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Esther Vossen


During his residency at The Fifth Season Aram Tanis started working on a new project that deals with the theme obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).


Because Tanis grew up with a mother who suffers from this disorder; he knows how intrusive OCD can be for the person who has it but also for their surroundings. For Parallel Lives Tanis interviewed people who have OCD and incorporated their experiences and daily struggles into newly written texts.


In meticulous and poetic words Aram Tanis captures thoughts and actions and creates an image of an in itself communicating inner world. The isolation and the absence caused by this disorder are gradually becoming more oppressive. The text, which is partly fiction and partly observation, takes the reader back and forth between different realities. It represents the complex feelings of how someone can experience him or herself as an outsider.


For Parallel Lives Tanis also made pictures on the grounds of the mental health institution where the residency is located and combined them with images from his archive. The sober black-and-white photos show objects as true living creatures, as things to talk to, as things that invade you and feed the fear.


As a witness and person concerned, Tanis plays with the perspective of the child and the parent, giving the text a universal meaning. It's about many of us, and shows the impact of mental illness in a broader social context. It expresses the child's powerlessness and the desire to escape the determinative and oppressive reality.


The scent of chlorine reminds me of family holidays I used to have. I remember a small swimming pool filled with lukewarm water, sometimes high tides, waves of happy children and parents resting in the sweltering sun.


In the supermarket I check if the yellow chlorine bottle with its bright red lit doesn't leak, I turn it around and around, I hold it even upside down.


When I am finished using the chlorine I wash my hands and wrists extensively to make sure I have no fluids on them. If by accident some chemical will spread, a deadly disease awaits for me, or even worse, for one of my friends.


As a kid, I remember my mom holding her hands in front of her after putting on a pair of shoes. She walked to the kitchen sink, turned on the warm water and waited until the steam was clearly visible. Then she turned on the cold water, just slightly, took a bar of soap and started lathering her hands, wrists, underarms and the faucet knobs. After a minute she rinsed of the soap to repeat the entire ritual another three times to make sure everything was unblemished again. 


At a certain point her hands were completely wrecked; the skin of her hands had turned white and was fully cracked.


Today is a lazy Sunday afternoon. Renée Fleming’s voice is in the background singing ‘River’ and I hear the rain running softly down my window. Still, I feel a bit nervous, this kind of weather always does that to me. Rain is synonymous with bacteria pouring out of the sky.


I have a deep wish to one day observe sea butterflies in the wild. This almost invisible animal floats freely in the water. Their foot has taken the form of two wing-like lobes, which propel this little animal through the sea by slow flapping movements. They are difficult to observe, since the shells are mostly colourless, very fragile and usually less than one centimetre in length. It will take a while before I can fulfil my dream. Right now I am even too scared to get close to fountains and ponds or sitting on humid grass.


When I look at my life, I often think it has gone off the rails. I hide my disorder from everyone; only my girlfriend knows what this disease entails.


With precision every object is placed in the racks to minimize the chance of finding puddles of contaminated water when I open the door of the dishwasher. I can't take out the content without checking every fork, knife, spoon, plate, cup and mug for stains. When I spot one I have to wash it again by hand. It drives my girlfriend mad that it takes me over one hour to finish this one task.

To me dishwashing liquids and powders are just as fatal as taking long walks around Fukushima while it rains.

These days most news is brought to us as a breaking news story. I am counting on NHK World to bring me something exciting. I hear the news anchor say there is breaking news. My ears are immediately on high alert. Around one in the morning Satoshi Uematsu walked in the Tsukui Lily Garden, a care facility for the disabled where he used to work, and murdered nineteen people. In Hokkaido a woman killed three people in her apartment and in Shizuoka a man stabbed his former girlfriend several times in the neck and left her bleeding to death. Twenty-three people died early this morning while I was asleep.


When I watch this kind of news my disorder gets triggered. I know I wouldn’t do what those individuals in the news did, but when I have unfriendly thoughts about people I am immediately aware of what kind of movements I make with my hands and body. I don't want to touch someone, directly or indirectly, at the wrong places. If the two coincide, a bad thought and a wrong move, it means I could potentially have molested a person. With a stranger I am less afraid this happens, with my partner it's more complicated. Thoughts come and go in a matter of seconds and in a blink of an eye I can think of myself as a horrible monster.


I made a list with all my weird obsessions and compulsions, this was the first time I realized how widespread my disorder is. It starts from the moment I wake up until I fall asleep. I have rituals others can observe and strange thoughts creeping up in my head.


I am constantly thinking about things I did wrong, mulling them over and over in my mind. It's an unceasing exercise, which can be triggered by anything and everywhere. It often overtakes me by surprise.


