Cracks were starting to show. My one time preoccupation with looking good in public had slowly given way to feeling safe. This meant that my ample collection of properly starched dress shirts, worn among clean-lined, tailored suits had given way to a select few dress shirts that hadn’t been “tainted” through an unwanted encounter, meaning somehow now associated with HIV/AIDS. And I was now alternating among two suits that had long lost their crisp form. The suits had grown frumpy and the wrinkles needed serious professional ironing, instead of just smoothing out with a wet hand, which is what I had been doing for a while now. At this stage most of my dress clothes had been thrown out because they had been worn during an unexpected encounter that induced some form of panic. To see them again, let alone wear them would be an unwelcome reminder of that incident so they were contaminated and now incurred the same fate as most of my material possessions – tossed into trash.
And now early morning, another morning in which my body felt heavier than my now 120 pound frame and my spirit even heavier than that, I was getting ready for another day to head to a job that I hated.
As I stared at the pile of “safe work clothes” on the floor-space of my bedroom that was “safe” I felt embarrassed. Not because I had a small designated floor space that I had placed a large shopping bag on as a barrier and atop which I kept a select few, now very few, pile of dress clothes. I hadn’t been using my closet since the night of my housewarming because I placed the tainted clothes I wore from that night into the closet, thereby tainting all the other clothes in the closet. I thought I would be able to push through my trigger from that night and wear the outfit I wore that night again (I really liked that outfit) and so after my house warming party I hung the clothes back in my closest determined to wear them again and not give in to the OCD compulsion to throw them out.
However in the morning, the alcohol from the night before that had made me feel more brave than usual had worn off and I was back to obsessing about the triggers from the night before. I thought about all the things in my apartment that became contaminated that night, among which were the clothes I was wearing. The clothes that now hung in my closet and brushed up against other clothes in my closet making all the clothes touching the contaminated clothes from my house warming outfit also now contaminated. And in the morning the obsessing was stronger than the alcohol from the night before, so I know I wouldn’t ever wear any of the now contaminated clothes again or use that section of my closet. Even every section of my closet became contaminated from subsequent triggers such as the coat closet and my dresser, so I didn’t have a place for safe clothes. So they were placed in the only remaining safe spot of my bedroom. Unfortunately piling them in this spot wasn’t conducive to keeping them clean and wrinkle-free.
And now as I stared at the pile early in the morning as I prepared to get ready for work, I was embarrassed that I had to wear one of these wrinkled shirts paired with a pair of crumpled trousers. They must now be familiar to my colleagues. I had been alternating between four dress shirts and two dress pants for about a ninety days now as I hadn’t had any time to buy new clothes, since all my free time, as well as almost all of my non-free time, was occupied by ritualizing. It was more extensive in my free time since I had privacy to engage in it and so that left no time for other tasks that I once had done in my free time.
I cringed to think about what my colleagues must have thought or even whispered to each other when I showed up to work looking like I had slept in my work clothes and wearing these few same crumpled clothes in much too frequent cycles. I mean I wasn’t able to place even a week apart between wearing the same things. Of course people at work would notice this. Of course they would judge me for it. I was embarrassed. I almost felt humiliation but wouldn’t allow myself to ponder my appearance long enough to reach that emotion because then I wouldn’t be able to get dressed and show up to work. I knew I had to make time to get some new clothes.
It was an expensive indulgence. While some things were regularly substituted via purchase, some items were irreplaceable. I had not only thrown out dress shirts, suits, tuxedos and countless pairs of new shoes, but also items that had value far beyond a monetary estimation. The gold watch dad had worn for years and recently given to me was dumped. The area rug my brother bought as a house-warming gift for my apartment, which he carefully picked out and carried with him from Morocco, was dumped. The handmade all-purpose camping tool my brother-in-law custom ordered from the manufacturer and gave to me as a Christmas gift, dumped. The engraved antique gold and diamond cuff links that mom gave me as a graduation gift, also dumped.
The high financial cost of this new habit was dwarfed by its mental toll. Guilt, anger, remorse, self-loathing; as my personal items dwindled, these emotions stockpiled. They became a heavy burden to carry but unfortunately, unlike my physical items, thoughts and emotions couldn’t be easily tossed. I tried. Very hard. Yet those unwanted feelings accumulated en masse.
