energy. Sometimes you don’t even realise which one you’re in when you’re in it. Sometimes there’s no smooth or gradual transition between them, you just suddenly get picked up as if by an arcade claw-machine’s grabber, swung around in a circle a few times to gain some momentum, and then roughly flung through a few intervening moods at breakneck speed until you come to rest in some extreme one that had seemed so far-off in the distance beforehand. It’s a hopelessly messy aspect of the human experience, I’ve found. I don’t know that I’ve ever really felt like I can control my mood. (An inability probably now further exacerbated by the fact that my emotions — especially big emotions — definitely sit much closer to the skin after all the fucked-up stuff I’ve had to deal with over the last couple years, some of which I can’t really write about on here. As certain emotions tend to act as antecedents to certain moods, having them become more pronounced or unruly can only introduce yet more volatility into the equation.) Perhaps influence my mood somewhat, in the right circumstances? Yeah, I suppose so. But out-and-out control it? Not so much. And so it follows that when I’m trapped in some godawful mood, I don’t feel like it’s my fault for not avoiding it.
Thoughts are a different kettle of fish. They feel like such discrete, concrete things. Like ephemeral objects which have real weight and manoeuvrability to them, rather than mere amorphous mists. (At least, that’s how they seem to me. I’m not claiming to be able to pronounce intersubjective cognitive constants here.) And more importantly, thoughts… generally speaking… feel like brain-activity I have dominion over. I feel like I am their author. And, again, yes that isn’t without its caveats. When it comes to the act of intentionally plucking thoughts out of the fertile nothingness — which I personally imagine filling the empty expanses in your mind like intergalactic dark matter — and shaping them with quick, nimble fingers on the way up, it feels like I’m very much in control. But we can certainly debate how much free will is really even at play there and how much is just a self-generated illusion. The ‘philosophy of mind’ is a subject area I haven’t studied anywhere near as deeply as I would like, but I’ve at least read enough to grasp the level of respect that question is owed. It’s a quandary you only dismiss lightly if you really, really don’t know just how much you don’t know.
Another relevant point is that I have no aptitude at clearing my mind via meditation, so I can’t choose not to think. A great shame really. My internal monologue is like a hyperactive chatterbox even at the best of times, I must admit. So I’m like a stressed out factory-line worker scrambling to make sure I’m continually throwing some new mind-sentence onto the conveyer belt — though, yes, I still get to decide what it’ll be. The thing is, this underlying compulsoriness does seem rather at odds with the assertion that I’m truly in control. I also happen to be subjected to so-called intrusive thoughts because of my mental illness. Now, as much as those sure feel like some outside force fucking with me and murmuring unpleasant things from the sidelines, I obviously know they are just as much my own handiwork as any other normal thought. (I’m still, gosh, probably a considerable amount of further psychological deterioration away from the schizoid’s tragic confusion in that regard. Gotta be thankful for whatever you can be, y’know? If I ever start feeling like these thoughts are being ‘transmitted’ to me and I’m merely ‘receiving’ them, that’s when I’m really in trouble… Thankfully, tinfoil hats are very easy to fashion; the instructions are practically all contained within the name alone.) I’m well aware this is single-occupancy wetware I’m rocking; I’m the only Descartean ghost-in-the-machine to speak of here. But this doesn’t really change the fact that my subjective experience of having intrusive thoughts is that I didn’t intend for this thought to be created or dwelled upon. No more than I elect to feel pain when I accidentally stub my toe on the coffee table as I’m walking past.
Still, even accounting for all that, I’m sure you get my point. Fallacy or not, it’s so goddamn easy to lapse into lazy, egotistical reasoning and convince yourself that you really do get to freely choose what to think next. That’s why when I have a particularly troubling OCD thought, I struggle to banish from my mind the scolding notion that if I’d have just opted to think X instead of Y I wouldn’t be having this problem right now. That’s what I’m getting at, the sheer hardiness of this suspicion that however difficult it might prove to be, it can all ultimately boil down to just a straightforward matter of self-discipline and fostering better patterns of thinking. Something about that simplicity is so eternally alluring to me. Makes me feel like I can figure it out, makes me want to try. Whereas trying to govern one’s mood feels like such a discouragingly sloppy affair. Like it has all the precision and efficacy of some makeshift fucking witchcraft, like you might as well just paint some chicken bones red and stack ’em in a pyramid beneath a gibbous moon and hope for the best. Trying to govern one’s thoughts, however, feels more like a science. More doable, more comprehensible, more reliably repeatable.
I don’t know if this is an accurate or helpful belief. Probably not, if it’s anything like many of my other pre-existing beliefs in this realm which did not survive even their very first collision with what the experts have to say. And that’s why it’s gotta be back-to-the-books time. No doubt more reading will elucidate the matter and disabuse me of some more things I ought to be disabused of. I don’t particularly want to, but I know I have to. Time to crack my knuckles, put on my bifocals, settle into the easy-chair, and throw a few more files onto my trusty ereader…
Alright, that concludes the super concentrated self-pity segment of this post. (Well, maybe. No promises. You never know when it’s gonna flare up again.) I’ve made some small updates to the blog itself which I figure I might as well mention.
I have to say, I’ve typically enjoyed tinkering with the various websites I’ve had over the years. The notable exceptions being the times where something suddenly, inexplicably breaks and you can’t for the life of you even diagnose the problem, let alone fix it. These times can definitely entail some intense frustration and, frankly, pitiless hammerfisting of innocent sofa cushions. But yeah, for the most part, I like looking at the backend and FTPing into servers and fiddling with code and all that nerdy stuff. I like being more hands-on, it’s gratifying to have that greater level of control when I need it. I can’t claim that I have all that much knowhow in the grand scheme of things — in fact, if you stack it up against anyone who really knows their shit, I have such a paltry modicum that it’s basically laughable — but I will say this for myself, I’m not half-bad at making the most of that small swath of knowledge, at really making it stretch. For instance, something I’ve always dug about this kind of stuff is that once you’ve absorbed certain all-important general principles about how things tend to work, it’s amazing how helpful it ends up being down the line. Even when you find yourself in a situation where you’re not familiar with what you’re dealing with, at least understanding the rules of how things like it are usually organised or constructed will often allow you to sort of work your way backwards and figure out what’s doing what and how to cobble together a solution. It won’t be the most elegant or textbook solution, mind you. Oh yes, the price of not having sufficient proficiency to do it in the cleanest, most efficient way can mean creating veritable fucking Rube Goldberg machines of mostly-redundant coding just to achieve some simple end. An expert/purist would look upon such efforts with a mixture of bemusement and scorn, I’m sure. And I could hardly blame ‘em. But when, like me, you’re just a bumbling amateur… as long as you end up with something functional, you just take the win and move on, thanking your lucky stars that you were spared any further vexation.
