“Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, OCD, is an anxiety disorder and is characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Repetitive behaviors such as handwashing, counting, checking, or cleaning are often performed with the hope of preventing obsessive thoughts or making them go away. Performing these so-called ‘rituals,’ however, provides only temporary relief, and not performing them markedly increases anxiety.”
-The National Intitute of Mental Health
Only a few people know that I suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. I tried to come out of the closet to my Mom a few weeks ago, but things didn’t go as expected. She laughed at me. I couldn’t possibly have OCD. After all, I never had a clean bedroom growing up and I didn’t act anything like Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good As It Gets.
Growing up, I pretty much resembled a regular kid. I loved action movies, I liked sports, I played piano and the guitar, and I was into videogames. But calling me highstrung would have been putting it lightly. I was socially awkward and terrified by all forms of attention, and it didn’t feel “normal.” I couldn’t understand why I always felt so out of place. The feeling was just there.
I instinctively suppressed all signs of weakness and vulnerability. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps my steady consumption of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies warped my idea of what it meant to be male. I was so good at numbing myself that I didn’t cry after learning that my grandmother had died. But, as hard as I tried to ignore my feelings, some symptoms of my strife did appear, like chronic stomach pain that couldn’t be diagnosed by doctors.
Looking back, I can see that I began engaging in compulsive behaviors before kindergarten. The best explanation that I can come up with is that I needed relief and distraction from concerns about my family and occasional feelings of social isolation. Repetitive behaviors help you fool yourself into thinking that the world has some order to it, but they ultimately end up causing more anxiety when you realize that you can’t stop.
My quest for order can best be exemplified by how I played, if you can call it that. I would build the same things out of LEGOs, Construx, or wood blocks over and over and over again, with no interest in creating anything remotely new or different. I enjoyed building things because I could control how everything unfolded, unlike in organized soccer and baseball games, where I had a tendency to freeze up at crunch time.
I could concentrate intensely for hours on perfecting the construction of helicopters or buildings, not making a sound the entire time. Colors had to match, symmetry had to be perfect, and, above all, proportions had to be realistic. I quickly learned to tune out those who did not understand my basic rules of construction management.
Surprisingly enough, my videogame-playing habits were another story. I was a pretty happy and loose gamer as a kid. I owned most of the major systems from the Atari 2600 on up, and played a wide variety of games, mainly sticking with big-name action/adventure, sports, and RPG titles. I leaned on the serious side in terms of play time, but was not obsessive. Having a blast playing sports games with my brother is the memory that stands out the most for me. Sure, I took the occasional well-deserved beating for my unorthdox (or as he referred to it: “cheap”) playing-style, but it was all in good fun.
After high school, gaming fell by the wayside. Aside from a tumultuous three-week affair with Tomb Raider and some Unreal Tournament play senior year, I abandoned gaming throughout college. There just wasn’t any time. My mother went through several bouts with leukemia and my father had a serious work accident, and that meant a lot of traveling to and from hospitals. I was also working like crazy, playing in a band, and, most bizarrely, I had a girlfriend. My five-year college career was a complete blur. And no, I don’t have a Master’s degree.
After two years of underemployment in a post-internet bubble New York City, I began working as an entry-level Excel jockey in the research department of a major Japanese automotive company. It was my first “real” job and I loved it. But as excited as I was to finally get my career going, my new work environment was incredibly stressful. I didn’t sleep a wink my first week there, and within two weeks I’d lost over 15 pounds.
I decided to seek some relief from the grind, so I did two things. First, I joined a gym and started working out pretty regularly. Secondly, I strolled into the big Toys ‘R’ Us in Times Square and bought an Xbox, along with Halo and Project Gotham Racing 2. And so began the second phase of my gaming life.
Whenever I had downtime, I was playing videogames – maybe ten to twelve hours a week. It was the perfect antidote to my intense day job, because I could turn my brain off and escape. Xbox Live escalated the fun for me. My first taste of online multiplayer came with Unreal Tournament on the PC, but talking smack to opponents and coordinating with teammates using voice chat made gaming as much fun for me as when I was a kid.
After departing the automaker, I joined the research department of a financial media company. I fit in well and my career trajectory took a rapid upward turn. I was quickly given a high profile, serving as a featured columnist for the company. I loved the work for the first few years, but things were going downhill fast for me by the end of 2007. I was stagnating intellectually and no longer liked the direction in which the company was going. My emotional stability, which was closely tied to the progress of my career, was starting to disintegrate.
At the same time, my obsessions were growing stronger. I became focused on the safety of my home, constantly making sure the doors were locked and that nothing potentially dangerous was left plugged in or turned on. I was often late to work because I felt compelled to return home to make sure my iron or the oven weren’t left on, even when I knew I hadn’t used either that day. I couldn’t sleep, I was overeating, and I was destroying my social life by cutting people off.
It was at this point that my struggles with anxiety began showing up in my gaming habits. I’d previously enjoyed action-oriented games, but I was increasingly drawn to repetitive, pattern-based titles. Particularly, I became obsessed with Bubble Bobble.
If you don’t know anything about Bubble Bobble, I’ll clue you in to the basics. It’s an action/platforming game in which you play as a cute little dragon that blows bubbles at monsters. Once you catch a monster inside a bubble, you jump and pop it. There are 100 levels, each comprised of a single screen. Each game plays out almost exactly as the last, and it becomes maddeningly difficult as you ascend to the higher levels.
I played Bubble Bobble every day for over a year, despite the fact that I wasn’t having any fun. When I’m having fun gaming, I’m usually laughing, but Bubble Bobble never made me laugh. I turned my back on everything that made gaming fun for me and instead indulged in games which forced me to do the same thing over and over and over again – kind of like what I used to with LEGOs.
I’ve since quit that job, but I’ve continued to feed my OCD by focusing on repetitive, pattern-based games like Guitar Hero, Literati, Scrabble, Zuma, and – more recently – Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
Few people would consider MW2 a repetitive game, given all the character customization options and game modes, but I’ve turned it into one by only playing a single character class in one game mode on a small selection of maps. Once I get a big kill streak and fulfill my compulsion to play, the Xbox 360 goes off.
I’ve only recently recognized that the feelings I get when playing these games mirror the emotions I used to feel rushing home in fear to turn off the iron. My stomach tenses up into a big knot and I get lightheaded – something like the initial stages of a panic attack. Once the current objective (like checking the iron or completing a kill streak in MW2) is complete, I feel a sense of relief, albeit a brief one, because I know that I’m perpetuating a self-destructive cycle.
I began therapy in an attempt to correct my compulsions in late 2008, and that was perhaps the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. My brain has gone through some real rollercoasters since then, but I’ve become more happy, adventurous, and comfortable in my own shoes than I’ve ever been. I’ve also drastically cut down on many of my compulsive habits, such as checking the stove, and eating the same thing for breakfast for weeks on end.
But do I still like videogames? I do know one thing: When I’m playing MW2 or some other OCD-friendly fare, I’m not actually “playing” anything; I’m feeding the part of my brain that craves order regardless of the cost. It’s no different from building the same things out of LEGOs over and over or repeatedly listening to the same song.
But there’s a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. I just downloaded the demo for Blur, and it’s pretty fun. Since it’s made by Bizarre, I’m not surprised that it reminds me of good old Project Gotham Racing 2, one of my favorites from the days when games were all about fun for me.
Now, I don’t really feel like dropping $60 on a new game, so I’ll have to find something to trade in. I guess MW2 will do.
Michael Comeau is a Brooklyn-based writer that sees light at the end of the tunnel. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.