Sunday, May 9, 2010

Difficult People "R" Us

I. Tidy Little Piles

In the year following my mother's suicide, I began to order the dollar bills in my pocket into neat folded piles, with $20s on the bottom, $1s on top; all faces forward; no bent corners; the most crumpled bills to the outside (where they'd get spent first).
Sometimes I arranged the coins too--in order of size, not denomination (nickels before dimes).

I noticed I was doing this, but it didn't signify until one day I found myself alphabetizing DVDs in a video store. I'd been looking for Scenes from a Marriage, which was in the Criterion Collection section.
The Criterion DVDs were in no order at all. So even though I found my film, I spent some time putting the others in alphabetical order.
It was very satisfying: Creating order, or an illusion of order, like building a boardwalk over a festering swamp.

But afterward, standing there, I thought, this is too weird. You are being too weird.
Putting stuff in order seemed like a habit that could turn into the Blob.
So I stopped.
I went back to shoving money in my pocket. Now I occasionally turn all the labels in my cupboards to face forward, but mostly I don't think about stuff like that.

I'm lucky that I could choose to stop, and then stop. If my brain were wired just a fraction differently or if there was one tick off a ribbon of my DNA--or one flick of God's finger more or less, if you prefer--I'd be different.
(Or, I'm unlucky, for the same reason: I could be, say, more energetic, less hampered.)

II. Nothing's Solid

I was thinking about my brain--our brains--at the "1964" modern art show, looking at this painting by Bridget Riley.
Suspension, 1964

The reproduction here doesn't create the same effect, but in person, this large painting appears to fluctuate. Trying to focus on one set of lines, though you know they're solid, is like trying to follow one ocean wave to the shore.

It's a picture of "reality"; that is, it's a reminder that "reality" is simply the name we give to the way our brains process stimuli.
We get very attached to reality, but it could be otherwise. In fact, it is otherwise.

I find this useful to remember when dealing with "difficult" people or my own difficulties.
I wish I'd known it sooner.

III. Who are you?

When I was twenty, I had a friend who was later diagnosed with OCD.
I used to think, "What's wrong with her? Why doesn't she just throw out all those piles of papers in her apartment?"
Which is really asking, "Why doesn't she share my reality? Why doesn't she stop annoying me?"

I didn't think about what her reality was or how much it distressed her, even after she told me,
"I can feel paper touching my body at night."
This phrase struck me, but not enough to really interrupt my own reality.

Eventually I figured out that the most helpful question, either to ask or to answer, isn't, "What's wrong with you?"
It's "Would you be willing to tell me what your reality is?"

By then, my friend had moved away and we'd lost touch.
I thought about her last night, after watching the movie Dirty Filthy Love.

It's about a London architect, Mark, played by the amazing Michael Sheen (I know him as Tony Blair in The Queen or David Frost in Frost/Nixon, but I gather he's also in vampy werewolf movies).
Mark has a series of what he calls "habits" that start to pull his life apart--he loses his job, his wife divorces him--and his habits start to spin out of control, till he's literally barking mad.

A fellow OCD sufferer named Charlotte (Shirley Henderson, whose little-girl voice is at odds with her wire-filament acting) recognizes Mark's behavior for what it is: the compulsions of OCD and Tourettes--and invites him to a support group.

It's sort of a Disease of the Week film, but the performances are so good, it ends up being much more than that: it becomes an op art piece pointing out that what we see is specific to our brain chemistry.

It's also about the fact that human brains can think about themselves. (How weird is that?) We can reflect on our reality and in some ways even change it.
It's heavy lifting, but it's possible... to some extent.
As Charlotte, who is obsessed with germs, says, "I'm not giving up! I refuse to die with a wet wipe in my hand."

I do know that before we lost touch, my friend, with the help of meds and a therapist, did get on top of her piles of paper, rather than the other way round.

