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I Couldn't

Someone’s Sunday Story

retold by Jeannette Maloy

PART ONE: I Couldn’t

I think I might be recovering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Woah. I’ve never said that out loud before and I don’t even know for sure if it’s true - the recovering part or the disorder part. Can you recover from something you were never diagnosed with?

I don’t know the answer to that question and many more, but I do know this.

I know that when I was twelve years old my mom took me to the eye doctor. She took me there because the week before, in the grocery store, she panicked when she turned around to find I was no longer behind her. She called out to me and I didn’t answer.

I couldn’t.

After a moment she found me just one aisle behind, lingering in front of the rows and rows of cereal boxes.

“Honey! What are you doing?” she called to me.

I still didn’t answer. I couldn’t.

And that’s when I was the one to panic. I did this all the time, this lingering with cereal boxes thing, lingering with lots of things to be honest.

Usually though, I hid it well. Nobody ever saw me because I knew not to let them. I don’t know how I knew this, to hide my lingering, but I did.

I think I said something then, though I don’t remember what it was, but I never took my eyes from the cereal boxes.

I could not turn my head.

I simply could not.

I had to finish something first.

My memories are unclear about how long that took or what else was said, but finally I remember walking behind my mother again and casting my eyes down so that I could focus on her concerned demands and not the straight edges all around me. The ones that needed to be counted.

“What was that?” she asked, not for the first time. “What were you doing?”

And suddenly, in that moment, with tears in my eyes and shame in my heart, I decided to tell her. I decided to ask for help.

“I was tracing cereal boxes,” I said simply.

“Tracing them? What?” she replied.

“With my eyes,” I told her. “I was tracing them with my eyes.”

“What does that mean?” she asked me.

So I tried to explain.

I tried to tell her that sometimes my eyes would catch on things and I couldn’t look away until I’d traced their outline at least one time and sometimes more than once and sometimes even more than that. I tried to tell her that if I was forced to look away for some reason a fear would rise up from my belly and threaten to swallow me whole. It would tell me that I’d better find a way to finish tracing that thing with my eyes again because if I didn’t something awful would happen to me or my family or sometimes even the whole world. I tried to tell her that I would always find my way back until I could trace it just perfectly, get it just right, so that nobody would die and fires wouldn’t rage and animals wouldn’t get hit by cars and the entire earth wouldn’t explode while I slept.

I tried to tell her.

But I couldn’t.

And so she had taken me to the eye doctor.

I remember wishing that would be the answer. Glasses. I’d get glasses and the torture would stop.

But then I was sitting on an exam table tracing the frames on the wall with my eyes and listening to the doctor tell my mother that there was nothing wrong with my vision and that he had never heard of this tracing thing before. And I knew that I wasn’t going to get any help. I knew that I was going to have to keep doing this alone.

That night it is very likely that I went to bed at nine o’clock and that my parents found me at ten hiding behind the bathroom door where there was a vent on the floor. It is very likely that they asked what I was doing, and I said just going to the bathroom, and they said then why are you behind the door, and when I could not explain they demanded that I get back to bed, that I should have been asleep an hour ago.

And then my stomach filled with flutters and my mind taunted me with images of pain and destruction so that when I heard their door close I crept quietly out of bed and across the hall to once more stand behind the bathroom door. There, I slid each bare foot over the vent again, five more times on each side, and then five more after that because I didn’t get it right the first time, which was really the eighth time.

And the anxiety welled up in me so fiercely I thought I would burst. I was afraid to get caught behind the bathroom door again, but I was more afraid to not count and trace and check and stare and touch and turn and keep all of the bad guys from stealing our money.

So it went on like that.

For years.

For twenty years.

And sometimes I tried to get help. But mostly I couldn’t.

Until one day I could.

One day everything had fallen so miserably apart that I walked into a Reiki center wearing pajamas and unshowered for a couple of days and having just come from my parents’ couch, and I asked for help. Real help.

Before then I had never truly believed in help. I thought I was made this way and that like my brown hair would never grow blond or red, my obsessions and anxiety would never grow into anything else either.

And maybe I was made this way. Maybe over the weeks and months when my brain was forming, something became misshapen and caused me to not only check to see if the doors are locked at night, but to hold the knobs in a certain way and count to three and then do the same thing with the other hand, and then do it again. And again.

Maybe when I was still just a collection of cells inside my mother she was anxious and afraid and releasing hormones that found their way to me and filled me up with the same fear. Maybe my DNA tried to find a way to help me release all of this pain and programed me to create perfectly flat bedspreads that can only be achieved by smoothing the wrinkles fourteen times with each hand, and then doing it again. And again.

Maybe I was born with everything just right. But maybe living in what I perceived to be a chaotic household caused a rewiring of the brain and I formed these coping mechanisms that became manic and so ingrained I couldn’t undo them, even when I realized they were causing as much trouble as they were fixing.

Maybe it’s all of these things and none of these things. I don’t know. I just know that at some point I decided that even if I was made this way or even if I had formed deep and dedicated habits, I wanted something else. That was the deal breaker right there.

I wanted something else.

And there is so much more to say here. There are years and years of words about self doubt and shame and fear and how well-placed pillows and empty counter tops and sorted sock drawers can relieve all of that.

But then again they can’t.

They never could.

Only I could relieve all of that. With help.

And now?

Now it has been about fourteen years since that day in pajamas and no shower and my parents couch. I still call to my husband from bed most nights to check the door before he comes in, even though I have already checked it. But I’ve only checked it once and not fifteen times and I usually don’t have to put my hands on it either. Usually.

I still need bedspreads to be smooth, but I realize when they are. I don’t trail my palm down their centers repeatedly just in case I missed something and I don’t believe that an imperfect bedspread is going to cause a breakup or a disease or a plane crash. Most days.

There is a vent in my bathroom now but you’ll never find me running my feet over it in exactly the same way a dozen times with each foot, even when my chest heaves with anxiety and my mind races with all the ways in which this world is broken and battered. I know feet on the vent can’t fix that. I have real solutions now and I can still get quite fixated on those things too, but I wonder if maybe the world wouldn’t be so jagged if it wasn’t so easy for so many to look away.

I’ve never been able to look away.

Remember the cereal boxes?

I just couldn’t.

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