Replacing items eventually became a problem as well. Work placed exorbitant demands on my time, which made quick substitutions increasingly less feasible as more and more items needed replacement. Consequently I soon had to recycle the fewer items I had left. I didn’t have time to get my rumpled suits dry-cleaned. Shirts that had hidden in my closest because I deemed them too ugly to wear were now making frequent appearances at the office because they were among the few I hadn’t yet thrown out. And my now single pair of dress shoes were scoffed and faded. I didn’t look good. I didn’t feel good. Those who noticed me, took notice of my aesthetic deterioration. And in a business and town where image and presentation are a prime measure of one’s achievement, I wasn’t measuring up.
Of course by this point my family and close friends had not only noticed, but had repeatedly tried to intercede. They watched things spiraling out of control in my life, they felt helpless because they knew I was determined and stubborn. I manipulated or “weaseled” as they described it, my way into whatever I wanted and wouldn’t yield until I felt satisfied with the outcome. They knew this imposition of will applied even to my own demise. What they didn’t know is this steady mental degeneration that manifested in panic attacks and impulsive behavior wasn’t what I wanted at all. This new way of living was a massive encumbrance to which I was compelled to concede despite desperately straining in futility to make it stop. Every effort yielded a contradiction. The more I tried to fight against it and protect myself, the further I sunk. I was on precarious terrain and any motion of resistance would induce another avalanche burying me further. How could I make it stop? Yeah I was overwhelmed and flailing, but still yearning to “push through” this, whatever it was.
I needed to stop my obsessive need to mentally assess the best case scenario of even the most trivial situations and then stop calculating how it could have been made better. I needed to stop discarding items in hopes of ridding myself of the memory of a flawed experience. Anything that reminded me of a situation that wasn’t perfect became imperfect in and of itself and I couldn’t tolerate that. I was afraid of allowing even the smallest event be anything less than perfect because, afterall, the sum of all those small events are what comprise a whole life. And I was terrified that I wasn’t living the life I was meant to live. When even the smallest situation went awry, it diminished the percentage of perfection, and every time I incurred a less than ideal situation, I had less hope of having a perfect life. The right life.
Of course I blamed myself for all this. I was constantly saying in my head, “How could you fucking let this happen?!” and proceeded to calculate how I could have engaged in a progression of events that would have yielded an alternate, better, right outcome. In doing so I was now always living in regret which was counterproductive which only furthered my fear of demise which ironically led to it more aggressively. It was a giant vicious, extremely fucking vicious, cycle! I was contending with the ultimate cruel asshole! And that asshole was a manifestation of my own thoughts. The enemy had the ideal position and advantage.
Yet I was afraid to fight it because that would mean giving in to imperfection, to mediocrity. That notion was especially toxic for someone who suffered from perfectionism. Rather than risk being wrong or responsible for a sub-optimal outcome, I doomed myself to a paroxysm of anxiety and inaction. I was frozen in fear. I catered to it. I made it ever stronger.
I fortified my fear by throwing out “tainted” and “imperfect” items at first, and then I did it by trying to pre-empt having to have anything get “tainted” in the first place. I started to avoid potentially imperfect situations by avoiding places, social situations, family events, even friends themselves. By decreasing the spectrum of my world, I could better protect myself by being less likely to encounter something “wrong.” This meant opportunities were lost.
When my work included me among a group to head to London for a potential client signing, I suddenly came down with a contagious illness and to lend credibility to this illness, called in sick for three days. Traveling to cities with topography I wasn’t completely familiar with and encountering unexpected situations in foreign territory was an idea that yielded increasingly more anxiety before each trip. After my last business trip to Paris, I swore off traveling on somebody else’s terms altogether. So my spot was given to another colleague and the contingent went to London without me.
When I was in Paris at the same time my brother and his girlfriend were vacationing there, we made plans to see each other. Five minutes after meeting up with them in the Sixieme Arrondissement, the area and situation felt “wrong” to me and my flight response kicked in. Within one minute more, I made up an excuse as to why I couldn’t stay to have coffee with them and hastily bid them adieu, leaving with the confused and concerned expression on my brother’s face searing into my conscience.
When one of my best friends threw a bachelor party in Las Vegas, through extreme coercion and guilt, I forced myself to fly out for it. It was just an hour flight away I rationalized and I had been to Vegas many times before so I knew the area and what to expect. Less than an hour after landing, I was on flight back to L.A. “Just was suddenly feeling really sick,” I let my friend know before heading back home. At least the statement wasn’t completely a lie, I thought.
I had to make excuses. Avoidance was essential. By avoiding things, places, people, I could prevent “wrong” encounters by avoiding the encounters in the first place.
