I attended college in the years that President Reagan was supporting both the brutal South African slave state and murderous right wing terrorists in Central America. It seemed natural to split the world into good and bad. That was perfect for me at my level of moral development, which could be categorized as “absolutist.”
I held that same air of all-knowing rightness when I went to see local bands. On the day of the Spring Festival, I walked around to check out the various bands. I was careful to step over all sidewalk cracks with my right foot. This took some concentration so I wouldn’t have to do a double-step right before a crack. On patches with cracks near one another, I took small steps, on other patches, big steps. I got to an old section of sidewalk that was broken up by lots of cracks created by years of weather. I had to let my left foot walk over a crack now and then, but made up for it by stepping over a whole lot of cracks with my right foot. 19, 20, 21, 22 … that should counter the effects of the one left foot step-over … I also had to drag my toes behind me now and then. I tried to appear to be walking normally, but ever so slightly let the toes of my rear foot scrape the ground. I had no idea that this ritual would wreak havoc on my knees over the years.
There was an alleged rockabilly band playing on a low hill on the edge of campus. I was happy to get off the crack-laden sidewalk. I walked over in my torn jeans and ripped New York Dolls shirt held together by safety pins. In my musical world view, fifties rock’n’roll was an acceptable genre for a punk rocker to like, as well as ska and reggae.
I shouted out requests for Eddie Cochran songs, but the band stuck to more mid-sixties music. I was standing near the back of the sparse crowd, arms folded, only allowing my head to nod to the beat of their better songs. I walked across campus to a group playing original music. They sounded like they were trying to play aggressive rock and roll. I judged all such bands by how much the music sounded like the only real rock and roll band recording at the time, the Ramones, or whether the singer had the same energy and attitude of my friend John back home, who had been the singer of the Panics. The beat here wasn’t quite fast enough to dance to. Plus, the singer didn’t belt out the lyrics in a hybrid of singing and yelling, like John. I would have even been impressed by out-of-tune screaming, but it was just too radio sounding. I stood back, arms folded as usual, trying my best to look somewhere between unimpressed and disapproving. Boring, corporate pseudo-music, I thought.
I felt a compulsion to touch a certain light pole on the edge of the field. I walked by the pole and pretended to be looking for someone and then surreptitiously touched it with my fingers on the way back to where I had been standing. But then, I had to touch it a second time, so I walked back and casually leaned against the pole, my arms folded, touching the right spot on the pole with the fingers of my left hand, under my folded right arm. There was another pole about 20 feet behind me, but I decided that I didn’t need to touch it. If I walked away from my pole, I’d have to go back repeatedly to touch it. Better to stay leaning against it.
I wished that I had a dark pair of sun glasses to complete my detached punk look. As the band played in pointless precision without a hint of rawness or self-depreciation that could have partially redeemed them, I started my huge band-naming ritual, going through a list of all the bands I liked from my record collection. The order always had to be the same: “The Ramones, the Dead Kennedys, the English Beat, Black Flag….” I repeated those four sixteen times, but then realized that I needed to add four more: “The Sex Pistols, Fear, the Rezillos, the Who….” I did eight sets of eight, but then accidentally thought of another great band, the Avengers. So, I had to think of seven more bands. This made the list 16 long, which I repeated 16 times, plus an extra two times in case I had miscounted, along with a few repetitions of the first four bands, ending, of course, with the Ramones. At that point, it hit me that I had to do the same thing over again, but put the whole thing in quotation marks, “Quote the Ramones, the Dead Kennedys….” But then I couldn’t end with the quotation mark version, so I needed to repeat the original version of the list of 16, 16 times. I hardly noticed the live show ending and the crowd trickling away.
It was extremely frustrating that I could never just relax and experience a moment; whatever was going on around me — conversation, class, a party, or that outdoor band playing — I was constantly repeating rituals in my head, touching things, re-reading words over and over, etc. I decided after the spring festival to go to the library that night on campus to see if I could find out anything about my mental condition. It must have a name, maybe even a treatment.
I headed over to the Rockefeller Library and spent several hours looking for information about repetitive habits. Finally, I came across a description of a mental illness called obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD. People suffering from OCD felt compulsions to perform repetitive tasks even though they hated doing them. The book didn’t describe my rituals exactly, but I knew that this was it, I had found a description of my condition. It had a name. And this meant that other people suffered from it as well. I felt a wave of relief sweep over me. It was so good to know that it was something real, and I wasn’t alone.
The description of OCD made a lot of sense: it’s a neurosis, not a psychosis, the literature said. That meant that even though they couldn’t stop themselves, sufferers knew that what they were doing was irrational. This knowledge wouldn’t reduce my symptoms, but it was reassuring. I sat at the little library desk smiling and thought, I’m not crazy about being crazy, I really AM crazy!
Back in my dorm room, I took off my shoes, carefully placed them facing the window, touched the doorknob, my record player and the desk. I touched the desk a second time then sat on my bed. I wanted to finish the book I had been reading, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. I looked at the book, but didn’t open it up. The last time I had tried reading it, I was stuck for hours re-reading the words at the end of one of the pages and I knew that I’d just end up getting stuck again. I looked out the window up at the stars, thinking about the countless beings on other planets who must be looking up at the stars, too. I closed my eyes and focused on sending them a telepathic message: I’m here.