I think I first started messing around with HTML back when I was like… god, I wanna say twelve or thirteen maybe. I was so goddamn infatuated with movies about hackers — ‘course, that’s never really gone away, I’ll watch almost anything if it’s got those delicious 90s-hacker vibes — and, embarrassing as this is to admit, I more or less started teaching myself HTML so I could do some little tricks in computer class and impress my friends and insinuate I knew stuff about being a super-cool 1337 h4x0r. Which was possible to do because they, usefully, somehow knew even less about hacking than I did. And that’s really saying something, because I knew next to nothing. I was fathoms below even the lowest ‘script kiddy’. Any scrap of actual relevant knowledge I’d picked up was merely by osmosis, from pressing my face up against the glass at online hacker hangouts and staring at them talk about their craft with awe and excited fascination. The rest of what filled my head was just the usual Hollywood crap. I was pretty sure that highly-protected things called ‘mainframes’ were the proper/eternal target of any and all electronic malevolence, with backdoor access being preferable. I was pretty sure that having hand-labelled floppy disks or CD-roms containing your illicit handiwork stashed in weird innocuous places was, besides being dope as hell, the best way to keep yourself safe from the Feds. I was also pretty sure that it was pointless to even attempt hacking unless you were coding in headache-inducing neon-green text against the black background of some kind of terminal window. (One can only presume there’s some dark technological magick going on there? Some colormancy type dynamic at work where that particular shade of green amplifies the potency of whatever virus is being written? How intriguing. Definitely warrants further investigation by some plucky one-of-a-kind academic who holds degrees in both Computer Science and Occult Studies.) But that was about it. I was really just deeply enamoured by the aesthetics and culture of the shadowy world of hackers. That kind of thing is just a bit harder to find a way to flaunt in class though. I suppose I could’ve brought printouts of some really exclusive underground BBS I’d managed to bluff my way onto, or maybe carried around one of those heavy, bulky, hopelessly impractical cyberdecks by its big fucking handle. (Please don’t come for me for my disobliging choice of adjectives there, cyberdeck enthusiasts. Or, wait, is it… cyberdeckists? Whatever. My point is: listen, I grew up steeped in cyberpunk just like you did, so I like the look/idea of them too. It’s just, like, let’s be real…) But somehow I don’t think that would’ve had quite the same utility in my little poser-quest. And, after all, you’ve gotta be economical about how you choose to buttress your claims of authenticity when you’re a mere wannabe. Less is always more. As much as I wanted to wear mirror-shades and badass fingerless typing gloves to class, my friends probably would’ve cottoned on to the fact that it was just a silly costume I was trying to pull off.
Even after those early days of childish affectation fell away, I kept on playing around with the various websites I’ve had just because I found it satisfying to try to customize them to be exactly how I wanted. And so I kept picking up new smidgens of HTML and CSS and whatnot along the way. To be clear: I never had any particularly expansive fluency in either. But then again I was never really interested in creating websites from scratch. I typically just wanted to take very basic pre-existing templates which were already pretty good/appealing and then tweak them in myriad ways until they were perfect. And you quickly realize that doing something like that doesn’t require you be an expert. As I touched on earlier, I found that by far the most important thing is just understanding how these various coding languages work. The structure and fundamentals, if you will. And then that way when you run into some snag where you need to look up an explanation for how to deal with it, you can read the illustrative code snippets and intuitively grasp how to employ or adapt the fix to your case. Like slotting in the right puzzle piece. (Again, I feel I should just emphasize, this is nothing compared to people who actually know how to code. They’re able to apply real, deep creativity to what they’re making. I’m just a novice dabbler. I’m really just doing paint-by-numbers shit.)
Although I do enjoy the nerdiness/purity of burying your hands elbow-deep into the guts of your actual source-code, I also quite like the steady progression over the last decade towards providing simplified, more user-friendly tools for changing how your website looks or functions. For instance, I chose to build this website with WordPress. Given it’s a fairly basic blog which is going to be populated by text posts 99% of the time, I knew I didn’t need anything too flashy or complex. So WordPress ended up being a good fit. I like how streamlined it is. I like the way the user-created ‘plugins’ system works and that there’s seemingly one for everything. And I frankly just appreciate its overall emphasis on ease-of-use. You don’t have to micromanage things or delve into the nuts-and-bolts of it all if you don’t want to, but there is still simultaneously a lot of control made available to power-users if they’re so inclined. That balance suits me well, personally. I don’t mind figuring out how to fine-tune something via the code itself if I have to, but obviously I’m usually happier to have the convenience of being able to alter it via a settings menu or a slider bar or et cetera. When I can do something that way and it only takes a few seconds, that puts a smile on my face, let me tell you.
I mean, I don’t want this to sound like a commercial or anything. There are things about WordPress which piss me off, but they’re more meta-complaints. It can be tremendously annoying when you get something about your site — or even the post editor itself, which I’ve customized to my liking and rely on to write my posts — just right and then they release some mandatory new WordPress update which tweaks some random little backend thing and messes that up for you. Now instead of sitting down to write today like you’d planned, you suddenly have to deal with this. So you find yourself scrolling through the update’s fucking patch-notes, trying to determine how to undo the offending change and restore what they managed to so rudely deperfectify back to its former glory. Another thing they like to do is roll out a purported ‘upgrade’ to something, but in about ten seconds flat you can tell it’s a shitty change which would actually be better termed a kick-in-the-balls downgrade because it slyly removes or impairs functionality. What makes it even more rankling is that when you look up other people complaining about it on the WordPress forums, there’ll often just be a brusque official response which pretty much boils down to “too bad, we’re moving in a certain direction and that’s that. Can’t please everyone, right?” They remind me of Google in that sense, actually. Google have a looooong and very chequered track-record of doing that crap and it really gets my goat. They’ll roll out some stealth change which just totally borks some much-loved aspect of one of their apps or services and when users raise hell about it, there’ll just be radio silence. Or, at least, right up until some developer nonchalantly rocks up to page 48 of a discussion thread about it and makes a statement essentially saying STFU and affirming that Google’ll make whatever ‘improvements’ it sees fit and doesn’t mind dragging its userbase kicking and screaming into ‘the future’ if need be. And then as everyone else in the thread explodes in indignation, they’ve already chucked the deuce up and skedaddled. I will say, WordPress has a long way to go before it even gets remotely close to being as bad as Google in that regard. But whether that’s something to boast about, I really don’t know. Remedying the fact that you can be mentioned in the same breath to begin with probably ought to be the priority. If someone could CC that memo straight to the WordPress dev team, I’d be mighty obliged.
Anyway, I could’ve swore I had a point to get to before I just started waffling on… I do think you and I share the blame for this though. I’ll always lapse into just disgorging personal background info and various opinions on this-and-that if you let me, I can’t help myself. And given that reading is inherently one-way — the reader being like a hostage tied to a chair, with a strip of duct tape across their mouth; incidentally, one of the only unfelonious ways you can do such a thing to someone — you certainly have a pleasantly reliable habit of, well, letting me. But, hey, let’s not get lost in finger-pointing. I remember now that I was intending to outline some of the enhancements I’ve made to the blog.
I must say upfront: I owe a lot to the fantastic minimalist third-party theme this blog uses, which provides an excellent base for all my tinkering. Seriously, that’s the 80% which I add my little finishing touches on. Given that the blog’s chief purpose is to be a repository of long-form writing, I’ve done a fair amount of fine-tuning across the board to make the actual reading experience as good as it can be. I’m trying to pare everything down so it’s as simple and clean as possible. These modifications are probably too numerous and too small to detail them all individually, but just rest assured, I really do give a fuck about that kind of thing. Though if I had to choose one of these changes to highlight: for those of you who browse this site on a mobile device, the sizing and positioning of things should be a great deal more comfortable now. I really wasn’t happy with that before, but I think I’ve gotten it to a pretty good place at this point. It was bugging me because I know how important it is to get that shit dialled in. Sometimes I click on sites where you can just instantly tell they’ve spent no effort whatsoever trying to ensure that… for lack of a better phrase… the site gets out of the way of reading the writing itself… and I have to stifle the impulse to just reflexively X out of that window. It’s such a shame when you come across content that does seem like it might be genuinely interesting but the site simply makes it too much of a pain in the ass to read. It’s amazing that some people still haven’t gotten the message about that yet.
