K. M. McKinley resides near Inverness, in Scotland, not too far from Loch Ness, but not too close either. You never know what’s going to come out of the water. The Iron Ship is the first part of The Gates Of The World, a new epic fantasy series in a world quite unlike any other, from Solaris.
by K.M. McKinley
I’ve had a few people comment on the character of Guis in my fantasy novel The Iron Ship. He suffers from a “nervous condition” that, in our world, would be called obsessive compulsive disorder. In his world, this is a dangerous ailment, because in a reality where magic can be enacted through the focussing of will, obsessing about something bad can actually make it happen. He is literally wrestling with his demons.
I included this plot in the story because I suffered from OCD for a long time. I thought I’d write about it frankly here because it’s an important part of the book and my life, and a relatively common problem.
Obviously, I’m not talking about being “a bit OCD” in that way people often say (note, in this era where people seem to get offended about absolutely everything, I make damn sure I do not get annoyed by this off-hand usage), but full blown, paralysing fear brought on by appalling, intrusive thoughts that dominate your every waking hour. That’s the kind of OCD I suffered from. Here’s a very good description of the disease: http://www.ocduk.org/ocd.
I first began to experience it around the age of 12 or so. I had a rough couple of years at school. I was bullied, but in a way that had I not been ill, I would have shrugged it off. Unfortunately for me, the two fed into each other. My OCD may have arisen as a reaction to feelings of powerlessness. Ruminating on terrible things, then performing ridiculous obsessive rituals to stave them off is a temporary exercising of power, after all. The nature of OCD places an emphasis on the agency of the sufferer “I can prevent this bad thing happening that I’m worried about, if only I do X”. It aggrandises the sufferer, while subjecting them to powerlessness squared.
I learned to hide it well. My parents – good parents, I stress – were largely oblivious. I did not discuss it with them. All the time I realised it was entirely irrational, and worse, that the horrible intrusive thoughts that are a major part of the disease reflected some deeply evil part of my personality. One of my brothers noticed my bizarre behaviour, and asked me about it at a friend’s 18th birthday party. I was so frightened at being found out and carted away as a lunatic that I lashed out, hitting him in the face, an act for which I still feel deep shame.
My OCD fell into the “religious” category. I’m a rational person. When I thought one of my brothers might be crushed by a train if I didn’t wash my hands four times or run backwards round the chimney stack in my room (everything was always in multiples of four), I told myself that I had no control over such things, and it was easily dismissed. So my OCD provided me with situations that were more difficult to rationalise – it was as if part of myself was maliciously trying to torture me. I see it as a form of self-possession, and not in the positive sense. Eventually it hit on the Devil. As I was agnostic by and large, having come to the conclusion I was able to neither prove or disprove the existence of the supernatural, that was that. For the next decade I was totally screwed. Even though I knew these anxieties were nonsense, I performed my rituals “just in case”.
With this all came doubt, self-hatred, constant self-criticism. I convinced myself my parents did not love me, that I was worthless. I contemplated suicide. OCD is chronic depression with bells on, and in my case extra Satan. It’s not a lot of fun.
Somehow I completed school, maintained a social life, went to university, built a career as a journalist, and met my partner. I had my dreams and ambitions, somehow I achieved them one by one, all while hiding a seething mass of revolting thoughts and tortuous anxieties. I relied heavily on alcohol. I convinced myself I didn’t care what other people thought, in order to deal with my anxieties about what other people thought. I got a reputation for arrogance because of this. I sometimes behaved poorly. People regarded me as querulous, because I took out the massive stress I was under on my closest friends. Even now, one of them remarks occasionally on how even-tempered I am these days. I have to remind them that I wasn’t grumpy, I was fucking nuts.
It came to an end in the noughties. I was under a lot of pressure, working stupid hours in a department that was in the middle of a political tug-of-war. I had no time to exercise, relax or eat properly. On top of booze I was drinking way too much coffee – caffeine has a massive effect on me, principally in ramping up my anxiety levels. Then, one night before sleep, I read a piece in Fortean Times (great magazine, still read it) about an entity that pursues those that cannot stop thinking about it.
Of course, I could not stop thinking about it. My carefully constructed facade went up like a sheet of wax paper in a fire. I couldn’t leave the house, I couldn’t sleep. I had panic attacks. I drank a bottle and a half of wine every night. I stopped going to work.
By this point I had to tell my partner, who took it all amazingly well. This marked the turning point. We went to an emergency drop-in centre. They found a doctor whose family had a history of the illness. I spilled the whole story. I felt like a right arse. It all sounded so stupid, so indulgent even. So much so that I immediately felt better. They gave me some Prozac. I went home.
I continued to be frightened, but then – nothing happened. My other self had played its trump card, the most illogical and frightening thing it could find, and it definitely, completely, wasn’t real. After that, I began to recover. I ditched the drugs right away, as they made me feel detached from the world, and the last thing I wanted was to keep reality at bay. I had some hypnotherapy, but mostly I sorted myself out, stumbling upon a home-grown version of cognitive behaviour therapy. Two weeks later, I was back at work. It took a while, but I’d say I am totally recovered.
Once, an Indian holy man read my horoscope (seriously, I’m not making this up) and told me that I had “two engines in my brain”. I doubt he had any idea how close he was to the mark. Once, this second engine used to torment me. Now it’s mine to do with as I please. It’s kind of useful, a parallel processer to my main train of thought, although I have to keep it occupied lest it misbehave.
So the moral of this story is this: if you’re suffering from what I call, in my notes in The Iron Ship “this pernicious betrayal of the self”, take heart. You can get better. People will judge you kindly. Tell the world, then kick its ass.