by James Killough
Alan Cumming has a new site up dedicated to obsessions, itsasickness.com. I would say it celebrates passions more than obsessions in the truest sense of the word, and I am hanging on the truest sense because the site does have “sickness” in its title. And sick obsession reminds of the time I went truly mentally ill and stalked a former lover.
Knowing Alan as I do, he probably means sickness as in the recent colloquialism “That is so sick,” like it’s a really good thing. In the video up on the site right now, Zoe Kravitz is obsessed with a green dragon plushie costume, with how it makes her feel empowered. This isn’t my particular experience of people obsessed with plushie. The plushophiles I’ve met are rather lovable, extreme introverts who like to dress up as cartoon characters and have kinky sex.
I had a brush with plushophilia and diaper fetishists back in the early Noughties through a friend, Gene, who also had extreme social anxiety disorder (SAD). Gene was one of a trio of people who would trigger the mnemonic that gave rise to my play Hatter, the film version of which Alan Cumming has been attached to, just so you follow my meandering train of thought. Gene had some hilarious stories about “furries” and diaper fetishists. I’d say any passion that makes you actually go out and buy an adult-sized chipmunk costume with holes cut in the crotch, or inspires you to build enormous cribs as sex-play areas constitutes a genuine obsession.
The Big Bang genesis moment of Hatter happened one sunny Sunday morning over brunch in the Los Feliz area of LA. I was coming down from a long weekend. I was with Gene and a very eccentric stylist, whom I shall call Danny (if you’re reading this, David, yes, that’s you). I was still so high I could see bubbles coming out of my head. Atoms in the air around me were dancing like sparkling pixies.
Danny was wearing a large straw cowboy hat, ginormous Gucci sunglasses, and was as much the outrageous extrovert as our friend Gene was the sheepish, taciturn wallflower. Gene’s Shiba Inu dog had a similar temperament and was cowered under the al fresco table while I picked through my huevos rancheros, trying unsuccessfully to stay anchored to this reality. Danny waffled on in a hilarious monologue worthy of Eddie Izzard.
At a certain point, Minnie Driver walked by, stopped in her tracks and proclaimed in that received pronunciation British accent, “Is that a Shiba Inu? Oh, but I love Shiba Inus!” Then Minnie swooped down with a celebrity’s noblesse oblige and tried to pet Gene’s dog, which, had it not been on a leash, would have bolted for the safety and obscurity of the Hollywood Hills. SAD-riddled Gene himself was so stricken by the advent of a famous person he hadn’t been corresponding with for six months via email prior to actually speaking to her that his chin dropped to his chest as he curled into himself and didn’t answer. That was okay: Danny immediately picked up whatever slack there was and engaged Minnie in British-talk-show-worthy banter.
As I looked at the three of them — Danny with his straw cowboy hat and outsized, random personality; Minnie Driver peppering him with questions and repartee; Gene retreating into himself like a hermit crab — I saw the scene in a different way: this was the mad tea party from Alice in Wonderland. Danny the Mad Hatter was a stylist… no, let’s ratchet it up… he was a fashion designer, the world’s most influential fashion designer. And Minnie Driver/Alice asked a lot of questions so she was a… journalist, a fashion journalist who had the goods on Hatter. And curled-up Gene was clearly the Dormouse fast asleep at the table. And I was Mark Hare, the blocked artist who had gone crazy last March.
The reason I saw this inspiring configuration in an innocent brunch in Los Feliz wasn’t just because my reality was so chemically altered that I was channeling Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s because I had become obsessed with insanity a year or so before, following my obsessive relationship with a man whose name I shall camouflage densely by calling him Graham. I really had gone crazy the March before.
The relationship with Graham was obsessive from the start, for both of us. Without getting into too much detail, we couldn’t be within two feet of each other without diving into tornado, clothes-shredding, thrown-against-the-wall sex. It was off the hook, as they said back at the turn of the century. It was sick, as they say now.
For weeks after meeting Graham, I drove around beaming. He was absolutely perfect. He looked like Clark Kent, he was so masculine you could never tell he was into (text redacted, too raunchy) or liked (again, too raunchy), much less (ditto). A former rugby player from Ahmerst, therefore from my neck of the woods in the northeast (I went to Wesleyan, a similar college with football team ties to Ahmerst), he was an environmental engineer who worked for Texaco. A decidedly normal person, the genuine frat jock of my dreams. I told myself this was too good to be true. And if you ever tell yourself that, it is likely that it is, indeed, too good to be true.
Little things started to pop up after about three months together. For a start, his name wasn’t wasn’t what he told me it was. This was explained away in a convoluted manner: he’d had a difficult relationship with his family since college and was in the process of making a clean start by changing his name. We started to get into arguments over the silliest things, to the extent I felt I was walking on eggshells. After one blow-out, he sent me the conditions of continuing a relationship with me in an email. It appeared God had spoken to him on the 101 freeway and had laid out the ground rules for a further relationship with me. The email read like a biblical psalm, in couplets.