No bullshit, I’ve seen some site designs that almost make you long for the halcyon days of MySpace pages with yellow bubble-font text on an undulating purple background with low-res firework animations going off everywhere. And, let’s not forget, as your retinas were being assaulted with this, you were thoughtfully serenaded by some underground rapper’s or indie band’s atrociously-mixed song blaring in your earphones at a magically technical-specifications-surpassing decibel level which they’d never attained before and would never attain again. That era of gaudy, obnoxious excess is starting to seem positively restrained in hindsight. And you know what? At least it had the excuse of being a product of the internet’s awkward growing-pains adolescence. Today’s web designers should know better. It’s beyond me how they get away with making sites that are somehow even more distracting or cluttered than what we used to have to put up with back in the day.
Oh look, an instant pop-up asking me to sign-up for an email newsletter. And then another pop-up after I’ve lingered on the site for a minute or two, begging me to pay for a premium membership to unlock more content. Oh look, there’s literally a block of ads embedded after every three or four paragraphs. And odds are it’ll be those scummy guttertrash ones which have spread across the internet like a putrid fungus. (You know the ones I mean. It’s stuff like “you won’t believe what this beloved celebrity demanded be done with their mistress’ ashes!” or “cramped homeowners across the country are rejoicing at this one secret trick to materialise a dining room extension straight from the extraspacial realm!” or “doctors don’t want you to know about this unbelievable new low-cost cure for diabetes you can concoct with common cleaning products!” It’s upsetting that the dopes who actually click on those links get to vote in elections, to be honest. They should be given mock ballots to fill in, like when you give little kids colourful pretend-money to play around with.) Oh look, a sidebar with links to other recommended
articles zero-effort listicles which stays glued onscreen even as I scroll down. Oh look, every so often a line from the article will be presented as a pull-quote in huge font for no discernible reason but padding out the page. Or perhaps the self-aggrandisement of pretending something they said is so profound it deserves to be repeated and spotlighted. Don’t forget the convenient little share button next to it too, because the reader will surely just be so awestruck by the turn of phrase that they’ll be dying to tweet it out immediately. Oh look, a large auto-playing video ad which not only surreptitiously slows down your scrolling as you pass it to ensure you’ll have to watch at least a few seconds, but if you accidentally tap it, it’ll go fullscreen on you like an aggravation-boobytrap. What’s worse, these ads sometimes even have the fucking sound ON by default! (Generally speaking, I’m dead set against capital punishment on grounds of principle. But I would very gladly make an exception in this case, because a suitably severe and efficacious deterrent is urgently needed. In fact, to that end, I’d bring back ‘drawing and quartering’ too. They need to know we’re really serious about this.) Oh look, once I get close to the bottom of the page there’s yet another pop-up prompting me to sign-in with… bizarrely enough… my Google account, in case I want to leave a comment with my real name and photo like a grandma or a pyschopath. It’s just goddamn endless, I’m telling you. And it gets to the point where you’re just like hmm, wait, what the hell was I even reading on this site to begin with? I can barely even remember. I can just feel my pulse thumping in my temples, I’m so irritated. Of course, savvy people use apps like Pocket or a browser’s built-in ‘Reader Mode’ to try to circumvent most of this nonsense. And you bet your ass I’m one of them. Especially because there’s quite a few sites I like which I nonetheless would’ve had to just leave behind by now if that wasn’t an option. Life’s just too short to put up with this shit.
Furthermore, while I’m on the topic, I think all the handwringing about the ethics of using adblockers — which, again, I personally can barely stand to go online without — is misguided, however well-meaning it may indeed be. The use of insufferably excessive and obtrusive ads is so out of control across the web right now that there needs to be a concerted pushback to try to recalibrate things. Listen, I get it, the ad-supported model for financing content-creation is a necessary evil which simply isn’t ever going to go away, either in the sense of organically receding or being outright supplanted. We unfortunately blew past that point-of-no-return years ago. People have gotten far too accustomed to getting everything online for ‘free’. (And just look at, say, the example of Apple’s iOS app store if you want a little preview of the incredibly deleterious effects of that attitude. It was ruined by it. Made that whole ecosystem into a worthless garbage heap you don’t even want to dirty your hands sifting through.) So, yeah, it’s just the norm now and it’s here to stay. But it does need to be made to settle at a much better, much fairer equilibrium point. It’s currently so aggressive, so focused on wringing every last penny of value from the user even if it means severely hampering their experience of using your site/service. If it takes adblockers becoming standard-issue for us
internet denizens lowly proles in order to effect a bit of a silent revolution in this regard, so be it. Whitelist the sites you care about and want to support no matter what. Whitelist the sites that do ads right. And let the rest adapt or die. I know that sounds cutthroat. And it is. But the web is heading in a really dangerous direction and I think we can all kind of feel that. Even easy-breezy people who don’t give a flying fuck about fairly esoteric tech-nerd debates like this can feel it, which is when you really know something’s up. There is a readily foreseeable future where much of the web (i.e. the most popular, commercialised sections of the ‘surface web’, which sadly is all most people even come into contact with) will start to feel like it’s but a teeming ocean of ads in which some scant flotsam of actual content is sombrely drifting. Drifting like the wreckage of something we all vaguely remember was once beautiful, even though we can no longer quite remember why. I’d say it’s best that we strive our hardest to avert this future, frankly. Head it off at the pass, if that’s even still possible. And, hey, if you think I’m overstating the threat, I recommend you read up about how the usual-suspect megacorps are planning to leverage so-called Web 3.0 technologies to ensure their marketing efforts will reach you through massively more varied avenues, will be more inescapably baked-in to the online services you rely on, will be better able to hoover up info about you to build and exploit your psychological profile, et cetera, et cetera. I’m not being alarmist; it’s just actually very alarming. When the next era of the internet is finally fully upon us, they’re going to be employing so many tricks to radically revise A) what you even consider to be an ‘ad’ in the first place and B) what you consider a palatable ad-to-content ratio, it’ll make your head spin. Not to mention all the gamifying and perverse incentive-leveraging they’ll be doing too. You’ll be saying “oh, if I finish watching this five minute pre-roll ad instead of clicking skip, I’ll earn 1 of 30 digital ‘fragments’ I can eventually assemble into a sweet NFT profile-picture artwork that’s linked to the online influencer some AI has shrewdly determined I care about most?! Alright, good deal!” and I’ll be hurling all my electronic devices into the sea at Point Nemo and packing my bags to go start a new life with one of those uncontacted tribes that still exist deep in the rainforest.
Alright, /mini-rant. Gotta cut myself off there. ’Cause, eurgh, I could sure vent about that topic for a while longer.
