When I began writing Just Another Week in Suburbia, I already had
this scene in mind – well, not exactly this scene I’m going to post, but the gist of it. Just because you’ve gone over and over a scene in your head doesn’t mean it’s going to fit perfectly into the story when its time comes. Sometimes it needs renovation.
In this case, I was just over 50,000 words into the story. The story had evolved beyond what I’d envisioned in those early stages. So had Casper. Casper had grown and developed a life of his own.
I’ve seen in reviews people label Casper as ‘weak’. That irks me. I don’t think he’s weak. I think he’s always been sensitive, and the events that start his journey in JAWIS heighten that into a raft of hypersensitivity, doubt, and obsession.
As somebody who’s experienced anxiety, I’ve sometimes tried to explain panic attacks to people who’ve never experienced them. They’ve confidently assured me that they would deal with them if they occurred. One person told me she’d never allow anxiety to dominate her the way it had done to me sometimes in the past. Some years later, she did have a panic attack and it incapacitated her. She could not function, hyperventilated, and strangers had to calm her down. Sometimes, people can’t empathise until they experience something for themselves.
I’ve also sometimes tried to explain the intrusive thoughts aspect of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. People generally associate OCD with repetitive behaviours, e.g. checking that the door is locked. But there’s also the intrusive thoughts that occur. These intrusive thoughts are just about always abhorrent, e.g. worrying you’re going to hurt somebody, worrying you’re going to hurt yourself, worrying about suicide, worrying about having a disease, etc.
I had lots of these – fear I was going to hurt somebody, fear I’d mutilate myself, fear that I’d lose my grip on reality … well, this is a big list and space is limited.
I will talk about one particular set of intrusive thoughts, though: I used to have this fear around knives. Whenever I was around a knife, I fixated that I would take it and plunge it into somebody. I could see it. Could feel it. And the more I denied the thought, the harder it came back. Then it became this-back-and-forth thing I couldn’t get out of my head. One night, I pressed a knife to my belly because it felt like the only way to prove to myself I wasn’t going to do anything.
When I was 19, I told a doctor – an incompetent psychiatrist – about this fear that I was going to hurt people, and he grew fearful I was on the verge of a psychotic breakdown. This becomes another story, but I offer that detail to show how powerful OCD is. That psychiatrist completely misconstrued what was going on. And I couldn’t just turn it off.
It. Keeps. Coming.
In 2005, I read a book (Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: A self-help guide using cognitive behavioural techniques by David Veale and Rob Willson) that explained the intrusive thoughts aspect of OCD – sixteen years to get that fucking diagnosis. And from a book. Not a budding psychosis. But OCD (although that was bad enough).
The book helped immensely. Whereas that psychiatrist had set up a belief system in me that I was bordering on psychosis and I could plummet at any time, this book showed me that as distressing as these thoughts were, OCD generated them, rather than me snapping and becoming violent.
As a solution, the book suggested letting go of the consequence. E.g. if you’re worried you haven’t locked the door, then bad luck. Let it go. Deal with the consequences if there are consequences – not before. Addressing the compulsion – e.g. getting up to lock the door – ritualized it and strengthened it.
That’s what I was doing when I was trying to deny I’d hurt anybody. I ritualized the compulsion. I equate it with playing an endless game of handball. You swat the ball away, it hits the wall, and comes back faster. So you swat it again. And over and over you go. Faster. Harder. Until you work yourself into a frenzy.
When I let go of the fear that I would enact the compulsion, it started to dissipate. Bye bye, ball. Sure, I had anxiety that the ball was lost, but after a while I stopped worrying about it – well, at least not to the same degree. My mind’s always ready to set up another game of handball, but I’m better at ignoring it.
I’ve had various compulsions over my life that I’ve had to deal with. I’ve seen friends deal with debilitating OCD compulsions. I’ve even seen compulsions in people who don’t realise they’re OCD compulsions. And I’ve seen compulsions that can be helpful, e.g. the need for perfection at work. (Of course, this can be taken too far.)
Getting back to Casper, he’s dealing with this obsession about his wife’s fidelity. I’m not saying the compulsion is OCD, but that Casper – being sensitive – becomes prone to obsessive thinking, particularly given what’s happening.
Combine those things, and the systematic build-up of issues through his week, I think he can be – or should be – forgiven for struggling to cope and being unsure what to do.
I’ve rambled longer than I anticipated, and the deleted scenes are BIG. So I’m going to post the build-up to the deleted scene – the bit which did survive and made it into the published book (the opening of Chapter 29, on Page 202).
Then, next week, comes the deleted scene (which actually also would’ve addressed criticisms about Casper being ‘weak’).
I ring and ring the bell to Vic’s house.
I hear his footsteps thump down the hallway. The door swings open. Vic stands there barefoot, in jeans, a T-shirt, and a Coopers in hand. He’s unshaven, and his hair ruffled.
‘What?’ he asks.
‘Wallace got hurt today.’
‘Did you do something to him?’
‘I told you if he came in here again I’d dropkick him out.’
‘So you kicked him.’
‘I taught him a lesson.’
‘You broke his leg.’
‘That’s his bad luck.’
‘His bad luck?’
Vic smirks. Takes a long drink, like he’s trying to tell me he’s in no hurry to respond. ‘Fuck off, Casper. You want to avoid this happening again, you make sure that little shit stays in your yard.’
Vic slams the door closed.
Postscript: I will be appearing at Breaking the Code: from published to best-selling author this weekend (6–7th October), presenting on various panels about writing and publishing. If you’re a writer, or interested in the publishing industry, check it out – not just me, but the whole Breaking the Code festival!