Earworm
By: John Timm

The ad on the radio said they were conducting one of those investigational studies, the kind that starts out, "A local clinic is currently seeking participants for a medical research trial…" They claimed they'd cover all costs of treatment and pay you up to a thousand dollars. The rest was, at best, vague. They didn't reveal the nature of the illness under study, only that it was of a "psychological" nature. Just enough to whet your curiosity and get you to call for more information.

I must have heard that ad a hundred times, and now I couldn't get it out of my head. Despite having zero interest in participating, it kept running through my mind, word for word, line by line. It was like one of those songs you keep repeating to yourself for hours on end, almost always, of course, a song you despise from somebody like Miley Cyrus. The Germans call it ein ohrwurm. An earworm. That's a good term for it, a sneaky, slimy, burrowing worm that takes up residence between one's ears with no plans to leave.

By the third or fourth week, I had to turn the ad off every time it began. But on reflection, what was the point? I liked the station and was denying myself something I otherwise enjoyed just because of one stupid commercial. My next thought was to call to complain to the station manager, a man I soon discovered spent hour after hour "tied up in conference"—at least if you want to believe his receptionist.

An email brought no response, either. Posting on their Facebook page got me sympathy from other listeners at first, but the comments soon ignored my original post and turned into lengthy rants against the music, the evils of advertising and consumerism, capitalism, Big Pharma, the medical profession and the cost of health insurance. Still, no response from station management, even though they continued to post daily about their DJs, contests and upcoming concerts.

Meanwhile, my earworm had failed to move on, haunting me to the point I caught myself randomly muttering entire lines from the commercial. My coworkers began asking if I was maybe working too hard, if everything was all right at home, and hinted not too subtly that I should take some time away. After a few more weeks, they were making themselves scarce, ducking into doorways whenever they saw me coming down the hallway.

Out of frustration, I finally decided I'd repeat the whole thing out loud, all 60 seconds of it, beginning to end, word for word. It might serve as a catharsis. Yes. Face the enemy. Stare it down. Show no fear. Send that earworm packing for good.

I copied the ad onto a legal pad in big letters with dark ink and propped it on the dashboard so I could read it as I drove. I got into my car and roared up the ramp to the Interstate. It probably wasn't necessary to make a copy, but I didn't want to miss a single syllable as I spewed it out, beginning to end, over and over, shouting at the top of my lungs in the privacy of my own vehicle, hoping to free myself once and for all from my unwelcome cranial tenant.

#

It worked. For a week. Then, my earworm was back and wouldn't budge, more persistent than ever.

I'd had enough. I looked up the address of the clinic. A Google map search showed it to be right alongside the same freeway I took to work every day. And sure enough, I'd passed that squat, anonymous building dozens—more like hundreds—of times. As I spoke with the woman at the front desk, I could hear a chorus of voices coming from a room behind her. The voices were repeating some sort of mantra in a regular rhythm. "If I may ask, does this study of yours have anything to do with group therapy?"

"I'm sorry, I can't reveal specifics about our therapeutic approaches to non-participants. Besides, that's not the study group we've been advertising—those voices you hear are new patients who are here for a totally different treatment. Now if you'd like to sign up for the study group and we accept your application …"

She reached over to a pile of forms at one side of her desk. The chorus continued, only louder. I made a move towards the door behind her. She said, "Please. You aren't allowed in there." She got up and moved to block the door, managing to grip my arm. "If you must know, for some reason there's been a massive outbreak of obsessive-compulsive behavior recently and—"

I pushed her aside and flung the door open. Inside, a roomful of people was chanting in unison. I grabbed the first open chair and joined in the chant: "A local clinic is currently seeking participants for a medical research trial…"

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