Erwin Roebroeks – I Compulse: Cured of OCD
Twenty to ten precisely. That was my bedtime every evening. Self-imposed, I should add. Or more precisely, imposed by something within me that compelled me to it. Because I myself didn’t want it. I wanted to be free. But I had no choice.
I was twelve. My sister, who had got married in the summer, had just left home; my eldest brother had moved out almost half my lifetime ago; and I lived with three brothers and my parents in Sint Geertruid. I was in the first year of secondary school in Maastricht: six kilometres there and six kilometres back each day on my bike. Unlike my classmates I felt no excitement about starting secondary school. For a short while now my entire day had revolved around that one moment: twenty to ten in the evening. I had charged myself with sleeping well, and in order to be able to do that I had to be tired enough. So every evening I went for a walk around the village. It wasn’t that it made me particularly tired – the village only consisted of a couple of streets – but it was all about the ritual: walking exactly the same route every evening at exactly the same time. In doing so I aroused the suggestion of tiredness in myself.
Once in bed, I couldn’t sleep. I’d been afraid of that all day. It was a vicious circle. It went on day in, day out.
I called it compulsion because that’s how it felt. Things I told myself I had to think and do, and which I couldn’t get out of. It felt like being locked in my head. I had been detained in an internal prison. From one moment to the next something closed off in my mind. The flick of a switch inside my brain that I had felt directly.
Once I had the compulsions, I realised there had been signs that it was coming. Around the time of my sister’s wedding I struggled with increasingly frequent crying fits. Where they came from, I didn’t know. I had already been melancholy as a small child, although I couldn’t easily explain precisely what that entailed. ‘Regretful nostalgia’ didn’t cover it. I could only compare it with things that evoked similar emotions. The finale of Ennio Morricone’s music for Once Upon a Time in The West, with the wordless female voice: to me that was melancholy.
The difference from the earlier melancholy was that in the period before the compulsion hit, I was overwhelmed by it. Suddenly the dynamic of melancholy emotions turned into the permanent state in which I found myself at this point. As if my body was saying: this far and no further. All kinds of emotions that I had experienced previously were smothered by the compulsion, as sudden in its onset as it was unshakeable.
Well, I had been familiar all my life with a strange kind of anxiety, which manifested itself in peaks and troughs. The difference with the compulsion was that there was no longer any dynamic to it; all that was left was anxiety peaks. With the disappearance of the dynamic, all real hope disappeared too. It felt life-threatening. Something had already died inside me.
Since I had become locked up in my own head, at best I saw variations on anxiety. Anxiety that my compulsion would increase, and anxiety that I would never get rid of it. It was a big, deep terrifying vicious circle of ever increasing anxiety. There was also the fear that something might go wrong during my compulsive acts. For sleeping was not the only ritual I had to carry out. My entire day was ritualised.
All my things had to be arranged in a particular way. They had to be completely straight. I used a ruler and a set square to make sure of it. Comic strips, ring binders, musical instruments or equipment; all my possessions were subject to this geometric treatment. Placing things entirely straight couldn’t always be achieved in one go, but it had to be done within a certain timeframe. The more tense I became about something going wrong, the greater the chance that I would shake, and the more difficult it became to set everything absolutely straight. It cost me immense effort to keep everything under control.
I had a substantial stamp collection. I placed the stamps in albums, all in the same format, with long transparent strips, behind which you had to push the stamps. Half the stamp stuck out above the strip. The construction invited lop-sidedness, straying from the square format. It was not only a time-consuming business getting all those stamps straight and turning the page in such a way that they didn’t slip out of position. Even more awkward was getting them all exactly the same distance from each other. Differences in the serrated edges were the most troublesome. It was painstaking work, stripped of any joy. Furthermore, I kept on having to come up with new rules to deal with stamps of different dimensions in such a way that all the lines formed a cohesive whole. In as much as I had experienced any pleasure in collecting, thanks to a couple of magnificent historical specimens, even that was now a thing of the past.