As I adopted more defensive methods, and when those didn’t work, corrective responses, I knew I was increasingly regarded as “eccentric,” “quirky,” “strange,” and ultimately “disturbed.” As I was still fully cognitively aware of reality and the peculiarity of my behavior modifications, these labels were deeply painful, but still not as bad as what facing my fear would mean. And while I knew it was this irrational fear that was causing me to make instinctive decisions rather than clear-headed ones, I wasn’t able to dismiss the fear. I understood that somewhere in the subconscious brain there is a cost-benefit mechanism that retains certain fears because perceptively, they aid my self-preservation. Human beings heed their fears because they serve as warnings for potential imminent danger.
The problem I was grappling with was that this particular fear wasn’t rational. It was a supercharged emotion that had usurped not only my sense of rationality, decision making, and desires, but had hijacked the very controls to my life. Fear was the driver and I was just an unwilling yet enabling passenger on a ride that had an intensified momentum and a voracious velocity I didn’t know how to curb. So I just acquiesced and sat there and closed my eyes.
But while I was always in my head, I wasn’t in a bubble. As my behavior and appearance deteriorated, others beside my family and close friends started to notice. People at work noticed. “Stop!” I thought to myself. If I start dwelling on the judgment of colleagues I won’t be able to face them today. I was now doing this morning routine of pushing through the embarrassment on a regular basis. So, I carefully handled the pile of crumpled dress clothes so that none of them would fall onto a part of the floor that wasn’t covered with the shopping bag, and I selected the shirt I wore least recently. As it was near the bottom of the pile the other articles of clothing that weighed it down, made it’s wrinkles more pronounced than had it been laying on top of the pile. I just would have to use more water on the wrinkles to make them less visible. The pants I selected were the same ones I wore yesterday, and the day before that. They were black and usually corporate types owned more than one pair of black pants and they weren’t as noticed as patterned pants or pants of other shades I thought, so I thought I could get away with repeating them more. They didn’t match the White shirt with brown and navy stripes on the shirt I selected at all. In fact they clashed, but I hadn’t worn this combo together that recently, so I had to sacrifice aesthetics of an outfit for less familiarity and time since it was last worn. Anyway, these clothes were far from crisp, so it was already clear to anyone who saw me that aesthetics weren’t much of a consideration for me anymore.
After getting dressed and ready, I headed to work. I was already running late. Getting ready the way I had to now was very time consuming. I ripped a few pages from a magazine and headed to the door of my apartment. I carefully grabbed the door handle using the torn out magazine pages as a barrier and turned the doorknob. Then I tossed the magazine pages onto the ground inside my apartment. I stepped out and used my shoe to pull the door closed. I had to create enough momentum so that the door would slam shut since I couldn’t pull it closed using my bare hands. It slammed shut and I started walking to work.
I was stressed about being late, as usual, and so walked at a brisk pace. Fortunately GEA’s offices were just a few blocks away from my apartment so I wouldn’t have to walk very long, but still doing the fifteen minute walk in a very brisk pace in Los Angeles, combined with the growing level of stress as I neared the GEA office caused me to perspire a good amount. The paper towels I took with me and used to wipe my brow and face with were soaked with sweat by the time I arrived at GEA’s offices.
One day at work, my boss was particularly vitriolic. That day I had a massive amount of work piled up and my boss was more annoyed at me and consequently more mean to me than ever. After a lengthy tirade, during which I went semi-numb so as to tolerate it, I tuned back in as I sensed her voice was climbing a few more decibels.
“Ben, do you not hear me?!” she screamed.
“I hear you,” I said reflexively and numbly.
“Well then are you retarded?” she asked.
“Then do you have advanced Asperger’s?”
“Do you know where your brain is?”
“Well then you better retrieve it from wherever the fuck you left it and start using it now! Ben! Helloooo? Hell-the-fuck-o?”
“I heard you,” I said very calmly.
“Ok then, start acting like you know what the fuck is going on and get those scripts out immediately and get all those meetings set today!” she screamed as she walked away toward her office
As I glanced around, it seemed as if everyone on my floor was cowering on my behalf, empathetic for the fury I had just incurred and relieved it wasn’t them.
In the agency world, minor incursions by subordinates are viewed as costly and meriting punishment disproportionate to the crime. And lately I had been making more mistakes than ever while simultaneously caring less about them. My boss who at one time was proud of my capability and mental acumen, and who secretly sang my praises, was now finding herself screaming at me more consistently. It didn’t feel good to me and it couldn’t have been fun for her. She had to question what happened to the person she came to rely on and trust. The person she didn’t have to worry about making a single mistake and who thrived off any elevated pressure. Where was her right hand guy who once anticipated the next best move with conspicuous mental alacrity and expedited tasks with impressive efficiency? Where was the guy who ingratiated himself with all her clients by filling his social calendar with coffee dates to discuss their scripts? The guy so seemingly hungry for advancement, he asked for more and more responsibility.
