By Kelly Garriott Waite
Evenings, just prior to giving each of the three door handles (one front, two back) a final twist and firm tug, to reassure myself that the deadbolts were engaged, I would unplug the coffee pot. As I slipped into bed, my mind would flash with what ifs and are you sures, images of fires and robbers swirling around my head. In order to relieve my brain, I would repeat this procedure, tiptoeing down the stairs so as not to disturb my parents who’d since gone to their room to read and, for my father, to smoke the night’s last cigarette. I’d hear the click as Dad flipped open his silver lighter, hear him thumb the spark wheel against flint. I’d get a hint of butane and know from the faintest sound of burning the precise instant when the end of Dad’s cigarette caught.
Sometimes – not often, for I had learned to be silent – Dad called out after he snapped the lighter shut and inhaled deeply. What was I doing out of bed? I would claim I needed a glass of water, in the kitchen going through the motions of turning on the faucet, the running water blanketing the sound of my checking the back doors one more (quietly twisting, quietly tugging – already I knew that there was something unacceptable about my behavior) before giving the coffee pot plug a glance. Often this wasn’t enough. I would have to pass a hand directly in front of the outlet: Perhaps there was an invisible connection between plug and socket that my eyes had not seen.
After, I would sneak into the den and grab my father’s overflowing ashtray, take it to the kitchen, and turn the faucet on again, watching the cigarettes bob in the rising water. Just before heading up the stairs, I’d give the front door another check, just in case.
Back in bed, I hoped to fall asleep quickly so that my mind wouldn’t force me downstairs before breakfast. If I did have to rise again, my checking turned violent: I would yank each of the door handles and wave the plug before my eyes. Sometimes I would run my thumb against the prongs, stab them against my hand. Here was visual, tangible proof that the coffee pot was unplugged, although sometimes even that wasn’t enough to make me believe.
Growing up, I was uncertain about religion: My mother was Catholic, my father a lapsed Protestant. My sisters and I were raised with a foot in each tradition, a situation that left me divided and confused. But I did learn to pray. At night, I’d repeat Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, an awful prayer – die before I wake? – probably taught to me by well-meaning Sunday School teachers. I prayed as well that the house wouldn’t burn; that the robbers wouldn’t come; that my mind would detach itself from its ever-present worrying. Then I would blink up at the dark ceiling, thinking about the endless black wave I imagined eternity to be.
Shortly after my brother’s birth, my mother nearly died. For days after she’d returned home, somewhat slimmer and with a squalling infant on her arm, Mom complained of a neck ache. The slightest breeze sent her into spasms of pain. She spent hours in our living room, resting her head upon the green card table normally reserved for bridge night. My sisters and I learned to tiptoe. We learned to whisper. We learned how to help care for an infant. I remember watching The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams on television, holding a bottle to my brother’s mouth. As I lifted him to my shoulder to pat his tiny back, my mother turned her head to look at me: You’re going to make a good mother someday.
In the evening of the day that my mother nearly died, my father gathered my sisters and me around him on the couch in the family room while my brother slept blissfully unaware in his bassinet. We almost lost her today. My father swiped at his eyes. It was – and is – the only time I can recall seeing him cry.
Before I turned twelve, I’d convinced myself I had breast cancer, mistaking normally-developing tissue for a lump. I stole the Better Homes & Gardens Family Medical Guide from the den’s bookshelves, reading, under Concerns of Women, about my surgical options. Later, I flipped through my sister’s biology textbook. It showed a breast in the late stages of cancer. For years, I believed I was ill, but I told no one, of course, imagining my slow demise, the horrible disfigurement of my breast eaten away by cancer, and the goodbye note I would write and clutch in my dying hands: I knew it all along. I consoled myself, thanks to Billy Joel, that if I must die young, at least I knew that I was good and so would go to heaven. For years I carried around the fear of breast cancer until it suddenly dawned on me that if I had had the disease, it would have killed me by now.
Every other week, Dad would drop my sisters and me off at the Hilltop Christian Church where we attended Sunday school and then church on our own. I remember newsprint paper and broken crayons. I remember the teacher’s cheeks tinged with pink when she got to the seventh commandment. That’s for adults, she said.
