Coda V: Éminence Grise

Cover of Coda V: Éminence Grise

For me, a poem takes flight, coasts the skies like ink slash across the page, and nails its landing. It's a feeling, at times, more than the words. If it wants, it can bop up and down a bit, touch the surface of the water, but it must never slow down enough to submerge.

child of six or maybe seven,
mother, harsh, is scolding.
rare: have learned to mimic faultless behavior.
a constant:
i misbehave,
i never get in trouble.
not looking at her,
i am “writing” her words
on a napkin next to me;
with                  invisible careful letters,
i replicate her tirade, as if she dictated
rather than lectured.
it distracts, it emboldens, comforts me.
been doing this for a few weeks now
think nothing of it.

When, during my first year of college, I am told that I more than likely have OCD, this does not shock me. It is only the first of many things the doctor lists off, some of which I have more trouble coming to terms with, but OCD sits right at home. I never deigned to designate it, I’ve somehow known its name all along. The emotional hand-wringing lasts but a second. In retrospect, those obsessive and compulsive tendencies have been peppered, inconsequentially, throughout. It has been the nagging finger on the inside of the skull, the exacerbator and the cold flame laying waste to everything in sight. To quote Soundgarden: I get an itch, and when I am scratching, everything can go to hell.

still a child (an anxious one at that)
but running hands on the sides of doors —
what a relief.
still “writing” words:
             in the air
        on binders
             on myself.
those around have noticed
have just gotten used to it.
as typical to them as my saying
certain things twice —
                          thank you, thank you
or my fingers pitter-pattering every table.
from mother: you’re a nervous one.
in literal sense — made of nerves
                                                    and tautness
                                                                  and tensions.
like a rubber band;
keep playing with it. one day you’re going to snap.
i don’t yet see it that way.
won’t be the last time she tells me this.

It’s a peculiar thing, to know that you know something, but only realize it when it is brought to your attention. There is a simultaneous feeling of
well, that was rather obvious,
mingled with a curious
well, would you look at that.
Hence, faced with the diagnosis, the indifference is
pervasive. In the years leading up to it, I was fine with treating my unnamed OCD like a wayward child, sent off to a corner and away from the more distracting elements of my mental health.
And then I fell in love with poetry again.

i have a new friend,
this friend has a tic.
every other second her eyes twitch upward.
flash of movement
so involuntary
she pays it no mind,
nor do others after the initial blunt pointing out
so characteristic of children.
it fascinates me;
on days when most highly-strung,
i find myself voluntarily spellbound,
              and then not.
was initially alluring,
it stops being so.
a rare show of self-control: i make me stop.
what this strange episode teaches me:
a- i quickly malfunction under duress
b- this malfunction, highly susceptible to others’.

Again, I say, because while it’s always been there, for a long time it was just a placid, platonic relationship. I found the words beautiful, the rhymes appealing, the stanzas easy to dissect. But in the rigorous confines of the French school system where I received my education, poetry was something that needed to be memorized and performed, analyzed endlessly. The more ancient, the more inscrutable, the better. We would stand, one by one, sweating under the angry glare of the classroom lights, reciting the collection we had finished studying while teachers sat listening, encouraging, judging. It didn’t matter that we barely understood, as long as we could enunciate. It was treated with the same reverence accorded to classical novels of the last centuries; hence, something about it became as intimidating as it was thrilling. Some of my peers would never recover from this quasi torture, their ties with literature, and in this case poetry, permanently ruptured.

preteen penchant for the fantastical has transformed itself into deeply-rooted superstition.
            don’t step on cracks;
            don’t burst open umbrellas indoors;
            don’t walk under ladders;
            and never the playing cards after sunset.
have drawn water, liberally, from that well of commonplace irrationality — but with an edge.
things in my head are said 3, 5, 7 times,
switches are flicked in 10, 15, 20, 300 rotations,
bottle tops are stroked absentmindedly
       (not so much that doing it wrong goes unnoticed)
hands are run against walls when in passing,
       (right hand first, double back, now left)
this little game has roots so deep and so effortless that thoughts no longer alight on those uncanny notions.

Poetry was cool. Poetry was the aloof, inaccessible relative I got to meet only occasionally; and while our interactions could be pleasant, they left me wanting, at times. We were, I felt, being introduced in a skewed, slightly slanted way, one that left me wanting. I found refuge in the freedom offered me by short stories, in the blue, blue songs that saved my life, without halting to consider that poetry could do the same. I found solace in the blistering words I read in books, in the quirkiness of graphic novels, and although I wrote poetry, among many things, I didn’t consider myself a poet. Not yet.
At sixteen years old, I am re-introduced to Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, and my life changes.

i should not be alive: somehow i am.
in full-blown teenaged free fall;
in midst of all the maelstrom,
i don’t notice biting my nails has become a habit,
just another aftereffect of fixed frenzy.
i do notice i:
       can no longer stem the flow of tumbleweed thoughts cycling my head.
        have never slept soundlessly, now i am sleeping much much less.
        nurture a voracious hunger, yet another kind i cannot restrict.
my days a sequence of running, outrunning myself.
a steady surge, howling winds through open doors.
what has come before, what i have done:
i can do betterbetterbetter well.
sometimes i think i’m just anxious.
        it’s not untrue; it’s not all there is.

