Lynn Sakai Burn Alhamarneh

Our Brains’ Disconnected Bike Brakes

I was exhausted after work, but not so much so that I couldn’t push myself to go check the buckling pavement of the street a few blocks from our apartment for either the coin or dried blood. Hopefully I’d find neither. Gritting my teeth, I stuffed my heat-swollen feet into my shoes.

“Hayati, you sure you want to go jogging? You seem exhausted,” my husband observed skeptically in between bites of pita bread coated in olive oil and za’atar. Little flecks of the green spice blend clung to his trim beard. It was endearing. It didn’t bother me, not the way everyone thought messiness would disturb people with my condition.

“You implying I look tired? Don’t you know you’re not supposed to say that?” I tried to tease. I hoped he would buy it, hoped he wouldn’t probe any further.

He shook his head. “No, no. You look great. I just meant that you’ve been working hard. And it’s so humid outside. You’re so disciplined, running in weather like this.”

But I wasn’t disciplined. I was weak. I was giving in to my compulsions.

I needed to check the street because that morning, on my way to the office, I’d seen a shiny coin glittering against the dull, gummy tar and I hadn’t picked it up. I’d left it there because I’d been late for work.

And since then?

A child might have darted out into the street to pick it up, attracted to the shine like a magpie.

A car might have struck the child. Everyone texted while driving nowadays.

And if the child died, that would be my fault, wouldn’t it? After all, how hard is it to pick up a coin?

It was like leaving the gate surrounding a beautiful pool propped open on a sweltering summer day. A toddler with no idea how to swim might be enticed by the cool water, only to wander in and drown. Even the law found you liable in that case.

Which meant that whoever wrote laws thought like me. I wasn’t being unreasonable (of course I was, and I knew it). Someone else–a successful and sane person who people trusted to write laws–thought like me (but of course they didn’t; at least, not off the clock).

Besides, I’d resisted the all-consuming urge to leave the office in the middle of the day to go back and retrieve the coin. Instead, I’d waited for lunch break and then spent the allotted thirty minutes compulsively checking the local news and the city police’s social media for any mention of hit and runs or accidents on that street.

So far, there’d been none. Maybe I’d gotten lucky.

“Love you,” I said hurriedly, avoiding my husband’s eyes.

The minute my feet hit the pavement, I sprinted as fast as I could towards the spot that had occupied my mind all day.

Even as my lungs burned and my leg muscles screamed in protest about what my disordered mind was making them do, I couldn’t stop. Finally, I skidded to a halt.

Tears of relief slipped down my face when I saw that the coin was still there, no trace of blood around it.

Snatching it up, I wiped my face and ran home, ashamed.


High orbital glucose metabolism.

It’s deceptively positive sounding. So many people spend thousands of dollars a year for high metabolism. But you don’t want it in your left orbital gyrus or bilaterally in the caudate nuclei.

An article on University of Michigan’s Department of Psychiatry website has a clever, refreshingly approachable metaphor for what’s going on in the brain of people with obsessive compulsive disorder, OCD: “disconnected brakes.”

In essence, when we see that we’re speeding towards a concrete wall or a cliff, we can pump the brakes with as much force and frequency as we want, but it’s futile: the brakes aren’t connected to the wheels.

During an undergrad anthropology class, I read that some scholars believe that the importation of Western explanations for psychiatric disorders has done no favors for the mentally ill in recipient societies. We rolled out large MRIs of disabled/divergent/diverse (more on that later) brains versus normal/typical/healthy ones and said, “See, it’s just a matter of physiology and chemistry.”

As a result, increasing numbers of people in these societies see mental illness as an immutable, fundamental part of the afflicted person.

Before, they ascribed it to possession, or something similar. Disordered behavior was the product of temporary spiritual interlopers who were distinct from the lovable people they occupied.

But a chemical imbalance? Too much or too little gray matter? High orbital glucose metabolism? That was permanent. That was our bodies failing us, but it was undeniably us.

I didn’t grow up in one of those cultures that sees (or saw) mental illness as something separate from the person, so I can’t say if it would have been better or worse for me.

What I do know is that where I live, OCD is either (a) a casual adjective, or (b) a disability.

When it’s the former, OCD is flippantly used by humble-braggers who want to broadcast how organized or type A they are. Sometimes, it’s a mask adorned by people who have never had an obsessive episode torture them like a knife to the brain, have never had a compulsion force them to drive 15 miles back to an intersection just to double check that they didn’t hit anybody (even though intellectually, they know they didn’t). No, these people simply wear the mask when they want to LARP as a manic pixie dream person on social media. Then they get to take it off.

But on job applications, OCD is, unequivocally, a disability.


Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability

I hate arriving at this part of an application. There’s the usual litany of conditions and maladies:

bipolar disorder,
post-traumatic stress disorder,
multiple sclerosis,
missing or partially missing limbs,
impairments requiring the use of a wheelchair,


obsessive compulsive disorder.

YES, I HAVE A DISABILITY (or previously had a disability)

I certainly don’t wish to answer–but isn’t that an answer in and of itself?

Why does it have to be phrased like that?

It makes the excruciating process of applying for new jobs even worse.

Nowadays, people are using “neurodivergent” or “neurodiverse.” I appreciate the effort, but I’m not convinced that either fits me.

“Divergent” is usually bad, as in “His tastes were divergent.” Nothing good can come of that.

“Neurodiverse” sounds a lot nicer on the surface–but it still rubs me the wrong way. Diversity is cause for celebration. My diverse family eats Americanized variations of Japanese, Irish, German, and Jordanian food. It’s wonderful and my life is all the richer for it. I wish everyone got to experience more diversity in their lives.

