Living with anxiety, and more specifically living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is living in a private sort of hell. In my early twenties, OCD manifested as a lot of hand washing and turning knobs on doors a certain number of times. It also manifested in the form of obsessive thoughts, mostly bent towards the unsavory, that would arrive, for example, in the middle of a dinner party. I would excuse myself to the bathroom and sit in there behind a locked door and experience my panic privately, and then come out with a big smile on my face and act as if nothing was wrong.
I would excuse myself to the bathroom and sit in there behind a locked door and experience my panic privately.
A lot of obsessing is pointless. I would worry about planes falling out of the sky or people getting hurt, all hidden behind a mask of false affability. How could I explain what I was experiencing to anyone? I finally hauled myself to Barnes and Noble, determined to figure it out, and I scoured the psychology section, reading books until I diagnosed myself with OCD. I was enormously relieved to know what was going on with me and how to work with it.
At the time, I was writing, and I found a sense of both excitement and comfort in exploring the inner worlds of characters. Finally, I wasn’t alone with my pain and could see the universality of pain and confusion in all people by getting inside a character. I could take the same obsessive quality that often led me astray into useless analysis and apply it to the task of writing, where it worked very well. Obsessiveness is a wonderful quality for a writer; I took something deeply negative and made it positive. Reading and revising a scene over and over again until it is just right is a requirement for the profession, and since I find joy in writing, it became an obsessive or fully committed type of joy. Finally, an outlet for all of this intensity.
Finally, I wasn’t alone with my pain and could see the universality of pain and confusion in all people by getting inside a character.
It’s not surprising, then, that I am drawn to characters that have extreme inner turmoil but try to project outer perfection. When I read Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, I was both fascinated and terrified by the ugly hidden world of the couple, Otto and Sophie, beneath their exterior of wealth and ease. When a cat bites Sophie, this moment symbolizes the viciousness the couple fears in the neighborhood crime around them, as the well the tumult buried deep within their marriage. In Willa Cather’s great novel, The Professor’s House, we see the fraught inner world of an aging professor, beloved by his family, students, and community, and yet suffering as he struggles to understand his true life’s meaning beyond the materialistic concerns of everyone around him. Though these characters do not grapple with anxiety per se, or OCD specifically, reading about their issues means traversing the mind-scape of anxiety that comes from a life lived out of balance.
Many of the characters I was enamored with in books shared a common trait— they seemed to be successful and to have “made it.” Many people with anxiety, and OCD in particular, are “high functioning” and can seemingly breeze through life. I was an example, earning Magna Cum Laude at Columbia and doing well in all my jobs, and yet I broke down internally in private many days of the week. Sometimes people with anxiety or OCD can be drawn to substances like alcohol, and drink excessively. The anxiety then causes us to question everything we did and said while drunk and causes us to analyze it repeatedly, while friends and family look at us perplexed, wishing we would just “chill out.” And there is nothing we would like more than to be able to chill out. And we beat ourselves up more than anyone would ever know.
After many years as a writer, my hand washing version of OCD and the deep loop of negative thoughts have vanished. However, I still tend to stray into an obsessive type of personality, rehashing experiences that don’t need to be rehashed, pouring too much energy into the wrong things, and worrying about whether I’ve offended people. Writing saves me every time. My characters struggle and eventually make their ways to truth and clarity. The pointlessness of negative obsessing shifts to become a creative and enlightening process. The act of witnessing how chaotic and harmful negative obsessive thinking can be for a person hopefully reveals something for readers and jumpstarts them out of a tendency toward a similar pattern.
I still tend to stray into an obsessive type of personality, rehashing experiences that don’t need to be rehashed, pouring too much energy into the wrong things, and worrying about whether I’ve offended people. Writing saves me every time.
Shame can ruin a person’s life if swept under the rug and never released or understood. The majority of the characters I am interested in writing about experience shame for a variety of reasons: shame attached to having a mental illness, shame at coming from a lower class, and the shame that results from ignoring inner passion in the pursuit of exterior goals that are out of alignment with their personal dreams. In my worst moments, I feel shades of what these characters go through, feelings that have the potential to make life seem unbearable. On a subconscious level, the assumption is that the world is out to get you and others are not to be trusted. It takes conscious thought to change this type of thinking. Practicing meditation and yoga, and immersing my mind in reading and writing help make this shift in my own brain.
Numerous books have helped me understand how people get stuck in their suffering, such as Elizabeth Strout’s masterpiece, Olive Kitteridge. In that book, we go to very dark places in the characters’ minds and in the case of Olive, we see the ways in which her excessive passion both enhances and hinders her life and relationships. We also go into the mind of a man contemplating suicide on a beautiful windy day. Ironically, as a reader, I find dark writing enormously helpful and inspiring when presented like this, when an intelligent and empathetic guide (Strout) is taking me into someone else’s private hell and I am no longer alone in my suffering. Through that, I can gain insight into the human condition and see myself as part of that condition, no longer an isolated fragment. What makes people, real or imagined, do the things they do? Why does suffering drive people to do seemingly ridiculous things? In the end, I am hoping to achieve a degree of clarity on how people arrive at truth, even if it takes them a whole lifetime to get there. For me, in my own life and in fiction, clarity equals peace.
Taylor Larsen is a graduate of Columbia University's MFA program in fiction writing. Taylor taught fiction writing at Columbia University as part of the Columbia Artist/Teachers faculty and at The Sackett Street Writers Workshop, as well as literature courses for Pace University. Stranger, Father, Beloved is her first novel.
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