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........ 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!

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