Under a Compulsion

I know what it feels like to be under a compulsion.


It is like a spell. You lose your will to say no, your will to restrain. The human mind is capable of extraordinary compulsive behaviors.

While drinking, the compulsion got me out of bed in the morning. When my addiction was at its worst, I was incapable of having a waking thought. My body’s craving held my mind hostage.

If you’ve seen or read any good hostage story, you know what I mean. Kidnappers create a list of demands. Before they set their hostage free, demands must be met. That explained my compulsion to consume drugs and alcohol well.

I would agree to go on a date without telling her that he who kidnapped my mind demanded I down a six pack of beer before dinner.

Movies or concerts were only worth seeing if I was high.

Eventually, the conditions became all consuming. My kidnapper convinced me I needed to satisfy my fix in order live outright. Autonomic functions like breathing weren’t automatic anymore. They required an altered state of mind and emotion.

Addiction, for me, was a brand of Stockholm syndrome. I fell into a sick love cycle with the one who held me captured. I lost the ability to understand that my captor was in control of it all. I deluded myself into believing that my drug intake was a choice.

I couldn’t see the hand behind the gun that was held to my head.

And I obeyed.


It’s not as if only alcoholics or addicts suffer from compulsion.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental illness all unto itself. I know I am guilty of its behavior while sober.

The single greatest cause of self-imposed stress in my home revolves around the kitchen sink. Why I make doing the dishes into such a big deal is as inexplicable a reality as was the reality that I couldn’t get out of bed without smoking a bowl. Yes, even with a decade clean, the hostage-taker returns to take names and order me around like he used to. A dirty sink, crumbs on the counter, unstacked plates in the drying rack became affronts to my sober soul. I could not sit idly by (nor could I sit silently by—my poor wife) and live in a house with dirty dish negligence. It drove me mad with rage.

When I called my sponsor, the best hostage negotiator I’ve worked with, to help me sort through the irrational demands surrounding the kitchen sink, he said, “Pretend you love to do the dishes. And when they’re done, be grateful that you could be of service.”

With that advice, and months of practice, I achieved a golden age of dish washing. A time when I enjoyed finding that warm temperature of water hot enough for scrubbing and warm enough for my hands. I grew to love the feel of a clean sink rather than hate the look of a dirty one. There were times, dear readers, when suds would swirl in such a way my very soul would stir from the elbow grease that moved the sponge.

That enchanted age did not last.

It quickly gave way to a more oppressive, less enjoyable age of obsessive-compulsive dish washing. When my wife grew tired of me asking, “Are you through with that?” I had to quit asking the question, which didn’t stop me from prematurely cleaning the plate. I’ve been known to ask her if she was finished drinking her coffee while the mug she drank from sits upside down and sparkling in the drying rack behind me. While I am always in the wrong, I defend my captor with clarity and calm, “If you’re not done, then don’t leave it on the counter,” as if the kitchen counter, the very place where coffee is brewed, must be become a coffee cup free zone. This has been the latest demand of that inner kidnapper I’ve never been able to rid myself of.

At least I’m not fueling him with liquor anymore.


You can’t say, “Compulsive” without hearing the word, “Pulse.”

It seems our human brains are capable of acting in spite of our body in such extremes, that our very pulse is held hostage. The veins that hold our blood can be pulled and led to places we don’t choose them to go.

There is another word with a pulse that took control of my mind this week.

It began when schools inexplicably cancelled after a dusting of snow in the morning on Wednesday. The mid-Atlantic just can’t figure out this snow thing, even though it falls every year.

Snow days for teachers are impromptu days of paid leave. It’s akin to getting a call from your boss when you wake up, “Take the day off. And because you deserve it, I’ll pay you anyway.” Having been a student once, I can say that snow days are a rare instance when adults become more excitable than students. 

On Wednesday morning around seven, after I had already hammered out a thousand words and slugged a few cups of Joe, I got the good word. No school today.

Every snow day in my professional history of snow days has been spent enacting the compulsive center of my brain. I get shit done. I do the work I’ve been postponing due to a lack of time in the workday. I submit short stories to journals and write query letters to agents. I handle bills and budget. I clear the docket for a better tomorrow. It’s just in my compulsive nature to not waste any length of time.

But with time being on my mind lately, I was driven Wednesday morning by impulse.

I became swallowed up in reflexive action. After breakfast, and a kitchen scrubbing that would satisfy a celebrity chef, I got out the winter clothes bin from storage. I brushed the dust of my seventeen-year-old skis and took my son to the rolling hills of southern Pennsylvania.

My compulsive mind tried to kidnap my thoughts. “Think of all you need to get done.” And, “Days like this don’t come around often.” But impulse won the day. I was out the door and driving north before compulsion could settle in.

The result?

A day we’ll never forget.

15 Responses to “Under a Compulsion

  • Very well written. Trying to explain any mental health issue to someone who doesn’t have it is such a tall task and I think you did well here. When people can’t see your illness, many tend to dismiss it. Good work.

