Sam insisted that I wear a suit to his workplace.
His law-firm helps clients with their legal matters. Many of the clients face the risk of losing access to their property and loved ones.
His clients are often confused and angry.
Sam tells me that he can be sent to the Magistrates’ or Family Court at a moments notice, and I will not be allowed entry into the building unless I am appropriately dressed.
That last sentence is bullshit.
Sam dashes towards me in faded jeans and a grey hoodie. He looks particularly disheveled, as if to heighten the contrast. He can’t stop laughing. My prepared questions are replaced with the one-sided discourse of “I can’t believe you wore a suit!”, “Wasn’t everybody looking at you on the bus?” “I didn’t think you would actually believe me.” Etc.
The mood inside the law firm is laid back. He gives me a quick tour, pointing out his favourite cartoon on the fridge and the hand drawn sign saying ‘welcome to the madhouse.’ His desk is tidy, but not excessively so. As long as it is his own space, the mess doesn’t matter.
Over my shoulder, I hear a conversation between two of the lawyers – “oh, was that the crazy client?” “They’re all a bit mad.”
The one aspect of the office that strikes me is the shared lolly jar.
A component of Sam’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is that he hates stickiness.
“Yes, that’s annoying,” he cringes harshly as he talks.
“Everybody puts their hands in and touches everything afterwards.”
Sam is softly spoken.
He describes himself as a hyper-vigilant perfectionist, constantly looking around and taking everything in.
His memory is almost eidetic, so he rarely forgets things. When he does, he becomes anxious and frets. The prospect of not remembering a person’s name gnaws at him. He’ll pause and screw up his face and use every internal resource until he gets it.
His cousin Alex* describes him as a completionist.
“He has to finish [things]. When he watches a movie, Sam has to take in every bit of dialogue.”
These personality traits are all influenced by his OCD.
According to Professor Leonardo Fontenelle, a recognised expert in anxiety related disorders, OCD is a psychiatric condition characterised by recurrent and persistent thoughts, images and urges that are intrusive and distressing (known as obsessions) and repetitive behaviours or mental issues (known as compulsions) that are performed in order to decrease the distress.
Sam doesn’t know what triggered his OCD, but he is besieged by that neurotic, small and loud voice in his head which tells him – over and over – to complete a routine.
Sam’s joke sabotaged the first interview so we arrange to meet again at a Kosher deli full of geriatrics.
He wipes the chair before sitting down, scraping off every fleck of dust.
He eats – and has always eaten – at a glacial pace.
He was teased because of this at school, and blamed mouth ulcers. He now says that he almost choked on something when he was younger, so he compulsively chews everything a million times.
Later, Alex tells me that his family will clear the table long before Sam finishes eating, so he usually finishes his meal alone.
There are so many rituals that Sam only has time to skim through them. Shower rituals, bathroom rituals, eating rituals, hand washing rituals, bedtime rituals and so on. His equanimity is dependent on them being completed perfectly.
These compulsions can act as a barrier, making it difficult for Sam to develop relationships. “If someone’s eating chocolate, which is totally normal behaviour, and they learn in for a hug and I recoil, they become self conscious and start to think that they’ve done something wrong.”
Not engaging in a compulsion can lead to a lingering feeling of being contaminated.
“This is the worst thing but, for me, it’s a bit more than that.”
The smell of fish, seeing somebody touch chocolate or sugar, getting a haircut, the texture of sand, a TV show starting a few minutes late – all of these elements, more of these elements – makes Sam heart beat faster.
He provides a glimpse into how his OCD affects his every waking thought.
“Just now, when you got the caramel milkshake, I saw you wipe the base of it. There’s a little bit of the milkshake on your hand. What did you touch from there? There’s a little bit over here, what else did it flick on?”
“It can really be tiring, but I’m used to this overthinking.”
Sam is a brilliant classical guitarist and has competed at a state level in judo, but it is table tennis where I have seen him excel. It is this common interest which forms the backbone of our relationship. The musty cluttered double bricked garage is his space, where he feels most comfortable. It is the only place where he exudes arrogance, pumping his fists and ridiculing my powerlessness at the end of each point.
His desire to achieve perfection is an advantage and a handicap. He will play a guitar piece ad infinitum. Until it is completed flawlessly. The opportunity cost is that he misses out on playing the next song.
“My guitar teacher says it’s sometimes better to start [ a piece] from the back, but I hate this because I have to start from the front.”
Sam defines one figure as the physical embodiment of perfection. His schedule and sleeping patterns will revolve around him. When he plays tennis, Sam enters a state of singular and undisturbed concentration.
He must be watched alone.
“Oh wow. Roger Federer. He is perfection. I’m a perfectionist, I’ve always been like that, but his grace, his class, he is the perfect role model. Watching him play is like a religious experience.”
What if Federer offered for you to become his protégé for $15 an hour for the rest of your life, but then you can’t become a lawyer?
“I think I would do it. Just. Only to be near Federer.”
Sam likes being able to socialise in the shared workplace, but it has taken time for him to adjust. People bring their own food and dirt in, and he doesn’t have a clearly defined space.
The one horror story that sticks out is a co-worker who lent over him and shared a box of Guylian Belgian Chocolates.
In order to explain his rituals, he sometimes has to disclose the fact that he has OCD.
This is difficult because OCD is often trivialised as an idiosyncrasy, a synonym for being neat and tidy. According to Professor Fontenelle this stigma can lead to shame, depression and the postponement of treatment.
Sam detests when people make jokes about the disorder.
“People use it to say, ‘I’m so OCD, I like lining things up.’ I hate this! This isn’t OCD. Everybody has got a bit of that. It is OCD when you spend 40 minutes in the bathroom because of rituals, or you can’t enter your pantry for a year, because you dropped chocolate in there once.”
Alex uses a more colourful metaphor.
“It is like throwing up after a big night, and saying ‘I’m so bulimic like that.”
OCD is hereditary. His grandma shut herself off from the world because of it.
Consequently, Sam is determined to not be shackled by his obsessive thoughts.
The drive to become a lawyer is his reason for being. The way he assumed lawyers thought – in black and white with no gradation– resonated with Sam. His rigorous attention to detail provides a competitive advantage over his peers. He likes the people and loves the work.
He won’t be rude to a client because of his OCD. He refers to the story of an ice-addict who came into the office with an open wound on his hand. “I was a bit freaked out, but I went in for the handshake. It was a relief when he pulled out, but the intent was there.”
Part of his motivation to work in Family Law is to assist those who don’t have anybody else to fall back on.
“There’s not enough mental health programs, and the prison system covers it up. So many people end up there for mental issues. It’s the same with drugs. People go on the streets, and they have no place to sober up and they end up in prison. It’s really sad, and it’s really hard to see.”
There is one question that sits with him.
“I don’t know whether I would take that magic pill [to get rid of my OCD].”
“It helps me set a higher standard of achievement and remember important details. It’s not good and it is really debilitating but you can’t let the symptoms hold you back.”
“You just have to get on with it.”