Poem Of The Week: OCD // Neil Hilborn

Illustration by Kira Widjaja, Rhode Island Institute of Design

When you have

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,
you don’t really get quiet moments.
Even in bed I’m thinking

did I lock the door yes
did I wash my hands yes
did I lock the door yes
did I wash my hands yes.

But when I saw her, the only thing 
I could think about was the hairpin curve 
of her lips or the eyelash on her cheek

the eyelash on her cheek
the eyelash on her cheek.

This week’s poem is ‘OCD’ by Neil Hilborn. Published in his debut collection, Our Numbered Days, ‘OCD’ details romance from the perspective of someone suffering with a mental health disorder. What had once been the quirky tendencies she had fallen in love with, quickly become challenging to the strength of the relationship, inevitably ending in a breakup from which he struggles to move on.

Neil Hilborn is an American slam poet, considered to be one of the most recognisable faces of the contemporary slam poetry movement. In 2013, Button Poetry released a recording of ‘OCD’ on their YouTube channel; the poem has since amassed 75 million online views, earning the title of “the most-viewed slam performance in history.”

Our Numbered Days contains 45 poems addressing the human tendency to carry emotional baggage. Neil Hilborn encourages us to view our past experiences as opportunities to learn and grow, teaching us to own, rather than bottle up, our emotions. Our Numbered Days gives the sense of an intimate, shared experience, as if each reader has personally connected with Hilborn in a conversation about their lives. 

After watching Hilborn’s powerful performance at the 2013 Rustbelt Regional Poetry Slam, I felt drawn to his simultaneously punchy yet vulnerable style, in which he takes uncomfortable topics and turns them on their head. His unique sense of humour makes his poetry particularly appealing, an accessible way of approaching difficult subject matter. The reason this poem resonates with me now, in the midst of lock-down, is due to the conversations I’ve had with my best friend, who has struggled with anxiety, specifically OCD, for ten years. The pandemic has been a completely different experience for those who regulate obsessive and intrusive thoughts on a daily basis, as it intensifies their anxieties which, in turn, triggers compulsions. Telling someone with OCD to wash their hands for 20 seconds, as per government guidelines, is like telling an alcoholic to have two sips of beer. I have found the poem to be a useful tool in grounding myself, taking time to step outside of my own head and empathise with other’s issues. 

The love interest of the poem pauses the ‘constantly refreshing images’, exploring power dynamics of both the mental disorder and the love object. At first, she appears to be the solution, as powerful as a drug, emphasised by the line ‘everything / in my head went quiet.’ By the end of the poem, it is supposedly clear she was only temporary relief for the narrative persona, because she loved aspects of him he thought were unlovable: ‘She loved / that I had to kiss her goodbye / sixteen times, or twenty-four times / if it was Wednesday.’

However, for me, instead of presenting love as a pause or solution to the disorder, ‘OCD’ highlights the love interest becoming the object of obsession. Mirrored by mounting repetition, the narrative persona becomes increasingly infatuated with the idea of someone accepting his flaws. Then, she begins to become disinterested, marked by the volta: ‘Some mornings, I’d start kissing her / goodbye but she’d just leave because / I was making her late for work,’ at which point the relationship begins to sour and the dependence he has upon her becomes apparent. Rather than ending in romance, she leaves him a broken shell of a man, prompting him to fall further into a depressive state: ‘I want her back so bad, / I leave the door unlocked. / I leave the lights on.’ 

Watching Hilborn perform is an experience everyone should have, to truly understand the vulnerability, intimacy, and passion which drives his poetry.

Words by Dolly Carter

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