Aside from all that, my entire room had to be clean, meaning thoroughly removing the dust from my things. If I didn’t, something bad would happen. What that might be, I didn’t know. But the feeling was so terrifying that it didn’t even occur to me to resist the compulsion. Or more precisely: since disobeying the compulsion was inconceivable, the fear was kept in check.
My room was a vision of orderliness, my cupboards were as tidy and dust-free as the drawers of a pharmacy. Untouched. Because no living went on there. I didn’t live at all anymore, I merely existed. Time ticked on past me. It had stood still for me the moment I became locked inside myself. My life was my upstairs room, which I shared only with my compulsion.
As a small child I already had trouble sleeping, due to intrusive, almost obsessive thoughts, due to questions I used to ask myself. But those were worthwhile questions, arising from curiosity. The only thing that bothered me was the fact that I couldn’t answer them. For instance I reasoned that the universe must be infinite, but I couldn’t imagine that infinity. How could that be reconciled? They might have been disturbing thoughts, but at least they were mine. The new thoughts were compulsions which I perceived as alien to me and devoid of content. I was ashamed at the contrast, at the new situation in which I was completely preoccupied with senseless matters. That shame was not so much an emotion as a sensation, which led me to keep my compulsions a secret. A kind of oath of silence with myself – and with my parents, whom I had made part of the compulsive rituals and from whom I expected secrecy. They went along with it. I tried to conceal the compulsions from others, especially people in the village. I was even ashamed at covering up my problems in this way.
I wasn’t sure quite why I felt ashamed. I hadn’t asked for the compulsion, it had happened to me. It probably had to do with my fear that the outside world would label it insane, while I knew that very well myself. However, it was not only shame. One way or another the secrecy also seemed to be part of the compulsion, because it was also about control. Control of behaviours and thoughts and of the information flows about those behaviours and thoughts. I therefore pretended nothing was wrong and to my own amazement I found it easy. From an early age I had been honest, in some people’s eyes excessively so. My first football match as a child was also my last: I committed a handball, the referee called it, my teammates denied it, but I admitted it right away. Stupid.
I knew all too well that there was something off about what I was doing. The fact that I was conscious of the ridiculousness of my behaviour led to internal conflicts. For instance cleaning was coupled with counting. Only when I’d wiped my pencil case in a particular way seven times with a duster did I feel that it was properly clean, even when I knew that I might actually have made it dirtier. Compulsion is not just about magical thinking, it particularly comes into its own in an atmosphere of magical thinking which exudes the idea that absolute control is possible.
While I compulsed – a term I adopt to reflect the Dutch verb dwangen, used in the clinic where I was later treated, which emphasises the patient’s active role in the situation – I was capable of observing the absurdity of my own behaviour, but I couldn’t manage to intervene. In that strange reality I only felt a single emotion, a feeling that I experienced constantly. That ever-present anxiety blocked access to the real world. I was simultaneously mad and in complete possession of my faculties.
The combination of continually carrying out those idiotic rituals and having a healthy brain with which I was able to reflect on those rituals exhausted me. It was more tiring than insomnia, yet didn’t provide the requisite fatigue for sleep. The permanent state of vigilance of mind also manifested itself as constant physical tension. I was aware of that effect but there was nothing I could do.
And then there was the compulsion to check. Everything I did had to be checked. And once more to be certain. And again. Visually observed and mentally attested three times over.
Is the file straight? Good, good, good.
Have I checked all four sides? Good, good, good.
Has it slipped while I was checking? Good, good, good.
Did I see that right? Good, good, good.
Did I really see that right? Good, good, good.
Am I sure my perception is true? No, start again!
Intuitively I knew that that would only increase the uncertainty, that checking fed the compulsion to check. But as always that had no effect on my behaviour. My internal commands could not be ignored. It was a lonely imprisonment in myself, which I kept hidden from the outside world. It was miserable enough being aware of the ridiculousness of my actions but unable to stop the behaviour, without allowing this shame to reach the outside world.