At that juncture, I was still agnostic. I had yet to convert to orthodox atheism. I called a spiritual friend of mine who also happened to be a psychologist and asked her what she thought about God speaking to someone in a human voice. “Of course He doesn’t,” she replied. “But it does sound like the primary symptoms of schizophrenia.”
I went online and asked Lord Google, God of Everything and Everything Else, what He thought about schizophrenia. Like most people I had up until then vaguely associated with Multiple Personality Disorder. Everything fell into place. Graham was a text-book case. If not outright schizophrenic, then he was schizoaffective.
Long story short, I tried my best to overlook Graham’s mental illness and love him anyway, but, me being crazy myself, I kept triggering his psychotic episodes.
Graham was seriously unhinged. Nothing he had told me about himself, like being an environmental engineer at Texaco or having gone to Ahmerst, was true. His particular brand of religiosity, his special relationship with God, another common trait among schizos, was a threesome in our relationship more irksome than Camilla Parker-Bowles inserting herself between Di and Charlie Windsor.
In my passive-aggressive way, I forced Graham to break up with me. I was fine for the first six months afterwards. I was relieved. Graham soon met someone else and because I loved him, I wanted him to be happy. Then, one morning in October, six months after we split up, I woke up transformed into an obsessive. I was convinced I’d made a terrible mistake. Graham was the love of my life. But my love hadn’t been strong enough to simply overlook his schizo-ness. I was wrong and I had to have him back. But he wouldn’t have me. By then he was living with his new lover and had moved on to another life. So I did what any obsessed writer would do and wrote him a fifteen thousand-word love letter confessing everything, how I knew about his mental illness, how it had affected me, and on and on and on and on.
I titled that love manifesto The Heart Sutra after the Buddhist text. The day after I sent it to him via email, I ran into Graham at a gas station in Hollywood while I was ranting about him on the phone to some poor friend, who was probably plotting an intervention with my other friends, that’s how far I’d gone off the rails with this. I took this bizarrely coincidental encounter as a sign from God. Had to be. Or I pretended I took it as a sign from God and tried to manipulate Graham into seeing it that way himself. But he saw right through it and shut me out even further: his changed his email address and he put a block on his phone for incoming calls from my number.
My obsession did have a positive outlet. I teamed up with brilliant, edgy, outsider comedian Adam Barnhardt and put up a one-man show called Insanity, Texas, which ran for four months in LA to rave reviews, no mean feat in a town that has no real theater scene, only showcases for unemployed TV and movie actors trying to impress agents. Insanity was my second love manifesto to Graham. The third was to be Hatter.
I was respectful of Graham’s need to keep me at a distance. I don’t think he ever felt seriously threatened because I never actually threatened him, I just whined and cried a lot.
In Italy, where I was raised, what Americans consider “stalking” is actually seen as an ardent sign of affection, indelible proof of undying love. It doesn’t mean it’s any less mentally imbalanced, but in the US you’d probably get slapped with a restraining order if you serenaded someone under her balcony, and your friend Cyrano de Bergerac would be arrested as an accomplice.
I did lose composure once. After Alan Cumming attached himself to Hatter and we had a blinking green light for it, I moved to London and my ardor toward Graham cooled slightly. But on a trip back to LA for meetings, I went on another bender, which led to a psycho tangent and another attempt to win Graham back.
I knew that he had acquired a dog, which he loved more than anything in the world. I also knew Graham’s real name, his social security number, the various places he had lived his whole life, where his family really was, etcetera. Yes, I was dangerously obsessed, but it was also creepy to be in a relationship with someone for eight months who has lied to you about everything from his name to his college to what he does for a living. You need to know, ya know?
So I grabbed a friend’s dog and drove to where he lived. I figured the dogs could play together while we patched it up. Actually, in hindsight I don’t know what I was thinking; bubbles were coming out of my head again. I got to the porch of the house he shared with the new boyfriend and noticed it was literally surrounded by a white picket fence. Graham had found his stability, and here I was, out of my mind on drugs and infatuation, or whatever it was, doing my best to destabilize that.
I heard Graham’s dog barking inside in reaction to the presence of my own borrowed pooch. The new boyfriend answered the door and was very nervous. He didn’t look at all like what I had imagined over and over he would be: bigger than me, far better looking, and better hung. In reality, he was a small, nervous, plain, rather effete guy tugging on the cord of his hoodie. I am fairly imposing: 6’3”, two hundred and ten pounds of gay middle-aged Sean Connery.
The boyfriend denied that Graham even lived there. The dog inside barked again, mine whimpered in response. I heard Graham’s distinctive voice silencing her. In that moment, feeling the fool, realizing that I’d achieved far from just from the experience of my relationship with Graham than actually being with him, I came to my senses. I apologized, backed away from the door and disappeared into the night, never to stalk him again.