Edgar Allan Poe coined the term. In his short story of the same name, the narrator, who has committed a murder, is walking down the street thinking how awful it would be if he blurted out a confession. As he contemplates this disastrous occurrence, he gets more and more agitated, yet feels more and more compelled to confess—which, at the height of his agitation, he does, thus consigning himself to execution.
The imp of the perverse is essentially the fear that you’ll do the most awful, self-destructive thing you can imagine doing. I dislike high places, for example, because I’m afraid I’ll be seized by an irresistible desire to leap to my own death.
At one of my old jobs, I had a crush on a guy who was unavailable. I allowed myself various flights of fancy (most of which involved the two of us getting trapped, inexplicably, in a supply closet), but obviously I had to hide my feelings. The more I imagined the devastating social consequences of his finding out, the more my secret clamored to be let out. I was terrified that I would walk up to him to ask something casual (like “Hey, do you have any staples?”) and instead yell out something wildly inappropriate (like “I HAD SEX WITH YOU IN MY DREAM LAST NIGHT!”).
I managed to keep mum all such startling declarations. Unfortunately–probably from stress–I developed a rare form of Tourette Syndrome that caused my gaze to dart toward this unsuspecting man’s crotch whenever I was conversing with him.
Because of my condition, I required constant self-monitoring, resulting in monologues such as this:
“Don’t look at his crotch! He’ll know! YOU’RE LOOKING! YOU JUST LOOKED! I SAID DON’T LOOK AT IT!”
And sometimes dialogues such as this:
Reasonable Head Voice: Why don’t you go in there and have lunch with everyone?
Crazy Head Voice: I can’t.
Reasonable Head Voice: You mean you can’t stop yourself from looking down there long enough to eat lunch?
Crazy Head Voice: Will you lay off me? I have Crotch Tourette’s! It’s a DISEASE!
The Imp of the Perverse torments with thoughts that are intrusive, obsessive, irrational. I know I’m not going to jump off a cliff or blurt out an embarrassing confession on purpose. Just…what if I lose control? What if my body acts independently of my will…or what if there’s a tiny self-destructive part of me that claws its way to the surface and takes over?
I last battled the Imp when I was on a trip by myself, and I’d just gone down to the hotel lobby to ask the receptionist dude for the wifi password. It’s hard to say what came first—the physical symptoms of the panic attack, or the crazy thought: What if I accidentally have sex with this guy and ruin my marriage?
I immediately made an executive decision to increase my Zoloft. Seriously. I went right upstairs to my room and took an extra half a pill. Then I sat down and had a stern talk with myself, combating the irrational thoughts with reasonable ones:
First of all, Abby, that guy isn’t even attractive. Second, even if he were, you wouldn’t express interest in him, because you’re married. Finally, and perhaps most important, how would you “accidentally” fuck someone? Have you ever stumbled and fallen upon a strange person’s dick? No, you have not. And neither has anyone else.
Now, my dear—let’s go drown that crazy head voice in Merlot.*
*Disclaimer: Alcohol is contraindicated with Zoloft. The author does not advocate… Yeah, I can’t even say that with a straight face.
Photo credits: morguefile.com, thefrisky.com