Image Credit: Goodreads
In middle school, I remember eagerly anticipating the start of S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders. The story, my teacher and friends told me, was electrifying and involved boys fighting, drinking, smoking, and chasing girls. “I am going to love this book,” I thought to myself as I lay on my bed getting ready to start the first assigned reading. “It is my life story.”
“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had…” suddenly my eyes stopped scanning the page and my mind stopped reading—a gruesome vision of my spine, severed in multiple places, flashed repeatedly through my head. I was paralyzed. I could not move. Panic mode set in.
Oddly, my anxiety was not so much from the pain of my severed spinal cord, but from the ramifications of paralysis. My athletic career was over. I would be in a wheelchair for life and would have to move to a new house to accommodate it. I would never get behind the wheel of a car. I would never feel a woman. These thoughts crushed me. I squeezed my eyes shut, clenched my teeth, and screamed in agony.
But, just as all of my dreams were evaporating before my eyes, my master came and offered to save me. He told me that all I had to do was reread the sentence. All I had to do—yeah right. We had been through this a million times before—him showing up with the key to my freedom only to return soon thereafter in a more sinister and perverse way. But, following the pattern of the previous five years, I followed his directions and moved my eyes to the beginning of the sentence.
“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had…” again I could not read on. Visions of being pushed around in a wheelchair flashed repeatedly in my brain. I did not know what to do. Once more, the repercussions of being a paraplegic for life flooded my thoughts. But, right as my life continued to crash down before my eyes, my master’s voice called out a second time. All I had to do was reread the sentence he said. I wanted to fight but couldn’t summon the courage or conviction. I would do anything to be spared. My eyes crawled back to the start of the sentence.
“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things…” bam—visions flooded my consciousness once more: my mom feeding me in my wheelchair, dressing me, brushing my teeth; my colostomy bag overflowing in public; struggling up a wheelchair ramp. I started to twitch—moving my arms, legs, head, and shoulders trying to flush these visions out of my brain. Could this really be happening? Could my life as I currently know it be over? All of my dreams and desires from the trivial to the life altering were shattered. But, as I drifted further and further into despair, I was offered another reprieve from my master. All I had to do was read the sentence a third time. I knew this battle could continue for ages, but I had to comply. I did not want to be paralyzed. My eyes trudged back to the start of the sentence.
“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a…” horrid visions flooded my brain a fourth time. I knew that 5 was a good number and that if I read the sentence one more time, my master might let me go—let me walk away under my own faculties and live the life I desperately dreamed. He might also let me keep reading. My eyes waded to the beginning of the sentence.
“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” I paused after reading the last word and waited for the ghastly visions to come roaring back into my brain, but none did. My master had let me go. I had read a complete sentence. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. I was free. I grabbed my pillow, smothered my face and screamed in ecstasy.
I read on.
“I was wishing I looked like Paul Newman — he looks tough and I don’t — but I guess my own looks aren’t so bad. I have light-brown, almost-red hair…” suddenly my eyes drifted from the page and started scanning towards my lower right leg. I begged them not to move across my tibia and fibula, but I was not in control. My eyes crossed my leg and I heard a snap. I imagined my skin stretched to its breaking point and then my bones breaking through at odd angles—angles that should not be made from bone.
Immediately, in an almost catatonic state, I started counting my good numbers. 1, 3, 5, 7, 9,13, 14, 17, 19, 22, 25, 30, 31, 32, 34, 43, 49, 54, 72, 94, 95, 103, 104, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 14, 17, 19, 22, 25, 30, 31, 32, 34, 43, 49, 54, 72, 94, 95, 103, 105, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 14, 17, 19, 22, 25, 30, 31, 32, 34, 43, 49, 54, 72, 94, 95, 103, 106, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 14, 17, 19, 22, 25, 30, 31, 32, 34, 43, 49, 54, 72, 94, 95, 103, 110, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 14, 17, 19, 22, 25, 30, 31, 32, 34, 43, 49, 54, 72, 94, 95, 103, 116. The numbers finally slowed and then came to a stop at 116. 116 is a good number because 1 + 1 + 6 = 8 and since this was my fifth time through the set, the numbers added together equaled 13. Also, when you separate 1 and 3 and then add them together you get 4, which is a great number—an almost perfect sequencing. In the midst of my counting, my master abruptly vanished, and my leg immediately returned back to its normal shape. I was safe. I went back to the beginning of the sentence and started reading again.
“I have light-brown, almost-red hair and greenish-gray…” my eyes once again drifted towards my right leg. I closed them and tried to gain control of their movement, but I was no match for my master’s powers. He swiftly guided my eyes across my right tibia and images of my leg snapping again flickered through my head. This time, the way in which my bone protruded from my skin made Joe Theismann’s infamous leg injury on Monday Night Football look like a sprain. Like Theismann, my athletic career was over. I had to fight. I started counting again. 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 14, 17, 19, 22, 25, 30, 31, 32, 34, 43, 49, 54, 72, 94, 95, 103, 104, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 14, 17, 19, 22, 25, 30, 31, 32, 34, 43, 49, 54, 72, 94, 95, 103, 104, 105, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 14, 17, 19, 22, 25, 30, 31, 32, 34, 43, 49, 54, 72, 94, 95, 103, 104, 105. Finally, a good number, 105 on the third set. 1 + 5 = 6 + 3 = 9—one of my favorite numbers. My leg went back to its natural shape. My athletic career was back on track. I was free. I turned over on my bed, stuffed my face into the mattress and screamed in joy.
