Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The girl who couldn't believe enough (OCD story part 5)

(If you are just joining, this is a continuation of a story I'm working on about a young girl in a very tumultuous phase of her life. It will make more sense if you read the first posts here and here and here and here, and then return to this post for part five.)

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Though many of my anxieties consumed me, the ones that tormented me most were those involving my faith. It was as if overnight, all the things I’d previously accepted with child-like conviction as truth, suddenly came into question. I agonized over my salvation. I wanted to go to heaven (or, more accurately, I desperately didn’t want to go to hell). I was not questioning my faith because I was a skeptic. Rather, my mind grew plagued with worry, that perhaps somewhere along the lines, I had misunderstood something, or, even worse, maybe I didn’t believe enough. How was I to know? I questioned whether I was going to heaven, obsessed over the steps I must take, the things I must believe in order to go there when I died. I was petrified that I was missing something or not believing “right” enough.

I plagued my parents with my faith questions. I imagine that at first, they were receptive, excited that their daughter had taken an interest in better understanding her faith. But soon my obsession with making sure I was going to heaven began to monopolize our days. My mom remembers that I would follow her around the house, often sobbing, needing her reassurance that I knew everything I needed to, that I was understanding correctly. She said it was difficult to even take a shower on some days, because I wanted her available at all times in case a gripping worry struck that required her reassurance to diminish its urgency.

I recall one morning, laying strewn across my parents’ bed, overcome with tears. My dad had already left for work; he was gone before the sun rose on most days. My mom was on the other side of the wall next to me, in the shower, seeking solitude, I’m sure. I had been banned from entering the bathroom after spending the morning following her around, peppering her with questions about how to be sure I was going to heaven. In this particular moment, my inquiries felt more urgent than anything in my life ever had. I remember it feeling like torture, wondering how she could leave me out here, fearful and desperately crying. I remember thinking, “If I die right now without her answering this question, I could go to hell.”

I needed answers, answers that had already been given to me hundreds of times before, yet they never provided the comfort I was after. Like an incessant itch that is only relieved when scratched but then grows even worse still, I longed for reassurances, but they came without lasting solace.

Days of “faith crisis” turned into weeks and, eventually, my questions grew so incessant and overwhelming that my parents gave me a notebook, with the aptly-named title, “Kelsie’s Middle School Struggle” scrawled across the front. They told me to begin writing my faith worries down in it, hoping that by writing down my questions and their answers to them, I could begin referring to this notebook when a worry struck, rather than trailing my mom obsessively around the house in tears. They set specific blocks of time when we could discuss my questions and go over what I had written in the notebook. They were attempting to spare their sanity; I thought they were heartless, “abandoning me” in my greatest hour of need.

I came up with a 5-bullet-point list of things I must believe in order to be saved that I penned in my journal under the bold heading “To get to heaven.” I committed it to memory and repeated it to myself whenever I felt worried about my salvation.

“Believe that God exists.
Believe that I’m a sinner.
Believe that because I’ve sinned, I deserve punishment.
Believe that Jesus died on the cross and took all the punishment for all of everyone's sins. Believe that He came back alive and is alive today and will be alive forever.

Believe that God exists.
Believe that I’m a sinner.
Believe that because I've sinned…”

“Then I just needed to trust Jesus with child-like trust, to get me to heaven by how he died and took the punishment for all of everyone’s sins!”

I wrote things like “that’s all!” and “according to the Bible” in the margins of my notebook and drew arrows pointing toward my 5-point list. This was straight-forward and simple! No need to worry about it anymore now that it's recorded in the notebook!

At first, having answers to my questions in writing did help to alleviate some of the gripping urgency I felt. But my anxieties would not let up. They were constant, day after day after torturous day. Each little step we took to try and alleviate a worry helped only briefly, until my next obsession surfaced. It was like a game of “Whack-a-Mole.”

The root of my questions were less theological in nature and more reassurance-seeking. Queries like “How do I choose God to be my Savior and mean it?” and “How do I know I want God to be my Savior?” began filling the pages of my notebook. And even when I did pen a strictly theological question that my parents answered with scriptural reasoning and Biblical reference, I wasn’t satisfied. It was more of a doubt in myself and a mistrust of my own mind than a mistrust in God.

