I re-read the sentences in ‘A Plague of Tics,’ the second chapter in David Sedaris’ Naked, up to four times each. Not just because I had never read anything so poignant or hilarious, but because, like a young Sedaris depicted in ‘A Plague of Tics’, I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
In the story, Sedaris describes feeling compelled to lick inanimate objects and roll his eyes painfully in their sockets as a child. At the age of twenty-one I developed a crippling case of OCD, leaving me unable to perform any action fewer than eight times, and filling my head with distressing and macabre thoughts. I had always been an emotionally sensitive child, and this, combined with a couple of painful incidents and the stresses of adult life, had contributed to my total derailment. After experiencing a nervous breakdown and confessing everything to first my family and then to a therapist, I pulled through and the symptoms subsided until they were manageable, at least by my standards.
When I read Naked, I felt immense relief. Here was proof that someone could survive a severe case of OCD, and go on to write – hilariously – about it. I was hooked. I felt like I could eventually rid myself of my OCD, and I wanted to emulate Sedaris – and, if possible, become his bosom buddy for life. I read everything I could find of his and even saw him give a reading at the Tivoli, where I laughed so loudly during a lull that my snort ricocheted around the grand walls. I went to see him perform at the Sydney Opera House a couple of years later and found myself compelled to tell Sedaris just how much he had inspired me, stylistically and psychologically.
I scrawled some adoring words on a scrap of paper and squeezed it tightly in my palm. While we waited for him to come on stage, some previously suppressed tendencies began to rise to the surface. I wiped my hand, wrinkling with sweat, on my skirt. Then I wiped it eight more times from the top of my thigh to my knee, while attempting to subtly reposition myself on the hard-backed seat twelve times and continue a conversation about how funny Sedaris’ nudist colony piece was. Nothing to see here, I thought. Then I thought it four more times, which caused an uncomfortable pause in the conversational flow.
This meltdown was because I was contemplating standing up in front of a sold-out Opera House crowd and openly discussing my dysfunctional brain, and I strongly considered scrapping the whole idea. Then Sedaris opened the floor to questions. Within what felt like seconds, Sedaris directed his somehow simultaneously diminutive and intimidating face towards mine, and I had no choice but to stand up. The bit of paper was by now a shredded mess, and soaked through with sweat.
‘Um. Hi. I just wanted to say that your story about your childhood anxiety really helped me to move through my own issues with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and I wanted to say thank you,’ I mumbled.
‘Can you repeat that?’
‘I JUST WANTED TO SAY THAT YOUR STORY ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD ANXIETY REALLY HELPED ME TO MOVE THROUGH MY OWN ISSUES WITH OBSSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER AND I JUST WANTED TO SAY THANK YOU,’ I yelled, hoping that all of my retraced steps had worn the floorboards away and that I would fall through into the earth’s core.
‘Well… that wasn’t so much a question as a compliment,’ he said, before reiterating what I had stammered through for the folks up back to hear. The audience clapped, I sat down, and he moved on.
I don’t know what I had expected. Maybe an invitation to come on stage, followed by a tender hug and a whisper of ‘You’ll get through this and become an inspiration to millions. I feel it in my soul.’ Maybe a heartfelt dedication in his next novel, reading ‘To my bravest fan Kathy: I knew when I met you that you, me, and Hugh would share our French manor together for the rest of our lives.’ Something like that. Instead all I got was a perfectly courteous but brief response, and openly probing stares from strangers. I felt my cheeks burn with regret and embarrassment, and I began to pat down my fringe twenty-two times
For the next couple of weeks my obsessive thoughts and compulsive tics came back with a vengeance. I retraced my steps, re-tied my laces, re-washed my hands, re-did everything, until I could breathe again. What plagued me wasn’t that I had bared my soul in front of thousands, and wasn’t even that Sedaris hadn’t immediately put me on the door list to his next tour. It was my motivations for speaking in the first place.
I did admire Sedaris, and really had wanted to confide in him that his work had touched me on a personal level. But what haunted me as I got in and out of bed twelve times at night was knowing that I could have waited in line to get an autograph and talked to him privately and discreetly. What caused me to turn my light switch on and off until it felt like my forefinger would blister was the buried suspicion that I had chosen a public forum because I had wanted the masses to tell me how brave I was. Because I wanted to make such an impact that Sedaris would speak about me at his next reading. Because I wanted everybody to know how special I was.
As I writhed and twitched in secret agony, a nagging question was as unshakable as my compulsions: was it Sedaris that I held in such high esteem, or myself? The other question, the one about whether or not it even mattered, didn’t even have room to enter my mind. Like having Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping stuck in your head on endless repeat, I couldn’t hear anything else except the immutable instructions, Brush your teeth left to right eight times. Now again. And again. And just once more for good measure. And everything will be okay.