Ever since childhood, author Kevin Wilson has lived with disturbing images that flash through his mind without warning.
"I've always had this kind of agitation and looping thoughts and small tics," he says. "Falling off of tall buildings, getting stabbed, catching on fire — they were these just quick, kind of violent bursts in my head."
Not that Wilson would ever harm anyone else — the harm in these quick, intrusive thoughts was strictly internal. The images fed off of his own anxiety, and left him feeling terrified.
It wasn't until Wilson was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome as an adult that he began to understand what he was seeing. At first, he was skeptical of the diagnosis; Tourette's is a neurological disorder often characterized by involuntary vocal or motor tics, and Wilson's version wasn't what he'd seen portrayed on TV or in books.
"Mine is so much more internal," he says. "Those images and looping tics are in my head. And so a lot of the work that I'm doing is just keeping it in there."
One way that Wilson helps control the images is to include them through his writing. His new novel, Nothing to See Here, is about a woman who takes over the care of twin children who burst into flames when they're afraid or angry.
"Writing is, I think, the thing that saved me — being able to transfer what was in my head onto the page," he says. "There's this freedom that once it ... goes out into the world and you publish it, you're kind of free of it for a little while — at least it's somebody else's problem."
On his fascination with spontaneous combustion
I was an anxious kid, and I had all this agitation inside of me, and so it made sense that I just assumed I might burst into flames. It seemed entirely possible. And then as I got older and became a teenager and my anxiety kind of became more understandable, I kind of wanted to burst into flames, like that would burn out all the anxiety inside of me and I'd be kind of clean. So I just kind of wanted that. And so it just repeated in my head over and over again until I decided, "I've got to write about it." Knowing children — I have two little boys — and I think children when they have tantrums or even when they're agitated they look like they're going to combust. It's entirely possible to me that my boys might burst into flames.
On growing up, and hiding the intrusive thoughts he experienced from his family
My family is incredible. We were as close as we could be, like every Friday night when we were teenagers, my sister and I would play canasta with my parents. We were just always with each other. But there was still this kind of hidden part of me that I didn't want to talk about, because I was certain that once it kind of entered the open air it would change everything. ...
If I said, "I have this darkness inside of me," it might destroy the wonderful life that we had all built together — I would be the reason that it started to become complicated, that my agitation would cause anxiety for them. I think they easily could have handled it. They loved me and still love me, but when you're a kid you're not certain. You don't know what's the tipping point. So I hid it.
On what it feels like to have the intrusive thoughts and panic come to him suddenly
They do feel like tics — like, they pop into my brain. And a lot of times I can't predict when it will happen. Sometimes I'm just driving, we're going on a trip and it will hit — and it's this quick. I turn my head a little bit to kind of shake it out to try to break that loop. And there's a moment where there's this kind of panic internally, because it's come back or I see it clearly and then it flashes, it goes away. It goes deep back inside of my brain. Then the kind of agitation is the knowledge that, at some point, it's going to loop back around. That's the weird thing, is just not knowing when it will loop back. In each new agitation or weirdness or strange image — when I add it to the Rolodex, it doesn't get rid of another one. It just increases the kind of looping as it spins around in my head. ... If I'm near heights I see somebody or me falling off and I can see the impact and then I'd jump out of it. I shake my head out of that, but it will come back. I'm always certain of that.
On how he manages the tics
I've lived in this body and with this brain for so long that sometimes I'm not so much worried about me — like I live with it. I know what it is. The hard thing is when I go out into the world, because obviously you can't just walk into a crowded space and say, "Hey, I might have this weird image of bursting into flames, and that's why I'm going to have this weird look on my face or some anxiety." So then it's that weirdness of just trying to hold it together as you navigate this public space, so that you don't look like you're in trouble. So, for me, it's easiest — and I'm happiest — when I'm in a small, contained space and with people that I love and trust. That's why my family — those are the people that I spend most of my time with. Because they know me and I know them and I don't have to worry about explaining myself. So isolation is good for me up to a point.
Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Deborah Franklin adapted it for the Web.
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