Soon, a new worry surfaced. Since I was the one writing both my questions and my parents’ answers in my notebook, how could I be sure my parents had actually said the words I’d written? What if I was confusing dreams with reality? Everything in the notebook was penned in my own handwriting and this sent me on a new spiral. I began to doubt whether any of the conversations with my parents had actually taken place. Could I even trust my own memory?

I went back through my notebook and peppered it with little notes and arrows stating, “Mom said!” or “Dad said!” in hopes that they would help me truly KNOW that the words I had written were said and affirmed by them. Their truth felt like greater truth. The right truth. The trustworthy truth. I just couldn’t trust myself.

I was aware that it was unreasonable to question my memory. I knew the conversations had happened, yet it was as if I needed my doubt. My brain was operating in a state of constant overdrive.

It is difficult to put into words the experience of knowing in your mind that your behavior is absurd, yet be compelled to go through with the behavior anyway, in order to feel better in one's body.

This, in a nutshell, is OCD.

And all these questions recorded in my notebook, were my desperate cry for help.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The girl who seemed so sad (OCD story part 4)

(If you are just joining, this is a continuation of a story I'm working on about a young girl in a very tumultuous phase of her life. It will make more sense if you read the first posts here and here and here, and then return to this post for part four.)

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Next came the confessions and my parents received an earful. In the same way I felt an undeniable urge to say “I’m sorry” for my misdemeanors, I was sure to tell them every potential wayward behavior of mine, accidental (which was most often the case), or intentional. I couldn’t carry the weight of my wrong-doings alone. I needed someone to share the load and reassure me that I/we/it was going to be OK, that I wasn’t a horrible person. I told my parents when I accidentally bumped into someone. I told them when my swinging arms accidentally clipped the wall in the hall, and how, though I’d run my hand over the surfaced where I’d made contact repeatedly to check and ensure there were absolutely no marks, I was concerned that I may have chipped the paint. I confessed to them when I apologized to a sibling and “might have not actually meant it.” I had something to confess to them at all times. My mind was plagued with concerns and burdens and I had to get them out. Sharing them with someone provided a degree of relief, but the consolation was only momentary before I was tormented with fresh guilt over other wrongdoings. 

This too was a manifestation of scrupulosity. The International OCD Foundation describes Scrupulosity (also known as Moral OCD) as a form of OCD that involves religious or moral obsessions. Common obsessions include severe anxiety over whether one has sinned, extreme focus on maintaining purity and behaving morally, excessive worry about going to hell or death. But I’m getting ahead of myself so I’ll leave this here to whet your appetite for future content. 

My mom’s memory was jogged as she read through these stories I’ve been sharing about my OCD experience. She remembers that she and my dad did have concern about my well-being prior to age 13, beginning as many as 2 years earlier. They recall that it was during a solo trip to Hawaii in celebration of their anniversary that their very first red flag was raised. It was November of 1995 and I was 11 years old and my grandparents had come to stay with us for the week. My parents have always been very dedicated to pouring into their marriage and one of the ways they did this was by traveling together regularly throughout my childhood. They tried to take trips alone every year, so this was a fairly routine occurrence for us. Even still, we never liked it when they left so my mom always went out of her way to leave us special envelopes to open each day of the week that they were gone. They were filled with notes or stickers or a special prize to help diminish our feelings of homesickness for them. They would also usually call once or twice during their time away to say “hi” and to check in. I always really missed my parents when they were gone, but on this particular trip, apparently my level of emotion and other behaviors reached a new extreme. 

We always loved it when my Dad’s parents came to stay with us. They raised six kids of their own and were some of the most even-keeled, generous and capable people I know. For most of my childhood that I can remember, they did not own a home. Instead, they possessed a small Toyota pick-up truck which they used to haul their house-on-wheels, a rounded white camper trailer with a thick, blue stripe down the side. They spent their retirement traveling all around the country, stopping for lengthy periods to serve at different Catholic Missions around the United States and down into Mexico. Many of our big family vacations growing up were built around trips to visit them wherever they were based at the moment, Florida, Tucson, and a small fishing village called Guaymas, Mexico. When they weren’t serving huge vats of rice and beans to those in need, my grandparents were rotating their way around the state of Washington to spend time with each of their kids, and help them with various house projects, babysitting needs, or to welcome a new grandchild into the world. 

