“One, Two, Three, Four Five…”
Wearing jeans and a tee shirt I look like any woman about leave with her husband on vacation.
Spittle isn’t seeping out from my mouth, eyes aren’t glazed over, nor is my speech slurred from too many meds.
This is the face of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety disorders.
I drive a car, work, shop for food, and walk among you undetected.
Appearing normal, a colleague insists I don’t have OCD.
“My friend has it and she hasn’t left her house in twenty years,” she says.
Take a journey inside my head. See what I’m hiding.
I stare at the knobs on the stovetop. “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 off 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.
Trying to relieve the stress and anxiety I take in deep breaths of the stuffy air and exhale. It’s going to be fine. I stare at the knobs. All I have to do is touch the stovetop 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. And one of the switches is off center, not completely in the off position.
The oven could be on. If I move the knob I could turn it on. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10...”
Someone whispers in my ear, “While you’re on the flight, your house is going to explode. The fire will spread to your neighbors’ houses. People will die. That dust mop you call a cat is going to be barbecued. And it will be your fault. When you’re in the air there’s nothing you can do about it! You’ll be trapped. Every second that you are on the flight, you’ll wonder if the cops are waiting at the gate to arrest you. When they hunt you down, they will haul your ass off to jail and put you away for the rest of your useless life.”
Dad, stop it! Leave me alone. Get out of my head.
“Remember when the lamb chops caught on fire?”
How could I forget?
I was four years old when it happened. While Dad sat at the kitchen table reading the newspaper, I played on the floor with my toy oven. Mom tended to the lamp chops cooking in the gas broiler. The meat snapped and sizzled. The greasy smell of the fatty food made me hungry.
Then I heard a swooshing sound. My face flushed with heat. I looked up and saw the angry red and blue flames reach out to me like octopus tentacles. Puffs of smoke hung over the kitchen.
“Oh no!” Quickly, Mom grabbed a bucket and filled it with water from the sink. She tossed the water into the broiler.
Then she swiftly scooped me up and brought me into the family room. She hurried back into the kitchen.
In the cramped house I heard 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 screamed.
Then, I heard a slamming sound.
Dad said, “You’re supposed to suffocate the fire by shutting the oven door.”
He came into the family room. Dad said, “Everything’s okay, Linny (his nickname for me). Your mom isn’t too smart. She could have burned down the damn house.” Dad went to the wet bar and poured himself a drink.
“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 10 years ago.
“You’re to blame, when the house burns down, Linny,” Dad says.
Go away! You’ve been dead for 23 years. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10...”
I try to tear my eyes away from the stove. The sound of Eddie’s feet shuffling in the hallway makes me feel jittery. So much pressure to leave the house and I have so much more to check. Maybe I should come back to the stove after checking everything else in the house.
I struggle to peel my fingers off the SATURDAY VACATION CHECKLIST that I am holding in my fist. My pen lingers over the space next to STOVE OFF. But, I cannot bring myself to put a check mark next to this item.
Before going to bed last night, I used my FRIDAY NIGHT VACATION CHECKLIST and put marks beside the spaces next to 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 in some shallow breaths. The apartment feels as if a vacuum cleaner is siphoning up the air. Exhausted and thirsty from all of this stress I pick up a bottle from the counter and gulp down 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 might cause a fire. Couldn’t it?
I decide to come back to the stove after checking off everything else on the list. Moving on to the kitchen faucet handle, I remember that several times my husband had neglected to turn it off completely.
Every day before leaving the house I take the strainers out of the drains in both sinks and push down the faucet handle. Or else we could have had a flood. “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10...”
From behind I feel Eddie’s eyes boring into me.
“It’s time to go,” he snarls.
It is only 6:00 AM, but the summer Arizona heat is baking the roof of the upstairs apartment.
I can see through his soaked tee shirt. Eddie peels the shirt from his skin and then pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket. He mops the perspiration from his forehead.
My husband is also on the list. On Friday night, he was required to take a shower so that I can make sure that the faucet is not dripping. Also, he had to push up the lever on the air-conditioning unit to 80 degrees to save on electricity. He could have turned it off, but we would have suffocated. Locking the windows the night before we leave the house is also on the list.
He picks up an indoor temperature gage that is sitting on a table. “It’s a friggin’ 90 degrees in here,” Eddie says, his voice rising to a squeaky pitch, warning me 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 (and inadvertently turning the knob to the on position). I go into the family room.
Dakota lets out a meow.
“Come here, boy,” I say.
The cat comes to me. After picking him up I place my hand on the smooth skin under his front legs. Feeling the strong thump of his heart and listening to his soft purr is comforting.
“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 and jumps out of my arms.
“I’m better now. With the meds at least I can drive and leave the house.”
Eddie bends down and opens the cooler that is sitting on the floor. He takes out a can of soda.
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 the can. When he takes a drink his lips curl into a frown as if it tastes like oil from a car engine.
“Warm?” I say.
Dakota jumps and meows.
“I wish that I could take you with me, boy,” I tell the cat and give him a hug.
“We’ve got to go, now.”
“Okay, okay. I’m almost finished.”
Dakota rubs his head against my eyeglasses.
“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.
I go through the house and check 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 humongous handbag crammed with meds, tissues, cell phone, pens, mints, gum, money, extra eyeglasses, Ipod, a small notebook, and the bottle of water.
After entering the mudroom, I open the door leading to the garage and yell, “Eddie, you can come back in now.”
He comes out from behind the trunk of the car and looks at me wearily with his huge, tired, brown eyes.
“Come in here,” I command.
He follows me through the mudroom and into 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.
Eddie says, “Goodbye, boy.”
We leave the cat and 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 and the garage door makes a scraping sound as it moves along its hinges.
“Come back here. You have to watch me lock the door that connects to the garage.”
He turns and sighs.
The sunlight feels good against my face. I take in deep breaths of the cool, refreshing air.
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.
We get into the car and shut the doors. But, we are not finished yet.
Eddie backs the vehicle out and presses the garage door remote.
I watch as the beige colored door reaches the ground.
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 am wrong.
I bend over and plant a kiss on my husband’s cheek.
“I’ll take another spin around,” he says.
When we reach our house, he slows down and stops.
“It’s closed.” He drives back to the gate. It opens and we are on our way to the airport.
Therapists have told me that I use these repetitive behaviors as way to avoid facing my fears.
I am stressed out about going on every flight. Not even the meds help. I suffer from panic attacks when there is turbulence. The plane is going to crash. I am sure of it.
After years of cognitive therapy, I am stable. Learning to recognize and change the negative thought processes that occur during panic attacks to positive ones, helps me to cope with my fear of dogs, new situations, and places.
Today, I am 62 years old. Still, OCD continues to challenge my self-confidence and reality. I compile exhausting lists, check and recheck locks to the house, and the garage door.
I don’t feel comfortable outdoors, visiting friend’s homes, going to new places, and flying. Yet, I do them anyway, working toward living a full and happy life.
I pet therapy dogs, walk on the beach, travel, drive, and own a small business.