    • Thanks Joshua. I really appreciate that. I like how you phrased that. About if the illness cannot be seen, it is dismissed. I think that’s really profound. I’ve been recovering in the same way you have from that other addiction as well. I’m sort of down, actually, because my sponsor of many years who convinced me to make porn part of my recovery is now very ill. He’s a great guy.

  • “A dirty sink, crumbs on the counter, unstacked plates in the drying rack became affronts to my sober soul.” Man, we’re cut from the cloth. I still struggle with this. Lately, I’ve started leaving the kitchen dirty (or at least with minimal clean-up) so I can be present with my family during our calm down time which involves watching a family TV show that my kids like. It’s hard for me to do–I mean, cleaning the kitchen feels like it was literally burned into my brain. I know the reasons I’m like this, and I continue to work through them. Reading posts like this helps. Thanks for sharing it.

    • So there is someone out there who gets me!

      Reading responses like yours help. Gets me out of that poor lonely me line of awful thinking. That step is a natural next step for me, actually. Playing with the kids and letting my obsession to get everything done go. I need to practice some mindfulness there. Thank you for showing me the way out.

  • I loved the picture of you and E on the ski lift! Compulsive, impulsive, or opportunistic, I say you chose wisely!

    • Thanks man! Yeah, I think so too. I got a harness to hold him back with. It was a game changer. E went charging up and down that mountain (hill) like 8 times! Looking forward to that first weekend in February, brother. Sounds like we got tons to catch up on. Between us and D.

  • Just a spoke in the cosmic wheel. 😉 I used to have OCD, but not I have CDO. In alphabetical order. Like they’re SUPPOSED to be!

  • I love this post. I too suffer from an alcoholic mind and the dishes are my household responsibility. I used to get very agitated about dishes in the sink when my wife could just as easily put them in the dishwasher to eliminate some extra work for me. She has a mental block about the dishwasher. My sponsor’s sound advice was similar to yours….”Act as if you like it and consider it service to your family.” Doing this is a game changer for me and gets me out of my head and away from the thought that dishes in the sink are a personal affront. I am beginning to accept that my wife will never put the dishes in the dishwasher and I try not to make it “a thing” that upsets our relationship.

    On a side note, I have been skiing with my daughter (she is 4) this year and she is doing great. We live in Utah and go skiing every Sunday because the resort is only 30 minutes away. The joy I get from watching her learn to ski significantly overwhelms the guilt I feel from neglecting some of my responsibilities as a homeowner. I prefer to cut myself some slack and enjoy these moments with my daughter, the disorganized garage will still be there when ski season is over.

    • Hi Dan!

      It’s really great to hear from you. Sounds like we’ve had some very similar experiences. It’s always good to connect with people who’ve been through the same things. We recover together.

      I like the phrasing your sponsor used. “Consider it service.” I find it really hard still to “love to do them.” It’s just not realistic. Seriously, who loves to do the dishes? Reminds me of a quote from a Vince Vaughn comedy. But doing them because we have roles of service at home is really good. I’ll be stealing that one, thank you very much.

      That’s great you get to go skiing like that! I’m east coast so the skiing isn’t as good. I love getting out west (whenever we can, not often) to go skiing in the Rockies. It’s really great to get to know you a little bit. Please stop by and leave word anytime.


  • You are a dream husband…. a man who can’t stand a messy kitchen!! I can so relate to all of this… not just the dishes, but busyness in general. I compulsively fill every waking moment. Its like a woman’s purse…. no matter how big, it gets filled to the brim! I love that you extricated yourself and had a great day with your boy. ❤️ So nice to hear from you over at my blog too…. thanks for always checking in. : )

  • I relate to this in so many ways. I too have been held hostage by some of the same compulsions. Instead of looking for a pair of shoes recently taken off, or a roll of tape set on the counter for a quick sec, my husband will just ask rhetorically, “You already put it away, didn’t you?” I really liked the way you framed from an OCD/compulsion perspective. I have always attributed my compulsatory tendencies to perfectionism. Very, very interesting to see it differently. So much to think about here. Also, looks like you two had a blast enjoying your impulse day. Nice job letting yourself go with it!

    • Thanks for the note, Brittany. The impulse day! Yes, I like that. It’s tiring sometimes to try and differentiate what aspects of my character are addiction-esque. I am a man. I am an addict. I have OCD tendencies. The three categories of behavior are naturally going to interact in all sorts of ways, right? I read this cool book that puts the recovery of alcoholics anonymous in a historical, religious, and philosophical context. It’s no wonder that people living in the modern world have such obsessions. It’s as much a product of the times as it is anything else.

  • john spence
    13 hours ago

    a truly excellent post told with such clarity Mark. You really are coming into your own as a writer, I enjoyed the flow from beginning to end. I know how being a hostage feels, I’m sure you’ve had many comments like this. I applaud your honesty and well….. that’s what your about now, your fix(if I may be sobold). love to you mate, johnny

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox: