Eric is sleeping. I went out to get the mail and a movie had arrived for me from Netflix, so I decided that the next time Carl had to nurse, I’d sit down and start watching it. It’s Matchstick Men, starring Nicholas Cage as an obsessive-compulsive con artist. I’m about twenty minutes in, and the first part of the movie has dealt with what happens when Cage’s character drops his medication into the garbage disposal by mistake and regresses. We get to see him compulsively cleaning his house, for instance, and having to open and close doors three times.
It’s maybe not the best time for me to be watching a movie about someone with full-blown OCD. As I mentioned in a recent entry, I have “obsessive-compulsive tendencies” myself, and watching Cage fall to pieces is making my heart beat a little faster in a “there but for the grace of God” kind of way. Especially right now, when all our monitors are on high alert for a possible recurrence of my post-partum depression, and I’ve been having the symptom I think of The First Robin Of Spring as far as my anxiety returning goes, which is morbid fantasies, about which I won’t say more because it’s very important not to dwell on them.
I have some compulsive behaviors, you know. I remember describing them to, first, my psychiatrist and, later, my therapist, and both of them asked me, “Do these behaviors distress you or interfere with your life in any way?” I answered, quite honestly, that they did not, and both of them said, “Well, let’s not waste our time trying to extinguish them, then.”
I will tell you what they are. They are both counting rituals, which I learned recently are very common among adolescents. Mine started when I was a teenager, and, unlike those developed by most teens, never went away. The most innocuous is that I count steps. Every time I go up or down stairs, I count them. I remember David asking me, before we had moved in together, whether I thought the ceilings at my house were higher than his. I said, “They must be the same, because the staircases in both houses have fourteen steps.” He said, “How in the world do you know that?” I said, “How can you not know that?” This was pre-treatment; it’s possible this conversation was one of my early clues that my brain did not work like other people’s.
Someone asked me once, a year or more ago, why I thought Eric was such a good counter. I said, “We count steps when we go up or down.” I just verbalized my tic for him, and he was very soon a really good counter up to the number thirteen.
My other compulsive behavior is that I count syllables, and I like it best if they’re divisible by four. I don’t do this if I’m really engaged in something—I don’t try to make sentences in my writing work out so the syllables divide by four, for instance—but if my brain is at all idle, it counts and counts. If you ever see me twiddling my fingers at my side, I’m probably using my four fingers to count syllables in something. It’s best if a sentence or phrase divides perfectly by four, but if it doesn’t it is permissible not to start at “1,” and it can be a kind of game to figure out where to start so that the sentence ends on four. For instance, if I look up from my desk, I see a picture of a bird our family sponsors at a sanctuary for parrots. It says, “Calypso: Half-Moon Conure. Sponsored by Su Penn.” That’s a very pleasing thing to say: syllable-wise, it divides perfectly by four. If you add “May 2002,” the next thing the on the page, the whole thing gets wrong, unless you start counting at “4” with “Calypso.” Of course, that’s irritating, because you are, of course, trying to make the stresses in the phrase fall on “2” and “4.” So it is permissible, then, to try to make it exactly right by manipulating the numbers: “May 2002” can be “May Two-Thousand Two,” which is how I read it at first. But it could also be, “May Two-Zero-Zero-Two,” or “May Two-Oh-Oh-Two,” or “May Twenty-Oh-Two.” But it couldn’t be “May Two Zero Oh Two” because that would be cheating; all the zeroes have to be read the same way. It’s also OK, if the syllables don’t work out, to count individual letters.
This is interesting. I’ve never tried to articulate this whacked-out brain process in so much detail before. So what is the most pleasing way to read “Calypso: Half-Moon Conure. Sponsored by Su Penn. May 2002”? Give me a minute to process…
OK, got it. The stresses aren’t perfect but at least they work for “Calypso”: Start counting on “3” (or your middle finger; I start by tapping my thumb on my pinky for the first syllable and work over to my index finger for “4”), and the correct reading is: “Calypso: Half-Moon Conure. Sponsored by Su Penn. May Two Thousand And Two.”
Thanks to this tic, I have a favorite road sign: “Left Turn Only.” Not only does it have four syllables, the words each have four letters. That’s beauty for you! If your brain is broken in precisely the way mine is.
Back to Nicholas Cage, and a big dose of “Man, It Sure Could Be Worse.”Posted by Su Penn at May 18, 2004 04:58 PM | TrackBack