You Are Not Alone: Inside My OCD Brain
by Marilyn Janson
Wearing jeans and a tee shirt, I look like any wife about to leave on vacation. Spittle isn’t seeping out from my mouth, eyes aren’t glazed over, my speech does not slur from too many meds. I live among you undetected.
Walking through the supermarket parking lot, my eyes dart, looking for dogs. Car keys click, thinking it is a jangling dog’s leash sends me into a sweaty, heart-pounding panic. Where can I hide? Who will protect me?
When I was nine, my friend’s dog bit me. Running home, I find my Daddy telling him what happened.
“The neighbor’s dog bit you?” he laughs. “Stop being a baby– grow up.”
“I’m going to die, Daddy. Please take me to the doctor. Call the police.”
“You don’t need a doctor. Mom will put something on it. I have better things to do than to take you anywhere.”
As a child I was anxious and fearful of death. The smallest thing set me off. At sixteen I had a breakdown and spent the summer in my bedroom. My parents called our family physician. Visiting our home, the doctor laughed at my fears; said they were ‘growing pains.’ He wrote a prescription for Valium. I returned to school in the fall. I was far from cured.
After my second breakdown at twenty-three, I was diagnosed with OCD, Anxiety Disorder, and Depression. During this time, Ed my future husband, took care of me.
Afraid to leave the house alone and unable to drive, Ed drove me to therapy for three years. Depressed, I could not eat, brush my teeth, or move. I fought hard against checking into a mental institution. I worried about the stigma, and I feared I may never be able to leave.
One day, Ed lost his patience with me and squeezed his hands around my neck. I broke from his grip, but could not leave the house.
After couples therapy, Ed and I married. For the next ten years various psychiatrists experimented with dozens of anti-anxiety and depression medications until my condition stabilized. Still, I am not cured.
The night before leaving on vacation, I stare at the knobs on my stove-top. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10…” Counting to 60 is my self-imposed limit. The stove is off. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10…” It’s not on. All of the switches are in the off position. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10…” Enough. Stop it. Eddie is waiting. We have to go. If I watch the stove for one minute and it doesn’t explode, it’s not on.. It’s going to be fine. I stare at the knobs. All I have to do is touch the stove-top to feel if it is hot. But what if I touch it and it is hot? I would not be able to leave. I could turn the stove on just by touching it.
I hear Dad whispering in my ear, “While you’re on the flight, your house is going to explode. Dusty will be barbecued. The cops will be waiting at the gate to arrest you. Behind bars for the rest of your useless life.”
Dad, stop it! Leave me alone.
“Remember when the lamb chops caught on fire?”
How could I forget?
Dad sits at the kitchen table reading the newspaper, I play on the floor with my toy oven. Mom tends to cooking the lamb chops. The sizzling meat makes me hungry.
I hear a swooshing sound, my face flushed with heat. Angry red and blue flames reach out like octopus tentacles. Puffs of smoke fill the kitchen.
“Oh no!” Quickly, Mom grabs a bucket, fills it with water and tosses the water into the broiler.
She swiftly scoops me up, setting me in the family room. I hear Dad yell to Mom, “You are such an idiot! You can’t put out a grease fire with water.”
“If you know so much, then you do something!” she screams.
The oven door slams, Dad says, “You’re supposed to suffocate the fire by shutting the oven door.”
“Everything’s okay, Linny”, Dad says to me. “Your mom could have burned down the damn house.” Crossing to the bar, he pours himself a double scotch.
“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10…” The oven is off. I haven’t turned on the stove since we moved in ten years ago.
“You’re to blame, when the house burns down, Linny,” Dad says.
Go away! You’ve been dead for twenty-three years.
“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10…” I move my focus away from the stove. The sound of Eddie’s feet shuffling in the hallway makes me feel jittery.
I struggle to peel my fingers away from my SATURDAY VACATION CHECKLIST I hold tightly in my fist. My pen lingers over the space next to STOVE OFF. I cannot bring myself to put a check-mark next to this item.
Last night, I marked off items on my FRIDAY NIGHT VACATION CHECKLIST: MICROWAVE UNPLUGGED and OFF, DVD UNPLUGGED and OFF, ED’S LAMP UNPLUGGED and OFF, ED’S CLOCK RADIO UNPLUGGED and OFF, TV UNPLUGGED and OFF, PATIO DOOR LOCKED, FRONT DOOR LOCKED, COMPUTER OFF and UNPLUGGED, PRINTER UNPLUGGED, ELECTRIC PENCIL SHARPENER UNPLUGGED, and COPY MACHINE UNPLUGGED.
Again, I try to check off the blank space next to STOVE OFF. “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10…”
I take a shallow breath, I feel I am suffocating. Exhausted and thirsty, I pick up a bottle from the counter and gulp some water.
The bottle of water was open. I could have tipped it over and the water could have spilled into the electrical outlet. That could have caused a fire, couldn’t it?
I come back to the stove after checking off everything else on the list. Moving onto the kitchen faucet handle, I remember that several times my husband had neglected to turn it off completely.
Before leaving the house I always take the strainers out of the drains in both sinks and push down the faucet handles. “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10…”
I feel Eddie’s eyes boring into me from behind.
“It’s time to go,” he snarls.