Yet in retrospect, as poetry helped me exorcise my fevered beasts, lay down my anguish and my turbulent relationship with my body; as, then, it gradually became an even greater part of my life, so did the following realization: that perhaps OCD was more invasive of a complication than I had envisaged.
I had surrounded myself with verses and rhymes, with beats and stanzas, with syllables and alliterations, with meters, enjambments and refrains, and without my realizing it, the roar had steadily filled my head again. Poetry had become an excuse for the counting, the cyclical thinking, the deconstructing of words and syllables, the tapping, the repetition of ideas in my head and their assembling into coherent-yet-free verses. The upside, namely my love affair with poetry, made it worth it, always, until I understood that perhaps I couldn’t afford to ignore my condition anymore. This time, I could no longer solely blame my erraticism on my anxiety, my bipolar depression. It was time, as the saying goes, to call a thing a thing.

no longer just “neurotic” — no, late-teen crazy.
that old motherly prediction sometimes dredges to the surface:
i have curdled,
so inflexible as to become brittle.
no middling grounds allowed.
the nail biting and the wall tapping and the finger drumming
and the switch flicking and the walking on one side of the road
and the stroking of door handles and the mantras and the signs i ask the Universe for are less and less consoling. i see things. i think about dying. i think i hear voices. i stay up all night. i have fantasies, ferocious, vivid, and always self-inflicted. i buy books i will never read and i hoard them, like everything else in my life. i look at my body in the mirror for hours, thinking about how so very wrong it is, how i don’t belong to it, how it does not belong to me. curious yet dispassionate, perched some ways away, i observe the elaborate wreckage.

I minimized the weight of OCD on my psyche for years, which may be a by-product of the way the disorder is viewed and treated at large. I suspect that I am not the only one who brushes off its severity. Those of us who have OCD are made to feel small and ludicrous. We are met with indulgent or sardonic smiles. We are told we overreact. We are asked if we are “neat-freaks” and germaphobes. We are labeled quirky or hysterical. We are condescended to. Much of it emerges from the typical disdain that plagues the discussion on mental illness, but a particular flippancy underscores the conversation on OCD.
Films and books surrounding eating disorders abound;
stories on schizophrenia are countless; depictions of mania and other forms of depression are popular film and literature topics. These representations are so very problematic, in so many ways, but they are there. When, rarely, OCD is portrayed in films and books, the characters are the butt of the joke, the illness unserious, and at best, a source of hilarity: at worst, it is obnoxious. Many do not understand the disorder, and in many cases, even those who have it do not either.
And that is because it is a strange one. It is the false mediator, the cooling hand that soothes everything, the oft forgotten detail in the grander tumultuous whole. Still, it deserves to be part of the same conversation as others of its ilk, deserves to be better acknowledged for its disruptive nature, if there is any hope of understanding it, and pulling it out of the foggy depths to which it is mostly relegated.

in the following years:
i am soon flooded, inundated, but not, no, not drowning.
alight, for the first time, with the awareness of my chaos
connecting with others’ chaos.
where this has been all my life.
once again opened, split wide, my writing completely overhauled;
before long i have started bleeding my blues out in my own poetry, water to ink
in ways even short stories do not allow me.
my words free and untethered.
i exist.
still miserable and
still crazy
but now: miserable and crazy, with a purpose.

Falling in love with poetry has been a perplexity, similarly to the way that the shining shores we shipwreck on could either provide a moment’s solace, or fling us back to sea. What a strange notion it is that the very things that save our lives, at times, and provide an outlet for those rayless recesses of Self could also unleash those very recesses unto us.
When the world sings and everything aligns, I revel in reading and writing poetry, in the knitting of the words, in the way I can rearrange, converse with, marvel over them. Then, it is not such an albatross. When catastrophes are chasing after one another, like spokes of a wheel, and I have lapsed into obsessing and ruminating and tormenting myself over synonyms and stanzas until I have lost track of time and sleep, I almost resent poetry more than OCD itself.
But we of the creative tendencies can agree: sometimes, our work is a fickle friend, one that encourages that old romanticized brooding which, if prodded indelicately, can spell disaster. Understanding both halves — the artistic impulse and the trouble it aggravates — is an exercise in motion, in embracing that never-static ambiguity, in seesawing between one end and the other, in accordance with the temper of the day. The trick is to keep dancing on that rope. The trick is never
to stay still.

never believed in closure, don’t subscribe to finality
embracing vs holding ocd at bay might always be a tightrope dance.
have chosen to surround myself with words,
to ignore it is futile luxury.
why not compromise instead?
it offers a hand. and so i do.
count syllables, still.
touch door handles, idly.
the phone rings 4x when i call, no more, no less.
the tv volume is hiked to rounded numbers, 0, .5.
rubber bands on wrists are whacked, rhythmical, soothing.
on any given morning,
i wake, already replaying a last week’s conversation.
some days it's a crimson hangnail i’ve been fidgeting,
other days, a brutal thought i should uproot
if i’m lucky, i’ve only been turning the same three sentences
                                       in my head for the last 72 hours
                                       in my head for the last 72 hours
                                       in my head for the last 72 hours
three fragments in the poem or story i intend to write, when, if, i settle finally.
shaved down.

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