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FIRST PERSON: Intrusive Thoughts, Suarez and Me

I was enduring the stultifying tedium of England’s 0 – 0 draw with Costa Rica, and debating whether to watch paint dry as means of injecting some excitement into my afternoon, when the news began to filter through – there had been a biting incident involving Luis Suarez in the Uruguay – Italy match. I quickly switched over from England’s borefest and there, in damning slow-motion, was the infamous bite. Social media was immediately awash with jokey images of Suarez as a shark, a muzzled dog. At the same time, football pundits started to weigh in with their considered views on what possessed Suarez to launch orthodontic assaults on his opponents. “He must be mad”, “he’s mental”, “the man’s got a problem”, “the man needs help” were the general thrust of the comments. Sports psychologists were wheeled into TV studios to proffer instant diagnoses; one pointed out that biting is normally a child’s response to frustration and anger, so Suarez had clearly not matured properly. What exacerbated the incident was Suarez’s, indeed seemingly the entire Uruguayan nation’s, refusal to accept anything was amiss; denial was now added to the litany of Suarez’s psychological complaints.

As the furore raged, I found myself reflecting on the savagely violent thoughts that frequently plague me when I am feeling depressed, anxious, or afraid. When assailed by these emotions, I am frequently gripped by thoughts of committing the most terrible violence upon anybody who happens to be near me. These thoughts show no discrimination – people of all ages, creeds, and colours flit before my mind’s eye and undergo the most sophisticatedly elaborate and lurid forms of torture. The thoughts are startlingly, appallingly vivid and resemble some kind of medieval torture chamber, or the carnage-strewn works of the Chapman brothers. I find these thoughts terrifying, disabling, and extremely worrying. I’m not a violent person and have never been in trouble for violent behaviour – yet here am I imagining mutilating a total stranger for seemingly innocuous behaviour: speaking too loud on a mobile phone; standing too close to me in a queue; getting in my way as I walk down the street.

I was embarrassed and shamefaced about admitting these thoughts to anybody for many years. I had visions of being immediately arrested and carted off in disgrace to a psychiatric institution as soon as I mentioned them in public; the thought of those who are close to me knowing about the images that paraded around my head, in all their cinematic brilliancy, was simply unendurable. I did, however, finally admit to them during a particularly fraught therapy session. My therapist told me they were known as ‘intrusive thoughts’ and assured me that many people suffered from them. I presumed that they were a specifically male phenomenon but I have spoken to female friends who assure me that they fall prey to them too, although not in as extreme a form or in such hideous detail. I was also informed that the fact I found the violent thoughts upsetting was a good sign; if I enjoyed them then that would be a very worrying sign. I have taken anti-psychotics that does seem to ameliorate the worst symptoms but not eradicate them entirely.

I often wonder in what dark, squalid, tormented recess of my mind these thoughts germinate and eventually blossom. Are they primeval relics of man’s hunter-gatherer past that modern society has subdued but which still lurk beneath a thin carapace of ‘civility’? Was it just how men have been ‘programmed’ by evolution to behave? Are all men, in short, irretrievably predisposed to violence? Perhaps there is some evolutionary aspect but the vast majority of men never have, and never will, commit violence. In my case, I am fairly certain they are a product of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); the anger and distress I feel at events in my past manifest themselves in images of extreme violence. This is often allied with self-destructive behaviour, in which I almost invite violence and harm to be inflicted upon me.

Perhaps, I reasoned, Suarez had similar intrusive thoughts, particularly involving biting, and, in the heat, tension, and stress of a football match, he was unable to prevent himself from acting on them. After initial protestations of innocence, he has now issued a public apology; perhaps just a cynical ploy; perhaps he recognises he does have a problem. I have learned to live with my intrusive thoughts and recognise them for what they are: a symptom of deeper psychological distress rather than a plan of action for next time I venture out in public. I accept them as familiar, if unwelcome, visitors who sometimes outstay their welcome but ultimately leave no permanent damage – and, of  course, there is the fervent hope that, one day, they will cease to visit me altogether. If that happened, I would be willing to watch any number of lame, desultory England football matches.

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