Sometimes the best way to deal with the demons within is to drag them into the open for everyone to see. Brendan McLeod bravely chose to do just that with his one-man show Brain. With a Gatling-gun monologue, he pulls the curtain back on his sometimes raging obsessive-compulsive disorder and the battle to live a normal life in a world that increasingly seems to be spinning right out of control.
For a long time, the multitalented Vancouverite suffered in silence, something that anyone who has ever lived with the stigma of mental illness will relate to. Interviewed by phone, McLeod remembers being on the cusp of his teens when he learned that he had Pure O, in which the repetitive physical checking often associated with OCD doesn’t appear, the maddening obsessing instead taking place in the mind.
“The narrative of the show is that I was 12 when I first manifested Pure O,” says the playwright. “I didn’t really know what it was, but then I got diagnosed when I was 17, 18 years old. At first I was like, ‘Boom, that’s the end of this, because now I know and I’ve figured it out. There are no problems, because I know what’s going on, and if it ever comes back, I’ll be like, ‘It’s OCD—don’t ever worry about it.’ ” Then came the discovery of just how insidious it can be, and all the different manifestations it can take on. But it was one of the greatest reliefs of my life to find out that I had something, and that I wasn’t just some terrible monster.”
From there began an epic and constant battle to control the thoughts within.
“What I experienced, and a lot of people have experienced, is that OCD ebbs and flows,” McLeod reveals. “It tends to spike in periods of high anxiety and change or transition or stress. I’m pretty much to a T like that. My biggest moments of OCD were when I was going to junior high, which was a big hormonal-raging time. And then again when I moved away from my parents for university and started living by myself. Other periods of high stress have included things related to work environments. I would say it’s never gone, but there are times when it’s way worse than other times.”
Today, McLeod has survived the turbulence to become a playwright, author (The Convictions of Leonard McKinley), decorated slam poet, and founding member of the lauded indie-folk unit the Fugitives. He notes that to meet someone with Pure O is to have no idea of the turmoil within.
“It’s a dual life of inner angst and repetition, while on the outside you try and maintain a flatline, which is to say you’re trying to maintain an outwardly normal disposition,” McLeod says. “People would not know there was an issue unless I told them. But there were times where it gets so bad you don’t want to leave your room and interact with the outside world. That’s part of the compulsion—you will avoid areas that are potentially harmful to your thoughts. So if you’re worried about, I dunno, stabbing your grandfather, you’ll avoid seeing your grandfather.”
One of the most important things someone can do is let others know what’s going on inside. McLeod has ultimately chosen to let the world know with his hyper-personal Brain, which was praised as alternately heartbreaking and hilarious on the way to being named a 2015 Pick of the Vancouver Fringe. But before he decided to give audiences a window onto what was going on inside, he learned that sometimes you have to decide to trust those around you.
“I remember the first time I talked about this with someone—very vividly,” he says. “I talked to psychologists, but wouldn’t name the thoughts or talk about what they are. That was helpful to a certain level, but it was very helpful to name the awful thoughts to someone. It was my very first long-term girlfriend in grad school. It was a big thing where I weighed the pros and cons and wondered, ‘Will I lose this relationship? Is this the beginning of a downward spiral where I tell people and then everyone thinks I’m a monster?’ And it was all anticlimactic. She just laughed and was like, ‘What? You know you’re never going to do that.’ ”
As forthcoming as he is, in an interview situation McLeod isn’t overly eager to reveal what those thoughts were—and, presumably, are. There’s an understandable reason for that. Sometimes the demons are so awful, you have to be careful about when you choose to drag them out into the light.
“The thing about this, and part of the reason that I do the show, is to contextualize the thoughts properly,” he explains. “The problem with just saying what the thought is is that the thought is always really, really horrible. So I try not to say ‘The show talks about this,’ because then people just hear that and they don’t hear anything else. I’ll just say that they are very bad thoughts. OCD goes after what you care about—that’s what people say. Like, a mom worrying about stabbing a newborn baby is a classic case because it’s the worst possible thing you can do to this thing that you love, and it scares people so much they can’t stop thinking about it. So it’s that level of being a terrible, horrifying thing.”
Brain is at the Telus Studio Theatre at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Thursday (November 17).