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TIME OUT OF MIND - Bearden Coleman

TIME OUT OF MIND - Bearden Coleman

I started running because I saw a picture of myself. The picture was on my phone. I can’t tell you who took the photo or why it was taken. But I remember seeing the picture and the effect it had on me. I can still see it some four years later. The picture has me in profile. I’m outdoors, possibly at a park. Other people are in the frame in the way back. I’m wearing baggy shorts and a t-shirt. I look hot. I have a beard and very thin hair on top of my head. I’m in movement—possibly jogging or walking—from right to left. And here’s the thing: I look entirely shapeless. I have no definition. I don’t mean this is in a vain I-wish-my-abs-were-ripped way. It’s true that I was about forty pounds overweight. But that’s not what startled me. What I mean is that I looked at the picture and saw nothing that defined me as physical or spiritual being. I looked, to my eyes, like a man barely there. 

This was the summer of 2013, which means I was thirty-seven years old. It also means it had been over six years since I had been clinically diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Lord knows how many years the disorder had pinned me down before the diagnosis. Fifteen? Twenty? Thirty-seven years? 

Say it: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Just don’t call it OCD.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder isn’t OCD. OCD is what you call your roommate or spouse who is tidy. OCD is what you like to call yourself when you are the organized one on a work project. But please hear me out. That’s not the condition I’m talking about. That’s why I want you to say it: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. For most people, OCD is a cute, perhaps admirable, quality. But Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is hideous. To be obsessive is to be given to unnatural excess. To be compulsive is to have little or no control over how you respond to the anxiety provoked by this foul excess. To have a disorder is to have a socially unacceptable condition. 

So what was it exactly for me? Without going into the ins and outs of my particular brand of the disorder, it’s enough to say that it was hiding in bathrooms at work; it was drawing the blinds at home on sunny days; it was ruminating on phrases and words for long stretches of time; it was avoiding my children. I stopped reading books. I stopped looking people in eye. I stopped playing my guitar. I changed how I dressed. I closed my eyes on the subway on my way to work. I refused offers to go out with friends. I did anything and everything I could to shut myself off from others and from encounters with the world. And when that failed, when I made unwanted contact with others and my surroundings, I prayed to God, asking for forgiveness ten, twenty, thirty times, because surely I had acted improperly. Surely I had done something wrong. It was all of this and more until the disorder managed to start erasing me. And that’s what I saw when I looked at that picture of myself in the summer of 2013: a man erased. 

I tried the usual routes toward wholeness. I burned through mental health specialists, spending thousands of dollars in the process. I took pills daily—up to three at a time— on the specialists’ advice. I regularly asked a small group of friends from my church to pray for me. I tried begging God, down on my knees or face down on the floor of my bedroom, for healing. I tried my hardest to act normal. 

But then in the summer of 2013, in the most literal (and least metaphorical) way, I began to pick my feet up off the ground and put one foot in front of the other—I started to move. I started to run. And it saved me. 

*    *    *

I began watching the films of Yasujiro Ozu somewhere around 2010. My friend Matt who ran a film screening series through our church in Brooklyn told me about Tokyo Story. This was the year, to borrow a line from the great Pauline Kael, I lost it for the movies. I had been a written word guy. Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, Thomas McGuane. Those were my people. Their words were a conduit to something greater than myself. I’d gone to graduate school down in Texas and earned a MFA degree in creative writing with the desire to show others what my heroes had shown me. But that near-mystical sway the written word held over me began to fade around 2010. Looking back, it’s clear that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder did it in.

This is really hard to explain. But I’ll give it a go. Reading (like most daily activities) became impossible as my disorder worsened because I nearly always got stuck. “Stuckness” is the hallmark of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. For example, I would start a book, say Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, read the first sentence and think to myself that I didn’t quite get the meaning on the first pass. This is typical enough for any reader, so I’d read the sentence again. But the second and third time through wouldn’t satisfy me that I understood the words on the page. I’d read the sentence a fourth, fifth, and sixth time. But I’d still have serious doubts that I understood its meaning. I would read it again. Inevitably, somewhere around the sixth or seventh time running my eyes over the text I would get an ugly intrusive thought. 

Like I said, this is really hard. So bear with me. 