I also implemented a dark mode toggle on the blog, up there in the top left of the page. Go ahead and give it a try. Flick it on and off a few times, see which you prefer. It did take a bit more work to implement it in the exact way I wanted than I was expecting and I must admit there was a part of me that started thinking “in this day and age, when people are increasingly using dark mode browser plugins anyway, is this even worth the hassle of doing?” But, eh, I don’t know, I’ve always liked it when I go on a site and it has its own slick, easily accessible dark mode functionality built in. (Also when they have similar options for changing font size and formatting and the like. That might be something else I look into at some point in the future. No promises. Though if it turns out someone’s made a WordPress plugin for that, which would give me a good starting point to modify, I’ll definitely be more inclined to try.) It just feels like a nice little extra touch of… I suppose hospitality, for lack of a better word. Like, at least they’re trying to be considerate and go the extra mile to help you out. I think it also probably has much more utility when people are reading a site on a mobile device, where access to browser-wide dark mode can be — as I well know — more difficult to come by.
I specifically went with a dark mode colour-scheme which is reasonably close to the one I personally use for writing/reading online. And that is, I don’t mind telling you, the product of a depressingly large amount of trial and error expended in search of something with a good balance between the three criteria of being aesthetically palatable, readability, and the all-important easy-on-the-eyes-ness. You might dig it, you might not. I expect this type of thing is highly individual to each person in a lot of cases. I just really didn’t want to leave it as the default option. I think pure white-on-black, or any of the close variations thereof, isn’t anywhere near as good. In fact, I think it pretty much sucks. In my experience, it may work okay-ish for a little while, but soon enough it just fatigues your eyes in its own way. (I particularly hate that when you look away from the screen after prolonged reading sessions, there’s that weird, startling phenomenon where you can still almost see lines of text floating in the air for a few seconds. Makes you feel like you’re somehow burning images into your vision, like it must be having some slightly damaging effect.) I find that really any super high-contrast colour-scheme tends to do that, actually. This is why I avoid them like the plague. Or perhaps even lab-hardened plague with uranium sprinkles on top. It boggles my mind even when I see people reading with the standard light mode black-on-white and they have their screen’s brightness cranked up to maximum. I just don’t get it. How in the world does it not bother them? How can they even focus on what they’re reading when they’re torturing their eyes like that? I suppose if you do it enough, you just build up a tolerance I guess? If I did that shit, I’d be blinking excessively and rubbing my eyes inside twenty minutes. I’d be in hell, or at least the anteroom to it. My vision shredded and my eyes hurting. Granted, I know I do have especially sensitive eyes to begin with. (I originally phrased that “I’ve been cursed with”, but on second thought that seems a
little lot melodramatic. It’s not ideal, but you learn to live with it.) I’ve always preferred to have rooms fairly dimly lit and I tend to need to wear sunglasses on days where everyone else says it’s not particularly bright. But, all the same, I just can’t fathom how even hardier-eyed people can abuse their eyes in all sorts of ways and not pay any real price in terms of discomfort or struggle. I’m intensely jealous, anyhow.
Okay, one last thing to mention. The blog now has a… masthead, of sorts. (Is masthead even the right term? I can’t really think of how else to put it. So I’ll just use that term out of convenience.) Which is, of course, just a fancy way of referring to that banner image at the top of the homepage, adorned with the website name/logo/summary of contents. I felt this was a necessary addition for a few different reasons. For one thing, this blog has been named ‘Disagreeable Marginable’ since its genesis, but I just hadn’t yet figured out a good way to convey that as prominently as I’d like. I couldn’t exactly make it the URL, could I? That would probably be an obnoxious URL to ask people to remember/type in every time. Hence, this masthead, which puts the name front and centre nonetheless. I’m pretty happy with this solution. Probably should’ve done something like this much sooner.
The masthead also serves to make sure that a summary of what type of content this blog features is the first thing that greets new visitors, so they can instantly get a sense of what I’m going for here and can decide whether or not it’s their cup of tea. Two of the summary’s lines are straightforward descriptors of what’s already on the blog, but I suppose I ought to say a bit more about ‘short & long fiction, and poetry’, huh? It does entail an expansion of the scope of the blog, after all. It’s pretty much what it sounds like though. By ‘long fiction’ I’m referring to novel-length work or thereabouts. Though like with my first novel, this type of output obviously isn’t going to be posted directly onto the blog. I don’t at all mind throwing up the first few chapters as a sample, as I did with ‘Whence, Simulacrum?‘, so you can get a taste of what it’s like. More than happy to do it, in fact. But really it’s going to come down to me directing you to the range of places where you can support me by buying the novel. By ‘short fiction’ I’m mainly referring to work like short stories — as it happens, I have a real hankering to get back into writing those — but this may also end up encompassing things from so-called flash fiction all the way up to novellas, which would be new territory for me. And by ‘poetry’ I mean, uh, poetry. Pretty self-explanatory, that one.
The overall question I’m still wrestling with though is whether I’ll just be posting the things I write going forward or whether I should dip into the ol’ vault and repost things I wrote years ago too. Now, to be clear, this would primarily be short stories and poems from like a decade or more ago; stuff which very much falls into the category of juvenilia, I’d say; stuff which although I still have a special place in my heart for, I’m not sure it has enough merit to actually warrant reposting. I can’t help but think its main value would be to just provide insight into my preoccupations at that time and to maybe serve as an interesting yardstick for how I’ve grown as a writer. I’m struggling to decide whether that’s really worth it, basically. Also, as probably goes without saying, I just feel the quality of my writing from back then isn’t anywhere near up to snuff for the standard I’m trying very hard to maintain on this blog. Obviously I can contextualise it and make that clear, but… I don’t know, even laden with all the self-deprecatory disclaimers in the world it still wouldn’t sit right with me on some level. Another thing which would bug me is the fear that when you put old work on your site and explicitly convey that you’re very sheepish about sharing it, it’ll act as a magnet. I mean, if I go to some random person’s blog and there’s all this most-recent writing on the homepage which shows them at their best/sharpest, yet on the sidebar there’s links to writing from long ago which shows them in a much more immature and inexperienced and unskilled state, I have to be real with you and admit that I’d be sorely, sorely tempted to just make a beeline to that old stuff. Come on, it’s just human nature. Who wouldn’t want to see the stuff someone is embarrassed by now? There’s a cheap thrill to it which is pointless to try to deny. And so I’m really quite wary of that potential aspect of it. When someone new comes to my blog, I naturally want them to read my work from the last few years — that’s what I’m proudest of, that’s where I put my best foot forward — I don’t want it to be overshadowed by the pull of getting to read, say, the saccharine lovedrunk verse from when I was barely out of childhood.
On the other hand, I do quite like the idea of showing my evolution as a writer, giving some glimpses into past inclinations and experimentations and obsessions and limitations… So perhaps it could just be a curated selection of whatever work I think could even possibly bear reprinting? To be sure, there are flashes of fairly good writing in some of it. Bear in mind I was like eighteen, so that’s definitely relatively speaking. But still. It’s not like… well, if you want another peek behind the scenes of my deliberations about the blog, I also sometimes wonder whether other forms of my writing from that time might be worth posting on here too, but it’s a lot easier to know where to fall on that one. For instance, back then I used to write reviews and editorials for a couple of small video game fansites which are now long-dead. These pieces, however, I find absolutely fucking unbearable to try to re-read nowadays. Just truly excruciating. I suppose it just didn’t come as naturally to me, writing that kind of prose. It must have been a slower/harder process to develop my writing skill in that area because I find those pieces to typically be so much worse than the stories and poems I was penning around the same time. I already had some incipient grasp of what my voice as a writer was going to turn out to be, but stylistically I still had miles and miles to go before I even started to approach anything half-decent. Like, straight-up. I know social-media etiquette dictates that it’s cool to publicly shit on your earliest creative work and label it #cringe or whatever — so you can prove you’re oh so self-aware and willing to laugh at yourself — but I can tell you that’s not my bag. I can’t relate to that impulse in the slightest, and am actually repulsed by it. I’m not just being self-loathing for the sake of it. It is actually painful for me to say this stuff. I feel somehow disloyal or unfair to my former self when I put down what he worked so hard to produce. His failings were certainly not from lack of effort, I can you promise that; he poured so much goddamn care and thought and diligence into everything he wrote.