But OCD? I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. In fact, on days when I feel particularly burdensome, I wouldn’t wish myself on anybody.

So neurodivergent and neurotypical aren’t quite right.

Maybe OCD really is a disability.

If that’s the case, someone should tell Hollywood.


There’s an exchange in Community, Season 5 Episode 3, where Dean Pelton asks Abed–-who is on the autism spectrum–-to solve a crime by looking at the scene. “You’re special,” the Dean prefaces the request. Abed lowers his head and scans the ground, his brow wrinkled in focus. “I see a man… using a social disorder as a procedural device,” he says as he straightens up and gives the Dean a reproachful look.

When I first watched the scene, I let out one of those sharp, barked laughs, startling my roommate. I ignored her quizzical look, too tired to explain. But I wanted to high five the actor and the writer.

Even though Abed is autistic, that scene called out what OCD is in most movies and series. It’s a superhero trait. Those who suffered are hyper-observant and able to solve crimes that stump the normies in the police department. It’s so rare for an audience to be given a glimpse into the ugly side of OCD: the feelings of being trapped and powerless, the intense self-loathing. A major exception is Michael J. Fox’s character in Scrubs, the talented surgeon Dr. Kevin Casey. My eyes were glued to the screen as I watched him scrub his hands raw with soap and water over and over after a surgery. Eventually, he becomes so consumed with frustration at himself that he yells out a curse.

In the act of viewing that, I finally felt seen.

Props to the writers for nailing the punchline, the cruel irony of OCD: whatever advantage our unusually obsessive minds might confer in terms of pattern recognition and intelligence, it’s almost negated by how much time and energy is wasted on tortuous loops of fear and compulsion.

Literature is almost as guilty as Hollywood in its one-dimensional portrayal of OCD–-again, with a shining exception.

I sobbed when I read Turtles All the Way Down. I also fell in love with the author, John Green, who used his experience with OCD to breathe someone like us into life in the form of his female protagonist, Aza.

Green doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of the disease, but he also shows that Aza is worthy and capable of a productive life full of love. Being occasionally infuriating doesn’t preclude being lovable.

Most of us worry about how infuriating we must be to our loved ones. Maybe they would be happier if they weren’t saddled with the burden of our imbalanced minds.


“You just got put together differently,” my mom sweetly reassured me.

“Add a low dose of an SNRI to the sertraline you’re already taking. It’ll work on your norepinephrine pathways, not just your serotonin ones,” my sister advised. She was in the medical field. She’d treated people like me. More importantly, she’d seen them get better with the right pharmaceutical interventions. I had no doubt she was right–I would be better off–even if I didn’t want to hear it. Another medication to pay for every month, to swallow down in the morning even though it triggered my salivary glands and made me feel seasick.

My family often brought this up when I came back home for a visit. It felt like an ambush, but to be fair, it was the only time we were all together. They couldn’t very well broach the subject over a group FaceTime. I’d hang up.

“I agree,” my dad chimed in. “It will make you so much happier.”

Instead of agreeing, I took a deep pull on the paloma my mom had made me. She was a recently retired engineer with an active mind and a lot of time on her hands. Along with volunteering at food pantries, pickleball, and bird watching, Mom had taken up mixology. It had proven to be a hobby we all benefited from. I was especially grateful for it at the moment.

The tequila in my drink melted away some of the anxiety I felt about it all. It also dissolved some of my filters.

“And what about you all?” I slurred. “Dad has a wicked temper. And you,” I continued, turning to my sister. “You can’t handle criticism. Plus, you and Dad suck at apologizing. I think I’ve heard you both say sorry, what–-a combined total of sixteen times in your lives? And mom is scared to stand up for herself because confrontation makes her just as anxious as I am.”

I took another gulp of my drink and pointed an accusing finger at them all as they sat in stony silence. “Why aren’t you all on medicine? Why aren’t you all in therapy? I’m not the only one with problems, but I don’t go bringing up your issues every other time we see each other!”

We cooled off for about two hours and then came together to sit on the backyard porch and read. My sister was short with me; my dad was distant, like he didn’t want to think about what I’d said and looking at me would remind him; and my mom hovered around me, attentively offering to get me anything I wanted.

I felt like an asshole. It was always my fault, wasn’t it, when family get-togethers turned sour?

“Sorry about earlier,” I muttered as I closed my book and walked inside.

“Where are you going?” my mom asked nervously.

“Just for a jog. I’ll be back.”


I pushed open the door to our apartment, sweaty from my run but relieved that the coin was clutched safely in my hand and that the worst things on the street had been gum and trash.

I knew the peace was temporary.

The tendrils of worry would snake back though the creases and folds of my brain, burrowing until they had my attention in a stranglehold.

This time, though, I would ask for help.

Habibi, I’m OCDing right now. So if I start asking for reassurance, don’t answer me. Make me rewatch Arrested Development or something with you. Or play a Nancy Drew game with me.”

My husband handed me a glass of fizzy kombucha and planted a kiss on my sweaty forehead.

“Consider it done.”

My OCD would never be done. I knew that.

We’d wrestle each other for my brain’s controls until my last breath–but maybe that would give me purpose. I’d always have something to fight for: myself.

And I was worth it.

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About the Author

Lynn Sakai Burn Alhamarneh is a professional linguist and communicator. Her freelance writing has been published in travel outlets including Matador Network, Wanderlust, Atlas Obscura, and others. Lynn has traveled globally and lived in Toronto, Detroit, Boston, Cairo, Jerusalem, and Amman. She is the granddaughter of women who immigrated from Japan and (what was) Yugoslavia and the wife of an immigrant from Jordan. Lynn feels (almost but not quite) at home in many places and connected to many peoples.