Sour Skittles

Sam Woodring on working in music while living with OCD.

There’s nothing wrong with us, we still belong/but that’s all there is, so stop all your dreaming” -Nina Nastasia

After a long day of probably very little, I launched myself into the cool palm of the basement couch and flipped on Scooby-Doo—it was the middle of summer and I was eight or so. Remembering that my sister was upstairs, I quickly fumbled with the remote to try and turn the blaring television down, but the clicker was running out of batteries. This left the volume suspended at 13 for a moment so singularly intolerable that I immediately vowed to never ever allow that number to grace the screen, or anything else, ever again.

Avoiding the number completely, however, was harder than I thought it would be. Even if I was able to shut out the physical form of the 1 and 3, I discovered that there were other ways it could summon the same grim speeding-up feeling in my upper respiratory area (watching 13 seconds go by on the clock, counting 13 flies on a jellied and decaying piece of toast, even just letting myself think the word “thirteen”). Eventually, I forged a kind of compromise with my discomfort: Every time I was caught slipping I’d have to extract remuneration from myself in the form of strange punitive rituals. These gave me some kind of break from this new and quickly evolving brain cramp, and I remember how relieved I was that there was SOME way around the aggravation, some soothing. As such, I became very eager to please whatever let me have that, and so began a year or so of escalating these behaviors (my modes of penance only worked for so long until the ante was upped) in front of a confused audience of parents, peers, and teachers as I wriggled, jumped, rolled around, breathed strangely and loudly, tensed my whole body many times in quick succession, walked backwards, and did a number of other things in a catalogue of fucked up and bizarre rites designed to insulate me from these forbidden numbers (they had now multiplied far beyond the original 13) that constantly threatened to encroach on my consciousness.

I would like to, at this point, nip this pity party in the bud and skip to the ending: I was fine; I am fine. In fact, it kind of drives me nuts when people plumb the depths of their mental illnesses online for dopamine goodies, as if everyone else on earth isn’t experiencing them to some degree, but here we are.

Compared to many, I got off VERY easily in grappling with OCD. I got counseling before the whole thing got to be really debilitating, and after about a year I was all but cured. I even got a fucking ping pong table out of the whole ordeal. I continued to have a puzzling and wondrous childhood, and the next decade or so of my life went by with blessedly few incidents of OCD. In the meantime, I fell in with a fun, vibrant group of friends who nurtured and cultivated my love of music, which became all I wanted to do. Years later, at long last, I was a 20-something living the proverbial dream of working shitty part-time jobs in service of the treadmill of writing, recording, and playing shows with my band. After a couple years of floundering, we got a kind of a foothold somehow, and things started going pretty well, at least by our non-existent standards. In 2013 we started playing (slightly) larger venues to (slightly) larger crowds, and one tour that year culminated in a show at Brooklyn’s much-mourned Big Snow, where all the problems I thought I’d bled out came bleating back.

Early on in our set, right before a very difficult part in a song, my brain blew out a cruel air horn that took the form of a thought I really did not want to be having at that moment. This short-circuited everything, momentarily blacking out my mind’s contents and pulling me apart from the moment I needed to be with to execute whatever probably unnecessary wanky guitar part. Though people watching probably had no idea, it was apparent to me that the world’s foundations had buckled. I guess while lying mostly dormant for the hot minute of my adolescence, the presentation of my disorder had been transfigured from ritual-based practices to intrusive thoughts (obsessing over unwelcome ideas or images). After the set, I paced and pouted and wondered if this would continue to happen on the tour, or whether it would work its way into other areas of my life. The answer, as I found out the next night, was a casual but defiant “Yep.”