In high school, I remember the excitement of finally starting to write after hours of research for my Constitutional Law class essay on Brown vs. Board of Education. Though, in the middle of writing the thesis sentence, an odd feeling in my heart grabbed my attention. I figured it was the supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) that I had dealt with since middle school. But, this feeling was different from the rapid heartbeats associated with my SVT. This was something new. Something more dangerous. I wasted no time playing games and immediately started trying to remove the painful thoughts from my brain.
As I sat at my computer, I slowly moved my right shoulder up an inch and then back down. I did this three more times because I love the number 4. Then I flexed my right foot back and then pointed it out straight as far as it could go. I did that again, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine times. I love the number 9. Next, I flexed my left quadriceps muscle once, twice, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen times. The odd feeling in my heart continued. “Concentrate,” I told myself. “He is not as strong as you are. He is weak. Tire him out.” It was time to coordinate my movements—a tactic I often employed when things looked especially bleak.
Right shoulder up, quickly back down. Right foot flexed back, then pointed out straight. Left quadriceps engaged, then relaxed. Right shoulder up, quickly back down. Right foot flexed back, then pointed out straight. Left quadriceps engaged, then relaxed. Right shoulder up, quickly back down. Right foot flexed back, then pointed straight. Left quadriceps engaged, then relaxed. Right shoulder up, quickly back down. Right foot flexed back, then pointed straight. Left quadriceps engaged, then relaxed. Right shoulder up, quickly back down. Right foot flexed back, then pointed straight. Left quadriceps engaged, then relaxed. Right shoulder up, quickly back down. Right foot flexed back, then pointed straight. Left quadriceps engaged, then relaxed. Right shoulder up, quickly back down. Right foot flexed back, then pointed straight. Left quadriceps engaged, then relaxed. After the seventh time through the movements, my master disappeared. He was nowhere to be seen. I was free.
But I was exhausted, so I turned away from my computer, climbed into bed, and closed my eyes.
In college, I remember laughing at a joke as I got up to use the bathroom while my friends and I waited for our drinks at a local bar. As I finished peeing, I flicked a couple of drops into the urinal. But then, out of nowhere, I had a feeling that if I didn’t count to a good number and have that number coincide with a good number of drops of urine to hit the urinal, my girlfriend would die.
Immediately, in an almost unconscious state, I started counting my good numbers. 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 14, 17, 19, 22, 25, 30, 31, 32, 34, 43, 49, 54, 72, 94, 95, 103, 104, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 14, 17, 19, 22, 25, 30, 31, 32, 34, 43, 49, 54, 72, 94, 95, 103, 105, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 14, 17, 19, 22, 25, 30, 31, 32, 34, 43, 49, 54, 72, 94, 95, 103, 105, 106. 106 on the third time through the sequence is a good number because 1 + 0 + 6 = 7, a great number. And, 7 x 3 = 21, which is a good number.
I started compulsively counting numbers in the third grade, but as I got older, good and bad numbers became associated with certain life events. In high school, number 7 was good because I wore that number in football. Ditto for number 5—I wore that number in hockey. Similarly, Troy Aikman, my favorite professional football player, wore number 8, so that was good, at least in high school. In college, however, number 8 became associated with someone I did not like on my lacrosse team, so it became a horrid number. Certain numbers were not associated with specific people but with body parts. 22 was a great number when I was in elementary school because Mike Bossy, my favorite hockey player and prolific goal scorer for my beloved New York Islanders wore it. But in college, my roommate wore number 22 on the Boston College hockey team and he tore his ACL during our freshman year. I never wanted that to happen to me, so the number instantly became taboo. 11 was always a bad number because the space between the two 1s was where the spine of the number would be if the number 11 was a person and spinal injuries have always terrified me. 15 was a good number in high school because a friend wore it on my hockey team, but in college that same friend had a bad concussion while skiing, and I did not want that type of injury, so I avoided the number all together.
While 7 is a really good number, I was stuck on 13 drops of urine the third time through the sequence and 13 + 3 = 16, which is a bad number. Even though the isolated numbers 1 and 6 add to 7, a good number, the badness of 16 overpowered the goodness of 7. So, I stood over the toilet for what seemed like hours praying that I could eek out another drop so that I could finish on 17—a good, but not great number. I stood on my tippy toes, tucked my hand under my scrotum, and pressed my fingers firmly into my urinary bladder praying that there was just one more drop of pee inside me. To make matters worse, I was not in a private stall but standing at an open urinal. I pursed my lips, deepened my breath, and closed my eyes. But there was nothing left. It was physically impossible to excrete any more urine from my bladder. So, I tried the next best option to prevent my girlfriend’s imminent death—I started to squirm (Squirming is when my physical compulsions build off each other. Numerous body parts are moving in different directions as I desperately try to reach a good number or clear bad zones. Imagine a dancer from Woodstock superimposed over a mosh-pit dancer at a heavy metal concert—that’s what I look like when I squirm).
