Quite recently much to my surprise but also much to my comfort, Eminem A.K.A. Marshall Mathers himself annotated lyrics to his song “Monster (Feat. Rihanna)”, which were

My OCD is conking me in the head, keep knocking
Nobody’s home, I’m sleepwalking
I’m just relaying what the voice in my head is saying
Don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just friends with the…”

He writes, “I really do have O.C.D, it’s not funny b*tch.” Whether an official diagnoses (which I truly suspect it is for reasons that will follow) or not this was of extreme comfort to me, because I have always lived with a central contradiction- I’m a devout Christian, and yet…I love Eminem.944193_575152922527799_64881636_n Ever since I heard “The Real Slim Shady” on a radio in Goodwill, I’ve been hooked.  Eminem was my  to the rest of Hip-Hop to be sure, but for a fat white kid in a  predominately non-white school growing up, it was amazing to have THE rapper of our time be a white guy. Slim Shady was no gangster, and yet, no one could deny that he was THE best emcee at that precious moment of the turn of the millennia. I couldn’t connect with many other rappers of the time, whether 50 Cent, or Jay-Z because well…I wasn’t black, I was a moralistic Christian, and I most certainly wasn’t some gangster (nor could I pretend to be, I mean just look at me as a kid). But Slim shady, this white kid who was into cartoons, was a clown, was picked on and teased, continuously got his heart broken, had violet fantasies (that everyone knew he wouldn’t do), and liked fart jokes–here was someone I could relate to. Despite our differences in faith and morality, particularly as it comes to his use of abusive language, we shared ethnicity, musical interest, and childhood experiences of bullying.

      Until he revealed that he has been diagnosed with O.C.D. (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) however, this was all I thought my affinity to him amounted to. Sure, I know a lot of Hip-Hop heads, have problems with Eminem, and sure, I know a lot of Christians have problems with Eminem and as members of both groups, so do I… but as Immortal Technique raps in “Crimes of the Heart”

“I can’t give into hatred or pass judgment
Even towards every illusion I’ve been in love with
Cause the heart that betrays itself willingly
Is like a nation that trades freedom for stability
It’s so seductive to be cold and corrupted
And isolated and try to be an independent republic”

Indeed. I can’t pretend like Eminem wasn’t a childhood music obsession of mine, and a rapper whose skills I’m still in awe to this very day. I can’t pretend like he wasn’t the reason I felt like I could rap, I can’t pretend that he didn’t introduced me to Hip-Hop, I can’t deny that I’m an Eminem “Stan“. But when he revealed that he was diagnosed with O.C.D., I realized that my affinity with him reached deeper than ethnicity and childhood experience–it actually came down to our type of intelligence and the way our brains work, for I too suffer from O.C.D.

      Now for those who are unfamiliar, and especially for those who think they are familiar allow me to explain in the best terms I can what O.C.D. is, how it manifests itself, what some of its benefits are,* and most boldly, propose it as the key to explaining Eminem’s entire approach to writing lyrics. Let’s begin with what O.C.D. is effectively not. Even the revered Stephen Fry has misjudged what O.C.D. is according to popular misunderstandings prevalent throughout all of our media. As David Adam rightly says, “It’s not an exaggerated love of order and hygiene. It’s a disorder of thought…” It is also extremely important that O.C.D. like other mental illnesses are understood properly for as Adam points out, “It takes real courage to confront mental distress and seek help. Yet when people with OCD do so, they often find bafflement and hostility…If OCD is simply someone who washes their hands then why is this patient telling me of unwanted thoughts to hurt their children?…Parents with OCD are separated from their families. Workers are suspended from their jobs, but not because they pose any threat…” but because their O.C.D. symptoms are not recognized as such.

      For someone to have O.C.D., it does not mean necessarily that they are a super clean, tidy, or organized person- though it can include those things- rather it means that someone suffers from constant obsessions. Obsessions are not things that we desire and want, which is what the term has come to mean in popular usage, rather obsessions are quite literally those things that our brains cannot stop thinking about. Nor it is that the obsessions are about various subject matter that we are in interested in, no, the obsessions come in a variety of forms, most commonly known are germ related, but could range all the way to violent and sexual anxieties/fears that our brains cannot stop thinking about. The obsessions, far from being desires are anxiety inducing precisely because they are unwanted, and the obsessions are intrusive upon our normal day-to-day thought process, they come out of no-where and suddenly they are all our brains are able to think about. First then, the ‘O’ refers not to interests but to anxieties and fears that our brains obsess about and literally cannot stop thinking about.

