Neil's Story

I was diagnosed with OCD when I was eleven. I had always been a rigid, particular child, but for most of my early childhood my symptoms just seemed like quirks. I had most of the standard stuff--lock checking, hand washing, nail biting, incessant pacing--but more than that I had the all-pervading fears of failure and of death. Obviously every mental disorder is different, but for me the obsessions have always been the worst part of having OCD. Just the same thought, the same words, the same idea getting louder and louder until I’m incapable of thinking anything else. I’m walking around, speaking normally, looking just fine, but I’m trapped in my own head.

The most therapeutic thing I’ve encountered is writing. Well, the most therapeutic thing I’ve encountered is therapy, but that doesn’t sound as interesting, right? I do need to say, before I go on about how I made a career out of writing about my mental health, that therapy is the biggest reason I’m a functional adult. I would not still be alive without the work that so many therapists and psychiatrists have done for me. They’re too numerous to thank individually here, but they know who they are, or at least I hope they do.

I always wanted to be a poet.

Sounds corny, yes, but it’s true. I wrote my first poem when I was eight years old. It was called “Nighttime”, it rhymed, and I’m pretty sure it started “Nighttime is when the world expands. / It is also when the moon demands / complete darkness to shine her light.” Brilliant, I know, thank you. It was “published” in my third grade yearbook, which I’m sure my mother still has somewhere. I continued to write terrible, uninteresting poems for most of my childhood and adolescence, but in writing those bad poems I realized just how important writing was to me. By the time I was sixteen I was sure that I wanted to be a writer, teacher, editor, whatever I had to be to make a living from poetry.

If I had been allowed, I would have declared my creative writing major the second I got to college. I went to Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and my advisers all encouraged me to explore my options and see if there might be any other subjects that might catch my interest. I wasn’t listening. I never listen. I think that by the time I graduated college I had taken enough English classes to fulfill two English majors.

My sophomore year, my good friend Dylan Garity came into a meeting of my literary magazine with a spoken word poem he wanted to workshop. Well, now he’s my good friend, at the time he was just some skinny nerd with a bad poem. Seriously, the poem was terrible, but we were all bad back then. What really grabbed me was the way he performed it. We held the workshops in this small meeting room, and even in this tiny, well-lit space he stood up out of his chair and performed his poem like he genuinely meant it. Like he couldn’t imagine being anywhere or doing anything else.

I’d never experienced spoken word before, and here was this new and vibrant way to think about poetry.

It wasn’t just words on a page you could set down whenever you were done, this was a person in front of you making sure you heard their story. Dylan took me to some poetry slams and open mics around town, we started a monthly poetry slam at our college, and gradually I began to write with performance in mind. What I did not do gradually was get better. When most people start out doing spoken word they’re terrible for six months to a year, and then something clicks and the quality of their work makes a huge leap. I don’t know what was wrong with me, but I was bad for probably two or three years. When I look back at videos of some of my first spoken word poems, it’s all I can do to not cringe, cry, vomit, and run out of the room.

Against any kind of logic or self-preservation instinct I kept performing, and eventually I learned how to, you know, captivate an audience, write salient images, that kind of thing. I was successful enough competitively that I was able to put together some poetry tours with Dylan and Hieu Minh Nguyen, another incredible poet from Minnesota. We were astounded that you could actually be paid to write and perform poems. Granted, we weren’t paid much; we got home from a month on the road and I had exactly enough money to pay rent and buy groceries once. Still, people came to the shows, and those people seemed to genuinely want to hear things that I had written.

In August of 2013, a video of one of my poems went viral.

The poem is called “OCD”, and it’s about the ways in which my disorder has made it difficult to maintain any close relationships, especially romantic. Sorry, that sounds boring. It’s hard to describe poems. You can just get on YouTube and search my name and it should be the first video that pops up. Someone, I don’t know who, happened to post it to Reddit at the right time with the right title, it hit the front page, news outlets picked it up from there, and suddenly it had over four million views in just one day. Now it has over a hundred million across various platforms, which I am fairly certain makes it the most-watched poem ever. I owe that random Reddit user a drink.

Because of the poem I was contacted by agents, publishers, and promoters, and essentially overnight I was able to start touring full-time. My debut poetry collection is a best-seller on Amazon, I’ve done hundreds of shows, and right now as I write this I’m in Edinburgh on my very first international tour. I know I just glossed over the past four years in two sentences. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, and I am constantly amazed that I get to be a professional poet. I’m still surprised and thankful every time people actually buy tickets and come to a show. I think it’s more important, however, to focus on the work that got me here.

“OCD” went through probably fifteen drafts before it became what it is today. I edited it over and over until I thought it was perfect, which is ironically a compulsion that affects most of my writing process. While most tics feel self-contained and cyclical, accomplishing nothing, this one feels productive. When I’m done obsessing over a poem, I have something I’m proud to show people. When the poem is finished, so is the obsession. When I say writing is therapy, I mean it literally. The act of writing about my mental state improves it. Critically analyzing my own thoughts and feelings let’s me step outside of myself, and sharing my internal state with readers and audiences destroys that feeling of isolation I have when my thoughts are so huge and loud.

So all those years I spent writing and editing all those terrible poems, I was unwittingly improving my mental health and my career. All I knew is that I liked writing and that it made me feel better, so I did it as much as I could. Now here I am in Scotland, about to make my debut at the Fringe, and I have no intention of stopping. I’ll write until the paper’s full and the pen is out of ink. When the computer dies and the pencil is sharpened down to nothing, I’ll scratch out the poems on the wall. When the wall is full, I’ll build another one.


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