These intrusive and irrational thoughts are at the core of my brand of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. These thoughts are the kind that tell you the ugliest lies about yourself. They tell you you’re a creep, a deviant, a pervert, a misfit. They are staggeringly specific. And they throttle you until you can hardly breathe. Where do they come from and why would reading a novel from your favorite writer provoke such thoughts?  I’m still not sure, but to engage the thoughts and try to convince yourself you’re not a creep is step into quicksand, to enter into an argument with yourself you’ll never win. You’ll ruminate on these thoughts for five, seven, ten minutes. You’ll read the sentence in front of you again and again, looking for signs that you can move on, for signs that you’re not “bad.” But you can’t move on because you’re stuck. You’ll shut the book. You’ll give up. I gave up. 

At the peak of my suffering, this kind of stuckness happened with almost every daily activity. Grading papers (did I grade these fairly?), washing dishes (did I wash off all the germs completely?), getting dressed (am I wearing this shirt to impress other women?).  These kinds of questions took up a good 80% of my day. The loss of time taken from me by these ruminations is deeply saddening. And because Obsessive Compulsive Disorder came after what touched me most—books—I was emotionally and spiritually leveled. But then came the cinema of Ozu. 

As the written word became increasingly difficult to interact with, I found solace in moving images. In 2010 I dedicated myself to seriously watching films—watching at least one film a day. I made it very nearly a second job, not just a hobby. I could never watch enough. I watched American films from the studio system’s golden era. I watched French films from the 60s and Italian films from the 50s. I watched westerns and musicals and gangster films. I watched Iranian films from the 90s and American screwball comedies from the 30s. I watched films at home on my television late into the night. Pierrot le fou. Johnny Guitar. Close-Up. The Long Goodbye. I watched films on my laptop in bed. Germany Year Zero. Notorious. Pickpocket. All that Heaven Allows. I watched all the films the repertory cinemas in New York City exhibited. Rio Bravo. The Grand Illusion. Bringing up Baby. The Mirror. Gun Crazy. I was voracious and undiscriminating. 

What was it about cinema that assuaged the grief caused by my disorder? I think it has everything to do with cinema’s essential property: time. As Andrei Tarkovsky wrote, “I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: for time lost or spent or not yet had.” Tarkovsky is right: cinema gave back to me that time I’d wasted obsessing. I don’t know that I could have articulated that then back in 2010, but it’s clear now that time was what I desperately needed. And no films gave back more time than Ozu’s. 

*    *    *

Running for me is about two different kinds of time. The first kind of time has to do with pushing myself physically—how fast can I run a certain distance? I found out soon after I started running in that summer of 2013 that I was decent at this kind of time. This came as a surprise to me: I was good at something I’d never thought much about. I understood this about myself when I ran my second half marathon in an hour and a half. That is not an exceptionally fast time. But for someone in his mid-to-late thirties who had been overweight and extraordinarily out of shape seven months prior, it was a miracle. After that race I took to running as seriously as I took to watching films. 

Thirty-eight, thirty-nine years old. How did I get that disciplined? So late? I still wonder. That’s late for what I was doing. Daily I punished body in the blue-black predawn. This was Brooklyn, the place I’d called home for thirteen years. The place I entered into married life. The place where my wife and I started our family—two girls, one from Ethiopia one from China. And there I was running myself ragged to the absolute end of myself. Every day running that stretch of Kent Avenue in Williamsburg that hugged the East River. Seven to ten miles a day. Upwards of sixty miles a week. My knees ached. I iced my feet at night. I woke at 5AM on bitterly cold February mornings to run myself blind. I began watching what I ate, counting calories, to make my body lean. I ran intervals around the McCarren Park track while most of the city slept.      

I did all of this chasing that first kind of time. And it worked. My times in the marathon and half marathon got faster. I qualified in my age group for the prestigious Boston Marathon. I even placed in a couple of races. And as bad as all that work may sound to some folks, for me it was fun. 

