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“Coded Obsession” by Richard S. Levine

I can point out every crack in the paint on the walls of my home laboratory. Trays of half-eaten sandwiches and empty beverage cans lay scattered across the floor. The blinds are lowered over the room’s single window, and a dim lamp lights my work area… I’ve been sitting here for weeks, typing and coding, typing and coding, typing and coding. At last, I’m ready to run my program.

I walk over to the sink and turn on the faucet. I know my hair’s gray. I don’t need to look, but I still can’t ignore the pimples on my right cheek and forehead. I count twelve red blotches.

Bert Rock, why would any woman want to get to know you? I’ve got to scrub my face more often. I look closer at my face in the mirror. I see the array of tubes going in and out of my head.

I wash my face and scrub my hands. I wash my face and scrub my hands. I wash my face and scrub my hands.

I tow the vat I have named my Portacy. Looking a little like a vacuum cleaner, it rolls on wheels and squeaks now and then. It’s attached to the tubes in my head. Dr. Greenberg, a neurosurgeon, hesitated to perform the operation that installed the tubes and a control chip in my head, but he capitulated when I offered him enough money to retire.

I return to my desk and order my computer to run the Brain Pattern Mapper for the first time.

The monitor on the wall beside me shows a list of behavioral software design patterns – a way to provide reusable solutions to recurring programming problems. I’ve spent years figuring out how to map software design patterns to brain function.

I scan the resultant list from top to bottom, passing over lines that read Command – Normal, Interpreter – Normal, and Iterator – Busy. My eyes focus on the highlighted words Serotonin abnormal – Mediator pattern required.

I don’t know what that means. I know that a mediator pattern is a way to provide loose coupling between objects. But what does that have to do with Serotonin? I request an answer from the computer.

I see no immediate reply. I grow concerned. Constant in my thoughts is the fear that I will lose this battle. I go back to the bathroom, Portacy in tow, and wash my face and scrub my hands. I wash my face and scrub my hands. I wash my face and scrub my hands.

I return to my desk. The computer’s response shows on the monitor. Level of Serotonin in brain – low. Brain cells communication – poor. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) likely – 95%. Mediator pattern required – develop program to moderate communications. Recommendation – use installed control chip.

I know I have OCD. That’s why I created this morbid contraption and its software. The doctors never helped me much. Oh, they tried several different drugs with varying success, but at some point I always ended up back in the hospital.

I programmed the Mapper to diagnose where the problem lies. Using the Mapper, my Portacy will tell me how to fix myself.

It’s already generated the Mediator pattern for me, so now I need to get busy and fill in the programming. I start to type and code, type and code, type and code.

*

It’s a day or two later, I’m not sure which until I look at the computer display. It’s been thirty six hours since I began work on the Mediator pattern. I think I worked out the solution.

I told the computer to run my new program. It uses genetic algorithms, meaning that it will take a while to figure out the right combinations of pharmaceuticals at the correct time to map my programming to brain chemistry.

It’s kind of like the method I use to get a computer to stop running in an infinite loop. In a computer program, I’d insert a statement like Break or Goto. Instead of getting stuck in the loop, a condition would eventually be met and the loop would break. But in my years of mapping software to brain function, I found the human pattern to be far more complex.

Humans have a way of weaving in and out of loops. When we get stuck in an undesirable thought process or behavior, we try to find a way to get unstuck. But just when we think we’re no longer in the loop, we too often discover we only fooled ourselves right back into it.

My divorce was like that. I was married for five years. Stephania and I used to fight all the time, usually about my OCD. A month after we separated, we got back together. We were getting along fine until the day I washed my hands once too many times. I was standing at the sink. I heard her scream, before I looked over to see her in the hallway. She was staring at the bathroom floor, and then she slowly gazed up at me with tears in her eyes. It was then that I realized that blood was dripping from my hands onto the floor. We split up after for good after that.

I walk over to the sink – Portacy in tow. In my reflection, I can’t help but notice the fluids running through the tubes in my head. One is white, another is pink, and yet a third is blue. If I ever get it right, I can shrink the whole package into nanotechnology and sell my invention.

If I ever get it right. I laugh, thinking of all the times I’ve failed. The hundreds of doctors, at least twelve other useless inventions, and all the times I tried to talk myself out of the loop. Nothing’s worked.

I turn to the sink. I wash my face and scrub my hands. I wash my face and scrub my hands. I wash my face and scrub my hands.

*

I wake up slumped on the floor of the bathroom. There’s still blood on my hands from scrubbing too hard and too often. I pull myself up to the sink and look in the mirror. The colors in the tubes are still white, pink, and blue. The Mediator’s not working.

I drag my Portacy back to my desk. I think I need to fix the code. I begin to type and code.

Wait. Maybe the genetic algorithms need time to adjust. I sit back in my chair and look at the Mediator output on the screen. I smile as I realize that I stopped coding. Coding, that’s always been one of my loops. I use it like a child uses his blanket. But I stopped! The Mediator’s working.

