I was out with a friend the other night (Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Waterloo, London, Beyond Burger, onion rings, Meantime London Lager x2), freaking out about word counts.
If you didn’t know, I signed a contract this Spring to write a book. It’s with a very good publisher. They have offices that look like the sort of place Romans would go to and have orgies. I shouldn’t share exactly what the book is about, but it’s essentially about my two decade plus battle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, told from the perspective of a man who has interviewed and hung out with many famous people, travelled the globe and made lots and lots of magazines at the same time. When I signed my contract, which I did a month after yet another complete OCD-fuelled mental collapse, I was, I think, very happy, given the circumstances.
I’ve always wanted to write a book. I didn’t think it would be this one, but needs must.
And yet, in the months that have passed since, the deep well of terror that exists in the gut of all OCD sufferers has started to swell. Bubble. Froth. I’m not sure I can do this. I’m not sure I want to do this. I’m not sure that I physically and mentally have the strength to go into the disorder, pick at the scars and try to make a palatable story out of my life. Years ago I was so obsessed and distressed with what I perceived to be the incorrect symmetry of my face, I drew lines upon it in Sharpie and planned to practice surgery on myself. The only reason I didn’t slice my face to bits is because my flatmate came home and I freaked out. Also, I remembered I owed the NME a cover feature with Muse and didn’t want to let them down.
Do I want that in print? Do I want my mum to read that? Do I want a future child to read that? But I think these stories need to be told.
That was heavy. Shall we pause and listen to the Ramones?
“James. Why are you writing the book?” asks my friend.
I love my friend. They were an early confidant. They came along at a point in my life where I was severely mentally ill, but more frightened of anyone knowing I was mentally ill and thereby being forced to stop writing about music (which I just presumed would happen!), than the terrifying visions and obsessions that were taking place in my head. I couldn’t bare the idea of not writing about music. What will I do with the sounds in my head if I can’t get them down on paper? When my friend told me about their own history with mental illness, the two of us then sharing stories of mental health units, bad meds and being frightened of our minds, I genuinely felt the weight of my soul lift. It genuinely felt akin to what I imagine being baptised might feel like, my body being plunged into the cold Delta. I am not alone now.
“Um…” I say to my friend. There’s a pause. There’s been some appalling stuff happen to me in recent years. There are some people who have been appalling to me. Stuff I wish I wasn’t so afraid to tell people about, stuff and shame I’ve taken on myself. The temptation to document this stuff in print is strong. But I don’t want to write a book that is fuelled by anger and bile. That isn’t who I am, I’ve resisted being that even when my illness has threatened to take over. Besides, before that stuff happened, the other stuff did - the stuff I didn’t understand and which was subsequently terrifying. Every person with OCD has a similar story. “One day I woke up and everything was bad and I didn’t know what was happening to me…” One day, when I was 19, I woke up and I thought that every liquid I saw had the HIV virus in it. Things have got better since then. That theme has long gone, but the young man I was the day before I woke up? I can’t get at him, I can’t reach him, I’ve been trying every day for twenty plus years.
“I am writing the book that my 19 year old self needed to read,” I tell my friend.
My friend smiles. “So shut up and write your book. This book has to exist.”
“But finish your onion rings first.”
Here is how I plan to make the book exist.
In recent months, illness has stripped me from the regularity I used to write for newspapers and magazines. My dad dying wiped me out. It hasn’t been an easy life in recent years. Somewhere in my spirit I know I can do more, am capable of much more, but I don’t think my brain wants to believe me. Being published less frequently has been a great disappointment in my recent life, though I still have a few regulars who I’m grateful to. In fact, my next task today is to file my outstanding commissions before I press pause on freelance work until further notice. I do have a few regular Spoook commitments too - publishing Here is the music I am listening to this week twice a week on this platform and a few episodes of The James McMahon Music Podcast in and around that. On the former, I’m pressing pause on the newsletter after this Friday’s edition for a month or so while I get the book finished. On the latter, I’ve got a few outstanding episodes I need to publish, and then I’m doing the same.
[General housekeeping! If you’re a paid Spoook subscriber, don’t worry, I’m going to pause payments until I’m back, then they’ll resume and run as they have done. As ever, I’m hugely grateful for your support.]
This book has to exist. Sure, it’s not as important as finding a fix for the melting ice-caps. It’s not as important as holding the powers that be who would have us shiver and starve to account. It might not matter to you. It might matter to you. But to me, this book is the reason I’m getting up tomorrow and then every day thereafter. I have to let you know what this illness has done to me, what it has maybe done to you, what it might have done to one of your loved ones, what isn’t understood about it (which should take up much of my word-count), what can be done to help people with it - and I’ve also got a brilliant anecdote about the time I interviewed Bono I need to share. This stuff that has happened to me, this torment that I’ve carried… it has to be for something. This book of mine has to be something that exists and I push on from. I’ve written a few suicide notes in my time. I plan not to ever write one again, but if this has to be a suicide note to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I’m game.
And besides, if the thoughts haven’t done me in yet, I don’t think words and paper stand much of a chance, do you?
See you when I see you.
You have survived 100% of your worst days. I believe in you.
Can't wait to read the book.
You’re a very compulsive writer, James. Impossible not to just carry on reading.