Why I Wrote a Solo Musical to Keep My OCD in Check

Jordan Friend
February, 2021

Many of us involved in the arts maintain a complicated tango with our mental health. For someone like me, a theatre director, actor and songwriter with lifelong OCD and anxiety, an overactive imagination has been a source of both severe difficulties and some of my most creative work. The same impulse that makes me need to touch everything three times is the one that, when I’m staging a show, makes me meticulous about finding the perfect image. The same impulse that makes me hunt through WebMD to prove I have some phantom illness is what gives me the drive to seek the perfect turn of phrase in a lyric; the one I know is out there if I keep looking.

I often describe OCD as a frantic squirrel, running around in my brain, looking for something to latch on to. When I’m creating, the squirrel gets to focus on something productive. When I let myself get static, he starts looking for less useful fixations. Absent those, he starts making stuff up all together. That last state led to a 24-month stretch, during my 25th and 26th years on earth, where I completely lost touch with reality, and became utterly convinced that I was developing the symptoms of some sort of neurological illness. The fact that the specific illness kept changing every few weeks should have been a dead giveaway, but anyone who has gone down the dark rabbit hole of Dr. Google knows how hard it is to view with any kind of objectivity. 

As I neared my 27th birthday, I found myself looking back on two “missing years”. I had very few specific memories to latch onto; just a haze of medical bills, overdraft alerts and way too many reddit searches. Therapy was helping, but I kept slipping back into the same patterns. Then, I wrote a song…

Two weeks before the pandemic hit, I was in rehearsals for a new play I was directing. A late night storm was forecasted, so I let the cast go early, and went to tinker on the piano in the practice room. Some songs take weeks or months of careful track-laying to write, while others drop out of the sky and land on you like an anvil. Fortunately, on that night, the latter happened. I wrote a ritualistic conclusion to the two years I’d just gone through; a 1,000 horsepower ballad that used every corner of my voice and pushed my piano playing to its limit. It was an act of pouring every inch of my mind and body into something wholly positive. 

After we all went underground, I started writing more music than I had in my life, and discovered that the songs were actually helping me recover lost memories from my two “missing years”. I began a project of musical archaeology. I was writing to remember, and assembling a story I could tell others. All the while, my OCD squirrel was mostly kept at bay. 

Fast forward to February 2021, and what I have is OLD SOUL, a solo show that mixes narrative concert, storytelling and even stand-up to tell the story of my “quarter-life crisis from hell”. It serves many purposes; a collection of artifacts from my recent past, a healing ritual, an extremely funny story, and a chance to knock down stigma around mental health conversations, and make others in my boat feel less alone. That last reason is why I reached out to ADAA. Their work to reduce stigma is vital to making it easier for more people like me to speak up, seek help, and connect with one another. 

Many of my friends, upon seeing the show, have been stunned to learn what I went through. I tell them that’s exactly the point. So many of us struggle with a misbehaving mind, and don’t feel like we can talk about it. I decided that, if I’m going to live in harmony with my OCD, I need to sing about it. 

OLD SOUL is performing virtually at 4615 Theatre Company through March 7th. Thursdays through Sundays at 8pm. Shows happen via group video call, and are far more intimate and interactive than a usual livestream. Tickets are just $15, and are available at www.4615theatre.com/tickets. Use the code FRIEND for 15% off. 

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