It’s the other kind of time, however, that lodged me out of the “stuckness” of my disorder. This kind of time is the literal hours I spent on my feet running each week and the way those hours expanded in my mind— the way this literal time exerting my body everyday helped to recover the hours, days, and weeks lost to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Running upwards of sixty miles every seven days translates to running around eight hours a week. And while I logged some of those hours with my local running club, I also spent a good deal of those hours solo—from my home in Brooklyn, up through Queens, over the 59th Street Bridge, around Central Park, down the east side of Manhattan, back home via the Williamsburg Bridge. All that time alone—just me and my thoughts—would seemingly be a nightmare scenario for someone like me with my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Wouldn’t all that time to think and let my mind wonder cause spasms of anxiety? You would think so. But the opposite was true. I discovered that no thoughts (tame or harmful) stuck with me when I was up on my feet running. In those hours alone I found a beautiful nothingness.

When I tell people I’m an avid runner, I’m often asked if I listen to music or podcasts when running. I’ve tried that. But no, I can’t listen to anything on my daily runs. Listening to The Rolling Stones or Terry Gross has a way of putting me in touch with the day-to-day time I associate with my disorder. It has a way of making my runs feel longer and pained. “Then you must come up with a lot of great ideas out there by yourself.” This is another thing people say when I tell them I don’t wear headphones on my runs. But it’s not true either. I don’t have any ideas when I run. It’s not that I haven’t made the effort. I’ve tried thinking about work or writing. But I simply can’t. It’s a beautiful mercy—I think of nothing. The literal time on my feet transmutes to an abstract experience of time that encourages me to be simply present. Here I am climbing Cat Hill in the park. Here I am down among the warehouses in Red Hook. Here I am in Lane One. The only thought I had: Here I am.

Call this a religious or spiritual experience. Call it what you will. I can’t figure it out and I don’t want to. 

*    *    *

I can’t figure out the films of Yasujiro Ozu either. I mean their plots are as simple they come— a mother dies, a daughter marries, a widower learns to live on his own. What I couldn’t understand (still can’t really) is how his films leave me feeling balanced, for lack of a better, more concrete word. This isn’t just a balance in my mind, though it is that too. But the first, most immediate sensations his films give me are of the physical sort: a balance in my head, my lungs, my legs, my hands. A balance that counteracts the jaggedness in my soul caused by my disorder. 

In the fall of 2011 I went back to graduate school to study cinema. I told my wife, my friends, my colleagues at the college where I taught, my thesis advisor at the university I attended, and, even, myself that I was going back to school to get qualified to teach cinema courses alongside my writing classes. But now with the distance of a few years, it’s apparent that I went back to school for another reason altogether. I wanted to understand why Ozu’s films ameliorated the anxiety caused by my mental and spiritual illness. In other words, I attended classes at night after long days at work, wrote papers in the spaces between other professional and personal obligations, and took out hefty loans because of my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

I’ve since stopped trying to figure out why his films have their particular, healing effect on me. Graduate school—as engaging, fun, and intellectually stimulating as it was—only got me so far in comprehending my relationship with Ozu. No amount of theory about montage or mise-en-scene could really tell me why his films work on me like they do. And that is okay. I no longer need to know. I just need the films. 

It’s in the films themselves, after all, where I find reprieve. It’s in the way Ozu tends to elide dramatic events like weddings and funerals, instead choosing to linger in the empty rooms of the home, the bar, and the office long after the action of a given scene has ended. It’s in the way Ozu’s camera patiently contemplates trains, smokestacks, and clotheslines, not for explicable narrative reasons but for the way the spaces captured in the frame speak to a wholeness of the fractured world.

These kinds of spaces—and the temporal way Ozu treats them—are rarely given form in narrative cinema because they offer up no apparent causal clues for the plot driven spectacles that clog up the multiplexes. And that is a shame. It’s in these spaces that I first sensed Ozu making time—that thing I most desperately needed as a corrective for my disorder and that most elusive material—concrete and something to be felt. As Ozu’s biographer Donald Richie puts it, “clock time ceases to exist” in Ozu’s films. Indeed, the kind of time I found in Ozu was blessedly out of sync with the everyday time (minutes, hours, days, weeks, months) my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder tended to distort. Ozu-time, on the other hand, restores. So time is the great gift Ozu gave me, a tangible thing that hangs on and expands inside of me, to borrow an image from Flannery O’Connor. I can explain it no better. It evades close analysis. In my case, it discourages reason. But like I said, I just need the films. That’s enough.

Bearden Coleman teaches writing and cinema studies at Houston Baptist University. When he's not watching films, he's training to break three hours in the marathon.

 

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