Infusing hospitalizations and breakdowns with satire and humor, 2009 Swarthmore graduate Fletcher Wortmann’s recently released memoir “Triggered” chronicles the mind of a young man living with OCD in a world where even the most banal happening can prompt an episode. Begun during his time at Swarthmore, “Triggered” follows Wortmann in his progression from pre-adolescent dinosaur collector to college-aged Swarthmore survivor with uncompromising honestly, unabashed resentment and an unflinching dedication to exposing the workings of a mind plagued by intrusive thoughts. The memoir was released in early April and published by Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin’s Press based in New York City.
Although Wortmann began seeing psychologists at the age of six, he wasn’t diagnosed with OCD until his sophomore year at Swarthmore. This failure to correctly diagnose his symptoms, which included an inability to move past apocalyptic end-of-the-world scenarios once introduced into his thoughts, led to an accumulation of resentment towards the therapists/counselors/medical professionals who failed to offer him proper treatment. The confusion on their part most likely stemmed from the internal nature of Wortmann’s disorder: unlike the archetypal OCD, Wortmann’s did not manifest itself externally in compulsive cleanliness or counting, but rather existed entirely in his mind.
Wortmann defines OCD in his memoir in various moments, focusing his attention on its characteristic rituals (hand washing, counting) as responses to the uncertainty inherent in the world. He writes, “While I am unusual in that obsession has compromised and occasionally endangered my life, I believe that obsessive and compulsive tendencies are universal. Each of us attempts, at times, to live inside our minds. Each of us is vulnerable to the sick principle that we could, if only we thought long enough and hard enough, invent a way to compensate for the objective terrors of the world.” For Wortmann, living in his mind includes thinking up complex escape scenarios and replaying them again and again in response to intrusive end-of-the-world thoughts.
Throughout his memoir, Wortmann attempts to distinguish between the typical angst and anxiety experienced by people in their day-to-day lives and the effects of his disorder, but sometimes notes that delineation is difficult. Intrusive thoughts are exacerbated by stressful situations; he experienced “social paralysis” growing up, and writes in his memoir of being “rendered mute and motionless” by the anxiety induced in his desire for validation from his peers. While the events he describes are universal (high school hell, the first kiss, first love, the crippling workload of Swarthmore academics), the complications arising from his disorder are unique, and portrayed with quirky honesty throughout his memoir.
Wortmann first began work on “Triggered” while at Swarthmore, publishing installments in The Phoenix during the spring of his senior year under the pseudonym Hamlet Wrenncroft. His columns served as the framework for his memoir, with many of the chapters retaining their names and content. His chapter “Songs from the Big Chair” relates to Swarthmore in more ways than its title as it explores the stress-ridden, masochistic nature of the college through the unapologetic lens of Wortmann’s own suffering at the hands of the institution. Describing his peers as participating in “ritual flagellation,” enduring “unbearable trauma to achieve things that do not matter,” and “[lionizing] personal suffering in the service of abstract goals,” he paints a picture of an environment fueled on needless stress and hollow values.
Alexandra Israel ’11, co-editor of the Living & Arts section during the spring of 2009, remembers Wortmann proposing his fully-formulated idea for the column before the editorial board. He wanted to publish under the condition that major edits would not be made to his pieces, which, as Israel recalls, never became an issue. He adopted his pseudonym for future employment reasons, not wanting potential employers to come across his name in conjunction with his institutionalization during sophomore year. However, with his picture appearing beside his column every week, Wortmann opted out of anonymity on campus.
“I loved Swat, and never really had any problems with the administration … that being said, it is a pressure cooker,” Israel said in a phone interview. “It’s a lot of work, and for someone who already had issues, I can see how Swat could exacerbate those. I think [Wortmann’s] critique of Swarthmore is productive … it’s not a bad thing to talk about how the administration may be failing to meet students’ expectations or needs.”
His personal story and critique of the college in The Phoenix did not elicit “legions of adoring fans,” as Wortmann writes. Causing relatively little stir, the pieces nonetheless accomplished what their author saw as their completely selfish purpose; he writes in his first installment, “This column is my attempt to make sense of a lifetime of unhappiness. I’ve had my face dragged in fifteen miles of very heavy psychic shit, and I do not like it. I am a proverbial angry young man and this column is a middle finger the size of the Chrysler building, aimed indiscriminately and irresponsibly. It is a continuous torrent of venom, much of it directed towards this college, and I invite you, dear reader, to come with me on this horrible cathartic journey. I can only promise it will be repulsive and painful, and you will probably be made very uncomfortable when you see me at lunch.”
While the column may have failed to cause waves on campus, it hit close to home for some. Israel, whose mom was living with high-functioning obsessive disorder, found it fascinating. “[Wortmann’s column] really struck a nerve. The way he talked about his thinking and behavior — how he knew it was completely and totally irrational and couldn’t get out of it — was really compelling,” Israel said. “I sent [the columns] to my mom, and she loved them … [as someone with OCD], you have these thoughts, and other people don’t understand.”
Visiting Professor Gregory Frost first met Wortmann in the English Literature Department’s fiction writing workshop; as they became “unusual friends,” by his own description, he recognized Wortmann’s writing talent and personal strength. “His columns impressed me so much I took them home to show my wife and said, ‘You’ve got to see what this student is doing!’” Frost said of Wortmann’s installments. “It was amazing stuff. I was so impressed that he was creatively channeling what to anyone else might have been debilitating or crippling … he was really writing from the inside out, and I think that’s also true of ‘Triggered.’”
Frost, thanked in the acknowledgements of “Triggered,” reviewed the book as being “An acid bath of self-revelation and recognition — incisive, sardonic, brutally honest. ‘Triggered’ delivers the interior landscape of OCD with rare crystal clarity.”