I turned up the air-conditioning in my car as I drove to work. It was nearing that time of year – summer days: lack of compunction, ease of thought, lightness of clothing and being. Sadly, summer takes on a very different meaning in the context of young adulthood and early career. No family trips, no endless TV viewing and leisurely reading. No break from mandatory labor. Work is the daily routine. A painful, mundane, soul-draining, daily routine.
Then there’s having to perform this routine – “The Wasting of Life” – in Los Angeles. L.A. is not an easy city to waste away in. Much of its architecture isn’t too attractive. Converted warehouses from the 60’s and 70’s interspersed with residential Spanish stucco dot the widely spaced, economically disparate neighborhoods. Yet everyone who doesn’t live here thinks it’s geographical heaven. The sun shining year-round, the beaches along the pacific, the beautiful people, the glamour of Hollywood. Facades and false promises. We do have the sun, but you get tired of it. We need more rain. Sun and smog for an extended duration result in poor health. Seasons are a nice way of breaking up the year and meteorological monotony. But seasons in L.A. are just variations of warm. Yes, the beaches are there and while stuck in heavy traffic along the Pacific Coast Highway, they look spectacular. However, swim or surf in them and you could easily come down with something very unattractive from all the sewage and chemical dumping.
The people really are beautiful. An unparalleled level of health consciousness and plastic surgery ensure that. Consequently, all the ancillary by-product that accompanies physical perfection is also abundant there. After all beautiful people want other beautiful people who have beautiful cars, homes, and luggage. A beautiful disposition is optional and more often improbable. In all actuality, Los Angeles has to be the snobbiest city on the planet. Even if you’re not a movie star, you’re certainly very well associated with one in some capacity and obviously that obliges respect and, more importantly, envy. People live vicariously in this town. Everyone is so and so’s agent, publicist, stylist, business manager, landscaper, healer or any other profession having celebrity clientele who are characterized as celebrity “friends” according to those who flaunt such relationships.
If I’m sounding like I was bitter, it’s only because I was. Very much so. I was tired of having to deal with all the fakeness! Sure, it was intriguing when I first moved to L.A. as a high school student. It was new to me then, and a celebrity sighting or even celebrity name-dropping was exciting. But then, after college, I worked at a “top” talent agency which rather than de-sensitizing me to the celebrity culture through mass exposure to it, made me more sensitive and aware of how annoyed I felt by it.
Unfortunately, my annoyance and growing bitterness didn’t drive me to extricate myself from working in the entertainment industry. What was to be a temporary job after college graduation lasted several years. My college roommate’s uncle was a top agent at a top agency who got my roommate and me jobs. So, I just sort of fell into the entertainment business mostly due to geographical default and via inevitable connections made by virtue of living in L.A. In L.A. everyone has something to do with Hollywood. Consequently, I fell in and because of the pace and momentum of a business that doesn’t afford much time for eating and sleeping, let alone contemplation of one’s career path, I got pushed along at breakneck speed. By the time I was able to pause and look around and feel the unhappiness that I had been working through, it felt too late. I had been doing it too long and had no transferable work experience, so I languished along further. And further. And further down.
Working at a talent agency combined with living in L.A. is like being in TMZ or US Weekly magazine all the time. Feeling like you’re living in an annoying entertainment rag is not good for the soul. I don’t even care about “Celebrity Culture” and in L.A. that obsession and lifestyle is quadruple-amplified. I just couldn’t breathe there anymore and it didn’t have anything to do with the smog.
But I digress from my macro-annoyance with “life in L.A.” I was driving in my car and chose to look at the clock on my car’s dashboard. I was a few minutes late to work, as usual. As a result, even before I had entered the building, I started to feel the massive stress that seeing the multitude of unanswered emails from my boss would yield.
Thankfully, before the knot in my chest tightened too severely, the L.A. morning traffic had inched me to my office building. I parked my car in the garage of the building and walked toward the elevator bank entrance. I used a tissue to open the door that led to the elevator bank. I used the same tissue to press the elevator button and then discarded the tissue into the trash bin in the elevator bank. Inside the elevator, I used the knuckle of my pointer finger of my right hand, which was the same hand I used for driving, and pressed the lobby floor button. My other hand hadn’t touched anything since I had washed it before leaving the house. (I kept a clean, free hand in case an emergency arose such as a contact lens that needed readjusting).