The chip inside my head monitors me. I monitor the Mediator throughout the day. The list of herbs and drugs it’s giving me varies. They are mostly antidepressants. They’re supposed to work by regulating my brain’s uptake of neurotransmitters, like serotonin.

The doctors have prescribed these drugs for me before. I may be fine for a few days, but then one day, when the dosage is either too much or too little, I relapse into one of my loops. But the Mediator won’t allow that to happen. It’s getting to know what my brain needs.

I feel hopeful. I feel relaxed. Sleep is welcome.

*

It’s the next morning, and I slept well. I drag my Portacy over to the sink and wash my hands. I wipe each hand lightly on the towel… I’m done. My hands are clean. They’re clean enough. I feel normal.

I go back to my desk and monitor my Mediator. I spend the day watching the list of herbs and drugs change. I try to imagine that I feel the difference as the Mediator mixes a new therapeutic cocktail, but I don’t really. I only notice that it seems to work. I feel great.

My eyes begin to close as I’m still watching the Mediator’s output on the monitor. It still performs its magic. Thoughts of sunny skies and walks along the beach fill my mind for the first time in a long while.

*

I wake and walk over to the single window in my laboratory. I raise the blinds. I haven’t seen sunshine in a while. The warmth permeates my body. I feel lucky to be alive.

Dragging my Portacy behind me, I walk out the door to the hall and kitchen. I can’t remember how many days I’ve lived on Diet Cokes and sandwiches from the refrigerator in the lab.

I prepare eggs and toast. The smell of melted butter, fried eggs and crispy bread fill the air. I eat slowly, savoring both the aroma and the food.

When I finish, I notice that I’ve got butter on my hands. I pull my Portacy back to the sink in the lab. I wash my hands for at least a minute, maybe two.

I notice the colors in the tubes above my head. They’ve changed. I count at least twenty pimples on my face.

I wash my face and scrub my hands. I wash my face and scrub my hands. I wash my face and scrub my hands.

Some small part of me knows what I’m doing, but I can’t stop. I’m compelled to complete the loop. I’m so sick of this. I collapse to the floor.

*

I awake the next morning. More blood on the floor. I don’t even bother to look at my hands. I know what they look like. I think the Mediator failed.

I drag myself and my Portacy over to my desk. I look at what the Mediator has been doing the last twenty four hours. The lists look fine, not much different than the previous day. But I feel lousy. I think I’m depressed.

I run the Brain Pattern Mapper. I hadn’t run it since I got the Mediator up and running. The monitor on the wall shows Command – Normal, Interpreter – Normal, and Iterator – Busy.

What? I was paying so much attention to the Mediator pattern that I didn’t even deal with the Iterator. But what does that mean for my brain?

A computer program iterator encapsulates the code needed to move around a list. It is often used for looping. In my case my thoughts are looping, but on what?

Maybe I need to program an Iterator pattern. I ask the computer to show me the code. I start to type and code. I type and code. I type and code.

Hours later I’ve got prototype code. It’s rough, but I can make it work. I have to. Before I run the new code, I place a breakpoint – a place for the code to stop running. I tell the computer to run the program.

Minutes pass. I still feel lousy. The drugs aren’t helping. I may need to improve the code. I start to type and code. I stop!

The breakpoint was hit. Why? I take out the breakpoint and run the program.

I ask the computer to run the Brain Pattern Mapper again. This time it shows Iterator – Very Busy.

I’m such a fool. I call Dr. Greenberg to schedule me for immediate surgery. I tell him I want these tubes out of me, now.

*

It’s been a week since I had my Portacy removed. I’m still recovering at the hospital. Dr. Greenberg’s got me on an antidepressant. Not a mixture, just one drug.

Here he is now. He asks, “How are you feeling?”

I tell him, “Better. Not as good as when the Mediator and Portacy were working perfectly, but not too bad either.”

“I never should have let you talk me into hooking you up. What made you decide to turn it off?”

“After days of running that thing, I realized that my OCD was worse than ever.”

“What made you think that?”

“It was my busy Iterator pattern. It took me days to discover that my OCD had me obsessing, looping, on the Portacy. I couldn’t stop thinking about how to make it better. Meanwhile, it was making me worse.”

“So what are you going to do now?”

“I’m going to get some sleep. I know now that I’m not going to cure my OCD by myself. I need help, Doc.”

“We can talk about that later.”

As Dr. Greenberg leaves, I look out the window to see the sun setting. The shades of red, pink and orange remind me of my Portacy. Part of me still thinks it can work. I know I can make it work, if I just give it enough thought.

I get up and go to the bathroom. I wash my face and scrub my hands. I wash my face and scrub my hands. I wash my face and scrub my hands. All I can think as I collapse to the floor is that I can sleep now.


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About the Author

Richard S. Levine has had short stories published in OG’s Speculative Fiction, Raygun Revival, The Martian Wave, The Fifth Di, The Lorelei Signal, and other online and print magazines. His short story, “A Comic on Phobos”, was nominated for the 2006 James Award. To learn more about Mr. Levine’s writings and his award winning classic video game, “Microsurgeon”, please visit http://www.rickslevine.com.

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