They weren’t ones to raise controversy. From what I’ve been told, they were the type to state their concern only when the decision was major and life-altering. And then once they had made their opinion known at the onset, they moved on and accepted and supported whatever decision you chose. I know of two major decisions my parents made that were hard for them: the first was when my parents got married and my Dad left the Catholic church. The second was when they opted to homeschool us kids. Organized homeschooling was only in its infancy when my parents made the decision to educate us in that way, and my grandparents were uncertain about how successful our learning would be. My parents like to tell me how I helped evaporate their skepticism instantly when, as a mere 4-year-old, I grabbed the latest copy of Reader’s Digest Magazine off the coffee table in front of them and began reading it aloud. They had less doubts after that.

All this to say, my grandparents didn’t speak up unless they felt it absolutely necessary. I wish they were still alive so I could ask them for more specifics about what went down during this trip that caused them to ring the alarm bells. I know I cried a lot. I remember taking a break from my tears when I was kept busy or distracted, but the waterworks would quickly resume the moment I was alone with my thoughts again. I used "missing my parents" as an explanation for my distress.

My grandparents knew how valuable my parents’ time away was and so were always careful not to put any hiccups in it. But on this particular visit, my behavior concerned my grandma enough that, when my parents called for a casual check-in, she told them that she was extremely worried about me, that I wasn't okay. These are never the words anyone wants to hear, particularly a couple trying to savor and enjoy a kid-free anniversary trip. 

Upon their return, my mom remembers that I was perplexed with anxiety, voicing frequent questions about our faith and what happens after we die. She figured that, because my grandparents were Catholic and we were not, some conversations must have taken place in her absence to elicit this seemingly newfound worry within me. The differences between our faiths were likely confusing to me and my parents chalked my anxiety up to a natural struggle to exist in the dissonance. 

My mom asked me a few weeks ago if I remember any sort of conversation with my grandparents that upset me and set me off down this path of worry. At times, I’ve wondered the same. I honestly don’t recall any spiritual conversations with my grandparents. And even if there were some, I know they aren’t what “caused” the extreme wrestling with faith-related topics that was just around the corner. Sure, perhaps a conversation could have triggered the development of the disorder that was already lying dormant in my genetics. But it was already there, bound to manifest itself somehow sooner or later. With OCD, things just aren’t as simple and easily explainable as we want them to be. 

Friday, November 15, 2019

The girl scared of 4-letter words - (OCD story part 3)

(If you are just joining, this is a continuation of a story I'm working on about a 13-year-old girl in a very tumultuous phase of her life. It will make more sense if you read the first posts here and here and then return to this post for part three.)

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Along with my newfound knowledge of the bird, it was during these early teens that I also grew enlightened with other vocabulary in the English language, namely profanity. In the same way I grew terrified of using my middle finger inappropriately, I now had a fresh fear of accidental swearing. Though no obscenity ever left my lips, I lived in a state of perpetual worry that perhaps one had slipped through without my knowing. 

I also had a rising concern about the possibility of accidentally cursing in my head. This fear wasn’t the traditional series of events that most might imagine: stub toe and then think curse word. It was more subliminal. Now that I had knowledge of these words, they would occasionally surface from my subconscious, and run their way through the forefront of my mind like subtitles across the bottom of a TV screen. Though I had as much control over them as I did preventing myself from thinking the word “tree” when I looked at a forest, I felt excruciatingly guilty and disgusted with myself for “allowing” them to be a part of my thought life. My mind continued to taunt me, like a broken record caught on a bar I’d rather skip altogether.

Curse words and using God’s name in vain, for me, were two of the world’s greatest evils. There was little in life that horrified me more, in these naive early years of privilege, where I was shielded from life’s real and true abominations. Part of it was my legalism, but I realize now that a large part of it was also my OCD at play. I was the kid who marched around on my high horse, correcting the foul-mouthed “rebellious” girls on my city-league basketball teams, requesting they please replace their expletive choices with words like “heck” and “gosh.” From my seat of judgment, I thought I was doing them a favor. 

I remember the one and only time I ever heard my Dad say the words, “Oh my God.” It is one of my most vivid childhood memories, which now said aloud, feels laughable. In the vast array of all occurrences that could be preserved and treasured into permanent memory, mine would be about the one time my dad slipped up with his words in my presence. I say this not to emphasize the gravity of the misdemeanor in the grand scheme of things, but rather to highlight the fragility of my mental state when my OCD symptoms were at their height. Everyone (myself included), was maneuvering through a world made of up of thin shapes of glass. One wrong move could result in a total shattering. The only option was to tread lightly, stay the course, do right, be right, or be crushed beyond repair. There was only black and white, not even a sliver of gray.

