It’s Not All Hand Washing And Light Switches
The line between quirky and weird seemed to be stuck between my fingers.
The line between quirky and weird seemed to be stuck between my fingers. That feeling when you eat a donut or an ice cream cone and the residue makes your fingers so sticky that you desperately want to find a sink? That’s how they felt. Licking them would help — for a few minutes. Little kids are sticky, and I spent a lot of time licking between my fingers for momentary relief. It drove my parents crazy — we’d be in a public place, and there I was licking my hands like a compulsive cat. And if that wasn’t enough to embarrass every adult responsible for me, sometimes I would get a similar feeling in the back of my throat — this annoying build up of faux pressure that had to be released, and the only way was to make squeaky sounds. Sometimes on inhale, sometimes on exhale, always until a magic point when everything felt better — until the next time. Seams of socks and waistbands constricted, so I turned my socks inside out, and wore my pants around my hips to free myself from their ever-present annoyance. Things just felt wrong and it was a puzzle to make them right again.
In the 5th grade a local meteorologist came to speak to our class during tornado safety week and told us the ways tornadoes wait until you are asleep and then take you down (I assume that’s not actually what he said). I started sleeping on the floor if thunderstorms were even in the forecast. I decided attaching my childhood stuffed monkey to my wrist with my security blanket would protect me — would actually prevent a tornado from happening. The line between quirky and weird was now stretched between my arm and this silent sentry in red overalls. Also, socks. I had to sleep in socks. Turned inside out, naturally.
My weird kid brain anthropomorphized a wide variety of inanimate objects, as well as our pets. I felt responsible for their feelings, and tried to treat them fairly. I was careful to never pick favorites, either out loud or inside my own head. Fluffy may have been the greatest, but saying that might hurt Mittens; she could only hope to be a close second at best. Of course, those are not names of any actual pets I have had. I wouldn’t want to hurt the feelings of an adorably unpredictable cat who has been dead for two decades.
It was around this time when I became aware that maybe some of these things weren’t completely normal, so I got better at hiding them. It felt much more comfortable to come up with my own ways around the fear.
I was terrified that I would wet the bed. Never mind that I was closer to teenager than toddler, and hadn’t wet the bed in half my lifetime. My last stop before tucking in for the night had to be the bathroom. If I happened to get sidetracked on my way, or failed to fall immediately to sleep, I had to get up and go again. Just in case.
Better safe than sorry.
I had an unfortunate childhood affinity for non-fiction shows where people die painfully and tragically. Oh, Saturday morning cartoons are over? I guess it’s time for 100 Ways to Die in a Fire, or When Cuddly Bunnies Attack. Exactly the sorts of shows that an anxious kid should watch repeatedly. What could go wrong? After an Unsolved Mysteries dramatic reenactment showing a family murdered at 4:11am, I realized that I wasn’t safe in my own bed. Especially not at 4:11. If I woke up anywhere near that time I would lie awake, tears streaming down my face, absolutely gripped in panic. Wait. Was it 4:11? Or was it 5:11? Best to be scared of eleven minutes after any late-night hour.
Better safe than sorry.
Eventually the exact time just served to regulate the level of my fear, and the simple act of being awake when everyone else was asleep left me locked inside my brain, waiting for certain death. I curled into a ball, envisioning people standing over my bed with knives, or climbing a ladder to my window, or rummaging around downstairs. I had to stay absolutely still, they couldn’t know I was awake. Soon I began to make a morbid game of getting to sleep before the hallway light went out. As long as other people were awake in the house I felt safe, but as soon as the noises of the day settled into silence my brain filled with the sounds of all the bad outcomes stalking me in the night. I would struggle to keep my eyes closed, but eventually my eyes would crack the slightest bit, hoping to see that outline of light around my bedroom door.
What do you do when there is no way out? When fears you know are not entirely rational won’t let go?
I prayed. The details hanging like a blade over everyone I loved. It was my responsibility. Everything. I was never particularly religious, but something was waiting to punish me based on arbitrary guidelines that shifted each night. That much I knew. Then I called it God. Now I call it the universe. Superstition. Making things feel right when everything felt wrong. I slowly built a repertoire of the exact words that would keep people safe. I begged. I begged x2. x3. x infinity. x infinity + 1. And so on. The exact number ever increasing, the time spent ever lengthening. Please. Please please. Please times infinity plus infinity please.
“I think the other side of the bridge is gone!”
“I see cars coming the other direction,” I answered, with a roll of my eyes. This was one of my father’s favorite games. He loved it the most when we were on our way to the beach.
Once our towels and blankets were spread out, we would follow him into the water. He didn’t see all the “what ifs” circling around my head as he dared the waves to crash over us. As he pretended to spot sharks. What was all in good fun for most kids left me terrified because I was never quite sure. I felt like he was taking a pretty big risk, daring the universe in these ways. I didn’t blame him, I just didn’t think he understood how the universe worked.
