Between subway stops on the F train, on my way to see a psychopharmacologist for a headache I’d had for six months, I received another rejection from another agent for yet another draft of my book proposal.
I couldn’t not cry in front of the psychopharmacologist.
“I quit,” I told her, having told her this before. “I’ll apply to law school or marry the wrong person.”
“Before you quit,” the psychopharmacologist offered, “get treated for obsessive-compulsive disorder.” For what? I didn’t have that. I had Scrivener. But the psychopharmacologist believed that it wasn’t Scrivener (a software equivalent of having three hundred browser tabs open at once) and that I didn’t have writer’s block—I had a mental illness.
Her evidence: It took me eleven years to write and rewrite one book. Because: I would write one sentence and then write three to eighteen alternate sentences for that sentence. Or rather, for every one sentence I wrote, I’d write three to eighteen alternative sentences that were maybe better—
What I mean is: each sentence I composed wasn’t good enough, so I had to (had to) write three to eighteen replacement sentences until I had a bulletproof sentence, but I couldn’t decide which sentence that was (they were all bad).
And it wasn’t only the book; I revised everything. I’d devote days to composing and workshopping every text, and if the text (/I) couldn’t be perfect, then I would do and say not one thing. In life, every conversation was mine to lose, and I exhausted myself thinking about myself and what others must think of me. To deal, I ran and reran everything by myself before verbalizing it—put it in perspective, interrogated it, and thought of ancient women who cut out their tongues instead of say anything wrong.
One year later, in an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder treatment center in New York, I learned that OCD is a disorder in two parts: obsessions, or intrusive and unwanted thoughts that interfere with life by setting off false alarms left and right, and compulsions, or endless routines to respond to those alarms, which feel like panaceas as they injure you.
My clinician and I started where I stood most in my own way: writing and my obsessive fear of writing like an idiot and my compulsive revising-and-quitting ritual.
The treatment for OCD is “Exposure and Response Prevention,” or ERP, a behavioral therapy. The clinician, who looked like a Disney princess, would design and guide me through situations I avoid because they make me anxious, and I’d resist the irresistible urge to neutralize my anxiety with bad habits.
I sat at the clinician-princess’s desk with my MacBook and its pitiless void for my first ERP exercise: to write on a blank page without revising.
She sat across from me and asked me to rate my anxiety from 0 to 100 using “SUDS,” the Subjective Units of Discomfort Scale. The lowest range, 0-20, is “not at all distressing,” 40-60 is “somewhat distressing,” and 80-100 is “extremely distressing.”
“Ninety,” I said, my heartbeat accelerating and my reptilian brain reacting as though Mitch McConnell’s neck were in front of me and not a white screen.
She recorded “90” on a sheet of paper with a grid. (I’d take home packets of these grids to self-expose four days a week.)
Next, she set a timer on her phone. For five minutes I’d write sentences off the top of my head and wouldn’t tinker. I would sit on my hands if I had to (and I had to).
“Begin,” she said, tapping the timer.
After one second, an internal voice said Nope.
Then the self-shit-talk got cracking. My words can’t be good because they are mine. What if the men’s rights movement will come for me? Do my semicolons make me an asshole? “Anything is possible” decomposed into “everything is fucked.” I could almost see, touch, and taste the gaps between expectation and experience. My pity party featured the special musical guest The Inner Chorus that played hits off their number-one album Self-Gaslighting, with jingles like “Who I Should Be” and “How I Don’t Compare and Am Not Doing Enough” and “You Floundering, Touchy Dilettante.”
“HOW,” I begged the clinician after too many sessions, “how do I stop thinking bad thoughts?”
“Have I ever asked you to stop thinking? Or to think different thoughts?”
For some reason, she hadn’t.
“Think your thoughts,” she said. “Feel your feelings. And lean in.”
She didn’t mean Sheryl Sandberg’s business advice. She meant “lean into” fear and don’t fight or flee or freeze. In the middle of writing, whenever I doubted myself and researched LSATs and husbands, I was to reiterate “lean-in statements” and agree with my doubt and practice having a non-compulsive response.