We had just concluded dinner and we were in the kitchen, rinsing dishes under the glowing fluorescent lights overhead. The phone rang and I answered it in the way I had been taught, greeting the caller and identifying myself by both my first and last name. It was one of my cousins, a student at our town’s university at the time. 

“Well hello Kelsie Wilson,” he chuckled, gently jabbing at my formal phone introduction, as many familiar callers often did. He asked to speak to my dad and I obliged his request, handing the receiver over. 

I went back to the pile of dirty dishes in the sink, occupying my hands while my ears stood at attention, eavesdropping on the half of the conversation I could hear. My dad hummed in acknowledgement of what was being said for a couple of minutes and then it happened. Without warning, he said it.

“Oh my God!” 

It shattered the silence and echoed repeatedly through my head. My hands froze under the flow of the faucet and my back went instantly tense. If I had been holding a plate in that moment, I’m sure I would have released it to clatter down upon the dishes below it. It was as if all time had stopped. 

Certainly I had misheard! My dad, a Scripture-reading, Bible-believing, church-going man of God would not allow such shameful words as these to leave his lips. “He must have said ‘gosh,’” I tried to reassure myself. I was unable to handle the alternative, that my dad, the one I admired and looked up to, had disobeyed one of the 10 commandments, one I viewed to be up there with the world’s greatest evil, right in front of me. 

“He would not have said that,” I thought, still trying desperately to make sense of the situation. “He knows using the Lord’s name in vain is wrong.”

No matter how much I tried to defend him, I knew in my heart that he had indeed said the forbidden phrase. I excused myself from dinner clean up and ran to my room where I threw myself on my bed and cried. The unleashing of emotion that followed was disorienting and hard to describe. To anyone else, it wouldn’t fit the crime. But for me, it was devastating. In my extreme black-and-white-rule-following reality, I couldn’t reconcile what had happened. I was terrified about what this misdeed would mean for my dad, but more so, I was devastated and unable to handle how my image of him had been crushed. Certainly he had raised his voice and said harsh words and been an imperfect parent in all sorts of ways beforehand, but this was somehow different in my mind’s eye. It seemed more explicit and I felt sick to my stomach.

I remember my mom coming to me in my room to see what was wrong. I remember crying to her, in utter devastation that my dad would ever say such a thing. I think what startled me most was her lack of surprise. She was always one to cringe and gasp during each patch of foul language in movies and on TV, but in this moment, she seemed to be shrugging it off. How could she? Did she not realize the gravity of the sin? In her attempt to comfort me, she told me about how my dad was around a lot of people at work who used that phrase with great frequency. 

“When you are around people who say these things, they can get stuck in your mind, and can slip out without your knowing,” she told me. 

Sure, this made logical sense but was she even hearing me?! Dad had used the Lord’s name in vain! I wanted her to join me in my horror, to help me normalize and make sense of these extreme thoughts that were whipping through my mind. Instead, she held her line, acknowledged the incident for what it was, and then was ready to move on. In retrospect, totally unbeknownst to both of us, her response was likely my first dose of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy now widely used to treat patients suffering from OCD.  

I am uncomfortably aware of the black and white, judgemental nature of my thinking here in this story. I hesitated in sharing it because now it feels so shameful. It is difficult to imagine ever viewing a situation as severely as I did. But, with my dad’s permission, I’m sharing it now because I think it so clearly illustrates the extreme rigidity I operated under. My mind could only see the world via a lens of two options: right or wrong. There was no space for gray. What I was suffering from was a specific and extremely messy form of OCD known as Scrupulosity, which I will dive into more thoroughly in future posts. Stay tuned.

Monday, October 14, 2019

The girl who wouldn't quit apologizing - (OCD story part 2)

(If you are just joining, this is a continuation of a story I'm working on about a 13-year-old girl in a very tumultuous phase of her life. It will make more sense if you read the first post here and then return to this post for part two.)
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My next big obsession was with light switches. I had heard that a light switch stuck midway between “on” and “off” could cause a fire and this knowledge sent me spiraling. I didn’t want my house burning down and so I began checking and rechecking light switches to make sure they were in the correct position. Occasionally I would worry that perhaps I didn’t flick them down hard enough when attempting to turn them off. But my primary concern was just the opposite, that I had somehow pushed them too hard, and, in my vigor, the switch had bounced back up to the middle position, leaving my house just minutes away from being engulfed in flames. Though I had never actually witnessed a light switch “bounce” out of position, it mattered little. There was a chance that it could, and therefore I checked. 

