Time to Get Clean: Fatherhood and OCD
by Max Everhart
Harry is naked, bent over his toy box. As he digs through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figures, Legos, and plastic hand grenades, he breathes rapidly in and out through his mouth, producing a whistling-sucking sound that reminds me of the hours I spent watching Lamaze videos when my wife was pregnant with him.
“I can’t find it,” he whines between gasps of breath. “I can’t find scuba guy!”
In the doorway, I remain perfectly still. I attempt to assess the situation without reacting to it. For the last two years, I’ve been taking 10mg of Buspar twice daily for obsessive compulsive disorder, a toxic mental illness that has polluted my life for over three decades and nearly cost me my marriage. I’m better now but, as I linger in the doorway, threats and curse words gather in my mind like storm clouds. My son’s naked body is causing me considerable distress. His hair is greasy, his mouth ringed with the chocolate chip ice cream I foolishly allowed him to eat after dinner. His feet are black with dirt. His arms are marred with red scratches, the result of him clawing at himself with his fingernails, which, like his toenails, are dirty and long.
“Just breathe, Harry,” I say, “Relax.” I don’t know if I’m talking to him or myself.
On his feet now, he screams like a banshee.
I pull my face back into a tight, petrified smile. If I were a completely different person, a person who did not, for example, keep a mental tally of every single one of my parenting missteps, I might remind myself that Harry is only four years old, and therefore, prone to an occasional outburst, especially when he is tired and cranky. If I were a completely different type of dad, I might remind myself that just yesterday Harry, while on the playground at a fast food restaurant, confronted a kid who kept poking a little girl in the chest with his finger, stepped in front of the bully and told him, “Be nice!” If I were the type of parent who didn’t obsess over his child’s personal hygiene, I might be more inclined to focus on my child’s yelling and less inclined to worry about the crumbs in his hair and the lint in his navel.
But I am not that person. I am not that dad. I am me. I feel like I would need to hire a NASA researcher to devise complicated charts, graphs, and spreadsheets to adequately explain how big of a failure I am as a brand new stay-at-home dad. I haven’t raised my voice in over two years, I think. So why does this kid still want to yell at me? The same guy who takes him to the park every day, and plays ninjas, and shows him how to ride a bike, and reads him stories before bed, even whenever said guy is completely over Put Me in the Zoo by Dr. Seuss?
“You already have toys in the tub,” I say. “And the water is going cold.”
“I want scuba guy!”
“Don’t yell at me, please.” I fold my arms across my chest because now I am worried that he will notice how rapidly my heart is beating, and if that happens, then he will know he is getting to me and I will lose whatever authority I have. “I’ll tell you for the last time: get in the bath.”
“No, I can’t!” He kicks his toy box. He shrieks. Resuming the whistling-sucking sound, he aims those beautiful brown eyes—his mother’s eyes—right at me, and they are filled with anger and frustration. I can’t look.
“Bath,” I command. My brain quickly fills with all sorts of nasty diseases I associate with unclean toddlers: head lice, foot-and-mouth disease, impetigo. “Bath. Now.”
“You won’t help me find my scuba guy, so you can’t tell me what to do!” Then, just to underscore his point, he scratches his pale white butt (right in the crack) and sniffs his fingers. I’ve seen him do this before—many times, in fact—except he usually does it with a mischievous grin on his face. But now, crouching beside his rocking chair with his index finger shoved under his nostrils, he is not grinning. This act is an act of defiance. This is an act of malice. My son, who everyone tells me is really smart, knows, without being able to articulate it, that his old man has a thing about dirt and germs, bacteria and viruses. It’s only been two months since I quit my job as a college English instructor to stay home with my son, who’d been having major outbursts at school and, in those two short months, he has already learned, and is actively exploiting, my weaknesses.
Unable to cope with the potential medical ramifications of my son sticking his shit-encrusted finger up his nose, I say, “Time out.”
I step into the hallway where he can’t see me. My heart skips out of rhythm and a wave of dizziness washes over me. In addition to taking Buspar for OCD, I also take 25mg of Metoprolol every morning to combat my increasingly frequent bouts of atrial fibrillation. I breathe in and out, in and out—no whistling-sucking sound. My heartbeat slows and, just as I am about to regain my composure, I remember the Dog Shit Incident (DSI).
In 2011, two years before my son was born, my wife and I had a dog named Bentley, a purebred Boston Terrier with a fine black and white coat. One day while I was out walking Bentley, I bent down to pick up his dog turd with my hand protected behind a plastic grocery bag. Not realizing that there was a big hole in the bag, I got canine feces all over the palm of my right hand. I immediately left Bentley alone on the sidewalk, and ran full-burst into my house. In the kitchen, I feverishly washed my hands with anti-bacterial soap in scalding hot water for several minutes, but I couldn’t stop crying, no matter how hard I scrubbed. So I reached for a large chef’s knife my wife used to chop vegetables. Shaking from head to toe, I pulled out a carving board from the pantry and placed my befouled hand on it. Using my left hand, I gripped the knife and placed the blade against my right wrist. Cut it off, a voice inside my head said as calmly as you like. It’s contaminated. Just cut it off. Hyperventilating, I pressed the blade hard against my wrist until a single droplet of blood trickled down onto the carving board. That’s when I heard scratching at the kitchen door, and in strode Bentley, who licked my right hand until my sobbing turned to laughter.
In the hallway, I give myself a quick pep talk and then enter Harry’s bedroom, sidestepping dust bunnies and dirty Batman underwear. I stand before my son, feeling vulnerable even though he is four and naked, and I am thirty-eight and wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Focusing my attention on the ring of chocolate ice cream around his mouth, I long to unburden myself—to let him know that I would rather be dead than to have him struggle with chronic anxiety—and, later, alcohol and drug abuse—the way I have. I want to confess that I come into his bedroom at night and stick my finger under his nose to make sure he is still breathing. I want to show him the two-hundred and seventy-three letters I’ve written to him, each one containing detailed descriptions of how he looks, acts, talks, yells, eats, runs, cries, and laughs so he’ll know it all when he is my age now. But most of all, I want to tell him about the Dog Shit Incident—not to scare him, but to warn him—to demonstrate to him that, in addition to his floppy brown hair and perfectly symmetrical face and innate intelligence, he has that in his genetic makeup, and that he should take care.
“What are you doing, Daddy?” Harry says looking up at me.
“This.” Holding my breath, I stick my hand inside my underwear, making sure to get plenty of gross butt sweat on my fingers before pulling it back out and showing it to my son, who laughs.
“Not finished,” I say, walking to the closet. I dig under a pile of winter clothes and find a toy wearing an orange scuba suit and a black oxygen tank and black mask. I kneel down beside my son and hand over his favorite bath toy.
“Come on,” I say. “Time to get clean.”
“Why are you crying, Daddy?”
I lead him by the hand into the bathroom, help him into the tub, and wash my son from head to toe, making sure not to scrub too hard or too long.