To be a teenager is to have a complicated relationship with control. Some want more of it, fast. Others wanted to lose it completely, and succeed in doing so. My troubles began when I realised I had no control to begin with, and had to fashion a synthetic version of it from whatever was at hand.
My wacky idea that I had any real control over my body was the first thing to go. I had become acquainted with my body’s rebellious streak in the past: when I lost my front teeth, had asthma attacks and succumbed to chickenpox. These moments of powerlessness had been briefly unsettling, but I never stopped believing that ultimately, I was in charge. Now, at age thirteen, my body had launched a full-on mutiny. I was shocked by its sudden subversive behaviour. We had once worked pretty well as a team, but now its lack of balance made gym teachers despair, its spottiness could not be contained with cream or disguised by concealer and its crooked teeth grew so wild that they were dotted with cement and clamped together with metal links, like a dangerous chain gang. My body was agitating for change. My mind was the old order, a reactionary power, digging its heels in in vain.
My world was growing less and less predictable too. It was once quite simple, consisting of little more than a house, a wood, and two grandparents’ dwellings acting as distant outposts. Now it contained an ugly, sprawling high school with a long history it mistook for prestige. Its pupils excelled in maths, science, and organising after-school fights on the driveway leading to Haydock Racecourse. Fights were not spontaneous bursts of aggression, but well organised events with participants, promoters, supporters and a reigning female and male champion of each year group. Bullying was condemned sleepily by teachers in assemblies, but unchallenged in classrooms, and I could neither predict it, nor quash it when I was the target, nor manage my sense of utter fragility in the face of it. Other people, it seemed, could be called a pizza face and not run to the office asking to be sent home. Other people, it seemed, were not total pansies.
At thirteen, I knew two things: one, I was powerless over the world and how I felt within it. Two, such powerlessness could not continue.
If there’s truth in the saying, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, then in my case, control was the necessity, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder was the invention. Soon after starting high school, I was no longer quite so concerned about my skin, or my clumsiness, or absent-mindedness, or lack of progress in chemistry. My life had a new, entirely manageable focus: avoiding the number three. If I could do that, I told myself, the rest would fall into place. I would be left alone. Things would go as I planned. I didn’t know exactly how my mind had settled on this particular rule. All I knew was that for me, the number three was heavy with angst, uncertainty and terror. It was like the dense matter at the beginning of the universe, buzzing with terrible potential. Avoiding the number three created a mental short-circuit to a craved sensation: relief from the anxiety of not knowing.
There was one slight problem with this particular rule. The number three is everywhere. In boyband line ups. In traffic lights. It was the number of people I shared a house with. Some of my favourite sentences: ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I don’t care,’ were made up of three little words. I was forced to extend these sentences in order to make them four words, ‘I do not know,’ ‘I do not care.’ Teachers mistook my new linguistic precision as petulance.
Maths lessons were a nightmare. My tutor despaired of my lack of ability to get to grips with cubed numbers. The rule book had to be adapted somehow, so if I had to come into contact with the number, I would touch wood as soon as possible to neutralise the harm done. The net of OCD was tightening around my life, but I didn’t care. My compulsion was a bug, in all three senses of the word: it was a flaw, an illness and a passion. The fact that I seemed to be getting the results I craved only made it stronger. Bullies had eased off, and found a new target in a girl called Tammy. This poor kid was avoided, derided and rejected daily – the year group’s collective number three. I felt terrible for her, but didn’t intervene. I kept my head down and kept doing what was working.
Did I really believe obeying this rule would make things go my way? Yes and no. My new belief was a leap of faith, and the leap was powered by my survival instinct, not by rational thinking. Because if I didn’t believe it, I was exposed. If I didn’t believe it, I had no armour. So, just as I learned that a2+b2=c2, and that an apostrophe before an ‘S’ indicates possession, I learned that I had to jump over any paving flag in the quad that had shattered into three pieces, or the bullying would start up again. The irrationality of it was itself a kind of teenage rebellion against the plodding logic of my education.
Of course, the rational belief was always there in the sidelines, ready for me to re-access once the nonsense belief had fulfilled its usefulness. The trouble is, beliefs are tyrants. They get high on power. They get a life of their own and they don’t care if they should have retired long ago. As my time at high school drew to a close, and my body’s rebellion eased, OCD made its bid for absolute power. Tackling it was as difficult and dangerous and bloody as a revolution.