Three was often my favorite checking number. If not three then five. Even though I preferred even numbers for their symmetry in many situations, odd numbers felt safer when I was checking for danger. Upon leaving a room, I would hit the light switch three times to make sure it was in the desired position. On occasion, almost instantaneously after exiting, I would be overcome with concern that perhaps I hadn’t checked well enough and I would have to return for a recheck. I hated it. I wanted desperately to leave a room without the burden of checking. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t risk it. 

It was at this age when my parents began permitting us to stay home alone; my sister and I took on the role of babysitters to the younger two. In addition to keeping humans alive, I felt an intense responsibility to check the light switches in each room while my parents were away. In the evenings before we would go to bed, I would make my rounds to every room in the house to make sure it wouldn’t go up in flames while we slept. I doubt my parents had any idea this was going on. These were compulsions I tried desperately to keep hidden. 

There were other behaviors that were more difficult to hide. As a homeschool family, most of our mornings were spent doing our studies independently, each at our own levels. After lunch, we would join together in the living room while my mom read to us aloud. The stories she read ranged from Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and The Boxcar Children in the earlier years, to Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings as we grew older. We called this 30-45 minute segment of the day “Storytime.” My sister and I loved to work on something crafty with our hands, like cross stitch or crochet, while my mom read in the background. My brothers enjoyed playing with their Hot Wheel cars, motoring them across the coffee table and around the living room. 

I had always been accustomed to listening quietly as my mom read but then something shifted internally in me. Suddenly, I felt the “need” to echo the words my mom was saying under my breath. I couldn’t explain it, the urge just materialized and I didn’t feel right unless I succumbed to it. I knew it was weird, and I hated doing it because it made it hard to enjoy the book, but it felt so important that I replicate what she was reading. How it was that my mom didn’t end up screaming at me to please shut up, is beyond me. Imagine trying to read a chapter book with someone trying to parrot over you. She would ask me to stop on occasion, and I would respond by reducing my volume and trying to be sneakier about it. Then she would give up and try to ignore the fact that I was muttering the latter half of every sentence, a split second behind her, as if this was perfectly acceptable and expected behavior. 

Then there were the apologies. My life became a series of a million little mistakes for which I felt I owed the world an “I’m sorry.” A fingernail would catch the skin of someone walking by, just barely scraping the surface. Panic would seize me and I would begin apologizing profusely, much to the surprise of the “victim,” who hadn’t even noticed I’d touched them. As I continued walking to my destination, I would replay the situation and then the apology over in my mind. I would question myself and the authenticity of my words. What if I didn’t actually mean it when I had said “I’m sorry?” I would repeat the apology again in my head, hoping perhaps that now that I was really focused on the words, it would “count.” Sometimes, if the person I brushed or bumped was a family member or person I would see again, I would go back to them and re-apologize, and this time, ask for forgiveness too. Even if they looked at me and laughed and told me it really wasn’t a big deal, my world would feel off kilter until I said I was sorry. 

Occasionally, a situation arose where an apology was actually deserved, but more commonly, was there no real offense that had taken place. I apologized for bad thoughts I had about others, thoughts that I’m sure they would have preferred I just kept to myself. I apologized for apologizing and not meaning it. I apologized for apologizing and annoying others. I apologized for possibly putting a tiny knick in the paint on a wall. Those close to me began asking me to PLEASE QUIT APOLOGIZING yet I was so plagued by guilt that I couldn’t bear to stop. My “misdemeanors” were running circles in my head, tormenting me, and it helped me to get them off my chest. Sometimes mid-apology, my confidence would waver and I would say something like, “I think I might have thought something bad about you.” Nothing could feel more genuine than a confessor who is questioning whether she even committed the crime!

Next came the fist phase. My homeschooled upbringing had kept me sheltered from most things vulgar and crass, but eventually someone educated me on the way one’s middle finger could be used negatively. I grew petrified that I might accidentally point my central digit at someone, which would of course illicit the need for an apology. I worried that because my middle finger went with me everywhere, my life would soon become an endless loop of me accidentally flipping people off and then having to apologize for it. Truly this was the cardinal sin, one hardly worthy of forgiveness. My fear of accidentally flipping someone off grew so great that I remedied it by walking around with my hands in fists. Aha! If my fingers were always balled up inside my fists, I could avoid pointing them at anyone! Problem solved. But only momentarily.