On alternate Sundays, my sisters and I attended St. Joseph Catholic Church with our mother. This, of course, was not church. It was Mass. And the priest (not the minister, nor the pastor) didn’t give a sermon. That long mind-wandering period during which a man stood rambling at the front of the church was called a homily. I remember cushioned kneelers covered in red vinyl. I remember missals with thin yellowed pages. I remember incense and holy water and colorful light slanting through stained glass windows, tinting my legs blue and red, yellow and orang.
After deciding our house was too small for the six of us, my parents bought forty acres of land. We cut down trees and hauled brush. We stacked logs and peed behind the tool shed while our house was being built. We celebrated small victories with takeout chicken dinners, sitting on the plywood floor of the future kitchen of our future home. We worked the land. We made a farm.
We planted a massive garden, too much food for our family to consume: peas, carrots, zucchini and green beans. My mother learned to make strawberry jam, her daughters stirring the pot with a long-handled wooden spoon, hoping to avoid the inevitable splatters. We baled hay. We rode horses. We kept cows and pigs and chickens, whose shit-littered eggs we stole from beneath their warm white breasts every morning.
We walked in the woods, easily jumping across Silver Creek to explore the junk pile, until the beavers moved in, dammed the creek, and made a home of their own.
For a time, my sisters and I exclusively attended a local Disciples of Christ church, my mother having fallen away from the faith of her birth. But after a time, we, too, divorced ourselves from religion. Work and nature had become our altar.
Obsessions don’t just disappear. They metastasize. As soon as my cancer worry was under control, a new fixation began to torment me: Before getting out of bed, I promised myself I wouldn’t overeat that day. But I always did, had already imagined, while still beneath the covers, what I would eat first. A breakfast of sugared cereal, topped with creamy Jif peanut butter and Half and Half, eaten, of course, in secrecy, was immediately followed by a snack: More peanut butter, smeared so thickly on a piece of toast that I could see the imprint of my two front teeth where I’d bitten. I would eat without tasting: A dozen Pop-Tarts, whose empty boxes I would hide until I could safely get rid of the evidence; candy bars from the video store where I worked – I ate so many in a day that I lost track and would stuff the cash register with a handful of singles and hope it was enough; the ten-pound block of Nestlé chocolate my mother kept in the pantry for baking, from which I would hack away hunks with an orange-handled ice pick. After cramming myself with thousands of calories, I was full of shame.
I tracked my food intake, the day’s list always beginning with promise: Puffed Wheat with milk, plum, tea, glasses water, 4. Then cookies, 2 appeared on my list, which suddenly came to an abrupt end. A squiggle appeared across the leftover portion of the day’s page, accompanied by the damning word: binge.
I tracked my measurements, tracked my exercises: jogged 10 minutes with weights on trampoline; 100 jumping jacks; 107 jump rope (not straight). I promised myself a subscription to Shape Magazine, even Glamour if I could reach 125 pounds. I regularly wrote in my journal that I would be totally happy if I were thin, yet happiness eluded me.
I discovered that with Chocolate Ex-Lax, I could eat as much as I wanted and lose weight. I discovered that cigarettes could curb my appetite. I started cooking gourmet dinners for my family and internally criticized them for so openly enjoying food.
Food became my religion. Shame my constant companion.
After eight years of farming, my sisters and I gradually lost interest. We sought boyfriends. Independence. Cars. Whenever I drove home from work, or school, or shopping, I’d have to double back to where I’d just been, so certain was I that I’d run someone over. As the miles passed beneath my tires, I’d check the rear view mirror, picturing body parts strewn about, people standing in the street, hands pressed to cheeks, round mouths around horrible screams. A mile would pass. Two. Five. Even ten. My mind, in this mode, was ungrounded, like a bratty toddler having one hell of a temper tantrum, wailing and kicking the ground, demanding that it got its way. Eventually, I would give in to it, turning around in someone’s driveway, my mind circling as I scanned the road for signs of trauma that I knew I’d never find. Through the windshield, I resentfully watched pedestrians going about their business, jogging, shopping, eating ice cream cones. How could they behave so normally when inside I was falling to pieces?