Squirming while standing is totally different from squirming when sitting or lying down, and in a public bathroom, squirming calls for more nuanced movements. I shuffled my feet forward and then backward nine times. Simultaneously, I moved my head to the right twice, then the left twice, then the right three times, then the left three times—but 5 and 5 make 10 and that is a bad number, so I shuffled my feet forward two more times and then backwards once. 13 is a good number, but I kept going to try and reach a great number. While my feet continued to shuffle sixteen more times, I tilted my head to the side and then lifted my left foot off the ground ever so slightly. To others in the room, I must have looked like a nervous horse in the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby.
Now I was at three coordinated movements: feet shuffles, head tilts, and leg lifts. 3 is a good number, but what about 5—that is a great number—one of my all-time favorites. Two more movements to go.
I next started flexing my chest muscles, which was a good choice because the people behind me in line couldn’t see what I was doing. I flexed my right pectoral muscle, then the left, then the right, then the left, then the right twice, then the left once, then the right three times, then the left twice. I quickly added the times I had contracted my chest muscles so that I could end on a good number. But, the right side of my chest always had to be a higher number so as to cancel out and be more powerful than the left side. If the left contracted more times than the right, something bad might happen to my heart.
One more squirm to go. I quickly moved my right shoulder forward an inch, then back and inch, then forward an inch, then back an inch, then forward an inch, then back an inch. Then the left went forward and back three times. Now, one more movement of the right and all would be good. I moved my right shoulder ever so slightly forward and then quickly returned it so that it was angled just in front of the left. Everything was now perfect.
Finally, after three or four minutes, I pushed hard enough under my scrotum that out came a solitary drop of urine. I can’t imagine where it came from. This was my last chance. I had to count to a good number at the same exact moment the drop hit the bottom of the urinal. If not, I would have to start more compulsions and pray for more pee. I blasted through my numbers again 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 14, 17, 19, 21, and just as I reached 25—a good number because 2 + 5 = 7, I heard the plip of the urine as it hit the porcelain. I silently screamed in ecstasy.
I released my fingers from under my scrotum, zipped my pants, and walked to the faucet. Using my knuckles, I turned on the water, pumped some soap into my hand, and scrubbed thoroughly. Luckily there was an automatic paper dispenser, so I put my hand underneath it, took a few pieces, and turned off the water. I then balled up the paper, placed it around the door handle, and opened the door.
I quickly walked back to the table and smiled at my friends. I sat down exhausted from the battle but content knowing I had just saved my girlfriend’s life.
My beer was warm.
Experiencing the acute anxiety of an obsession is impossible. If I told you that your mom was going to die if you did not turn on and off the light in your bedroom five times, you might say, “Well that is stupid, they have nothing to do with each other.” Compulsions, on the other hand, are somewhat easier to experience. Below is an excerpt from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. While reading the passage, follow the italicized directions that are given in parenthesis.
The Old Man and the Sea
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days (stand up and sit back down and then go back to the start of the paragraph and reread the passage up to the word “days” three times. After the third time you can skip this set of instructions and keep reading)without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone (move your right foot forward two inches and then move your left foot forward one inch. Then move your right foot back two inches and your left foot back one inch. Repeat this nine times. After the ninth time, go back to the start of the paragraph and start reading again. As you read from the start this time, you can skip all prior italicized directions and keep reading from the end of this parenthesis.) at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy (reread the words at the start of this sentence like this – boy, boy, boy, it made the boy, it made the boy, it made the boy, boy, boy, boy, it made the boy, it made the boy, it made the boy, boy, boy, boy, it made the boy, it made the boy. Now go to the beginning of the sentence and keep reading through skipping all of the italicized directions.) sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour (flex your right pectoral muscle, then your left, then your right twice, then your left, then your right, then your left, then your right, then your left, then your right twice, then your left, then your right, then your left. As you continue moving your pectorals, start counting 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 14, 17, 25, 31, 34, 59, 72, 95, 1, 3, 9, 13, 17, 25, 32, 62, 90. Now take your right hand and move it over onto your thigh, then hold it out to your side so that no body parts are below your hand, then touch your thigh again and move it away again—do this five more times. When you are done, go back to the start of the sentence “The sail was patched…” and keep reading through skipping these italicized directions.) sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of (start counting 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 14, 17, 21, 25, 31, 32, 34, 59, 72, 95, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 17, 25, 32, 34, 43, 94, 97, 99. Now go back to the start of the sentence, “The sail was …” and continue to the end of the sentence.) permanent defeat.
Tommy Mulvoy is an American expat living in Basel, Switzerland with his wife, Vicky, and son, Aksel. When not chasing after Aksel, he teaches English and special education at an international school in Basel. His work has appeared on fatherly.com, mothwerwellmag.com, entropymag.org, and in Conquista magazine.