After exiting the elevator to my floor, I couldn’t immediately head to my desk. I had to first make a stop to the men’s restroom to thoroughly wash my hands with the piece of anti-bacterial soap I always kept in my pant pocket. I needed to wash before I touched my computer or anything in my workspace that hadn’t been directly exposed to any outside contamination. As I was washing my hands, Jake, one of the assistants in my department walked in and headed to one of the urinals. He glanced toward me, compelled to make conversation since we were the only two people in the bathroom.
“How’s it going, man?” he asked.
“Just getting ready for the onslaught,” I said.
“Ha. I hear ya man.” Then Jake zipped up and walked to the sinks to wash his hands. I hoped he wasn’t paying much attention to the fact that my hands were now thickly lathered up with soap and I that I was still washing them since the time he entered. After his quick rinse, he shut off the faucet, grabbed a paper towel, and exited.
Finally, I was able to rinse off my hands, taking care to not have them brush against any of the sink as that would force me to re-wash. After my hands were soap-free, I inserted my piece of anti-bacterial soap back into my right pant pocket, then rinsed the last remaining soap residue off my hands. Using my elbow, I shut off the faucet, grabbed a paper towel from the dispenser without touching the dispenser itself, only part of the paper towel that jutted out, and dried my hands. Then using the paper towel as a barrier, I pulled on the bathroom door handle to open the door, quickly tossed the paper towel into the bathroom and headed to my desk.
By the time I made it to my desk and logged on to my computer, I was angry at myself for the minutes lost performing my cleansing ritual and thus delaying checking my email and responding to my boss’s threats. But I knew I didn’t have any choice. At least not any other choice that was bearable. After I sat at my desk, I logged on to check my email and there they were – the emails of doom from my boss. One after another with subject titles such as:
call me now
where the fuck are you???? i need to get my day started!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
don’t call me unless you are dead which you will be if you aren’t really dead and still have not actually called me yet!!!!!!!!!
This last email placed me in a quandary. Should I call her and risk her vitriol toward whatever flimsy excuse I could construct about my tardiness, or should I adhere to the letter of her threat and not call her because she suggested I better not bother her with anything as she was beyond incensed, unless I could make the sole exception of placing a call to her to let her know that the reason I didn’t call before was because I was dead, which I couldn’t have been if I was placing a call to her to say so. I decided to not acknowledge her email barrage, all which were sent within a ten-minute time frame.
Apparently, she also tried calling others in the office in hopes of tracking me down. I was alerted to this by Skye, our overly eager, self-important, pretentious, and obnoxious departmental coordinator. He walked to his desk in a brisk, I’m-on-the-go manner intended to make everyone else present notice him and notice that he had just come from a morning meeting with important notes and tasks that he had diligently jotted down on his yellow legal notepad. Even though he knew and hoped he was being watched, Skye didn’t acknowledge anyone because he endeavored to convey a sense of urgency that needed all his focus on getting to his desk and tending to crucial tasks. Important tasks that a senior agent had entrusted only to him. When he did take his seat at his desk, he looked over to me and seeing me stare at him, he pointed to me and then drew his index finger across his neck to indicate I was a dead man. This is how I knew my boss must have called him and others to try and find me.
I nodded at Skye to let him know that I already knew my fate and then looked away. I hated Skye in that moment. The extra stress from my visual exchange with Skye caused another tightening in my chest, which I tried to ignore as best as possible.
I looked over to my desk phone. As usual the red light on my phone was on, indicating I had new voice messages. I started checking them. The electronic voice before the messages played let me know I had twelve new messages. I noted them on my boss’s electronic phone sheet so she could see who called. The unfortunate thing is that every new entry on the electronic phone sheet had a time stamp, so my boss would clearly see how late I had come into work. As she also didn’t know I spent about ten minutes in the restroom washing my hands before heading to my desk, she would think that I arrived to work ten minutes later than I actually had. Whatever. I knew there was no way I could not wash my hands before coming to my “uncontaminated” desk. I would just have to endure the extortionate wrath the extra ten minutes would cost me.
I mean, I was already a beaten down corporate slave stripped of most of my dignity. Consequently, I could easily compartmentalize the added public humiliation my boss would probably dole out as a to-be-expected aspect of my job. It’s actually surprising how much humiliation one will accept once one has allowed oneself to be subject to it on a regular basis. It just becomes the path you’re on. You start off with one initial humiliation, which you don’t object to because that would essentially mean quitting or getting fired, and then grow accustomed to more and ever worsening humiliation as you continue further down the path. To get off that path would require a radical change in life direction, which would require a good amount of confidence, which has been markedly diminished by the constant verbal abuse. Despite the fact that I’m describing my job, I could just as well be describing an abusive relationship with a significant other. It’s really much the same concept. This, essentially, is the basis for “Mentoring” and “Training” at a talent agency in the entertainment business.
