I meant to post this as a ‘Dress Down Friday’ contribution. I know I ‘m late, but I’m postitng it now anyway lest I contract berry berry in the night. Let me explain…..
I get by on about 3 or 4 hours of sleep per night, turning in anytime between 2 and 3am. I can’t remember the last time I went to bed the same day I got up…..well, obviously that happens every day, but you know what I mean.
Once I’ve climbed over my wife to the side of the bed with only 2 wooden slats under the mattress where there should be half-a-dozen, I pull the covers up to my chin (to protect against vampires – something I’ve done since I read ‘‘Salem’s Lot’ aged 13). By now, I’ve usually been awake about 20 hours. Even so, approximately every other night, I’ll spend the next hour staring at the ceiling as I contemplate my mortality, my insignificance, and the utter pointlessness of my existence. You see, I’m a necrophobiac. Read it again: that’s “phobiac”. This means I experience periods of intense self-reflection which a Buddhist would call ‘existential doubt’, my priest would refer to as ‘dark nights of the soul’ and my wife defines as a ‘midlife crisis’; maybe it’s all of these, but strip it down to its bare bones, and it’s an all encompassing fear of knowing that one day, I shall fall asleep and not wake up again; or maybe I’ll wake up, get on the 07:20 to King’s Cross and derail at 90 mph just outside Biggleswade; or I’ll go on holiday to the Bahamas and have my skull cleaved by a falling coconut; or I’ll achieve my life ambition of walking the Appalachian Trail and contract Lyme disease along the way…..you get the picture. The irony is that when I’m on the train to London, I’m too busy reading the sport at the back of the Times to worry about crashing in south Bedfordshire. This fear of death never completely leaves me, but neither does it stalk my every waking thought.
There’s a contribution I recall from an old Viz correspondence page which goes: “I opened a letter from the doctor this morning and it said: ‘You have 6 months to live.’ Imagine my relief when I saw it was addressed to my wife.” When I’m not worrying about dying myself, I’m imagining all sorts of horrible things happening to my kids, my wife, my parents, anybody who is close to me.
One evening last week, I sat within 2 feet of Ellie, my 5-year-old, and tried to imagine what she will look like when she’s older. I thought about how wonderful she’ll look on her wedding day. And then I thought about the fact that one day, she will be lying in the ground. Perversely, such thoughts help to reconcile me to my own death: if I were immortal, I’d have to bury my kids, my grandkids and everyone else I’ve known and loved. I constantly tell myself that when I am 80, I won’t think about death the way I do now. We’re all programmed to accept the ultimate journey and even welcome it. It’s natural to fear death when you’re 37 because you’re not supposed to die when you’re 37. But what if I’m as repulsed at the idea then as I am now? How will I cope knowing that every day really could be my last, and that it wouldn’t even require a great misfortune to make it so? So not only am I terrified of dying, I’m also terrified of being terrified of dying.
I don’t know for sure, but I’m inclined to think this irrational fear is linked to my obsessive compulsive disorder, which is almost certainly inherited from my father. He used to place beakers of water on the top of the television at night, his logic being that if the TV caught fire, it would eventually melt and fold in on itself, spilling the water from the beaker onto the circuits and extinguishing any flames. One summer he bought a Hayter mower, and the same evening I saw him go into the garage and carry something to the middle of the garden and leave it there. It was the full petrol canister for the mower. There was no way he was leaving that in the garage, not with a gas boiler in there. I remember asking him whether he thought the neighbours who kept their cars in their garages drained the fuel tanks a night, but then obsessive compulsives don’t do these things because they are unaware their behaviour is objectively bizarre if not downright nutty; the vast majority is entirely conscious that they are behaving irrationally at best.
When I was 16, I was the last of my friends to still have all four grandparents living. I think it was this that prompted the development of a habit whereby I had to perform certain actions four times. So if I scuffed my foot on a pavement, I’d have to repeat the scuff another 3 times. And if any of the repeats resulted in a scuff too light or heavy, I’d then have to perform that different level of scuff 3 times as well as finishing the original set of scuff repeats. It was the same thing if I brushed my elbow on a doorway as I passed through; repeat the brush, but make bloody sure it was identical in every way to the first brush.
I used to say the Lord’s prayer every night………four times. During each recitation, I would, in sequence, will the images into my mind’s eye of, first, my parents, then my grandparents, then my brother and sister and finally my friends. From time to time, I would struggle to summon up the required image. If at any stage during the prayer the required images faded away, I would have to start from scratch. Some nights, it would take me nigh on an hour to complete this process, which would end with me crying silently into my pillow out of sheer frustration.
When my son turned 5, so my need to repeat actions and sounds jumped by one: opening and closing doors 5 times, setting an alarm on a clock 5 times, scratching my nose 5 times. This incremental build up of repetitions continued until my son turned 9, at which point I realized what an absolute fruitloop I was becoming, not to mention the fact that it was much harder to conceal my obsession now that I was having to perform sets of 9. So I did the logical thing and reverted to 4….for a while at least, until I developed the habit of having to repeat some functions 7 times, for a reason I’ve yet to fathom myself.
Which is where I am now. The only difference between my middle-aged obsession and that of my youth is how the focus these days is all related to safety and thoughts of death. So I have to check the knobs on the cooker 4 times before I retire for the night; I have to swipe my hand across the back of the TV 7 times checking for over-heating; I put my laptop under the settee (to keep it away from the kids) and then pull it out again 4 times before finally shoving it under; I lock and unlock the slide-bolt to the garage 7 times; I turn the porch light on and off 7 times (the neighbours must think I’m trying to communicate by Morse code), and on it goes. If I am taking a flight the next day, my obsession creeps to new heights. I will convince myself that I will die in a crash or my family will perish in a fire if I don’t check the kitchen taps are in the ‘off’ position at least 7 times.
There is – or rather was – a select band of people with whom I have shared my crazy little secret. The response has been uniform: all attempt to convince me of the irrationality of my behaviour. I’m glad I’m not paying for such therapy as it is useless; I know how irrational it is to think that my kids might die a horrible death if I don’t check the temperature on my laptop transformer at least 4 times before going to sleep. I tell myself the same thing at the very time I’m opening my laptop case for the third time: “This is dumb, David. What are you doing? – Okay, but what do you have to lose? So you know this won’t make any difference, but if you didn’t do this and something did happen to Ellie and Sasha, you’d never forgive yourself.” In other words, I don’t need to be convinced that what I’m doing is nuts. I know it’s nuts, it’s just that knowing your behaviour is nuts doesn’t help an obsessive compulsive. On occasions, I have stopped checking the front door is locked after the second or third time and gone upstairs to bed. I lie there for 20 minutes in a vain attempt to convince myself that if I don’t go down to check the door for a fourth time, I won’t walk into Ellie’s room in the morning to find that she’s died in her sleep. The fact is, I always get up, go downstairs and complete the ritual. Always. Why wouldn’t I? It’s not that Ellie will suffer if I don’t; it’s that I will suffer if she does, because a simple sacrifice by me could have prevented it.
Anyway, it’s gone 3am and I have stuff to do before I can go to bed. Oh, and I’m available for babysitting every other Saturday.