The Unwell Worm

Hold on
Feeling like I’m headed for a breakdown
And I don’t know why
(from “Unwell,” by Matchbox 20)

Well, I do know why. It’s because I can’t get that blasted song out of my head!

I, like most people, am frequently a victim of “earworms.” Those songs that stick in one’s head for days, playing in the background. My fellow sci-fi geeks will automatically think of Deanna Troi and the music box in the Next Generation episode, “The Survivors.”

I swear this song was written by a dark magician who laced the lyrics and tune with a spell designed specifically to haunt my reality. Once it sticks, it will not go away. It’s been there now for at least three days, and past experience warns that it’s going to be around for another week or more. Nothing shakes it. I’ve tried playing other music, singing song after song, zoning out on television. It keeps me awake, playing in the background of my mind. Even when other music is playing around me, “Unwell” is buzzing out a discordant counter-tone in my brain. I see afterburner images of the disturbingly comic music video as the music cycles around. And around. And around.

If others are like me, this particular song is more than just an annoying tune. It makes us question our own sanity.

I have a feeling that many of us relate to it in ways that both worry and intrigue. It’s human nature (or, so I suspect) to wonder if there is a little worm of madness that weaves through all of our psyches, threatening to wiggle itself outward to where others might become aware of it. Perhaps we shouldn’t let that bother us, because everyone around us is probably too busy worrying about their own hidden madness worm.

We all tend to think we are unique creatures, quite unlike anyone else on the planet, and to a great extent I believe this is true. No one has the same finger prints or iris pattern; that we all know. Likewise, our energy imprints upon the Universe are each unique and special.

I think many of us believe that we’re “just a little unwell,” too.

I suspect that a lot of people relate to “Unwell.” We listen to it with a secret concern, or maybe even a thrill, thinking, “Wow, this is written about me,” and also thinking that we are alone in that. More likely, the person sitting next to us is listening and thinking the exact same thing, hoping no one around them gets a glimpse of their little madness worm.

What does this have to do with writing?

This morning, as I was feeding pets and cleaning the guinea pig cage with “Unwell” playing in my brain, I began thinking about many of the iconic characters of fiction. I ran a number of old favorite heroes (and a few villains) through my head. Many of the best authors, to create rich and relatable characters, use the madness worm in ways that hook the reader in.

Do we relate to Sherlock Holmes, for instance, simply because he’s a genius detective? Yes, to some extent, we do. We would not, however, connect with him so strongly if he were not also, as he referred to himself in the BBC adaptation, Sherlock, a “high-functioning sociopath.”

What about Agatha Christie’s charming Hercule Poirot? The little Belgian is a dandy, obsessive-compulsive about neatness and order in ways that often cross the boundaries of a personality disorder. And yet, we love him, and hang on his every word.

Even Harry Potter: though his ever-darkening teenage angst and anger over his parents’ death grew annoying at times, it kept drawing you back into that world to find out what would happen to him, and how it would affect the characters and events around him. To the tune of $25-billion (the estimated net worth of the total Harry Potter brand), no less.

When I read, and when I write, I will be looking for the madness worm. How can we, as writers, use the tendency for other humans to relate to little sparks of insanity to flesh out our characters, and breathe life into them?

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here.”

Image from the original “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll, courtesy of



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