“This is not a self-help essay”: how I learned to live with obsessive thoughts

Written by Marianne Eloise

In her new book, Obsessive, Intrusive, Magical Thinking, writer Marianne Eloise explores her obsessions, from Medusa and Disneyland to 00s pop-punk. But even after analysing her many fixations, she still doesn’t have all of the answers – and this is not a self-help essay.

I’ve had the same line from the same Fall Out Boy song stuck in my head every morning for the better part of a year.

I’ve moved house, from London to Brighton. I’ve been on vacation and woken up in LA, Paris, Athens, the desert, the countryside. The location changes, but the line in a loop does not. I’ve tried listening to the song, It’s Hard To Say I Do When I Don’t, to see if that shifts it. It’s not even a song I particularly like, although (for my sins) I do love Fall Out Boy. It’s just a line that I heard that got stuck, and now it exists in my head, removed from the song, an eternal figure 8, an ouroboros eating itself. 

There’s a Seinfeld episode where George has Master Of The House from Les Misérables stuck in his head and keeps singing it aloud. Jerry tells him about a composer, Robert Schumann, who heard an A-note in his head towards the end of his life, to the point where he went insane. He had a lot of musical hallucinations, and he was suffering with his mental health anyway, but it scares George all the same. Imagine! Hearing the same sound over and over in your head! Forever! Every day! You might lose it – and I do a bit – but I have learned to try to put that sound in a little room in my head so I can get anything done. 

Sometimes I see someone say they’ve had a song in their head all day and I think: “All day! What a treat!” But I do not have an all-of-one-day brain. I have an all the time, constantly, sometimes for my entire life brain. I have an obsessive brain. In part, probably, because I’m autistic. But also just because I do. It isn’t just songs, although they make up the bulk of it, snippets running over one another and yelling for space. It’s advertising jingles (Mmm Danone! PC World! Yop! Are you hearing them too?) that I sometimes say aloud like a tic. It’s intrusive thoughts, bad ones that scare me and that I can’t erase. It’s things I love and am excited about and that, once I think about them, have to know everything about while my actual responsibilities take a backseat.

This is the way my brain has always worked, at times to the detriment of my mental wellbeing. I’ve had bouts of OCD that stole years of my life and eating disorders that did the same. Even when it’s annoying, and even when it’s made me annoying, and even when some aspects of my neurology have made it basically impossible to exist in the world, I wouldn’t change it. I quite like who I am. Still, I could live without the persistent backing track.

Obsessive, Intrusive, Magical Thinking by Marianne Eloise

I wrote a book of essays about being this way called Obsessive, Intrusive, Magical Thinking. The essays are about lots of things: death, fire, the occult, magic, Medusa, time, pop culture. One of the early Goodreads reviews (that I shouldn’t have read because now I keep thinking about it) expressed annoyance that it was not a self-help book and was, in fact, as advertised, a book of essays about me: “Sorry, but I just do not care.” was a choice line. It’s OK to not care. It is also OK for me to not be in a position to tell you what to do. I am not a doctor! I am just one person who has read multiple books about one ride at Disneyland because that has been my primary special interest for the better part of a decade. I recently rode it five times in a row and they let me go on again through a secret entrance and ride again without getting off – that’s how obsessive I am, noticeably so. What I am not is helpful. 

Others have asked me for tips on overcoming obsessive thoughts and perseveration and all these things, which is silly because I quite clearly have no control over what my brain chooses to do all day. It is an unruly child and I am an exasperated mother.

Above all, the things that work for me are not the things that would work for anyone else. For a start, the things that get stuck in my head or trigger compulsive behaviours are different to everyone else: I spent decades fixated on my fear of Medusa. The sight of a fire engine would kick off days of OCD rituals. Thinking about my dog dying will set off days of compulsive actions and obsessive thoughts. We’re all different. 

For clarity: this is not a self-help essay, either. I still don’t have the answers, and I barely know how to help myself. 

Finding what works for you, if you’re unlucky enough to get stuck in similar thought patterns, will be entirely personal and might take decades of therapy and trial and error. When my obsessive thoughts are overwhelming, or the songs in my head are driving me insane, I have found some things that work. The first was swimming. I learned very young, as soon as I had thoughts, that swimming floods my brain and stops it running quite so fast, even for a while. Something in trying to move my legs and arms in such a way as not to drown, especially in the sea, allows me to organise what I need and discard what I don’t. The silence of underwater, the effort to stay afloat, the distance from others, the constant movement of the waves. It works.

When I was not much older than that, I discovered music. Often loud music where people scream and say mean things and thrash guitars like they don’t want them to work anymore. When I was 11, I started going to shows and I found that as the screams filled my head and I had to work to stand up and not be hit or crushed, I couldn’t think about much else. I found some small freedom from myself pressed up against sweaty bodies with someone else’s Vans in my eye and the spit of a lead singer in my hair. This is many people’s idea of hell, but it works. 

More recently, I had a surprising revelation in the form of reformer pilates, which I’ll now evangelise about to everyone I meet. I have hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), which means I am often in pain and my joints dislocate and subluxate at will. I was recommended reformer pilates first by other EDS friends and then by my rheumatologist and then by a physical therapist, and then I said fine, fuck it, I’ll give it a go. Even though I hate group exercise and am allergic to the narrative of most women-centric workouts (“What do you want to look like in the summer?” Like me, but less annoyed than I am now), I said ‘Fine.’

Reformer pilates is different from mat pilates in that it’s really hard and involves a machine that, if you use it wrong, you’ll probably get hurt. It looks like a mediaeval rack and requires one-on-one teaching at first to make sure you don’t trap your fingers in the springs or fall off the platform. I found, from my first lesson, that my teacher didn’t want to talk about how I would look, like they did in barre. She didn’t want to talk about my heart centre, like they do in yoga. She just wanted to help me to get strong. It worked, and the class I take at least once a week now is the same. A kind woman tells me what to do, how not to overstretch myself and to “stop showing off” if one of my arms bends backwards.

What I was not expecting was that in this mess of limbs and potentially dangerous machinery, my brain would shut up for an entire hour. I come out of pilates feeling not only stronger but calmer, even if it kicks in again pretty swiftly. Reformer pilates, unlike meditation, is busy and difficult enough that it actually shuts up the constant figure eight in my head. I have to think constantly about where my hand is, my footwork, the angle of my hip bone, how straight my head is. I have a nice woman telling me if I’m fucking up, which is often, and it’s hard to have a thought while that’s happening. Again, this might not be anyone else’s idea of a good time. But it works for me. I can’t help you find what works for you. Maybe, in the smallest of ways, I can just help you to realise that you’re not alone. 

Marianne Eloise’s book of essays Obsessive, Intrusive, Magical Thinking is out on 7 April 2022. Find it at Waterstones or your local bookshop.

Images: Ella Kemp

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