On numerous occasions since we’ve been together, the Doc has referred to a period in his youth when he was a rather good fast bowler. Until he got ‘the yips’. Now, being the huge cricket enthusiast that he continues to be, I can discern a slight forlornness in his eyes when we stumble upon a cricket match in a park and he stops to watch. Sometimes I encourage him to join an amateur men’s team, but he won’t. As if something he once loved is irrepairably damaged.
For sports fans reading this (if indeed, there are any), the concept of ‘the yips’ will be familiar to you. For those unfamiliar with it, you can probably guess what it entails: a spasm or blockage in the brain that effects motor skills in the short game. While recent studies suggest there may be neurological underpinnings to what has traditionally been assumed an anxiety or stress related problem, the yips is still considered an issue with psychological causes.
Recently, I have had my own brush with the yips. Obviously not sports based (don’t be ridiculous!), but more eyeball to brain. I’d like to think that each of us—even the most conscientious, fastidious and accomplished professionals—have periods in their life when they slip up. That’s what I tell myself at least. After all, not everything can be smooth-sailing, or else, how would we learn? Fucking up is an important aspect of development and learning. ‘It’s okay; everyone makes mistakes,’ I’m often consoled; ‘You’ll never do it again.’ But what if that isn’t true? What if you aren’t able to explain away your fuck-ups as “learning experiences”, but simply a stream of fuck-ups? Are your capacities deteriorating? Were you even any good in the first place? Is this a slow, inexorable decline into mediocrity and abject failure?
My yips came in the form of a poor work performance. It was work I had been doing for a couple of years and seldom had any issues with—the occasional mild criticism perhaps, but generally, I was a fairly exemplary worker. Then one day, on this occasion, I completely dropped the ball, so to speak. I had a gut feeling when I submitted the work that something was amiss with it, but then, I always have a certain level of anxiety about these things, bubbling away in the pits of my stomach. Sure enough, an hour or so later, an email glares at me from my inbox, telling me that I should consider this a written warning.
The sensation was horrendous. I was rife with self-loathing; angry at myself and wanting to be physically sick. Worst of all, I didn’t really know what the catalyst had been for the substandard performance. I was tired, sure, but I’d been tired for the last two years. My office is located in my dining room—not ideal obviously, but no different from what it has been the last twelve months. Had I been complacent? Doubtful; I’m too nervous and neurotic for that.
In the end, I chalked it up to a bad day and tried to let it rest. Ultimately, work was understanding (I blamed the children) and supported me through subsequent small jobs.
A couple of months on, I managed to secure some more work leads which was a real boon for me as a freelancer. Then, when the first job was presented to me, the same issue arose. I had been given a new platform to show my professional credentials and I fucked it up in the most basic way imaginable. How could this make me look anything but utterly incompetent? Suffice to say, that new fantastic lead was brought to a very abrupt end.
The sensation this time was far more painful, made worse by the kind but ultimately platitudinous advice people keep giving me. I’m tired, I have two small children, my work environment isn’t ideal, etc, etc. And these are certainly contributing factors, but I don’t think they’re are the culpable cocktail. If I really think about it, the issue is an internal one—possibly exacerbated by stress and exhaustion—and one which feeds into longstanding OCD issues that I have; ones which I’ve often alluded to in previous posts but never properly articulated.
The best way I can describe my particular form of OCD, is like a running monologue in my head which never actually stops. This means that whatever work I’m doing or whatever task I’m attempting to complete, I’m never fully concentrating. There is a constant interference which not only distorts my focus, but infects me with perpetual nagging doubt.
In a work context, this is extremely destructive. While the rational part of my brain is going about its business completing the task at hand, the OCD will be distracting my thoughts with a loop of I hope I don’t miss anything… I hope I don’t fuck anything up…I hope I don’t this… I hope I don’t that... Being neurotic, I will then double check and often triple check my work. But because the interference never stops humming, I won’t always see the mistakes I’ve made—sometimes I will, but not always. This then feeds into a deeper anxiety that I have about not being able to trust my own sight.
It is the disbelieving of my own eyeballs that is the crux of my OCD, to which the Doc can attest. I will look at the stove for example, to check that all the knobs are indicating the off position. They are clearly off, but because I can’t always trust what I’m seeing, I run my finger down alongside them all so I can feel that they are all off. I may do this four or five times. Then do the same with the oven. Then all the taps in the house. Then the iron (which I never use and can see is unplugged and metres away from any socket) and the hair straighteners (which live in the bathroom, far from any socket and which are again, never used).
This is my yips, as it were. When the interference in my brain gains too much momentum and infects my basic faculties, like sight.
Although now, I’m so far down the rabbit hole I’m not entirely sure how to make my way home. The Doc says I should do more work; get back on the horse. But perhaps only gently, doing small undemanding jobs. Yet the fear of another failure is far too much to bear. And I can’t help but think that such grand levels of fear only beget more fuck-ups, such are the laws of self-fulfilling prophecies. It’s like a stutter, as Hank Haney points out in an article in the New Yorker; the nerves didn’t start the stutter, it was there before. But the self-consciousness that the condition created then generated anxiety, which made everything worse.