The movie's trailer is awful--makes it look like a frothy romp--so I'm not embedding it here. (The movie is streaming on Netflix, if you get that.)
Instead, here's Michael Sheen in one of the comic Public Info "See Africa Differently" spots.

Note to self: check out the book Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, a woman from Zambia.

IV. Wandering On

And now, once again, I have to take a week off blogging to get to work.
If my brain were different, I could juggle many strands of thought at once, but it seems to be a one-way trail in the wilderness, not a super highway.

* Reminds me of something a historian of the French and Indian War said:
In the 18th century America, marching through the woods was not much different than wandering through the woods.
So the British army came in and chopped down trees to make the road that is today the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Me, I'll just stick with wandering.
* P.S. I'd like to be able to put little asides, like the above, in text boxes, like in David Foster Wallace's essays.
I wonder if there's a blog site that allows that, or even if Blogger does. Anyone know?


ArtSparker said...

I have been thinking so much about our absolute belief in our own realities lately. One friend , whose taste is similar to mine, had told me a recent expensively produced Hollywood film was cheesy, which I had concluded from the trailers. Another friend insists I should see it because it's "beautiful"- as if there is some absolute standard for this. I asked various friends to look at a website which "bothered me" and got reactions ranging from "Cool" to "Yuck" to complete indifference. And yet we have such complete conviction about our own points of view, the perspective from the place where we have landed.

Fresca said...

I think learning to stretch our sense of reality--gently! like some sort of "brain yoga"--is surely one of the most helpful things we can do for ourselves and the world.

Margaret said...

Hm! "Brain yoga" - that's good, Fresca.

There's a quote...something about not trying to do this or that, but only trying to understand....I can't remember, but the idea is - try try try to understand the realities that surround, overlap your own.

It's a little scary, though, to step outside your boxed world - you find the walls aren't made of stone; they're made of jello! Or air! And then you gasp to discover - you mentioned this - that the distance between your reality and another is a "slight difference". That's all!
Yeah. The brain should be stretched "gently".

A slight stretch: slowly rolling the ankle, perhaps: perfect order makes me uncomfortable. I never clean my room but I unhinge it a bit afterwards.

May the sky be clear as you wander the Frindian Plains!

Clowncar said...

First off, I am sorry to hear about your mother. My sister killed herself as well. I reacted by writing my first novel. It wasn't very good.

I also have a friend with OCD, that expresses by compulsively videoing everything that shows up on TV. Milk crates full of tapes filling up his cramped NYC apartment. Oddly, it doesn't seem to bother him, or his wife, though I'm sure there are less obvious manifestations that aren't too benign. He was, incidently, on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, and won, a quarter of that, due to his compulsive hoarding of knowledge. That'll buy a lot of tapes.

Dania said...

I constantly am placing library books and videos that are out of order where they should be (careful to not let the library staff see me). I justify this as helping someone who may be looking for the items, but I think it's really that I get so overwhelmed by my own clutter that doing these little fixes feels like I've accomplished something.

Fresca said...

M'GET: It IS scary, I agree, to step outside the box--even to become aware there is a box around our reality... We like to think we're standing on firm ground--very disconcerting to realize we never are.

CLOWNCAR: Thank you for your sympathy. I am sorry to hear it comes from your own experience. Your sister. Wow. The loss of a sibling... Hard to imagine.

If the videos don't bother your friend, that's great. I talked once with a woman with very mild OCD and she said it doesn't hamper her much and was actually a boon in her chosen profession. (Can't remember what it was.)

DANIA: I rearrange library books to this day--I worked libraries for 14 years, and a little sense of accomplishment is a good thing.

I actually thought the video store's policy of not alphabetizing their DVDs was stupid--some sort of marketing ploy.

I wouldn't have been alarmed at my alphabetizing if I hadn't been afraid I might be feeding a growing compulsion that I didn't really want to take root.

Margaret said...

*barges in*

Just-popping-in-because-I-was-watching- "Instinct"-and-this-clip-reminded-me-of-this-discussion.kthxbai.

*exits backwards and closes door softly*