But I have to be honest nevertheless. My writing style was just so congested and overformal at first. And I had no real sense of restraint either. I was more concerned with trying to show off my vocabulary than crafting sentences with at least a little elegance or subtlety. I cared more about my writing being ‘impressive’ (a.k.a. dense as fuck and tending towards superficially fancy) than good, because I hadn’t yet realized what a colossal gulf it is which exists between those two aims. I hadn’t yet learned that practically the only lodestars worth a damn are clarity, fluidity, and authenticity. Forget about focusing on the bigger picture of the impact of the piece as a whole or how you personally want to be perceived. Just take it step by step. Let each sentence be whatever it needs to be and everything else will just fall into place. That’s the key. That’s what enables you to get out of your own way. If you’re not humble enough to simply let the writing tell you how it ought to be, you are… I can quite assure you/me… fucking up from the very get-go. It will all be an arduous, muddled, uphill battle from there because you’re trying to serve the whims of your own ego instead, and the thing about your ego is… it’s a very bad writer. Technically speaking, that is. It is too boisterous, too clumsy, too haughty and self-admiring to excel in the subtle art of stringing words together well. Whatever counsel it may offer on that aspect of things should be viewed as highly dubious and disregarded more often than not. Don’t get me wrong, ego can have other uses during the creative process. For example, it can serve as a sort of madcap ideas-man, though its rather roughhewn offerings can take a great deal of polishing to finally make presentable. (It’s like having an irritating rich friend who’s high on coke sit with you while you’re brainstorming. If you can stand their manic energy and snooty comments, and you’re able to filter out all their silly overly-grandiose ideas, they can actually unwittingly be a bit of an idiot-savant when it comes to dreaming stuff up. They’re able to tap into some weirdly pure, unchained form of creativity.) But, yeah, you want to keep indulging-your-ego relegated to those few ancillary areas where it can be valuable, and far, faaaaaar away from those where it can be a real ruiner.
I could go on and on. There’s so many self-limiting creative habits I look back on now and wince a little. Y’know, all those classic callow missteps you have to grow out of — and, frankly, work your ass off to do so — as a young writer trying to find their footing. And it’s a real shame that this early work is so tainted by that, because I do still think I had some good/interesting things to say even back then. (The aggravating unscratchable-itch of having worthwhile insight long before you develop the ability to express it well is one of those universally encountered hurdles which I’m sure has sadly derailed many a budding writer.) Those comments, despite their underlying merit, are all just trapped in that strangling prism of flaws though. The unfortunate truth is that it doesn’t matter what you’ve got to say if the way you’re saying it really harms the core readability of the piece. If it’s a chore to read, none of what you’re saying is even going to sink in anyway, because annoyance tends to be such an overriding force. Thus, expressing yourself clearly and expressing yourself artfully ends up being just as functionally crucial as the ideas themselves being worth expressing in the first place. Can’t put the cart before the horse, as they say. Simple as this all may seem, it still managed to elude me back then.
By now I think you’ll be able to understand why I consider that period of time to be the dark early days on my personal timeline as a writer. It was long before the most pivotal/beneficial shift in approach I ever made in my writing, which was to start trying to write in a way that more closely mirrors how I actually speak in real-life. Therefore freeing myself from overthinking and overcomplexifying things like sentence structure because I began to see the power of simply letting the natural rhythms and flourishes of speech be my guide. Like I said, a massively important turning point for me. It did so much to improve my writing, I can’t even begin to tell you. I only wish it could’ve come much, much sooner. Reading what I produced before that epiphany is now just such a bummer. And so no matter how much I like the prospect of having all of my writing to date available in one place, i.e. this blog, I just don’t think I could stomach putting that stuff back out there. Some of my earlier poetry/fiction which isn’t as tainted by these offputting novicehood shortcomings? Maybe. But not that other stuff. Just can’t do it.
Let’s get back on track. Hmm, anything else to say about the masthead? Well, let’s see, I came up with the idea for that little dagger-impaling-books logo myself — an impressive feat, I know — and commissioned an artist to draw it for me real quick. I’d like to tell you it has some deeper meaning or personal significance… (Perhaps it would fit well if I started styling myself as some meanspirited, take-no-prisoners book reviewer? But then again who has time for cringey gimmicks like that? I happily leave that kind of hack-shit to the hacks of the world. Call it a small charitable contribution in light of their unenviable lot in life.) But no, it sprang to mind almost instantly and I decided to not overthink something to death for once and just ran with it. I just wanted an emblematic logo that was very simple and visually striking and I figure it fits the bill. Though it having a bit of an edge to it probably does serve to signal that I don’t exactly keep things all family-friendly and sanitized on here. If you want that anodyne, advertiser-appeasing PG-13 dreck which is terrified of anything resembling a strong or countercultural opinion, look elsewhere. There are a shit-ton of writers desperate to one day become columnists for ‘respectable’ outlets who can hook you up with that by the steaming barrelful, rest assured. Oh, and I went with the handwriting-style font for the text because I think it reflects the very informal feel of the writing on this blog. I also happen to think that type of font looks cool, which doesn’t hurt.
Also, a word about the name itself. That I did actually put a fair bit of thought into. Now, to explain what kinda inspired it, let me start by saying: I love, love, love reading blogs from the 90s up until the mid-2000s. (So much so that I might conceivably write a separate post about it one day, so I’ll hold off from elaborating on it at great length here.) For real, if I click on someone’s blog and it’s got that distinctly blocky, basic-HTML… hell, borderline ugly… look to it, I’m instantly like 300% more interested in checking it out. There’s just such a different feel, not to mention sensibility, to the blogs from that era which I really just can’t get enough of. “It was a simpler time, it was a better time,” I say in my weary old man voice, as I smoke my pipe and keep a watchful eye on that group of kids whose inconsiderate fun is edging dangerously closer and closer to my freshly manicured lawn. In those earlier days of the internet, people wrote about themselves in a different way, put themselves out there in a different way. I don’t know, it’s a little hard to quantify. It just feels more real and down-to-earth. Like it’s less self-conscious or manufactured or rabidly attention-hungry. People weren’t just trying to ‘create content’ and build their personal brands back then; the idea of internet stardom, let alone being able to monetise it reliably or to any considerable degree, was still so alien at the time. In fact, if you did get super famous for something online, it was usually against your will and potentially life-ruining. It was like a lightning strike randomly shooting down from the heavens and fucking you up. Going viral and having some weird clip of you dancing in the cafeteria get 50M views made you a victim back in the day. Now it’s become aspirational, the thing everyone droolingly fantasizes about as though it’s the online equivalent of a lottery-win or something. Funny how the world turns.
