A digital photograph of a half-eaten cake on top a stack of books
Photo courtesy of Ava Burzycki

To the Victorians, tuberculosis was a deeply romantic ailment to be consumed by. To be rosy-cheeked, sweaty, pale and deteriorated to the point of extreme slenderness from tuberculosis was to be tragically beautiful — especially to artists, writers and other creative intellectuals. There was no greater sign of aestheticism and talent than to cough up blood during a poetry reading — a public health professor told me this — and no greater poetic honor than to be bedridden in the beauty of the illness. Despite this antiquated perception, tuberculosis was never dainty droplets of blood and decaying beautifully; it is complete and utter bodily destruction, starting in the lungs. This sat at odds with this aestheticization of their decay, setting a prime standard for writers of all sorts to turn their utter misery into complex works of art.

While tuberculosis is a distinctly physical ailment, the deep romanticization of it bears almost no difference from the deep romanticization of anguish. Literature, especially autofiction, poetry and contemporary literature, is addicted to spilling its guts. The world thrives on indulging in foreign pain or mirrored pain, and authors have always been ready to romanticize themselves and put their wounds on display. 

Maybe surprisingly, this is not genre-bound to drama, poetry or any other sector of literature. Horror is often psychological, playing on nightmares and misery; comedy can be cathartic, only because our lives are better than the plot-driven mess; even memoirs are dominated by lives of tragedy that ultimately lead to triumph. We are addicted to portrayals of pain and the aftermath. Even further from expectation, my first encounter with exploiting trauma for entertainment was the children’s novel “Bridge to Terabithia” by Katherine Paterson. The chapter book chronicled the beautiful friendship growing between two middle schoolers — Jesse and Leslie — who both have tragic backstories, angst and alienation from others their age. The two driving characters are artistic storytellers in their right and build a world free of the trials and tribulations of reality. The novel ends in tragedy when the whimsical Leslie falls victim to a tragic death while crossing into their land of make believe, Terabithia. Quirky and alienated, I saw myself as Leslie, and I saw my youthful pain in her own. My entire class read the novel, but my childish narcissism knew I understood it differently. I reread it, this time taking character notes. Leslie was my own romantic projection, and the way she seemed to have died for her imaginary, self-created worlds struck me far more than any other literary work did at that age. 

Maybe it was because I was never a perfectly conventional child either — moody or withdrawn would have described me far better, and still might — and I was always creative, for better and for worse. Always a reader, in particular. This combination led me quickly to pretentious and precocious books, and by middle school, I had already found myself drowning in tales of misery and artistry. Even worse, I was already writing thinly-veiled autofiction that would put anyone’s depressive Notes app poems to shame. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine what particular misery led to each story, but the pain is undeniable. I still have remnants of these grade-school stories, and each one is far more raw and unrefined than I would ever be able to produce today. 

More intriguing than my pre-pubescent trauma dumping, however, is the clear delineation that has run through my life ever since these youthful musings. Behind the generalization of pain throughout my blood-red crayon scribbles on ink-filled notebook pages, there is confession, dreams and attempts to sort through what little understanding of my brain that I had. I knew that I felt bad, and I knew that writing fiction related to it felt distant enough to allow for understanding without actually confronting myself. My writing was deeply doomed — like the world was ending, as my life felt over like tragedy was lurking around the corner. Often, there was horror, gore and death or the narrow missing of it. As a writer, the happy ending, sometimes, felt more threatening than the bad one. 

I wrote for understanding and I wrote compulsively, even if I was the sole reader of these scribbled apocalypses. In many ways, I wrote for salvation as well — if I could turn the intrusive, tragedy-filled plotlines into fiction, then they were no longer my responsibility. I spilled my recurring nightmares onto the page in order to free myself from them, poor grammar and plot holes aside. The key, however, was my attempt at beauty and glamor within my pieces. The grime of the writing was never purely grime; instead, each self-destructive line of thinking was ribbon-wrapped in beauty and romanticization. 

When I was eventually diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder as an adult, having a title for my brain meant almost nothing — there was no change in my understanding of the shame of my thoughts. Instead, it was reading the works of authors with similar neuroses that finally soothed the noise. Learning that my delusions of maggots in every corner and my ritualized compulsions could exist in art created a sense of normalcy bordering value that no other source had. But even art  has its limits: There is a very fine line between creating honest work and indulging in self-destruction. When I write about my maggots, I am ignoring the dirtier and more unpalatable aspects of the disorder. There is no mention of sobbing to the point of puking over a spilled mug or the amount of mold that builds up in an untouchable, self-decidedly contaminated cup. Instead, I’m only adding another sad girl, tragic author caricature to the realm of writing. The authors I admire have their own, similar ghosts, and even after sifting through their own experiences for themes within their writing, they are left with their illnesses. 

Even now, each word I write is like pressing into a bruise, hoping to spread the purple hues across skin. Writing is never clean, nor is any other part of OCD. To many, journaling is regarded as clearing out the mind. We write our daily activities, feelings and desires into notebook pages to understand them, or to immortalize them. But writing has never been this straightforward as a process for me. Trying to find salvation and clarity within my writing is equally detrimental to myself — a compulsion is still compulsion regardless of its outcome. The majority of my notebooks and Google Docs are full of plots, confessions and borderline prayers that are reminiscent only of my younger hysteria. Much of my non-published writing is a compulsion, not a form of self care or a creative outlet. Even in the published and academic work, my process is defined by my rumination and obsession. I spend as much time as possible in pure obsession over an idea, thinking of nothing else but the essay and the crumbs of quotes and ideas that arrive. Whether it be forcing myself to write personal horrors or days spent stewing over the same lines, my writing is disarrayed to its core.  

In the cultural zeitgeist, obsessive-compulsive disorder is misleadingly defined by cleanliness and order. These virtues are the opposite of what myself and others face. My OCD is a pure, simple mess. It is inappropriate fear responses to being alone in my bedroom due to the clutter I leave myself; it is notebooks full of delusions and paranoia and fixations of the supernatural, not color-coded plans and a perfect schedule. It is going days eating only granola bars because everything else feels contaminated, and then leaving the crumbs in my bed because I don’t think I deserve better. My OCD may be obsessed with contamination, but it has never once been clean.

Often, the pinnacle of OCD recovery advice can be simplified into not fueling the fire. This means no indulgence, no compulsions and no reassurance seeking. This is something I have never had the strength to do. With this advice, I would have to abandon writing and most other major components of my life. Even in writing this, I am adding gasoline to the fire, and I am letting it burn up my hands in the process. I’m wondering how many more times I’ll be sitting in the back of a classroom, ignoring expensive lectures to sit on my laptop and write and cry and write and cry and write and cry until the wound feels deep enough. My OCD thrives on writing, so it’s a natural conclusion that I’ve spent the better part of my life writing as a confession, writing as if it’ll purify the dirtiness, and writing as if my OCD is a beautiful flaw rather than an oftentimes debilitating disorder. 

Like the great Victorian authors I’ve admired as both a reader and a writer, I tried to dismiss my misery as something artful rather than miserable. I tried to give it purpose while ridding myself of mental pollution. I genuinely believed this could work, and for a while maybe it did. But the remains have ultimately never left. Each word I wrote could chop branches and shake leaves, but the roots were never going to be ridden of that easily. 

I can try to wash the blood off of my hands through writing, but I am still left with my hands.

Statement Columnist Ava Burzycki can be reached at burzycki@umich.edu