I had always been very precise. Although I had heard that it was normal for new secondary school pupils to have compulsive rituals. But this was something else. This was sick and I knew it.
The most mindboggling aspect of my new situation was the sense of an essentially different state of being, perceiving life completely differently from before the compulsion. It was as if a new motorway had been created in my mind, without exits.
The only thing I could still connect with was music. That was my true life. In my over-organised world music was freedom expressed in sound. I grew up with diverse musical styles and was able to explore my own musical preferences. In that search an essential moment presented itself when I was eight, when I first consciously heard the sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach. The title of the piece was Jesu bleibet meine Freude, an instrumental version for trumpet and organ. I was completely overwhelmed by it and could barely believe it had been made by a human being. It sounded so free, and at the same time it had to be so precise. Unique and at the same time as self-evident as nature. I could scarcely imagine what my life must have been before I had heard this music, at the time or now. There was my life before and my life after encountering Bach. And suddenly, four years later, there was my life before and after the onset of my compulsions. Bach provided incredible enrichment, whereas the compulsions represented an unimaginable confinement. Bach cut through the compulsions, as if listening to music involved different regions of the brain from compulsing. The same applied in fact to Morricone, and other sublime music.
Music was like an outdoor space in prison. Listening was only possible in a controlled environment, where nothing could disrupt the compulsions. For instance somewhere where I knew no one could enter the room. Just as in a real prison, outdoor time was over quickly. The signal might sound any moment to summon me back to my internal cell.
Emotional problems did not exist in my South Limburgian Catholic world, or so it seemed. Or if they did, you simply solved them by praying harder. From when I was tiny, every Sunday at High Mass I had heard: ‘Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’ For years I longed for that word, but in vain. Not that I believed in God myself – I thought that people had faith because they couldn’t bear the thought of their own death – but I always allowed for the possibility that I might be wrong.
If prayer didn’t help, as in my case, then in the region where I grew up you went to a faith healer. They would then perform a healing process known as ‘overlezen’ to banish the ailment. It was a rural custom, a pagan remnant which the Vatican tolerated, as it often did with ingrained local rituals. My faith healer lived just across the border, in Moelingen, a hamlet even smaller than my village. Clad in wellies under a floral apron, she looked as if she had come straight from the cowshed. Although I suspected she was a quack, I couldn’t be sure. I was so desperate that I was willing to try anything. If God couldn’t help, then perhaps this farmer could.
Speaking in the dialect of the border region, she asked me one question: ‘What’s up, boy?’
‘All day I’m afraid I won’t be able to sleep at night. And at night I can’t sleep. And…’
‘You mustn’t think about that,’ she interrupted.
I’d heard that before. But the admonition was a logical impossibility. Try not thinking of something and you can’t avoid thinking of it.
I wanted to tell her so much more. Everything that was wrong with me, and in particular why.
The faith healer gave me a jar of holy water to take away. It already smelt musty when she handed it to me. It was clear that the water hadn’t recently been blessed. Despite her assurance that holy water would keep forever, the jar needed to go in the fridge – even the Holy Ghost could apparently make mistakes – and after two weeks of sipping at it, I should be better.
Sadly that turned out to be over-optimistic. Was it because I didn’t believe in God or because God didn’t exist? Before I came to consider that question, it was driven from my mind by other matters; issues of skewed or straight, clean or dirty, on time or late. The compulsions made themselves felt as relentlessly as ever.
I knew intuitively that I needed professional help. The way I rationalised it, since I’d become locked up in my head, I had merely been existing. Living was a thing of the past, only a memory. I would have to be the one to seek professional help for myself. I was desperate, but at the same time I didn’t really feel it, because everything was drowned out by anxiety. The desperation existed thanks to the memory of the time before my compulsion. I knew I’d been internally free back then – or more free in any case. Now that I was imprisoned and couldn’t imagine how I could be liberated, I was at my wits’ end.
Translated by Anna Asbury