Your son will forever be intense; will forever latch onto anything that can be reduced to a noun—people, places, things; will mull over thoughts long past their expiration date; and could possibly benefit from SSRIs, cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise, a daily routine, positive reinforcement, anti-anxiety meds as needed, and constant affirmation that what he feels is real and powerful and all-consuming.
A psychiatrist delivered this message my sophomore year of high school, or at least this is how I imagine he delivered it. I was sitting with my parents in a stuffy office replete with diplomas, self-help books, and a miniature Zen garden with an even more miniature wooden rake. A few weeks before, in a state of extreme duress, I committed an act of self-harm and quickly confessed the act to my parents. The diagnosis was a “no shit” moment for me and a devastating moment for them. I was not only suffering from a generalized anxiety disorder, but separation anxiety—all exacerbated by obsessive-compulsive behaviors. It explained a lot, assigning what my family would euphemistically refer to as “passion” a DSM number.
I have a disordered way of relating. I fixate on books and movies and boys to the extent that my feelings end up having little to do with the object at hand and more to do with the nature of obsession, a projection of what I want or don’t want onto said object. It’s a step, or perhaps even more than that, beyond empathy or connection. It’s a step, or perhaps even more than that, beyond fandom and appreciation.
Sometimes it’s innocuous, and in these cases it can be pleasant. In middle school I loved a book we were assigned for summer reading, The Chosen . It follows two Jewish boys who become lifelong friends after a life-altering baseball game. Reuven and Danny share thoughts, glances, and intimate (albeit platonic) touches. I began to crave such closeness, and for days and weeks after I finished reading I thought about these characters. I thought about them without feeling a compulsive need to make their narratives and lives my tragedy. This is something I am capable of: I build. I take leaps. I refashion in my mind, and rework to a point of unfamiliarity.
It is more challenging with people. Sophomore year of college I had a crush. This crush evolved into a drawn out back and forth, a give and take. There was so much I wanted—attention, affection, compassion, sincere vulnerability—and he wasn’t the person to give that. Throughout our correspondence, I grew paranoid that he perceived me as too much, too reactionary, an amalgamation of irrational emotions. Sometimes I still believe this about myself.
Most of the time I ask myself why the crush was drawn out, why I didn’t shut him out the first three or four times I felt hurt. It was because I couldn’t go five minutes without thinking about him. Because I made it a nightly ritual to fantasize about a future we would most definitely never share. Because, at some point, he became less of himself and more of a symbol, an idea of what I knew I deserved. He was just a person capable of doing bad things. I made him a god.
My fixation made him redeemable, someone to root for. Sure, he made me feel insane, invalidated, and I often spent nights doubting my ability to ever be in a functional relationship with anyone. But he was also much more than someone who caused me to hurt. I don’t know how many times I told myself he was much more than that. I made into him a bottomless well to which I could keep returning. The thing is, no matter how thirsty I got, he never had much to give me.
Then there’s the shame. As much as I would not like to, this is where I exist now. With space away from this person, I have become insecure. I fear overstepping. I fear my intensity. I wait for someone to tell me, “Eric, you’re being a lot right now.” I’m constantly repeating it to myself. It has become a mantra. “Eric, you’re being a lot right now.”
The television comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is currently in its second season, airing on the CW. It follows Rebecca Bunch, a highly successful but severely depressed New York lawyer, who, on the day she’s promoted to partner, runs into Josh, the boy she dated back in summer camp. They haven’t seen each other in over a decade, but Rebecca knows it’s fate. Rebecca knows he’s the one. Rebecca knows that if he’s leaving New York to move back home to West Covina, California, then she needs to go, too. She belongs there with him. She belongs with him.
In an email exchange with Lena Dunham, Zadie Smith describes the “ many feels ” she gets watching the show. It is nice to know I’m not the only one who gets them. In a time where so many of us feel numb and silenced and embarrassed, it’s a pleasure to watch Rebecca, who can feel so openly and destructively. Her journey in West Covina—courting Josh, scheming with her friends—is often interrupted by musical sequences. It’s quite a spectacle for network TV, but it’s more than that. The musical numbers, usually two an episode, often feel like extensions of Rebecca’s obsessiveness. It takes the “I feel—” one step further, into a dance routine, a rap, a huge production with a supporting cast and costumes.
In an early episode, Rebecca jumps into “Sexy French Depression,” a melancholic tune that adopts the look of a French New Wave film to delve not only into Rebecca’s ennui, but the onslaughts entering her brain. This is what being obsessed is: It is making a huge production in your mind. It is letting thoughts stir and nest. It is a catchy song that gets stuck in your head.
Being obsessed is real and unreal. It is visceral and omnipresent, but it is also irrational and intangible. Watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend , I found myself thinking about Josh. He’s cute and charming, but I don’t think he’s that special. This is the point. He is not. He is Frankenstein’s monster brought to life out of Rebecca’s anxieties, her deep loneliness, her desires, her past. Rebecca created an ideal Josh, an ideal romantic partner, a projection of her own deep, complex, and destructive desire. And like all monsters, Josh would, again and again, cause her pain. Every episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is about Josh and yet every episode has little to do with him.
In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ’s pilot, Rebecca has a lucid moment when she realizes the weight of her decision to leave New York, her prestigious job, and her ritzy apartment for West Covina. Her eyes go wide and she wonders if she is, in fact, crazy. For the remainder of the season, even though she’s actively pursuing Josh, she is also in denial. She soothes herself with lies, convinces herself that she wouldn’t be the kind of person to move somewhere for a guy. But by the end of the first season, she knows this isn’t true. She embraces her obsession.
I will try and compromise. I will try to exist in a place where you’re all that I think about becomes something romantic, endearing, and speaks volumes about my ability to commit and to absorb. It doesn’t all have to be bad. I don’t have to punish myself for my ability to feel, to overfeel. I can learn how to reel in some things, not let every experience and interaction become all-consuming, but I don’t have to stop. Let yourself obsess sometimes , Eric .
Now I take medication. I run a few times a week. I do breathing exercises. I surround myself with good, patient friends. I try to set up healthy boundaries so I don’t fall into traps with alluring people. I try not to judge the thoughts as they come in. Don’t get mad at yourself. It’s okay that you’re thinking about him. If you need to do that right now, that’s fine. Eventually you’ll stop. If you resist, you’ll just think of him more . Then I tell myself that, while there are things I can work on, things I should work on, it is okay to be a lot .
Shortly after my diagnosis, my mom, who exhibits several of the same behaviors, shared something with me. It was something my grandfather had told her. It had to do with the way that I would experience the world, experience relationships. “You’re going to be in pain,” she began.
And I am in pain. I am often drowning in silly preoccupations. I am often profoundly ruined by an episode of television that I thought would just be an episode of television. I am often in love with an actor who was good in this movie I watched last week, even making a Google Alert page because I need to know what he is up to, always.
“But you’re also going to enjoy things, appreciate them more,” my mom told me.
And I do. On the show, Rebecca’s life is colorful. She often operates in a place that, as an outsider, could only be seen as delusional. But her delusions are nice. Her delusions are a big musical number in France, at a yoga studio, on a plane. It is nice to know I can similarly be wrapped up in something or someone. It is nice to know that what means little to some can be something that makes my day. And it can be nice to get lost, to fully give myself over to the feels, to be compassionate and filled with overwhelming desire. Sure, it often hurts, getting lost in those feelings, but it makes it that much more special when I am found. When someone lets me give my whole self. When they give themselves back to me.