It didn’t take me long to realize that yes, my fist solution prevented me from offending those around me, but alas, my middle finger was always pointing somewhere. When my hands were in fists, my middle finger was now directed toward none other than my very own self. There simply was no winning! No matter how I, or others tried to convince me that this hand gesture was about the intent behind it, not the mere direction one’s finger was pointing as you went about life, I could not be abated. Though I never intentionally flipped anyone (or myself) the bird, I walked through those days in a perpetual state of horror and discomfort over what these hands of mine were capable of.

........to be continued!

Sorry folks! This is where I will leave you hanging for now. I'm working on the rest of this story and hope to publish it here in the next few weeks. If you want to be the first to know when it goes live, you can subscribe to my blog by over on my home page here. Enter your email address in the "Subscribe to my posts" box in the far right column and I will send a link directly to your inbox every time new content has been published! (If you are using your mobile device, be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on "View web version" first to find the subscribe box). Thanks for reading!

Monday, October 7, 2019

The girl who used her wrists - (OCD story part 1)

I was thirteen years old when my life started falling apart. I don’t say that to be melodramatic. Life, as I knew it, took a sharp left turn down a path I hope never to go down again. As if being a thirteen-year-old, awkward, homeschooled kid wasn’t already fraught with challenge enough.

My mom tells me she wonders if perhaps there were earlier clues. We know so much more now, but back then, symptoms could easily go unnoticed under the cover of “personality” or “temperament.” My parents, ever the promoters of all things fair and even, would never be caught dead breathing whispers of “favorites,” or “easier” versus “harder” offspring. We were always told they loved us each “differently but equally.” Though they would never utter it aloud, if they were to line the four of us according to degree of difficulty, I was almost certainly number one. My older sister was compliant and conforming, easing them gently into parenthood. The path laid before her was the one she followed. Then I burst into their lives and gave them a run for their money. My mom shares openly about my rather “emotive” state of being, easily set off, passionate, stubborn, and teary.

The next in the lineup was my brother with whom I shared the middle sibling role. He was the only one of the Wilson kids who even held a candle to my crowned title of Most Challenging Child, both of us desperate to ensure we would never be seen as overlooked middles. We were, however, generous toward our parents and staggered our most troublesome years so as not to totally undo them all at once. My brother gave them most of their gray hairs in his older years but, had we thought to put our two stubborn heads together instead of working against each other (I was the classic bossy, tattletale older big sister), I’m sure we could have really done some collateral damage.

Our baby brother arrived on the scene when we my sister, myself, and my younger brother were eleven, nine, and seven years old, respectively. He was a blond, obedient little cherub, who was always along for the ride, no matter the destination. He was quiet and didn’t make waves, just as acquiescent as our sister had been, if not doubly so. Together, they sandwiched my other brother and I in the middle, creating an easy kid, hard, hard, easy kid ranking pattern (sorry Mom and Dad - I went ahead and did the ranking for you!)  

My hands presented the first clue that something was going on with me. My knuckles glowed a fiery red color and patches of cracked skin and dried blood spanned the backs of my hands, crawling up my arms, all the way past my wrist bone. My parents tried to treat the dry skin with basic moisturizers, but to no avail. They began experimenting with a whole range of lotions and potions, all increasing in medicinal qualities, but nothing could combat the chapped nature of the backs of my hands. The dryness was painful and day-to-day activities caused the scabs on my knuckles to frequently crack and reopen.

One evening, after all the other treatment attempts had failed, my dad told me we were going to try something he used to do during the cold and dry winter months in Eastern Washington, where he grew up. He pulled out a pair of tall white socks from his top dresser drawer and removed the blue lid from a tub of Vaseline. Using three of his fingers, he generous scooped a healthy portion of the petroleum jelly and slathered it all over my hands, paying special focus to my knuckles. Taking one sock in his hands at a time, he wriggled his index and middle fingers all the way down to the toe, scrunching the sock up as he went. Then he spread the neck wide as and cautiously slipped it over my greasy hand, taking great care not to brush the cotton against the thick layer of Vaseline. He instructed me to keep the socks on overnight, that they would help hold in the moisture so my hands could heal.