Well, that guy was over. I had sustained feigned interest and enthusiasm for so long for the sake of occupying my time, thoughts and energy that the realization I had spent years, wasting them, keeping myself busy just to stave off the OCD and not for self-fulfillment was too sad of a truth for me to reconcile with any self-deception. Indeed, it was due to the entertainment business, an acclaimed film that came out that year that led to this epiphany. The film was “Gosford Park,” directed by Robert Altman. I remember watching it and loving it. I was engrossed by Julian Fellowes’ deftly written script. That is, I was engrossed until my epiphany and that suddenly took me out of the movie and into my sad reality. It was right after Helen Mirren’s character, ‘Mrs. Wilson,’ a house servant stated the following lines:
“What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It’s the gift of anticipation. And I’m a good servant. I’m better than good. I’m the best. I’m the perfect servant. I know when they’ll be hungry and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.”
When Kelly Macdonald’s character, Mary Maceachran, questions Mrs. Wilson about such dedication and how it bears on her life by asking, “And your life?” Mrs. Wilson simply replies, “Didn’t you hear me? I’m the perfect servant. I have no life.”
And like a sledge-hammer to the chest, the wind was knocked out of me. What I long suspected and feared, but dare not utter and suppressed far below, suddenly came to surface through Helen Mirren’s voice and simply stated words. I had no life because I too was the perfect servant. Servant. I was choosing not to be a slave to my OCD via another form of indentured servitude. I was an Assistant at a talent agency. A charitable title for being someone else’s bitch. That’s what I was. That’s what I was fighting so hard to be. To keep my OCD at bay, I strived to be the perfect servant.
That realization was a breaking point that left me so mentally and physically fatigued, I didn’t stand a chance against the OCD that was patiently waiting to seize upon that moment of motivational crisis. Being mentally spent combined with a sudden lack of drive was the perfect pairing to enable the OCD to assume the controls. From that moment, the OCD ensured a dramatic and precipitous demise. Just like that, the affable go-getter was gone and an anxious, overwhelmed and meek substitute stood there instead. Instead of being the perfect servant at my job, I had switched over to being a slave to OCD. Again, OCD had the upper hand.
Despite the conflict this posed to my productivity and competence at my job, my boss, Ashley, didn’t get rid of me. Perhaps it was out of loyalty or gratitude to my former achievements that my boss didn’t fire me despite the increasing ineptitude and mounting mistakes. Instead she kept me on and just yelled more. And more.
As I started to go through the motions after her latest rant of fury, I heard the ping of the instant message window on my computer. It was a message from my boss that read, “Please come into my office.”
I left my meager closet sized office and walked across the floor to hers. I entered and without looking away from her computer she said, “Sit down.
“Ben,” she said, “what is going on with you?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I knew what she meant.
“Do you think I like getting mad, yelling at you?”
“I don’t think you do.”
“Then why am I doing more and more of it, because you’re right, I don’t like it.”
I just looked at her. My thick skin was peeling off and I felt exposed.
“Huh, Ben? What is going on with you?”
“Do you mean about work?” I asked.
“About work, about everything. It’s like you’re a different person.”
I didn’t want to open my mouth because I was afraid my words would betray me with a confession. I couldn’t tell her what was going on. Who would believe that? I would sound outlandish. I would sound like a lunatic!
“I know I have been making some mistakes,” I said.
“Some mistakes? Some? Ben, you made exactly two mistakes all of the entire year last year and they weren’t huge ones at that. Now you’re making like ten a day!”
“Not ten,” I protested.
“Ben you’re falling apart. You have been for a while and I don’t get it. Do you not want to do this job? Because that’s what it feels like. If you were any other person in this building, I would have fired you. Other people in the department are asking why I haven’t fired you. These are the same people that at one time were asking me if you could work with their clients. Now they see you as a liability, which you are. I want to know what has changed. At the least you owe me an explanation and if you want to quit, I deserve to know.”
Then she sighed and leaned back into her chair without taking her eyes off me. She was waiting for my answer. I started blinking more rapidly. I could feel my eyes getting hot and my vision was blurring. Oh my God, do not cry! You are a grown man! Do not start crying in front of your boss! That’s beyond pathetic and embarrassing! I started to say something just to combat my emotion. I wouldn’t allow myself to cry.