Superstition built; any wrong move had to be countered by an action or thought to make it right. I instinctively knew when I had achieved rightness, so I mostly let myself be led along, stopping to appease the universe as it saw fit. Knocking on imaginary wood, counteracting positive thoughts with negative, and vice versa. Balance. Everything needed to be balanced. If one side of my face itched, both sides needed to be scratched. If I brushed something with my right arm, I needed to even it out with my left. I searched for the completion, and knew when I found it. Her Fearful Symmetry, indeed.
I was Wile E. Coyote running off the ledge. Safe until I realized the ground underneath me had crumbled, and then clawing at the air in a desperate attempt to regain the control that was never within my reach. I was only one misstep away from doing something unforgivable. Something that would make me a bad person. The intrusive details no longer matter, because they morphed to follow me through each compulsive ritual created to destroy the fears.
I traded obsessions and compulsions on my own personal anxiety stock market. Apologizing to dead animals to assuage my guilt. If my brain momentarily mistook another object as an unfortunate animal I would play a game of chicken with myself. Why did the chicken cross the road? I don’t know, but that’s not a chicken, that’s a tire, and I am not going to apologize to a tire. I always lost. Sorry tire.
Actions and thoughts demanded my attention, even when I wasn’t sure why. I felt like I was always in a battle with my brain for control, and I was in a no-win position, with even the simplest decisions carrying far more weight than necessary. Why did I insist on eating an odd number of M&Ms? Why, if I stepped on a crack with one foot, did I have to step on a crack with the other?
“O.M.G. you guys, I am just sooooooo super OCD.”
It wasn’t just a quirk of annoyance when details were wrong, it was closer to physically painful. Not all details, I wasn’t a control freak. I didn’t have to have every single aspect of every situation just so — but the stuff that mattered … mattered. A lot. If I didn’t fill my gas tank all the way or opened my browser tabs in the wrong order something bad would happen.
I went to great lengths to avoid looking foolish. And if I did, I would evoke my inner compulsive cat and pretend to have done it on purpose, all while dying a little inside. A simple, inconsequential mistake of fact in a conversation could have me mentally rehashing my words for days or weeks as I tried to fix what couldn’t be changed. I mentioned my aunt Maggie to that stranger, but really it was my aunt Stella. I know what will help! I will think through the entirety of that pointless conversation for the next month, getting the details right this time. That’ll show me! To soothe the fear of being wrong or acting wrong I would mentally rehearse any possible situations that came to mind.
Most important was never letting the universe see me making proclamations. Always recognizing its power over my life, and never assuming benevolence. Phrases like “I’d rather die than…” or “I can die happy if…” or “kill me now” had to be followed with assurances to the universe that I did not really mean it. The universe doesn’t have a great sense of humor, and it certainly doesn’t understand sarcasm. I tried to be very clear, leaving as little room for misinterpretation as possible.
“I just want to sleep forever. But don’t get all literal on me, universe.”
“I wish she would shut up and go away. But I don’t want her to die or anything. I just don’t want her to be around me right this second. I don’t wish her any harm. Please don’t kill her.”
It’s uncomfortably ironic to be a person to whom logic is so satisfying, and yet be guided by these deeply illogical and irrational fears. The fallacies were clear, but I couldn’t shake that mantra: better safe than sorry. Feelings of being entirely unimportant and yet utterly responsible for everything intertwined. I was always trying to outwit a universe that does not give a damn.
Better. Safe. Than. Sorry.
I was always sorry.
I’ve written this all as past tense, though plenty remains. I still get in my own way; finally seeking help and then taking eight months to broach the topic. I handed my therapist a list of all the ways I step over the line from quirky into disorder. Fear crept into my peripheral vision. What if I’m exaggerating. I wanted to disappear into her couch as I watched her read my words. I’m not scared of germs. Better to just suffer than to risk being wrong. I don’t spend hours checking things.
“Yep. That’s OCD.”
And then… relief. Followed by determination.
Now I pick my battles carefully. I recently spent time in the hospital, pregnant and waiting to deliver my son prematurely. They always put a chux pad on my bed, just in case, or maybe as protocol. I had no reason to assume I would bleed more and it was constantly bunching up underneath me, but removing it was not an option. If I removed it my water would break. I was certain. I knew this made no sense, but I just let it go because it was definitely not the time to be sorry. Then one day, in a fit of frustration with my brain, I balled it up and threw it in the trash. Look at me! I am a fucking adult! My water didn’t break. My son was still born prematurely, as we knew he would be. And none of it had to do with the blue and white absorbent pad on my bed. Obviously.
I still argue with myself over the need to apologize to dead animals, but I no longer have to fight against apologizing to tires or old t-shirts or single discarded shoes. There are still a million little not-quite-quirks that come and go. Clothing and I have never reached a mutual understanding. I still battle with the universe and my expectation that it is just looking for an excuse to fuck shit up. I have my own internal gauge of what is embarrassing and what isn’t, and it’s out of sync with the rest of the world. I can own most of my idiosyncrasies rather than them owning me. It’s the sudden weirdnesses, errors, and mistakes that I don’t see coming that feel like torture. I still rehash, rehearse, and seek balance. But I can recognize these moments for what they are; battles lost and won as the war wages on, small victories and emotional scars finding a balance all their own.
I still won’t tell Mittens she wasn’t my favorite. I’m not crazy.