Some 25 years ago, when I was in my late teens, I developed an irrational fear of the police. I kept thinking that if I spat on the sidewalk, I would be arrested for littering.
I knew the thought was bizarre, or at least part of me did. But that did not stop me from manifesting even more wacky thoughts. Stepping on the grass would lead me to be arrested for trespassing, and so forth.
As someone who’d already had an anxiety attack by age five or six—possibly as a result of being taken away from my mother, and going to live with my dad and stepmom—I believe early trauma made me vulnerable to mental illness.
While these irrational fears passed for a time, they resurfaced, years down the road, as I experimented with alcohol. I’d seen a television movie about James Dean, who seemed to be emotional and complex like me, and decided acting would be a great career for an unstable alcoholic. So I moved across country to Hollywood to attend acting school, which demands one dissect his own psyche.
The experience awakened my sleeping demons. I realized I’d felt rejected by my real mother when I was five, and had never gotten the love or nurturing that I had needed from my father. As I explored these ideas and beliefs that motivated me, repressed feelings came pouring out for the entertainment of my acting coach and fellow students.
Then, a few weeks later, my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) reemerged, stronger than ever, and now with an added twist: paranoid delusions. I was convinced somebody would put drugs in my food or drinks. I had taken some recreational drugs in my early twenties, and had had some bad experiences, especially during a couple of LSD trips. While I initially had no desire to do drugs, I ultimately gave into peer pressure.
A few months later, after back-to-back drug trips, I felt depressed and anxious. I ended up seeing a therapist, and she reassured me that the drugs were out of my system. If I stayed busy, she said, the difficulty would pass.
She was right. I quit drinking and got new friends. Unfortunately being on the wagon did not last long. I still had low self-esteem, and liquor deadened the emotional pain, at least temporarily.
In retrospect, I realize that I wanted to be an actor to get the attention I had never received as a child. I kept trying to hide my anxiety, as I attempted to break into the industry. But rejection only intensified my jitters. Take it from me: If you have thin skin, acting is not for you.
One day, after numerous anxiety attacks, I had a nervous breakdown, and found myself driving from Los Angeles back to Louisiana. While that in itself is not noteworthy, this is: I hallucinated the whole way!
Once I had miraculously made it home, the hallucinations went away—but the OCD symptoms did not. I found myself washing my hands and harassing everyone by continually asking for reassurance. I even tried to end my life by inhaling carbon monoxide from my car exhausts. When that didn’t work, I added one more failure to my resume.
Eventually I saw a doctor in Louisiana who finally said the magic words: “Maybe you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.”
“What the hell is that?” I asked.
She gave me a definition, but I needed to know more, so I soon found myself looking on the Internet for any clinic that might specialize in this OCD thing. Though I was very nervous and tried to talk myself out of checking into a clinic, deep down I knew life was passing me by.
It was raining when I showed up at the OCD house, and I remember being anxious when I walked in for the first time. This was just a house, I reasoned; I could leave any time I wanted.
By this point in my life, I had also developed a fear of germs and drugs, among other random things. I thought, for example, that if I walked by a long-haired man—or past anyone who appeared to be high—I would get high, too. Desperate to avoid being in that position, I was always on the lookout for anyone I felt was unsavory in any way. If I saw someone that I suspected used drugs, I would quickly turn and walk in the other direction.
If I did cross paths with such a person, I would immediately wash my nose and hands. I’d wash them over and over again, and then try to get out of the bathroom without touching anything. This sometimes entailed turning the faucets off with my feet, or asking someone to open the door for me so I could exit.
Whenever I gave in to my various obsessions, they grew stronger. I remember once eating pizza with someone I had just met. I bragged about how I exercised all the time, and she said something like, “If you are such a health nut, why do you eat pizza? It’s full of chemicals.”
I asked her over and over what she meant by chemicals. I pressed her: “You aren’t talking about drugs are you?”
“Of course not,” she said. But I kept asking her the same question, in some form or another, until my anxiety subsided. The woman wanted to get away from me as quickly as possible.
There were a lot of people like me in the OCD house, including a fellow who could not stop flushing the toilet, a guy who kept plugging and unplugging electrical appliances, and a guy who kept counting his footsteps. But I believed my compulsion and obsessions were a million times worse than those of my peers, until my roommate told me he had nonstop images of raping and killing people. His therapy involved watching slasher movies that would desensitize him from such thoughts. He seemed to go out of his way not to touch anyone.
“I’m sorry did I bump you?” he asked me. I assured him that he hadn’t. I felt so bad for him because I knew his soul was gentle but tortured. He couldn’t escape his own horrendous thoughts.
A behavioral therapist at the clinic told me I’d be going downtown the following day to shake hands with the homeless and the derelicts. The thought of touching street people, of course, gave me another anxiety attack.
Nevertheless, I ended up going downtown and trying to shake hands with street people, anyway. But when I found the anxiety to be too great, I escaped the situation by telling a passing graduate student that I was a writer, and asking her to have coffee with me. As we sat there talking, however, my guilt kicked in. Suddenly, I thanked the young woman and walked as fast as I could to the nearest street person, immediately introducing myself, and shaking his hand without flinching.
Day by day, I continued this process, trying to become obsessed with getting better, rather than be consumed by my fears. The other patients did not seem to get healthier, so whatever technique I was using—though perhaps dangerous, to a degree—was proving effective.
After three months at the clinic, it was time to leave. Though I was scared to face the outside world, I was at least 90 percent better than I was before I arrived.
Over the years, my experiences taught me to use my OCD in a positive way. Although, I still sometimes get those crazy “what if” thoughts, I now know how to deal with them.
Around the time that I left the clinic, I called comedian Mel Brooks, and relayed to him what I was going through. “I see a book in your story,” he said. He had befriended me years earlier, when he used to see me sneaking into Fox Studios. “What the heck are you doing here every day?” he would ask. “And why are you always wearing the same clothes?”
I was wearing the only suit I had.
I told Mr. Brooks that I was sneaking in to schmooze the casting directors. He warned me that if he noticed me, eventually security would, too.
In an effort to use my OCD for something positive, I wrote a book called Man Interrupted. When one publisher rejected it, I became even more obsessed with finding another. Once I got the book published, I used my obsessive personality to get it in stores and onto the Los Angeles Times bestsellers list for five weeks. Then my luck got better: I met a director who optioned my book for a film.
by James Bailey