I really dig that old era because people shared pieces of themselves on their own personal site just to do it, just for the innocent thrill of journaling about yourself and letting total strangers read it. So you’d regularly come across people being genuinely open and vulnerable, rather than the bullshitty performative ‘vulnerability’ that abounds online today. I really don’t know how anyone can stomach those vlogs where the thumbnail has the person staring soulfully into the camera and the title is something like “seriously guys, i need to get this off my chest :/” — remember, all-lowercase is the best quick-and-dirty way of signalling authenticity — but then you watch it and it’s the most affected, calculated crap you’ve ever seen in your life. You feel like you’re watching some crummy wannabe actor do a monologue in their Juilliard audition. Only what they’re actually auditioning for is the chance to make a career out of playing a character on the internet. Though because that last part is kept unspoken, it’s a career which manages to combine all the burdens and difficulty of acting, whilst denying you any praise for a convincing performance, with all the perils of attracting the stalkerish behaviour which is an inevitable byproduct of fostering a parasocial relationship with your fans. So, y’know, it’s quite the deal. One can totally understand why so many people are so gaga about trying to secure it for themselves… Well, perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh. To be fair, it does have a lot of sweet perks. You get to whore yourself out for brands and products you don’t use or have any affinity for, you get to endlessly worry about the endlessly-mutating algorithms which can arbitrarily make or break you, you get to meet up with other creators to do a
collaboration reciprocal business transaction to cynically diversify your means of self-promotion. Man, what a life. We mere mortals can only imagine. But of course that’s why the gods gave us slumber, so that our dreams might be filled with such unreachable delights.
Anyway, one thing I always liked about those old blogs was that they usually had some cool-ass name that felt unique and had some personality to it and… yes… was maybe even ever-so-slightly pretentious. (God forbid!) I don’t know why, but naming your blog seems to be a convention that really fell by the wayside over the years. Or it could just be that so few people maintain their blogs on their own websites anymore, which means the practise is just bound to fall into disuse because there’s so much less opportunity for it. Hey, there’s another sad aspect about modern times. Everyone’s now content to just exercise their online presence in some allotted silo on the monolithic social-media sites. To try to cram all the digital residue of their life into one of those sterile little cubbyholes, and having to play by the rules set out by their corporate over/landlords to boot. I’m not down with that. I prefer the yeoman ethic of the old web. People really relished having their own acre of land and operating it however the fuck they saw fit and telling anyone who didn’t like it that they could suck a lemon. That’s how it was. You carved out your own little corner of the internet and truly made it yours; there was something beautiful about that, if you ask me. And christening your site with a name was part of that. Which is why it’s a great shame it has fallen out of fashion, in my view. So, in recognition of the fact that so much of what I’m trying to do with this site is directly inspired by the self-ownership and uninhibited spirit/genuineness of those now-mothballed blogs, I thought I’d bring it back. I fully admit this is somewhat of a dorky affectation, but that’s also an admission I make unapologetically. Though in the interest of being cordial, I do have a basket of rather delectable lemons to offer you if it bothers you that much…
In terms of the thought behind the ‘Disagreeable Marginalia’ name, I’m almost a little hesitant to go into too much detail because, after all, pompously vague names for things tend to lose some of their power once you explicate them too thoroughly. But then again, you know me, I can’t really help myself, can I? I’m the king of being unable to leave things unsaid, for better or for worse. (If I ever got captured by an enemy force and interrogated, I have a feeling they’d soon be holding their heads in their hands. They’d end up superglueing my fingernails back on in an effort to coax me to finally shut the fuck up. And then afterwards I’d have a lucrative side-hustle giving seminars on unbreakability tactics to SERE classes. A nice silver-lining.) So let’s get into it. The ‘Marginalia’ part has a couple different significances. For one thing, so much of the time when I’m writing about a given subject, I feel like I’m doing it from the perspective of an outsider offering commentary on something I’m not really a part of, something I feel alienated from in some way. And thus, I‘m opining from the sidelines, if you will. Here’s a few fairly disparate examples of the kind of thing I mean. I write extensively about American culture and politics, despite the fact that I’m British and my passport has nary a stamp from an American airport. I write about video games despite frequently finding myself at odds with the prevailing wisdom about whatever’s the hot topic of the moment, despite standing far outside the console fanboy or franchise fanboy hurly-burly. I write about the games industry itself even though I’m repulsed by the soulless corporatism which so thoroughly pollutes its genome. I also really have nothing but disdain for the dreadfully uninsightful and herd-like — both critically and, let’s be real, politically — commentariat which constitutes such a large part of the mainstream gaming press. I write about the modern political left and right, and I sure as hell have never felt a strong sense of belonging or allegiance to either, to put it mildly. Though, to be clear, it’s not that I’m some sort of ‘centrist’ or ‘moderate’ or something wishy-washy and conflict-avoidant like that. I have very strong political opinions and they’re scattered all across the political spectrum, as will presumably be apparent to you if you’ve ever scanned the pages of my blog. I think it’s just that I’ve always been intensely allergic to tribalism of pretty much any form and always been deeply resistant to getting swept up by any group which demands you adhere to their set of orthodoxies. I just instinctually refuse to fall in line, quite frankly. (And as a writer I intend to make that refusal as potent and eloquent as I possibly can.) That’s what it comes down to. I suppose I just have that classic juvenile rebellious streak forever embedded somewhere deep in my constitution. And so I can’t even really help it. It’s just an automatic reflex. One that’s served me very well over the years though, I would say. However, I should emphasize that it’s not a mindless, kneejerk contrarianism I’m referring to here; it’s merely a default-mode of wariness, of aloofness. You stand an extra arms-reach away from all the attempts to recruit you or suck you into things and you evaluate them from a safe distance before making any decision. This is difficult, but worth it. Because being a follower, especially when you’re trusting in the often illusory self-preserving logic of go-along-to-get-along, is a dangerous business. So is getting caught up in the transient febrile passions of the crowd, for that matter. Thinking for yourself and daring to stake out your own set of convictions can be a chancy thing too, aye, but you’ll feel a lot better enduring whatever slings and arrows may come if that’s what elicited them.
I also see ‘Marginalia’ as carrying a connotation of playfulness. If you look at real-world marginalia left in books — as I do very much enjoy doing whenever I’m in a used-book store — what type of comments do you see scribbled there? (I’m resorting to a hypothetical because I can’t use myself as an example. I don’t write in my books. I’ve never written in a book in my life. And you know why? Because I’m not a savage. I mean, sure, I don’t keep the contents of my bookshelves as pristine as the day they left the printing press. But that’s normal wear-and-tear. It’s nothing compared to those real graphomaniacal types where you open whatever they’re currently reading and it looks like they tried to write their own book on top of the existing book… I’m just saying, if you’ve rendered a book basically no longer readable with your impulse-control-free running commentary, it’s time to put down the fucking biro and just open the notes app on your damn phone.) Okay, I’ll grant you, if you happen to pick a book someone was referencing as they wrote a thesis or something, you might just find some dry analysis. But generally speaking, you notice that a reader is compelled to jot down some little comment when the text evokes an emotional reaction in them and they want to wryly acknowledge that and respond to it, as if talking back to the book. And so predictably marginalia tends to be some combination of sarcastic or funny or vulgar or self-referential or mocking or etc.
