Monday, April 2, 2018

Books: "Because We Are Bad" On Living With OCD

Because We Are Bad: OCD and A Girl Lost in Thought
By Lily Bailey
Harper; Hardcover; $26.99; available tomorrow April 3rd

Lily Bailey provides a searingly honest, brave, and beautifully written account of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, one of mental health's most misinterpreted and misunderstood conditions in her work Because We Are Bad: OCD and A Girl Lost in Thought.

What if your imaginary friend were not what most would think one is, a buddy, but a blight on your childhood?

Her "friend" would not be left at the school gates but accompanied her every waking moment and even with intensive therapy flatly refused "to go quietly."

Bailey writes of the development of her imaginary friend, "In the playground, fads come and go consistently, without apparent supervision, like waves on a beach. We had Pokemon, we had Furbies; we had aliens encased in strange plastic eggs. Then at some point, when we were five, imaginary friends took off as a craze. People would save spaces at the lunch table for someone no one else could see. Girls would sit on the climbing frame, plaiting hair that looked like air to those without an imagination.

"No one wanted to be that - a child without an imagination. It made you no fun to play with. It meant you got excluded from certain games. Some of those who said they had imaginary friends didn't really have any specific vision of what his friend might be like, not did they really care for the craze at all. Desperately dull girls like Claudia couldn't even make up a good story when playing with a doll's house; how could they conjure up a whole person?

"Some of the die-hard fans, the revolutionaries with sparky minds and endless originality, may have taken their imaginary friends home for dinner, shared a bath with them, and read them bedtime stories. But the majority were probably scattered somewhere between the two extremes. They could imagine something, if not necessarily a fully formed person, but when school ended, that was that. The friend was left behind at the gates, without a thought, until the next morning, when the craze demanded that they reappear. That was why this fad was terrifying; amid a constant onslaught of daily change and childhood adaptation, one thing had stayed weirdly constant in my life. For as long as I could remember, I wasn't me, I was we.

"Two of us sat side by side in my head, woven together, inseparable. She didn't even have a name; she was just She. Really, it was hard to say where She ended and I began. But food was not shared with her. She did not play tag and never required a seat. She was, by her very essence, nothing like these imaginary friends. She was just there."

It is a voice that tells you that you alone are responsible for global pandemics, insists you check on your little sister countless times a night because only you can keep her breathing, and that the death of your infant cousin is your fault for thinking it.

For Lily Bailey, an aggressive Obsessive Compulsive Disorder meant that these kinds of daily interactions held possibly catastrophic consequences that overwhelmed her life.

On what it was like for her every night before going to bed, Bailey writes, "Thankfully, Ella's door is open, because she is scared of the dark. We creep to the side of her bed. She is curled up on her side, her thick mop of brown curls covering her face. We brush them aside. We can hear her breathing, but to be sure, we hold our hand an inch from her mouth. We can feel her breath on our palm, so she must be alive.

"We count nine of her breaths. Then we lower her duvet till it is just above her tummy. We place our hand on her chest. Her heart is beating. We count nine beats, but we're still not sure, so we count another nine beats, which takes us to eighteen. Leaving it like that would be bad luck - there have to be three seats - so we do another nine. Twenty-seven beats.

"We think we must be done. It doesn't feel quite right, but if we stay here she might wake up. We pull up the duvet under her chin. We repeat the words:

"Best sister ever.

"Best sister ever.

"Best sister ever.

"We say it in our head three times so she doesn't wake up, but we focus hard on meaning it so she will be protected from bad things.

"We make our way back to our room and check if it's safe for us to go to sleep. We open our drawers, feeling around the insides with our hands. We worry that there might be someone, or something, hiding inside. We check our wardrobe and under the bunk bed. The plug switches must be off so there isn't a fire in the night. We fumble around in the dark. checking they all point the right way. We creep up the ladder, and then we hang over the edge of the bunk bed to make sure there aren't any people lurking underneath in the shadows."

Lily's childhood and adolescence, which was possessed by obsessions, crippling embarrassment and brutal self-reflection, were marked by convictions that she could kill with a look, contaminate with a touch, and spread fatal disease with a handshake. Only by  performing an exhausting series of secret routines could she atone for her bad thoughts and actions.

Lily prayed obsessively and made lists of "wrong-doings" in hundreds of chanted acronyms that would accrue daily, which forced her to contend with acerbic self-recrimination in the pursuit of the "blank slate" of absolution.

Even when Lily would reach a momentary state of "peace" and profound relief common to OCD sufferers, the cycle of compulsion would recommence almost immediately.

Through it all, the quest to become a "good person" was always out of reach.

Lily always maintained wry insight and a keen sense of humor while dealing with her debilitating experience. In this memoir of a "Girl 
Lost in Thought," which is written in diary form, she explains how and why "being bad" is neither fiction nor fantasy, but a much-maligned state of mind.

Lily says of her battle, "I have existed for 21 years. I didn't live them all but from now on, I am hoping to."

Because We Are Bad reveals why OCD remains undiagnosed much of the time, when a Common Intrusive Thought becomes a probable threat, the differences between compulsions and control issues, the ways repetitive routines feed off isolation, and how the theory of "simple" resistance can build toward solutions.

This story told by Bailey is done with an intelligence, wit, wisdom, and an open-minded philosophy that speaks to one of mental health's most pervasive yet hidden conditions.

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