“Maybe I am embarrassing myself.”
“Maybe the men’s rights movement will come for me.”
“Maybe semicolons do make me an asshole.”
ERP often plagiarizes Buddhism. To lean in and agree is to stay with thoughts without spiraling rather than believe or exchange them.
A year prior, the psychopharmacologist had illustrated “thinking” to me on a sheet of paper with two columns, one for “THOUGHTS,” under which she wrote “words put together,” and the second for “MIND/SOUL,” under which she wrote “the part of you that gives thoughts meaning.”
“THOUGHTS come to you but aren’t you,” she said.
She printed out info sheets about OCD and anxiety, and read aloud, “Fear is often based on the possibility that having an unwanted thought means something about you.”
Every waking and unconscious moment, I had THOUGHTS and called them my personality. I subscribed to them; I argued with them; I breathed life into them; I transmuted them solid and supreme; I spent hours and years trying to manage and excise and get rid of them like bailing water out of a sinking boat. But the THOUGHTS would always return, repeat, escalate, snowball, and stick because of the gravity I installed in each one.
I didn’t know that I could respond any differently to THOUGHTS or that my response could resuscitate THOUGHTS or release them.
But when I irreverently agreed to THOUGHTS, I didn’t dwell on or debate or fuse with them. Then I could do what I was doing. And once I agreed I typed.
Maybe this sentence is bad, I agreed again, and moved onto the next.
When it was time to edit what I’d typed, I had to do something called “quick decision making.” Because, if you multiplied the average revision time by infinity and took it to the depths of forever, then you would still only get a glimpse of how much I tinkered. I would reread what I’d written and look for answers that didn’t exist, so sure that some truth, secret, clue, pattern, plot, or revelation was preserved in expired sentences. I’d pore over them and leave them only to revise them in my mind. If to write on a blank page is to tremble, then to revise is to be right back where I’d always been and be stuck.
Again there were time limits, so if I were on the fence about a sentence, I had to decide within minutes to keep it, move it, or delete it in a game of Marry, Fuck, Kill Your Darlings. And if I killed the darling, then it had to stay dead—per response prevention, I couldn’t undo it copy & paste the darling elsewhere “to save it for later,” and I had to lean into the fears of making the “wrong” choice and that choosing “wrong” was the worst thing I could do.
But “wrong”/“right” thinking is obsessive, disordered, pathological thinking. The OCD brain spins its wheels trying resolve the unresolvable with absolute certainty, to distinguish and execute what is “right” at all times in every situation with everyone—this is how the brain pretends safety and okay-ness.
It took months of OCD treatment and two Brené Brown books to understand there is no “right” or “wrong” in writing (except for using adverbs, which is wrong)—there are only decisions. Writing is decision-making! Writing is solving a puzzle as you create it. Writing is deleting and not looking back.
Besides, “we are guaranteed to notice something unwanted if we look hard enough,” says one of my psychopharmacologist’s printouts.
“Am I doing a good job?” I’d ask the clinician every week.
“What are you doing right now?” she’d ask back.
I was doing my favorite thing, asking for reassurance, for someone else to take away my doubt and remind me of my greatness.
Another part of OCD treatment is not asking for or receiving reassurance.
Which reminded me of an artist’s advice not to read reviews; in an interview on the podcast Design Matters with Debbie Millman, a male artist (whose name I don’t remember; sorry to that man) said positive reviews are as derailing as negative reviews—both distract him from his work. Similarly, asking for and receiving reassurance is another compulsion, which reinforces doubt and fear as so massive they must be mollified. Reassurance subtly conveyed that other people’s judgments were worth more than my own, that their words come from on high and mine come from the sewer where Stephen King’s IT dwells, and that my own voice and intuition weren’t dependable.
During early sessions, I’d filled out a chart with the strategies that I used to control my obsessions (but did the opposite), and number one was “Complain to others and hope for reassurance or answers.”