I kept silent about my driving obsession. There was no easy way to bring it up: Sorry I’m late. I thought I ran somebody over. And there wasn’t a lump. There was no fever. There was, in short, nothing tangible to offer up as proof. Having nothing to poke or prod, nothing to press down upon, I certainly could not be ill.
Eventually, I learned to reason my way out of this driving issue, in the same way I’d reasoned my way out of my cancer fear: I forced myself to drive further…further…further, my mind screaming all the while: Stop!Turnthecararound!Danger! My hands shook. My eyes watered as ten miles stretched to fifteen, then twenty. But then, my stomach would fill with the heavy knowing that the irrational side of my mind was about to take over. I was frustrated and angry and so sick of myself and my stupid life.
Yet I learned to fight back, telling myself that I had not heard a thump or a scream, that I had not felt a lump beneath my tires. I promised myself that I would watch the evening news and if there had been a report of a hit and run, I would surrender myself to the authorities.
Before marrying, I told my future husband I would convert to Catholicism. Religion was important to him. I was kind of half-Catholic anyway, I reasoned, even if I hadn’t been to church in years. I wanted our future children to have one faith. I wanted us to attend church as a family.
At the Easter Vigil, after months of Tuesday night lessons, I was baptized and confirmed and received the Holy Eucharist for the first time, according to the Catholic Church, although my mother had baptized me at home and I’d taken the bread and wine regularly with the Protestants.
My husband and I bought an eighty-year-old house for seventy-nine thousand dollars. Three tiny bedrooms upstairs. One small bathroom. A living room with a hole in the floor and a hideous brown fireplace. There was a dining room with a built-in bench and fabric wall paper. A kitchen with bright yellow tiles, easily dislodged by an incautious tread.
After the birth of my eldest, I thought I had schizophrenia. While my colicky newborn screamed every day from 3 until 6, I put her in her stroller and wheeled her endlessly around the dining room table or sat on the built-in bench, holding her close, praying that she would stop screaming, just for a moment. One day, a clear voice whispered to me: Kill her.
I hadn’t heard of postpartum depression, still wasn’t clear on how to handle my obsessions. I told no one but my husband. I thought that if I sought professional help, my daughter would be taken away from me forever. But I should have remembered the intrusive thoughts I’d had for years.
Sometimes a voice would tell me to drive up on the sidewalk into a crowd of people. I’d grip the steering wheel tightly, press on the brakes, fight the voice inside my head. Sometimes I’d look at a complete stranger, just a sideways glance, and a thought would fill my head: He deserves to go to hell. It didn’t matter if the person was man or woman, child or adult, black or white. My mind chose random targets to mentally condemn. I was a horrible person. I was a sinner. I deserved go to go hell. No they deserved to go to hell. No, I…Back and forth, my rational mind would argue with its irrational partner until my brain felt as if it would explode. But to have such thoughts about my child…I promised myself I’d commit suicide before I harmed my daughter.
I didn’t know the Catholic Church’s stance on this action, killing oneself to avoid harming another. I didn’t care. I would gladly burn in hell to save this infant.
Before my daughters — by now we had two — could get up from their morning naps, I would sweep the floors of the entire house, afraid, if I didn’t, that the girls would get lead poisoning. When I ended in the kitchen, thinking about a cup of coffee and a few moments of reading, I’d tell myself I’d missed a spot and would have to head back upstairs to restart the process. Again and again, while my children slept, I swept those floors, hating myself, hating my brain, wishing for once in my Goddamn life to be a normal human being.
I used to throw away entire meals, so convinced was I that I’d somehow contaminated it with shards of glass or a splash of bleach.
I used to take my daughters’ temperatures. Every. Single. Night.
My husband and I enrolled our daughters in Catholic school at the very church I had attended with my mother and sisters. I continued to wrestle with my new set of beliefs. I confess I have sometimes wondered whether the words of a prophet were actually spoken by a madman, if an angel’s visitation was actually a hallucination.
