(Don’t try this at home).
I’ll never forget the day one of my mentors (the oldest living sword swallower in the world) taught me how to fire an audience. We were in Key West on Mallory Square, and he was showing me the ropes for performing at the nightly Sunset Celebration on the pier.
“I’m probably going to have to fire this audience,” he told me as a quiet, uptight looking crowd trickled in to see his show.
“What do you mean?”
“Haven’t you ever fired an audience before?”
“No, actually. I’ve always done the show to completion, even if it’s a tough crowd.”
“Nah, if they’re not excited to see you perform, they’re just going to drain your energy and walk away without putting anything in your hat. You don’t owe them anything. You’re swallowing swords, and you’re in charge, not them.”
It was definitely a light bulb moment, in more ways than one. He pulled it off swiftly and with abandon, when the moment came. They simply weren’t worth his time, and they needed to be put in check. I found this strategy useful the next time I was busking in Jackson Square; I only did it once, but I fired the hell out of that vampiric audience, and the next one was full of energy and gratuities.
Sometimes I forget I’m in charge.
I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.
-William Ernest Henley
Having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a lot like having a constant panel of judges in your head giving you negative feedback on your thought performances. They’re a tough crowd, for sure. My OCD was a part of my everyday life by the time I was 5 or 6, and I was full of fear as a result. I grew up in a religious family, and I would compulsively pray with a very specific ritual every night in order to avoid eternal damnation for me and my stuffed animals. I would wash my hands until they bled, because only then were they clean. I was frequently behind in classwork, because I would get stuck re-writing my name on my paper repeatedly until it was perfect. Back then, my OCD was more compulsive than obsessive. Regardless, I was afraid of straying from my routines, afraid of trying new things, and more than anything, I was afraid of death. Death is what I’ve been more obsessed with than anything else my whole life.
As I got older, the OCD became more complicated. I learned about new unsettling concepts and became familiar with a broader range of sensory and psychological experiences. Then, my life turned into a long, exhaustive string of philosophical What Ifs.
What if I’m evil and don’t know it?
What if I have multiple personalities?
What if my being late to the bus caused another kid to get kidnapped while they were waiting?
What if my sexuality is wrong and out of my control?
Thinking about thinking has some benefits, sure — I have a long-standing level of self-awareness that many people will frankly never know firsthand. I know myself fully, whether I want to or not. I’ve explored all the cracks and crevices of my psyche, and I cannot unknow what I’ve learned. It’s quite uncomfortable really; having OCD feels like never-ending self flagellation combined with various feedback loops of panic that overlap into one another. You become your own thought police, and you essentially engage in a form of self torture as each thought enters your sphere of awareness. This article does a phenomenal job of describing this terrifying cycle. OCD is so much more than rituals and compulsions; it is a mental prison.
Sex and death were my two arch nemeses.
Nearly all of my intrusive thoughts involved one or both of these, and it turned into a living nightmare — I couldn’t eat or sleep or function properly due to these fixations, and by age 19, it was time for intensive therapy twice a week. I learned quickly that exposure therapy, as much as I hated it, was the most effective way to stomp the OCD loops into submission.
I took this knowledge with me after 6 months of professional help, and ever since then, my life has involved me building my activities and pursuits around neatly stacked bundles of exposures. For example, I still nearly lose it sometimes when my at-home routine gets interrupted by anything, but I also schedule social nights in my home that involve an intentional disruption of my comfort zone. On a larger scale, I have done a lot of stage work and performance in order to overcome obsessions I previously had about crowds. I also delved head first into the world of sexual exploration and BDSM, because it made me so uncomfortable. (As a side note, I cannot advocate enough for the use of BDSM in managing OCD and PTSD. It sounds like alphabet soup, but the methods can be surprisingly beneficial).
Still, I knew I’d have to deal with the death obsession at some point.
I knew as I was driving to the house to go pick up the sword that it was an important moment. It was time to fire the audience in my head (years before I would ever hear of this concept), get in the driver’s seat, and do something that scared the absolute hell out of me. My mental judge panel never knew what hit them; they were fired, and I owed them nothing.
I had been involved in circus performance, but this was different. This could kill me. The most common injury for a sword swallower is a perforated esophagus, and you can probably guess how easy it is to recover from that. The average time it takes to learn sword swallowing is between 4 and 7 years, and that’s a lot of time to invite mistakes and serious injury. Here I was, about to willingly take on this life-threatening endeavor, after all my years of fearing death. I was going to face it head on, with the help of a wonderful teacher who I will forever be grateful for.
It was hard. (No, it’s not fake. Some magicians have trick swords, but they aren’t sword swallowers. I have the x rays to prove my authenticity). There’s a reason only about 100 people in the world do this, and through my teacher’s guidance and my own focus, I became one of them. I then went on to set a Guinness World Record for the fastest straitjacket escape while sword swallowing — 47.94 seconds.
Take that, OCD.
If it wasn’t for that insane form of exposure therapy, I never would have met some of the most important people in my life, and I never would have had some of the most important experiences of my life. As far as I know, I would have continued living in a bubble, afraid of anything on the outside of it, and I wouldn’t have toured the U.S. or seen some of the most beautiful places in the world.
This isn’t to say that my OCD is gone. It’s not. OCD doesn’t go away; it just transforms. It will always be the white noise in my brain, and sometimes it’s so loud that I can’t concentrate on any other sound. It is how I’m wired — but I sure as hell sleep better at night knowing I have proof of my ability to face my biggest demons. This will always hurt me on some level, but the OCD is absolutely dwarfed by the sum of my life experiences thus far.