When my boss did arrive to work at last, there was no greeting. She whisked by my cubicle outside of her office with nary a glance in my general direction. I watched her as she entered her office, plopped down her purse, plopped herself down in her desk chair and attacked the computer keyboard with a voraciousness that I knew meant certain ruin of the rest of my day. As I watched my boss channeling her fury in written form, staring squarely at her computer screen with purposeful vengeance, I couldn’t help but notice that even in her ugliest moments, her physical attractiveness was undeniable. She even had a hot girl’s name, Ashley.
She was just a few years older than I but could have passed for a teenager. Much of this had to do with her tiny frame and short stature. At 5’2″, it’s amazing how someone of her size could yield so much toxic adrenaline. She had expensive taste and it showed in the stylish clothes of her seemingly vast wardrobe. She compensated for her height by wearing stern and impossibly high-heeled shoes. She wore a tasteful amount of make-up, she didn’t need much, and wore her dark, straight hair that fell just below her shoulders usually in a tight ponytail, or when open, simply parted in the middle and tucked behind her ears. She would sometimes wear small and elegant earrings, a simple chain, or a dainty bracelet as an accessory. Her jewelry was always something gold, not ever silver because “silver looks tacky and cheap,” as she curtly once responded when questioned by another colleague about this choice.
About nine minutes after the time she started to nimbly massacre the letters on her keyboard, I got her email.
At first, I just stared at it in my inbox. Ominously it waited. There was no subject title to it but it needed none. The subject of the email I already knew and could quite aptly describe its contents without even having read it.
However, I did read it. Brutal. Some wind was knocked out of me, but I quickly tapped into the reserve I needed to address the fury. I got up and walked into her office to explain myself. Why I was tardy. How I could possibly not have been available at the exact moment she needed to get a hold of me was an unexplainable sin within the agency culture. Would I get fired? I half hoped I would but knew I wouldn’t. My boss had come to rely on me too much, plus she knew I was smart and she abhorred anyone who wasn’t. She didn’t question my intelligence (despite regularly asking me if I was an idiot or if I had Asperger’s). Nor did she question my ability to hold my own in the most Darwinian of all corporate environments (despite asking me constantly if I had any clue as to what I was doing). What she was about to question was my flagrant disregard of my responsibility to be available to her when she needed me so as to not jeopardize a moment of the precious time needed to conduct business, i.e. survive.
She did have every right to question my commitment. It had been waning quite a fair amount recently. That’s because I woke up every day with the knowledge that I was about to enter an abusive work environment that I had absolutely no desire to be in. I was investing my time and soul in a vocation and career I not only had scant interest in, but actually now loathed. Tennessee Williams wrote about the feeling aptly; a life of mendacity is the lowest form of awareness. Often lyrics from a song by one of my favorite bands, Radiohead would amble in to my conscience like a mini post-it note I was always trying not to look at. I would hear Thom Yorke’s voice in my head, beautifully singing about my forlorn professional state with the words:
“A job that slowly kills you, bruises that won’t heal / You look so tired-unhappy.”
Just that verse would play over and over again in my head as an anthem.
So why did I wallow in the mundane routine of a profession that afforded not even the most remote modicum of pleasure, let alone the human dignity it chiseled away moment to moment? One reason was because I wasn’t brave enough to just turn my back on this ill-made decision after investing so much of the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears only to imagine the screaming laughter of all those witnessing another destroyed person acquiesce to the unreasonable pressure. Another reason may have been a kind of satisfaction one derives from the rare acknowledgement one receives when in a situation that’s somewhat akin to Stockholm syndrome. As Game of Thrones’ ‘Daenerys Targaryen’ said, “people learn to love their chains.” However, the most important reason was that this massively consuming, soul draining, mach-speed routine was what I felt kept me from actually becoming truly insane. Odd isn’t it? This job that had effectively been a stop-gag from access to any happiness, was actually serving as my mental salvation.
I didn’t quite realize this or appreciate my over-demanding boss’s role in keeping me sane until later in my life. Her demands and immediate needs were in competition and opposition to those of my ever-worsening OCD. Ultimately, the needs of my OCD won the war against my boss’s needs, but the daily battles forced me to sometimes make choices in her favor and not always concede to the OCD.
I mean it’s not like I could just interrupt my boss when she was giving me a task and say, “Um can you hold that thought because I just had an OCD trigger and now have to run to the restroom and wash compulsively for about ten to fifteen minutes. Thanks!” Sometimes maintaining a semblance of normalcy at work meant enduring extreme anxiety.
Often what I would do in the midst of an anxiety attack is gather whatever I could absorb about the task she wanted me to perform, which was a task in and of itself, because while trying to focus on her words my mind had repetitive thoughts screaming, “CONTAMINATION! CONTAMINATION! WASH IMMEDIATELY! DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND???? DO YOU WANT TO DIE???? RUN TO THE SINK AND WASH IMMEDIATELY!!!! NOW!!!!“ The repetitive thoughts are very forceful. In fact they’re complete assholes. It was again another abusive relationship. The rational part of my brain was stating to me to stand strong defer to logic and science. That I couldn’t get HIV simply by holding a receipt my boss had given me from the place she had lunch that was in a gay area of town. However, the irrational, OCD part of my brain was screaming bloody murder. My biological responses such as adrenaline levels and heart rate also responded to the OCD thoughts over the rational ones. It often was the case that my highly elevated biological responses to fear and the screaming OCD thoughts were so hard to contain within a seemingly normal façade, that I barely avoided an urgently compelling impulse to smash my head against a wall.
Instead, eventually I acquiesced to the irrational bullying and thoroughly washed my hands in the men’s restroom with the piece of antibacterial soap I always carried in my pant pocket. This wasted time of course, and made me fall very behind at work, but as it was too excruciating mentally to delay a ritual like hand washing too long, I would usually delay doing my work instead. Touching work that was “contaminated” would have to wait until everyone had left the office and I could touch the “contaminated” paperwork, or object requiring my attention with tissues, or paper, or whatever barrier I could find as long as my bare hands, or anything that wasn’t disposable didn’t have to touch it. However, for the time being, I would need to wash my hands thoroughly.
Through this ritual, I got some immediate relief from the bullying in my head, but later felt horrible that I gave in because by doing so I had just validated the bully’s irrational warnings, which made the bully stronger, and so the vicious cycle continued. The self-abuse continued. In a way this is worse than being in an abusive relationship because there wasn’t a second-party abuser. Since the irrational part of my brain was still my brain, I was abusing myself and I hated myself for it. If this is starting to sound crazy, it’s because it was.
It was crazy to live like this. However, unlike a certifiably crazy person, people with severe OCD know such thoughts and behaviors are wrong. If they didn’t, then it would be more akin to dementia or schizophrenic paranoia. In an odd way not being completely demented is worse because as a sane person, I knew that what I was doing was irrational and seemed crazy. I knew the intrusive OCD thoughts were hateful and contrary to what I knew and my values. So, there is a huge amount of guilt and self-loathing attached to this illness.
I mean, intellectually reasoning, we like to think we are in control of ourselves, at the very least of our thoughts. This is what separates us from other species, our high-functioning brains with the ability to reason. But what do you do when your brain activity takes over your thoughts and ability to reason? I mean who are we then in terms of identity. Is the brain in the driver’s seat and is our mind and all things associated with a “mind” such as personality, character, affinities, and soul merely deluding itself to thinking it is the primary entity that determines our actions? When the biology and biochemistry of the brain go awry, how can we rationalize our irrational thoughts?
How could I claim to be in control as an individual and high functioning person, when I couldn’t even control my own thoughts? How was I in control when I couldn’t rationalize why I had to wash myself over and over with soap to cleanse myself of the repetitive thoughts of being contaminated with HIV after walking through a gay neighborhood, when rationally I knew the possibility of being infected that way didn’t exist? I mean if the biology of my brain that had gone haywire and therefore compelled me, the one-time rational, intelligent, high-functioning person, to engage in odd behaviors and avoidance to stave off the possibility of death from means I knew logically to be impossible, what could I do? When I was asking, even begging my brain for some reprieve and to just give me an hour, no, even a moment off from the irrational, intrusive thoughts, who or what was in charge – me and the identity of me held within my “mind,” or my brain and all its biological functions?
Could it be that I was really just an amalgamation of neurological function: neurotransmitters, synapses, serotonin levels, dendrites, nasal ganglia, etc., meaning pure biology dictating my mental functions, actions, and therefore existence, or was I more than mere biological functions? My ability to think and reason would support the latter notion, but when reason and intellect start to lose to biology and a brain that short-circuits, yielding irrational and terrible thoughts that coerced me to engage in odd, illogical, and groundless behavior, had I lost control of myself to my brain? When my brain and all its malfunctioning chemistry took over, I knew as a person, that in the truest sense of the phrase, I had lost my mind.