It is only six am, but the Arizona heat is baking the roof of our apartment.
I can see through his soaked tee shirt.
Eddie pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket. He mops the perspiration from his forehead.
My husband is also on the list. Last night he was required to take a shower. I check to be sure the faucet is not dripping.
“It’s a friggin’ ninety degrees in here,” Eddie says, his voice rising to a squeaky pitch, a warning that he is going to lose it.
Our cat, Dakota, creeps into the kitchen. Carefully I move out of the kitchen to avoid bumping up against the dishwasher. In the family room. Dakota lets out a meow. “Come here, boy,” I say.
The cat comes to me. I place my hand on the smooth skin under his front legs. Feeling his heartbeat comforts me.
“Why bother going away if leaving the house is so tough for you?” Eddie says.
I look up at my husband. “I can’t let my OCD win. I want go places and see things. And I’ll never forget when you went to Europe without me.”
“Could you blame me? I had to get away.”
Dakota squirms jumping out of my arms.
“I’m better now. With the meds I can drive and leave the house.”
Eddie bends down and opens the cooler that is sitting on the floor. Last night he was required to take the sodas and ice packs out of the refrigerator and put them in the cooler. After we go to sleep the refrigerator is off limits. I worry that if the refrigerator were not closed, Dakota would jump inside and get stuck if the door slammed shut behind him.
My husband pops the top of a soda can. Taking a drink, his lips curl into a frown .
“Warm?” I say.
Dakota jumps and meows.
“I wish that I could take you with me, boy,” giving the cat a hug.
“We’ve got to go, now.”
“Okay, okay. I’m almost finished.”
“Goodbye, boy.” Reluctantly, I let go of the cat.
Krista, our pet sitter, takes care of Dakota when we are away. I will call her every day. She will tell me if the house is still standing.
Eddie picks up the cooler, takes the soda, and goes into the mudroom. “I’ll be in the garage.”
“But you have to watch me shut the door to the mudroom,” I call after him.
On any other day, Eddie would have dumped the warm soda into the sink and tossed the can into the recyclable bin located outside the front door to the house. But this morning he is not allowed to open that door.
Last night he took out the trash, newspapers, and soda containers so that I could check off GARBAGE OUT, CANS OUT, NEWSPAPERS OUT, and FRONT DOOR LOCKED on the list.
Ed forgets I have OCD. I am careful not to overwhelm him every day with my fears and phobias. Although my husband made fun of these lists, he writes one, too.
I go through the house, checking off the last items. Dakota is also on the list. Last night I filled the cat’s bowls with water and put food in his dish.
I stuff the VACATION CHECKLIST into my handbag crammed with meds, tissues, cell phone, pens, mints, gum, money, extra eyeglasses, iPod, a small notebook, and the bottle of water.
Entering the mudroom, I open the door leading to the garage and yell, “Eddie, you can come back in now.”
He looks at me wearily, “Come in here,” I command.
Following me through the mudroom to the family room, I point to the cat. “Dakota is in here, right?” I want to make sure that he does not follow me out to the garage and escape.
“Goodbye, boy,” Eddie says as we head out to the car.
“Watch me lock the door.” I close the door and turn the lock.
“It’s locked,” he says as if repeating a mantra.
Eddie opens the door leading to the garage. He pushes the remote. The garage door makes a scraping sound moving along its hinges.
“Come back here. You have to watch me lock the door that connects to the garage.”
He turns and sighs.
I insert the key into the top lock and turn it. I do the same in the bottom one.
“The door is locked, isn’t it?” I say.
He reaches toward the doorknob.
“No! Don’t do that.” If he touches the knob the lock might open.
Dammit! Did he or didn’t he open that lock? Can I trust him to tell me the truth? Now, I’ll worry about this on the ride to the airport and on the plane. How can I let this go?
Therapists have told me that I use these repetitive behaviors as way to avoid facing my fears.
It’s true. I’m always stressed when flying. Not even the meds help. I suffer from panic attacks when there is turbulence. The plane is going to crash. I’m sure of it. I listen to music, play scrabble, and work on writing projects to calm my nerves. I refuse to allow these fears to stop me from flying.
We get into the car and shut the doors. But, we’re not finished yet.Eddie backs the vehicle out and presses the garage door remote. I watch as the door closes.Eddie steers the car toward the gate.
Turning my head, I squint to catch a glimpse of the garage door. It appears closed, but maybe I’m wrong. I bend over and plant a kiss on my husband’s cheek.“I’ll take another spin around,” he says wearily.
When we reach our house, he slows down and stops.
“It’s closed.” Driving back to the gate,. we are on our way to the airport.
I repeat this mantra a million times: Let it go. Nothing bad is going to happen.
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After ten years of cognitive therapy, I function in this world. Learning to recognize the negative thought processes that occur during panic attacks and anti-anxiety meds, I can curb my fear of dogs, new situations. It’s tough to turn off the memories; Dad’s anger, his unwillingness to protect me, my Mom’s inability to stand up to him, leaves me feeling unworthy.I second guess myself. I battle these feelings every day.
I have learned not to take life too seriously, to laugh, and enjoy life more. Although, uncomfortable and stressful moments seem like they will last forever, soon they will pass.
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