This new system became a part of our evening routine, just following teeth-brushing, the last step before I climbed into bed. Maybe it was because it was always his socks I was wearing, but for some reason, my hand care fell on my dad’s list of responsibilities. I would find him, wherever he was in the house, and bring him the pot of Vaseline and a pair of his socks. Eventually I learned to apply my own Vaseline, but he was always there to help me put on the socks. At first, it took me a long time to adjust to sleeping with sock-mittens, but eventually, I got used to the feeling of having my hands contained. On a good night, I would awaken the next morning, socks still in place, but more often, I would open my eyes to bare hands and a sock or two lost deep inside my sheets.

When I was able to sustain a full night of the sock treatment, my hands were appreciative, at least temporarily until a new day began and I set about washing them again. Sometimes I would get up in the middle of the night to pee. I would forget I was wearing socks on my hands until it came time to pull down my underwear. I learned to carefully shimmy in and out of my underpants and do my business without taking them off, but then muscle memory would bring me to the sink, and I would have to stop myself short before plunging my hands, socks and all, under the stream of water in attempts to cleanse them. Even though my hands were covered, it always disgusted me to think about how the socks had touched the toilet lid to raise it, had then balled up toilet paper so I could wipe, and then had been used to pull my underwear back up. I would return to my room, mentally visualizing all the germs that were now on the socks, now spreading to my covers as I pulled them up over my shoulders, now in my bed. Some nights, I could tolerate sleeping with these germs. But on others, my revulsion would get the best of me and I would tear off the socks in the bathroom, thrust my hands under the faucet, washing the germs (and the Vaseline moisturizing treatment) right off my hands and down the drain. 

I’m not sure when someone put two and two together and realized that my bloody knuckles were not a typical dry-skin-in-winter sort of issue. I was washing my hands more often than I would ever let on to anyone. Almost overnight, I had grown suddenly, instantaneously, terrified of germs. My hands could never be clean enough. 

Eventually, my parents picked up on the fact that I was over-washing. When they began commenting on the frequency, I resorted to hiding my hand washing. I would wash when they weren't around, or just barely turn on the faucet so that the sound of the water flow from the bathroom where I had locked myself was inaudible. Germs were everywhere and I wanted nothing to do with them.

I spent a lot of time thinking about germs. I thought about how we always come to the sink with contaminated hands, and when we turn the water on, we transfer said contamination to the faucet. Then we wash our hands to rid them of all germs, only to recontaminate them by touching the faucet we dirtied when we turned the water on! Why was this issue bothering no one else? How had our entire culture suffered such a massive oversight in procedural operations? 

I solved this dilemma personally by using my wrists to turn faucets on and off. I also began opening doorknobs and pumping paper towel dispensers with the insides of my wrists. I knew it was unreasonable to expect to be able to fully avoid germs, but I could at least avoid getting them on my hands! My wrists felt safer, less prominently used. 

I began keeping track of things I touched when “contaminated,” and then I avoided contact with those things if possible. I kept a perfect mental record. I only cared about my own germs. I didn’t worry about others’ germs contaminating my environment. Certain doorknobs became off limits. One-by-one, seatbelts in our 7-passenger family minivan moved from the “safe” to the “unclean” list. Alas, my wrists grew skilled at a lot of unusual tasks, but buckling my seatbelt was not one of them. I remember the day I ran out of unadulterated back seat options. It took all of my will power to endure the discomfort of securing myself with a “dirty” seatbelt. I only lasted a few seconds before I launched myself back out of that seat, muttering under my breath about “forgetting something inside” as I booked it out of the car and back into the house, my family waiting patiently for me in the van. In the safety of the empty house, I exhaled in relief as I plunged my dirty hands under the water to rid them of the germs I’d acquired from the seatbelt. Even if I was going to have to re-buckle into that same dirty seat upon my return, I needed the relief that the compulsion to wash provided for me........

........to be continued!

Sorry folks! This is where I will leave you hanging for now. I'm working on the rest of this story and hope to publish it here in the next few weeks. If you want to be the first to know when it goes live, you can subscribe to my blog by over on my home page here. Enter your email address in the "Subscribe to my posts" box in the far right column and I will send a link directly to your inbox every time new content has been published! (If you are using your mobile device, be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on "View web version" first to find the subscribe box). Thanks for reading!