“Well….” I started, “I…” But I didn’t continue and just exhaled deeply. She just continued to stare. Did I owe her the truth? Perhaps she would respond well and try to help me. She had rescued me once before by hiring me away from an agent that I hadn’t gotten along with at all. She had rescued me from a tyrannical boss and I didn’t want to let her down for taking a chance on me. And I didn’t. I impressed her. Her demanding standards and uncompromising ambition led me to become a highly motivated worker. When our working relationship was at its ideal peak, we developed a symbiotic relationship that felt like a genuine partnership. She trusted me to always get the job done and I ensured her trust was well invested. Through the quality of my work and work ethic, I proved to her that she made the right choice. Consequently she mentored and advised me and championed me to others. That’s when things were good. That’s when things were working. When I was able to keep the OCD at bay because my desire to do right by her compelled me to choose in her favor over the OCD’s as often as possible. That was then. A year later, motivation at work had dwindled and the OCD had taken over. I was falling apart fast and completely. I needed rescuing more than ever in my life.
Suddenly I desperately wanted to let her know everything. I desperately wanted to let her know that, yes, I hated my job but was desperate to keep it because I was afraid of what the OCD would do to me without some form of structure. Without having to be in a public setting as a daily destination, yielding an exorbitant amount of mandatory tasks to occupy my time and share my head space, I would be lost. If left to my own devices, the OCD would burn through my mind like wildfire.
I wanted to confess everything and ask her to help me. Please! Instead I started to make my case.
“Well, I don’t think I’m doing as poorly as you make it out to be. I mean, we both know you are by far the most demanding agent in this department and if I was a falling apart like you said, people would be complaining. The clients would be unhappy. They would notice.”
“They are unhappy, Ben. They have noticed! They have been complaining about you. Everyone we work with has noticed. You think they would talk shit to your face? You know how duplicitous people in this business are. I have been defending you to them, but I’m not sure why I should anymore. It’s like you don’t care, and if you don’t care, they don’t get jobs and people get really prickly when you start to fuck with their livelihood, Ben. Do you not care? Because if you want out, I need to know right now. I can’t afford any more mistakes,” she said.
“I know it’s been bad lately and I’m sorry,” I said, and with that statement there it was. A single wet streak hesitantly creeping down my face. I was simultaneously mortified and relieved. I wiped it away quickly, but another took its place and soon the vision in both eyes was blurred and both cheeks felt wet. “I don’t know why I’m crying,” I say with a chuckle. “Oh man. Wow. I guess I just feel badly.”
“Why?” asked Ashley.
“Because I don’t want to let you down. I feel bad that I’m not doing as well I used to. That I’m disappointing you…and the clients, after all your support.”
“I supported you when you were doing a great job. Because you were doing a great job. It was like you knew what I wanted and the clients needed before I even asked. It’s not just the hours you were putting in, but that you were staying ahead of the game. That’s why I supported you. Because you were impressive. Now I don’t know what to do with you. You have been making careless mistake after careless mistake for a long time now. It’s like you’re an altered person. It’s like you don’t give a shit. Do you not want to do this job anymore, Ben?” Ashley asked.
“Yes. I mean I think I do. Yes,” I said
“You think you do? What does that mean? I need someone who is completely committed. There are a thousand people out there who would take your job in a second. I know it’s shit pay right now. I know it’s shit hours. I did it too! But you have to get through that if you want to move ahead. You were moving ahead so fast and then suddenly, a year later, it’s like you don’t give a fuck and don’t care about doing a decent job, let alone getting promoted.”
I just looked at her and nodded. The tears had stopped, thankfully. They could have easily continued to flow, but I fought against it. Although I had already cried in front of her, stopping the crying during the interrogation felt like a small victory that I solemnly needed in that moment.
“Ash, I will do better,” I said. “I will make it work again. I just have been having some….personal problems that have been messing with my head a bit and….”
“A bit?” asked Ashley, interrupting me.
“A lot,” I conceded. “My head hasn’t been in it, I know, but I will get back to it. I won’t let you down.”
Ashley continued to look at me. I could see her doubt. But she could see that something in my declaration to improve was more a plea than a promise. She could have asked me to delve into what my personal issues were that had so greatly hampered my performance at work, but she didn’t. For that I was grateful. Ashley looked at me for a while longer and then sighed.
“Ok Ben. I hope you can turn things around because I can’t keep giving you chances. I can’t afford to,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “Thanks Ash.”
I got up and walked out of her office. I knew nothing would change.