After we tucked her into bed, my older daughter slipped into the bathroom to wipe down the toilet seat with a tissue. If she didn’t, she knew that a mean man would come through her bedroom window. Every night, she would rid her room of pointy objects and frightening books. She would call down the stairs: Will I be all right? Will anything bad happen? Are the doors locked?
My daughter dealt with her obsessions by constantly seeking reassurances. I gave her what she wanted: A mean man isn’t coming. You’re not having a heart attack.
For a while she was content with this response. Then the obsessions began demanding more. After each reassurance, she sought proof: How do you know?
I just do, I told her. It’s like faith. My own faith was on shaky ground. But still, I told her this. I offered her faith to give her some sort of hope when life felt hopeless.
Before she was in kindergarten, my younger daughter began confessing things: I stuck my middle finger up, which she immediately chased with, Well, I might have. I’m not sure. Later, she developed a strange noise, a high-pitched snort, which she would deploy with regularity. A tic of sorts, my husband and I figured.
Eventually the tic disappeared. My daughter stopped making her confessions. My husband and I concluded that she’d outgrown whatever it was that had been troubling her. We didn’t then know she’d learned to be silent, too.
Because I didn’t tell my daughters I suffered from mental disorders. I told myself that my obsessive behaviors stemmed from growing up in an alcoholic home; that the girls were too young to understand; that if I kept silent, if I didn’t name it, mental illness would bypass them. I told myself, too, I was a bad mother. Sometimes–often–I still do.
Faith and OCD. Both powerful. Both mysteries, one of the brain, the other of the soul.
Obsessions are a set of rules for behavior, different for each person: for me, checking the coffee pot, for one daughter, wiping down the toilet, for the other, making confessions. These rules represent an attempt to gain control over our uncontrollable, uncertain world. Christianity, I’d been taught, also has rules which, if we follow, increase our chances of getting to heaven. Life doesn’t actually end when we die.
But reaching that security requires two different paths. The best way for me to work through obsessions was to learn to apply my rational brain to them. I had to look for proof, or lack thereof: Had I heard a thump? No. A scream? No. Had my tires lifted off the ground? No. Only then could I conclude that I’d probably not run anyone over. Faith, however, required suspension of rational brain: I couldn’t see Jesus in the disk cradled in my palm, didn’t see a flash from the sky as He came down from heaven, but I had to accept that He was there. It was a mystery. There could be no proof.
Obsessions and faith and rationality and mystery and those damned intrusive thoughts that grip the brain. Perhaps, like faith, obsessions require a person to go beyond mere rationalizing. Perhaps both faith and OCD require a person to accept the unknowns, without reassurances; without certainties. Will the house catch on fire? Probably not, but a definite possibility. Does God exist? I can offer no proof. And yet, there is always hope.
Now, when I leave Starbucks where I’ve been writing, I have to return to my table to see if I’ve left anything behind: my computer, my notes, the cell phone I know is in the pocket of my jeans. Clearly, I have not exorcized my obsessions. But their grip has lessened somewhat: I don’t unplug the coffee pot before heading to bed. I no longer drive around the block to see if I’ve run someone over.
I used to hope to become the person I was before obsessions crowded my brain. But I am not certain she ever existed. Perhaps I have always been the person I have, for so many years, tried to escape. Perhaps I have always been the after person. And that’s OK. I have learned to accept the mystery that is my brain. I am learning not to be silent about my history of mental illness. Ever so slowly, I am learning how to speak.
Author’s Note: Six weeks ago my father was diagnosed with cancer. He died this morning. My dad passed on to me his love of hard work. Half of my faith. My respect for nature. He gave me his obsessions, too. The funny thing is, we never talked about it. He suffered in silence. I suffered in silence. Isn’t it time we all started talking?
Kelly Garriott Waite’s work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Globe and Mail, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and elsewhere. She is currently writing about her search for the stories of both her great-grandfather, who immigrated from Russian-owned Poland, as well as the forgotten owner of her historical Ohio home, an English immigrant who married into a Native American family.