As this pattern continued and worsened, it had a very real effect on what I allowed myself to pursue, musically and otherwise. I can remember deleting emails containing opportunities I didn’t feel ready for (sorry to any ex-bandmates who might read this), and living in total fear in advance of shows I thought might be particularly nerve-wracking. For these, I did all sorts of weirdo mental preparation, knowing that otherwise, the most horrible thought I could imagine could and would come to me at the worst possible time. Unutterable phrases rendered in an infected red boldface and similarly appalling images would play themselves out with the frequency of daytime Law and Order: SVU episodes in my prefrontal cortex, color-filling any musical experience that I allowed them to broach with a feeling of failure that would leave me emptily fumbling through my songs.

It might well be that this type of thinking feels familiar to most people, but there’s a difference that I’d like to illuminate for those who think relating to listicles like “13 Pictures That Will Make Your OCD Go Cuh-Razy!” means you have a problem.

Here is a thing that happens when you describe OCD to people who have never experienced it on a clinical level: You start talking, expecting wide eyes and bewildered brows, and instead you get a series of knowing nods followed up by something like, “Yeah, sometimes I don’t like wearing certain shirts on certain days, so I know what that’s like, I think,” at which point you want to grab them on either side of the face and smush their cheeks together 24 times in under a minute, do three spins on one foot without allowing the other one to touch the ground, and foam, “No you don’t, motherfucker.” But, to be fair, that isn’t completely true. Most everyone probably does understand the mechanism of OCD—the desire for control by way of some irrational thought or action. What most people fail to grasp is the volume, depth, and frequency of these thoughts or actions. I remember once when I was around nine, I sat idly watching the clock and waiting for a piano lesson to start, and I realized that for the first time since in nine months, 20 or so minutes had gone by without the observance of some kind of worry-fueled protocol. If left to its own devices, there seems to be no limit to what the disorder is willing to exploit or how often, and it can be like a piece of glass in a small wound that when extracted, becomes infinite. This can lead to cases much more unfortunate than mine, in which people can lose the ability to work, sleep, or function.

Beyond the fact that most people can brush unwanted thoughts aside after entertaining them for a few minutes, another crucial difference is that, for me at least, my inability to do so felt like it was my fault. No matter how I tried to convince myself that these thoughts were beyond my control, the call was still coming from inside my own brain and so, it felt a lot like purposeful self-sabotage. Being told that I had to live with that was a lot like having a Sour Skittle lodged in my urethra that, for whatever reason, I just couldn’t dislodge, and even though most everyone else could just work their Sour Skittles right out, it somehow wasn’t my fault that I was unable.

There’s been much written on this disorder, by people more intensely afflicted, more experienced, and more qualified to speak on it than I am, and the upshot of most of their stories is usually something like: You will never completely escape it but if you’re willing to put the work in and be patient you can live a comfortable, productive life, et cetera. However true that may be, my knee-jerk reaction to such a message is always defensive. “Fuck that,” I say to them and myself, “I don’t want to have to work to enjoy the things I enjoy.”

The sad and expensive truth, of course, is that we all have to, but the silver lining is that there’s nothing more worth fighting for. OCD’s greatest strength is adaptability, which is something I’ve had to cultivate in order to fight it. Another silver lining, perhaps, is that this isn’t a bad skill to have for life in general. Maybe a certain medication or coping strategy isn’t working anymore—maybe there’s a new one waiting to be discovered. Maybe you didn’t pursue a dream as forcefully because you were worried about being derailed by your own brain—maybe this will lead you to discover a new dream that you’ll prowl after more hungrily. Maybe you’re stuck with this forever, doomed to a life that is a series of miserable distractions, and it’s all your fault. Maybe you are stuck with it, but even the longest stretch of doom is punctuated by vanishing graceful sparks, like the other day when I rode down a long slide on a burlap sack and thought of nothing but the intermittent static shocks from the nails in the sides of the tube. And it isn’t your fault, stupid.

(Photo Credit: Mike Chew)

Sam Woodring currently lives in Maryland. He formerly played music with Two Inch Astronaut, and currently performs as Mister Goblin. He hopes to never, ever, ever become a music writer.