I feel like the impishness and carefreeness of those pithy little asides to oneself is echoed by the way I choose to write on here. And I don’t just mean that I tend to have a more lighthearted tone. Though, yes, that is true. Of course, it’s not suffused in every single paragraph — there are indeed topics which oblige one to be solemn and nothing but solemn — but it’s definitely prevalent, it’s definitely somewhat of a default-state for me. But what I’m getting at is deeper than that. I really relish the aspect of play when writing these blog posts. I’m intentionally looser, freer, more conversational on here than in most other forms of my writing. In fact, if you care to know, the way I write on here is almost exactly like how I talk to my friends in emails and texts and whatnot. The shorter length of those messages will mean that there’s some inevitable degree of difference, of course. Our writing style naturally has to morph a little bit to accommodate whatever size box we ask it to fit in. But actually, now that I think about it, that reminds me of a more apples-to-apples comparison. When distance has separated me from certain friends, I’ve fallen into practically a penpal-type dynamic with them. By which I do truly mean exchanging more or less letter-length missives back and forth. And I’m telling you, if you fed both those and my blog posts into one of those freaky AIs that compare linguistic signatures, it would say “bleep bloop, these are extremely similar!” and you would have to pat it on the head and feed it a sweet little silicon waver treat for doing good work. Like how they reinforce the correct behavior when training drug-sniffing dogs.
This has always been a conscious decision on my part. What attracted me to the idea of doing this blog in the first place was the interesting challenge/opportunity of “what if I tried to talk to the reader in the same familiar, unconstrained way I talk to my actual friends?” Now, it’s an opportunity because it means I get to unabashedly revel in aspects of my personality which are harder to express elsewhere and I also get to fuck around with the prose itself in fun, offbeat ways. But perhaps most of all, it just excites me to try to push myself as a writer. To really throw caution to the wind and find out: how raw can I let myself be? How much of myself can I show? Could I even eventually figure out how to get comfortable with the discomfort of painful disclosures? And can I maintain the fine line between pursuing openness from a genuine place, which helps you grow as a person, and the sort of lowly exhibitionist oversharing which is either just shallow thrillseeking or else an attempt to purchase extra clicks with the currency of secret-sharing? These type of questions get me amped up. They make my pulse run a little quicker, in the good way.
But it’s simultaneously a bit of an irksome challenge because it does take a fair amount of practice and self-discipline to get yourself consistently in the right mindset when writing. Well, at least for me it does. Listen, I know my above-mentioned ambition for this blog may seem to rather belie this, but I am not at all predisposed to just spill my guts willy-nilly. Being open in that way doesn’t come naturally to me whatsoever. When I’m meeting new people, I’m very guarded. The instructive weight of unpleasant past experiences has profoundly instilled that caution into me. And even when it comes to forming new friendships, I find it hard to skip that initial feeling-out period where you try to gauge how compatible you are and how much you can trust them. It can take quite a while for me to peel off some of my armour-plating and just be totally open is what I’m saying. (Though as soon as someone passes that trial period with flying colours and becomes a close friend of mine, a switch just instantly flips in my mind I guess. Then I’m an open book. I don’t mind talking about anything and everything with them.) That’s just how I’m built. And so even though it can feel safer and easier to share things online, it still requires significant effort to bring myself to do it. On a certain level you’re continually aware that you’re addressing an unknowable throng of strangers who you’ll almost certainly never meet or even speak to. And I suppose there’s some churlish part of your lizard brain which wants to deter you from granting them one of the rewards of friendship because of that. But, y’know, at the same time that’s just… silly. It’s emotional defense-mechanisms kicking in prematurely, trying to protect you from something you can’t even articulate. It is always a little scary to give parts of yourself away — parts you consider precious, parts you consider jeopardous — to faceless, nameless recipients. It feels precarious, like a power imbalance that’s decidedly not in your favour. These are the qualms you have to work through if you’re going to be able to pour even any fraction of yourself into your words. I believe it’s worth it though.
For me, when I think of some of the non-fiction writing which has affected me the most or which I’ve been fondest of, it’s from writers who’ve palpably tried their hardest to remove as many barriers of formality or aloofness from between themselves and the reader. They talk to you like they know you, like they respect you. And they don’t symbolically push you away with reticence or condescension or unexplained inside-jokes or carefully vague statements which ultimately say nothing. You feel like you’re being spoken to by a friend, with all the perks that status entails. That’s what makes their writing so engaging, so compelling. And it’s why that goal is my north star on this blog. I can’t say whether you and I would like each other if we knew one another in real-life, but I feel pretty strongly that it’s better for you and better for me if I write in the spirit of that being true. There’s something about my psychology as a writer I’m able to tap into to help make that happen, as a matter of fact. Maybe it ought to be embarrassing to admit, I don’t know… but in the abstractly personified and idealized concept of the ‘reader’ I draw on for encouragement sometimes, I see — or perhaps it would be better said superimpose — jumbled fragments of myself, every friend I’ve ever had, every lover I’ve ever had, every friendship or love I’ve ever sought but didn’t get, every public-facing person I’ve ever respected or admired from afar, and a murky composite of every stranger I’ve ever seen where some subconscious hunch told me that we’d be sure to get along swimmingly if circumstances flung us together. Whether this is a good thing or not, I daren’t venture to say, but it is how my mind works. And of course it does have another useful side-benefit too: if on some level your mind is picturing you writing for someone you’d really want to impress, it can’t help but make you try a little harder to write deftly. That’s how I look at it anyway.
As for ‘Disagreeable’ being in the name, I imagine that’s a bit more self-explanatory. It’s fairly straightforward. It applies in the sense that I do often disagree with the current popular consensus on XYZ. I also often disagree with whatever the self-appointed cultural arbiters are trying to ram down all our throats as an incontestable
truth diktat. Just to be clear, that’s not meant to function as a mission statement though. It’s not something I’m somehow actively trying to hew to or live up to or anything like that. (I’ve always, always thought that contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism is extremely jejune and boring, and it ends up being embarrassingly transparent when desperate-for-social-media-engagement writers try to make it their ‘thing’.) It just tends to be the case is all. Obviously this is not something I’d ever care to actually keep track of, but at a certain point you just start noticing that your opinion is pretty frequently the outlier.
And the flip-side of the coin for ‘Disagreeable’ is just the simple fact that some of the things I say are inevitably going to piss a certain amount of people off or deeply offend them. And I ascribe inevitability to that because, look, someone somewhere is bound to have a violently negative reaction to quite literally anything you might say. But also because I won’t ever stoop to hiding myself behind a palisade of safe, politically-correct opinions in order to avoid the ire of the woke inquisitors — a mob of schadenfreude-fuelled dogpilers trailing behind them, waiting eagerly to get some free punches in on the latest target — who search for any and all wrongthink to punish. (Though, believe me, I don’t hold any delusions of
grandeur visibility on that point. I’m well aware that such people… though continually roaming in search of new prey, like a pack of sharks that’ll die if they stop moving… are incredibly unlikely to take notice of little old me anyway, given that I am just nanoplankton in the internet’s vast ocean. One of the few benefits of obscurity.) Every age has its own variety of conformity-out-of-fear to serve as some heinous combination of manacles and mind-rot for its generation of writers, of course. This just happens to be ours. And I personally decline to fall victim to it.