Tied with one was “Check social media for evidence of my career.” Also tied with one: “Check social media for evidence that I’m invisible, then compare myself to every person on Earth.” The rest, in order, were “Overthink. Revise ad infinitum. Watch TV. Sleep.”
On this chart were columns for “time spent per day” and “short-term effectiveness (low, medium, high)” and “long-term effectiveness (low, medium, high).”
To social media I committed a good portion of each day (145 minutes, the national average, but “24 hours” was more accurate since I thought in tweets and reworded my thoughts for potential publication). The short-term effectiveness and long-term effectiveness were both “low.”
Another chart asked me to list the costs and benefits of my strategies, in the short and long terms. The short-term cost of checking Twitter was “wastes time/attention/energy/sanity/life,” while the long-term costs were “doubting everything always.” Short-term benefits were “entertains/distracts/informs” and “adds extra dimension of interpersonal relationships and human connection”; long-term benefits were “0.”
“We’ll continue practicing response prevention with social media,” the clinician said ambitiously. Social media sang 24/7 Siren songs, and I had to sit there, in the same room, and listen only sometimes?
“You must feel some discomfort,” she said, “and agree to sit in uncertainty.” To habituate to the heart at odds with itself, to change.
The stunt of sitting with uncertainty, in uncertainty, through uncertainty…I couldn’t do it.
For a long time, I couldn’t do it. So, I installed internet blocker apps on my computer (Freedom, SelfControl), locked my phone in my mailbox (located five floors below me), and skimmed the book How to Break Up with Your Phone. I invoked Roland Barthes’s “The Neutral,” as explained by Maggie Nelson in The Art of Cruelty, “In a world fixated on the freedom to speak and the demand to be heard, the Neutral proposes ‘a right to be silent—a possibility of being silent…the right not to listen…to think nothing of it, to be unable to say what I think of it: the right not to desire.’” I added my own rights. The right to not check and to not post, the right to be uncertain and to not know, to care not at all, to not have an opinion, to be bored!, to not be distracted: the right to not ruin my whole fucking day.
Still, not asking for reassurance was asking a lot, not only because I love reassurance, but also because for women, reassurance is a passport. As a teacher, I watch the writers who are women lose track of themselves by fixating on the reception they’ll receive. All writers suffer from both high and low self-esteem—one minute we suck and the next we’re geniuses who should be celebrities, which often depends on what other people are saying about us—but women writers are next-level. Their catchphrases include:
“I’m no authority on the matter, but…”
“I don’t know what I’m saying, but…”
“I know no one will care…”
“I’m not sure if it’s legal for me to ask…”
“I realize I’m being a stupid bitch, but…”
What they’re really saying is, “Do I have permission? Does everybody give me their blessing? Will you relieve me of my distress and anxiety?”
I give them permission, as if I have permission to give (only Maggie Nelson can give permission). As if I could grant myself and all women the confidence and agency of mediocre white cis men failing upward—but doubt and fear don’t go away via a third party or by concentrating on their eliminations. Fear and doubt don’t go away, not ever. They are as much a part of writing as punctuation.
But each week—with time limits and quick decisions and leaning in without reassurance—my discomfort rating dropped by degrees. My brain re-categorized the feared outcomes of “bad” writing from “likely to kill/haunt me” to “somewhat distressing” to “somewhat enjoyable.” There were more seconds between thought and action, more minutes between uncertainty and panic attack, until the seconds and minutes of feeling okay expanded in time.
And plot twist: I liked writing. What I hated was the pre-writing anxiety, and the mid-writing anxiety, and of course the post-writing anxiety. Also the submitting, the waiting, the potential rejection, the actual rejection; or (if all goes well) the publication, the sharing on social media, the anticipating positive feedback, the checking; then the deciding that none of it was enough and it’s time, once again, to get married to a lawyer. Maybe I will.
Hysterical by Elissa Bassist is available now via Hachette.