Monday, October 14, 2019

The girl who wouldn't quit apologizing


(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.)



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!

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