I abide by a very simple core principle as a writer, and I would claim it is perfectly morally cogent. It has two interdependent parts. I think carefully about what I’m saying and I never say something I don’t believe just to rile people up. But as such, I also reserve the right to make it abundantly clear that if some opinion or political stance of mine upsets someone reading my work, I don’t give a flying fuck. That’s not to say I’m closed-off to disagreement or criticism. Not at all. Although I won’t pretend I’m so enlightened that it doesn’t sting when I’m proven wrong, I still very much prefer to be corrected whenever necessary. (Sam Harris, as is often the case, put it best: “I don’t want to be wrong for a moment longer than I have to be.” That’s one of his recurring mantras, and it’s stuck in my head ever since I first heard him say it. It’s a sentiment with which I heartily concur. Being emancipated from error is always worth the fleeting ego boo-boo.) I’m also glad to be exposed to lines of reasoning and points of view which run counter to my own. For one thing, it’s the only way to hone your own arguments, either in the sense of strengthening or remoulding them. However, all of that stands very far apart from having to give any scintilla of veto power to the mere emotional reactions you might provoke by saying something. When I sit down at the keyboard and start working on a new piece, I consider myself to have a hard-and-fast obligation to several things: writing as well as I can, making sound judgements, listening to evidence, etc. But not to safeguarding the feelings of any given reader. Not now, not ever. That is an animating principle of this blog — which is why I made sure to mention it on the ‘About’ page I wrote way back at its genesis — and my writing in general.
So yeah, that about covers it. Oh and I’ve got tons of ‘Disagreeable Marginalia’ branded merch out there now, by the way. It’s high quality, ethically made — definitely won’t arrive damp from child-labour tears, wink wink — and reasonably priced. All good stuff. Ticks every box any discerning consumer could have. So what are you waiting for? Go get yourself a t-shirt.
Another point about recent blog activity I should probably briefly touch on is the mammoth Trump piece I wrote. Sorry for the spoiler, but I’ll just tell you upfront that its recurring thesis is how fervently I despise the man and all he represents. And yes, as previously mentioned, it is very, very lengthy and very, very in-depth. And if you know this blog, you’ll know one of its most cherished central tenets is revelling in being long-form, so when I feel the need to call something ‘mammoth’, I don’t do it lightly. I even told friends who asked me about it: “it’s comically long; I don’t expect you to read it all.” I’d say the same to you, reader, but I expect it’s probably even clearer to you that finishing anything on here is, uh, voluntary. But, hey, if you do in fact want to read it, that would be… y’know… just swell. To that end, I’ve got a small army of volunteers — really top-notch talent, every one of them a professional audiobook narrator — standing ready in case you need someone to read it to you whilst you sleep to help you chip away at it. Let my rancorous political analysis sink deeeeeep into your subconscious and make you all inexplicably cranky the next day.
I’m proud of it as a piece of writing and I am happy with how it came out, but I must admit I do find it slightly embarrassing to even talk about, though I can’t quite verbalize why. Not exactly anyhow. I guess it has to do with the fact that it’s a >100k word piece, which my girlfriend Samantha enjoys teasing me about because it’s therefore arguably book-length. It’s very much not a book of course, not at all. But you perhaps see what I’m getting at. When I think about the idea of me writing a book about not just politics, but something even more foreign and divorced-from-me than that, the president of another country… I don’t know… there seems almost something presumptuous about it. Is that the right word? Maybe, I’m not sure. It’s something like that, at any rate.
I sometimes think there’s a part of my brain that will forever be able to talk down to me and assail anything I do or make with the trademark disdain and mockery of an anonymous internet commenter who’s decided you really rub them the wrong way. Is this a useful perspective to always have on hand? No, not really. It’s practically never useful, actually. It’s not to be confused with simply the capacity for self-criticism. You want that, and you want that in spades. Even ruthless, unsparing self-criticism at times. (Though, and this is key, it works best when it’s ventured not out of self-loathing but merely out of a desire to improve and grow, which is actually an offshoot of self-love.) Once you’ve gotten adequately inured to the discomfort of it and can let it do its thing, it can really be of great benefit to you. But some weird, masochistic sub-function of your mind which can simulate online verbal abuse and abruptly slam it into your thoughtstream — a bit like what hackers do with ‘code injection’ attacks — to throw you off balance and mess with you? Nah, you don’t need that shit. You really don’t. You don’t need to be heckled by yourself. But, sorry to say, it’s proven a rather stubborn presence for me. And in this case, it’s saying something along the lines of “who do you think you are, you little nobody? How in the world could you possibly imagine that not only do you somehow have a book’s worth of insight about the politics and society of a country you’ve never been to, but also that it would even warrant jotting down to begin with?”
I’m not usually so susceptible to that kind of self-doubt, I should add. Most of the time I’m happily ensconced in a fairly unconcerned default attitude of ‘I’m going to write whatever the fuck I want about whatever the fuck I want to write about, simply because I want to’ and that’s all there is to it. I consider that precondition to be justification enough. I mean, you can probably tell that from your end too: after all, I wouldn’t have put so much time and energy into writing so voluminously for this blog over the years… writing mainly, in some sense, for the ghosts of hypothetical future readers…. if that weren’t true. But, yeah, for some reason, there has lamentably been some exploitable cracks in that self-assuredness this time around.
As I touched on before, I’m pretty sure it’s gotta just be an anomaly which arose because I wrote this piece in one go and it unintentionally ended up being so sizable when taken as a whole. You don’t often accidentally write a ‘book’, you know what I mean? I have to imagine that if I’d just written, say, twenty separate 5000 word posts over a longer period of time instead, that same aspirant-troll voice wouldn’t have been able to needle me with like “who are you to write all those posts about blah blah blah?…” I just can’t really see it. I don’t think it would’ve gotten to me. And also maybe if I’d sat down fully intending to write a piece this long, I could’ve got in the right mindset to make my peace with that aspect beforehand. That’s not how it went, however. I simply didn’t intend for it to be anywhere near this long. (People who know me will probably roll their eyes at that. I won’t lie, I do say that kind of thing a lot. I feel somewhat at risk of it becoming an inside-joke at my expense if I keep it up. But it’s especially true in this case, I swear.) Don’t get me wrong, I knew it would have at least a fair bit of heft to it, because there was quite a lot of ground to cover. But I guess I just figured it was probably going to be somewhere around 30-40k words once I was done. Of course, then I just ended up having waaaaaay more to say than I anticipated and I also found myself wanting to take the analysis in a bunch of secondary and tertiary directions. And so, well, I pretty much just rode it out until I’d gotten all my thoughts down on the page. I’ve said it before, but that’s just how I work as a writer: if there’s more I want to say about something, I can’t not get it out. There’s a purgative necessity to it. I need it out of me. I feel too… heavy, if my head is full of these unexpressed thoughts. The build-up will weigh on me every day until it’s gone. Oh there’s a definite satisfaction to the purging too, but it is ultimately still subordinated to the sheer necessity of it.
That’s the long and short of it really. The piece took a long time to get done — boy did it ever — but it just felt like something I needed to get out of my system. I’m glad it’s finally completed, I’m glad it’s finally out there. But, let me tell you, I was extremely ready to move on from it towards the end of editing it…