      Second then is the ‘C’. Most people think of the ‘C’ as referring to constant hand washing or door checking, and while these are often some sufferers compulsions other compulsions can be wearing socks to bed, washing one’s feet, constantly flossing, organizing all emails (for those who wish you had this compulsion- no you don’t), or even calorie counting. Compulsions don’t necessarily have any correspondence to the obsessions, and often they could even be just mental compulsions (as opposed to physical activities like hand-washing) the only necessary connection between the obsessions and the compulsions is that the compulsions provide some sort of short-term relief from the over-whelming anxiety that the obsessions cause. The key words here are ‘short-term’, because ultimately compulsions, like scratching a mosquito bite, only exasperate the problem in the long term by making the obsessions even stronger- thus a cycle of obsession and compulsion is established, out of which there appears to be no escape. So thus, finally the ‘D’ does not merely refer to that someone who may exhibit extra attention to cleanliness that’s out of portion, the disorder quite literally refers to this cycle of obsession then compulsion taking over your life and severely debilitating one’s quality of life. For myself in my journey, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat, I couldn’t concentrate enough to read (for those who know me that was just as troubling as not eating), and I couldn’t take care of myself in any meaningful way. It sends our lives completely out of order.

      Now that we got those clarifications and simple definitions out of the way, let’s move to the neurology of O.C.D. for it is here that we can trace even within Eminem’s own lyrics, the neuro-biological root of his O.C.D. O.C.D. by professionals is sometimes called “basal ganglia disease” because the research on the biochemical level is near conclusive that O.C.D. is rooted in this part of the brain. Now the basal ganglia is responsible for involuntary movements like walking, but also for an awareness of our thoughts, which is where the abnormality of O.C.D.  stems from. The basal ganglia is responsible essentially for sorting out all the thobrain3ughts in one’s brain into those that are not needed and those of special concern for survival. People who do not suffer from O.C.D. sort out these thoughts just fine- information that conforms to previous experiences of fears and wishes is dismissed, and those that do not are retained for further consideration. People with O.C.D’s basal ganglia often keep the absurd random thoughts that everyone has every day- like ‘why don’t I just stab that cat?’- that people (in line with their expectations of the world) would normally dismiss, longer and thus those random thoughts stick, and brew a tremendous amount of anxiety as an obsession. The anxiety is obvious, we know that these obsessions are absurd and couldn’t possibly come about, but our brains retain them and send warnings to our brain about our need to further consider such possibilities as genuine fears- rooted in survival. It over retains absurd information, warns of you of as a genuine fear to which you must respond to for your survival, and you create compulsions, which themselves only reenforce your basal ganglia to think of these fears as genuine and in need of attention.

      Damage to the basal ganglia in any form, whether stroke or head injury, can be a root neuro-biological cause of O.C.D. Many O.C.D. sufferers often have such head injuries as a child. When I was about nine or ten years old, my parents and I went to a camp resort. While playing with one of the other kids there, he kept throwing large rocks behind him, and one of them flew and knocked me right in the head and I was out cold- I got stitches and everything. Some worried about me going to sleep because if I did, I might not wake-up- not knowing the extent of the brain damage. Thankfully after a week everything was fine, but, as I now suspect it damaged by basal ganglia leaving me vulnerable to O.C.D. Now those who know Eminem’s catalogue well know that in one of his more master story-telling tracks, Marshall narrates, in his cartoonish way, the brain damage he suffered as a child. Eminem’s writes,

“Way before my baby daughter Hailie
I was harassed daily by this fat kid named D’Angelo Bailey
An eighth grader who acted obnoxious, ‘cause his father boxes, so every day he’d shove me in the lockers
One day he came in the bathroom while I was pissin’
And had me in the position to beat me into submission
He banged my head against the urinal till he broke my nose
Soaked my clothes in blood
Grabbed me and choked my throat
I tried to plead and tell him we shouldn’t beef
But he just wouldn’t leave
He kept choking me and I couldn’t breathe”

While the song is not literal, it is actually based on such a real life encounter that Marshall had as a child. The man D’Angelo Bailey said in an interview that, “There was a bunch of us that used to mess with him. You know, bully-type things…We flipped him right on his head at recess. When we didn’t see him moving, we took off running. We lied and said he slipped on the ice.” Quite traumatic, and when Marshall himself woke up, he recalls, he said “I can spell elephant.” It was there it would seem that his new love of language grew. Traumatic head injuries like this can provoke the basal ganglia resulting in O.C.D.- this was certainly so in Marshall’s case.

      Resulting from O.C.D., and working alongside of it, is a high level of intelligence- as one of my psychiatrist said to me ‘No one who is stupid gets O.C.D.’ Naturally this makes sense given that people with O.C.D. have a higher number of functioning brain cells than the average person, but also that O.C.D. is quite literally a disorder resulting from overthinking. Memory retention and conceptual association are usually off the charts in their exceptionalism for people who suffer from O.C.D. They think more thoroughly than the average person about almost any and everything. Now that we have covered what O.C.D. is, and how it manifests itself, we can move on to its benefits, chief of which are exceptional intelligence, creative thinking, and often, because certain behaviours take on a compulsive nature, an extremely productive work ethic, especially when it comes to writing.

