Stuck in One Gear: It Isn’t Funny Anymore

or My Comic Life with OCD

“Are we still friends?” I texted. I knew the question was irrational but I hit send anyway. In a week my best friend Raighne was helping me move my belongings across the midwest into a room three blocks from his apartment. Within a minute he called me and said, “Of course we’re still friends buddy.”

During our phone call he admitted he knew there were issues I struggled with. “What kinds of issues?” I asked. I hoped he knew that I was asking because I needed help.

After a moment he said: “Obsessions and compulsions.” The recognition I felt reminded me of when I read Naked by David Sedaris in college, when I saw The Aviator biopic about Howard Hughes, when I read the Hospital Suite graphic novel by John Porcellino and Lena Dunham’s memoir Not That Kind of Girl. Each time I discovered their OCD issues I realized, “This is me.”

A panel from The Daemon Lover comic (to be collected in The Man in the Blue Suit)

Unfortunately each moment of clarity and self-recognition was smothered. I thought, “But I don’t lick light switches. I don’t need to open doors with tissues, check the burners on the stove again or clean my ears repetitively.” My issues were different. And so I continued to dismiss the disorder that distorted and shaped my life.

In elementary school I filled entire notebooks with novels. My middle school planner was so crammed with repetitive phrases that my handwriting had become microscopic. In high school I bought a four foot high filing cabinet so I could categorize reams of celebrity interviews I printed off the internet. After I moved into the dorms in college I lifted weights every other day from four to six hours. Whenever I got into a task that involved organization or repetition, I lost days, weeks or even years of my life.

Over Christmas break my younger brother said that it was difficult to grow up with a sibling who was so talented and driven. He admitted, however, that he knew how debilitating it was for me. He said, “Your perfectionism has made you a great artist but I’ve seen what it’s done to your life.”

The Daemon Lover Pages 3 and 4 (to be collected in The Man in the Blue Suit)

He was right. At the end of September my best friend Raighne and I got divorced. The theme of of my upcoming graphic novel The Man in the Blue Suit touches on how I lost my identity in our marriage. Painting it was turning the OCD that drove me to research subjects intensively for years in on myself. I fell into an obsessive-compulsive abyss.

My thoughts became repetitive and I spent hours sending Raighne texts detailing everything he had ever done wrong to me. I analyzed our marriage over and over. I exonerated him and sobbed over all of the ways in which I had failed him. I yelled at him for weeks over the phone. Weeks became months. During my few moments of lucidity, he would say, “It will get better buddy. We’ll get through this.”

My copy of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son for The Man in the Blue Suit

I couldn’t shake it and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I felt my mind slipping. There were weeks where I stopped being friends with him, but I couldn’t stop emailing him rants. He answered all of them. He promised me the world if I could just pull myself together, but I couldn’t.

I tried hard to take control of myself. I became obsessed with printmaking and attended every class I could. I learned how to do monotypes with ink, watercolor and stencils and linocuts and reductive woodcuts. I bought a press, brayers, inks, barens, Gelli and plastic plates, speciality papers, wood carving tools and a honing strop. Printmaking gave me hours of relief in which I never thought about Raighne at all.

Things finally stabilized for us in December. A close friend of mine cut me out of his life when I refused to date him. The loss of that ten-year friendship made me realize that Raighne was the kind of friend the other person was not. I could finally see my negative thinking patterns and obsessive conclusions for what they were — mental delusions.

A portrait of Maggie by Raighne — I’m bundled up in 100 degree heat against my fear of sunlight

Our conversation in which we talked about my obsessive compulsive disorder for the first time made me see myself in a new light. I saw my inability to handle stress driving me to do things that were odd and trapping me inside of myself. I recognized my obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors and my lack of control over them. I began to see my mind’s disorder as something separate from myself.

Accepting that I have OCD has brought me a great sense of relief. It was a torture to be driven to endlessly think and do things over and over with no idea why. I spent so much of my life wondering “What is wrong with me?” without realizing that there were people with similar mental issues and resources for help.

I will never be an easy person or have an easy life. I will always have OCD. That being said, I can work through my anxiety and learn that I enjoy things I thought I feared, like parties and speaking on podcasts. I have intense social phobias but I like being part of a community. As long as I’m able to keep putting myself out there, well, as my best friend says, “Things will get better buddy.” ❤

Panels from The Daemon Lover comic (to be collected in The Man in the Blue Suit)

Maggie Umber is a cartoonist and Co-Founder of 2dcloud. You can follow the making of her graphic novel The Man in the Blue Suit on her Patreon page.