Yesterday, as I was sitting in a high-speed train on my way to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, I accidentally touched a red smudge with my left hand. From the inside I immediately started to panic. Words like blood, disease, infection and death immediately went through my head.


I kept my contaminated hand on the table to make sure I wouldn't touch anything else. Finally, after thirty long minutes, I reached my destination. As I got out of the train I made sure nothing would come in contact with my dirty five-fingered body part. At the station I went to the toilet to wash it thoroughly.


When I inspected my left hand for cuts I found an old one, it had almost healed up. Still I was afraid some of the smudge could have entered my bloodstream. At that moment I knew I had to take another test. The next three months would be hell again. I have had eleven HIV-tests in the last six years.


A few hours later I was home again. I still have to see the museum from the inside.


Parallel Lives



46 Pages


Het Vijfde Seizoen

In meticulous and poetic words Tanis captures thoughts and actions and creates an image of an in itself communicating inner world. The isolation and the absence caused by this disorder are gradually becoming more oppressive. The text, which is partly fiction and partly observation, takes the reader back and forth between different realities. It represents the complex feelings of how someone can experience him or herself as an outsider.

Esther Vossen

Parallel Lives has been exhibited at Museum Dr. Guislain (Gent / BE), Nieuw Dakota (Amsterdam / NL) and Het Vijfde Seizoen (Den Dolder / NL).


I have trouble trusting my senses. Do I feel anything sticky? Did I just make contact with that weird coloured stain? Did my shoe touch that filthy object? Often I feel disgusted, embarrassed and ashamed. An inner voice is constantly questioning myself; it makes me feel tired, angry and sad. Feelings of guilt and self-loathing are tormenting me for years now. I have not found the right way of dealing with these devils in my head. Friends can't see what I am struggling with; sometimes they think I'm just a bit absent.


Because of my disorder I throw a lot of things away. Over the years I got rid of many possessions like books, bags, clothes, plants, computers and a desk, I even came back early from two foreign trips. Overall it has cost me a lot of money and many precious gifts.


Even worse, there are moments I am afraid of my loved ones. I want to hug my girlfriend as she comes home from work, give her a kiss and ask how her day has been. It seems like such a small thing, but lately it's getting too much. My girlfriend is contaminated and is the reason why I feel anxious and distress. I wish I could keep my emotions in check, now they have control over me instead.


I only relax a little when I hear Diana Krall or Chet Baker sing. For a moment I forget who I am as the music takes me to a parallel world, but at a certain moment their voices stop and mine reminds me of my old self.


There is a firefly resting on my wall, a singing cricket on the carpet, a wandering caterpillar in my laundry and a red coloured ant roaming the streets.


The thought of me accidentally hurting animals is the reason why I always check every step I take and all movements I make. Bumping against a wall, vacuuming the floor and washing my clothes are all causes for me to get huge anxiety attacks. Going outside for a walk is just humiliating. Once people saw me walking in the street and called the police, they thought something was physically wrong with me. I was checking the pavement for insects before taking my next footstep.


There is a beetle resting on my wall, a singing grasshopper on the carpet, a wandering moth in my laundry and a disoriented flea roaming the streets.


One of the headlines was the story about a 23-year-old woman who was arrested for kidnapping a boy she kept in her apartment for about two years. Police said the boy, now 7, was abducted from his hometown Saitama. He will be reunited with his parents as soon as possible.


While I listened to the radio I was preparing dinner for my girlfriend. We were standing in the kitchen when I had an intrusive thought of me stabbing her in the back. Slicing fresh fish or cutting up a peace of meat, to me using a knife is always a stressful event.


The world can be an unpredictable and scary place. My OCD gave me a feeling of hope and safety when I was a kid, but as a grown-up I realize sometimes you have to take risks. My disorder isn't serving me anymore. I know it is time to say farewell to a long-time friend. It's the hardest struggle I ever had to wrestle with. Innocent thoughts turned into aggressive ones about myself: I am dangerous, I am violent and I am crazy. Telling myself all these things for over twenty years, it will take a while to live life without internal fears.


Because of her OCD my mother often experienced panic: this is an overwhelming sensation of fear, it takes over all reason and logical thinking and replaces it with feelings of anxiety and frantic agitation. It basically feels like you're exploding from the inside, your breathing is rapid and shallow, your heart is racing and the brain is short-circuiting. In that moment you want to scream, cry, run away and die all at the same time while feeling completely paralyzed.


When I watch a movie with subtitles or read a slogan on a billboard I place the letters of the words in a particular order. It is a complicated system with no ending in sight.


It started when I was about 13 or 14 years old. It was Christmas and I wanted a holiday without a panicking mom. I was watching television and at that moment I decided to bring some magic into my life. It all happened quietly, silently in my mind.


That year Christmas was a peaceful one.

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