      Certain behaviours that come with O.C.D. like extreme cleanliness and orderliness can seem like things that everybody wishes they had- wouldn’t you like to know where everything is at all times? Or wouldn’t you like to have your email completed sorted and taken care of? But O.C.D. can actually have a variety of benefits, once the activity of your brain is channeled properly into work and not into compulsions. Simply, O.C.D., once its under control and not a disorder that is life debilitating, can lead to some incredible benefits because your brain is running on a completely different and more powerful engine than the average person. As Dr. Ian Osbourne writes, “…there is, quite possibly, a powerfully creative aspect to their [O.C.D. sufferers] cognitive tendencies that we neglect, a creativity fuelled by the unusually vivid real-life quality of certain of their thoughts.” (154) How does this relate to Eminem, a confessed grade 9 dropout? In Anderson Cooper’s famous interview with Eminem there is a beautiful moment when Marshall is showing Anderson his lyric pages kept in a box and Anderson remarks

 “I’ve gotten letters from crazy people and they kind of look like this. Sometimes all in capital letters or scrawled on the page like this.”

“Yeah? Well that’s probably because I’m crazy,” Eminem replied with a smirk.

___

___

      The writing habits of people with O.C.D. may look like compulsively written scribbles, and that’s because…they are. af7b2111d1a5f77e0f02f00ce0df055aBut, no matter how random they appear they are well thought over, and the creativity bursts forth constantly. Whatever Marshall’s obsessions are, which may be difficult for anyone who doesn’t know him personally to discern, it is clear that his compulsion, writing, has become his craft. Eminem, studied the dictionary in order to remember words for any scheme. Eminem’s obsessional-like attention to the technicalities of rhymes and rhyme schemes is so profound that when I teach my Element One classes at Yonge Street Mission I use the first verse of “Lose Yourself” to teach at least 13 different kinds of rhyme. Simply put, Marshall may not have been a scholastic genius, but he has quickly became a modern day literary one.

      But more than vocabulary the creativity of O.C.D. sufferers comes from precisely the thing that creates their anxious obsessions, their ability to retain information and have it associated with the most unlikely of improbabilities. Talib Kweli, another master emcee in an interview with Vlad TV said that the most important thing in understanding how Eminem became so successful was not primarily his skills but

“What he had more than other emcees was vision…so even the Slim Shady EP before he linked up with Dre, the idea that there’s Eminem and there’s Slim Shady, the was genius. The idea that all his songs like ‘Just the two of us’…all his songs were super conceptual, super visual…its was him being a visionary and an artist to take chances.”

Kweli is absolutely on point with these observations because Eminem’s success, while due in part to his white privilege and his skill, was primarily propelled by his creativity of associations- that he wasn’t the gangster that so many other rappers were when I was a kid.

      To conclude as to why this personal affinity to Eminem that I have (O.C.D. sufferer to O.C.D. sufferer) is so important for my personal understanding is because it is important to note that though we share this in common- our differences are so vast that it should be clear that no one is defined by their afflictions. O.C.D. does not define me or Marshall. But more importantly what I want to impart to others is that mental illness, while debilitating at times, can also be an opportunity to recognize your kinship with other people who are totally unlike you but who suffer from the same, and for you to discover your own gifts, like Eminem did with his love of language. It may be best to leave with some of Marshall’s own lyrics from his song “Legacy”, which is worthy to listen to in full as a story of Marshall coming to terms with the inner workings of his own brain and is itself a testament to his own writing genius as he maintain a singular pair of syllables rhyming throughout the entire song, a lyrical acrobatic feat.

“I used to be the type of kid that would always think the sky is fallin’
Why am I so differently wired in my noggin?
Cause sporadic as my thoughts come, it’s mind-bogglin’
Cause I obsess on everything in my mind
Small sh*t…

“I used to be the type of kid that would always think the sky is fallin’
Now I think the fact that I’m differently wired’s awesome
Cause if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to work words like this
And connect lines like crosswords…

The most high exalting and I ain’t haltin’
’til I die of exhaustion, inhale my exhaust fumes
The best part about me is I am not you
I’m me, I’m the Fire Marshall and this is my Legacy”

______________

*All information regarding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is from the following work that helped me immensely through my own journey: Osborn, Ian Can Christianity Cure Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? A Psychiatrist Explores the Role of Faith in Treatment (Bravos Press: 2008). 

 

Advertisements