For a while, OCD wasn’t just a disease, it was my disease. No one else was allowed to claim it, because if other people suffered like I did, It was basically like I never suffered at all. Quite a selfish thought, really, but OCD is a very self-absorbed disease, seeking all one’s available attention until there isn’t any left to give.
In fourth grade, I had to whisper the names of every student in my class (in alphabetical order) to no audience other than my humidifier and the radiator (which stopped and started in reluctant applause at my incredible memory). If I failed to recall a classmate, I couldn’t fall asleep. It simply wasn’t feasible. I would shut my eyes and listen to the heavy lull of the radiator, but my fists would clench and the fallow colors creeping through the cracks between my curtains, the hapless four A.M. light, would settle atop my eyelids. But sleep would not come.
In sixth grade, I chewed each bite thirty times in each cheek, for I thoroughly believed, even one bite short of my perfect number, I might fail to digest the meal entirely. It would settle in my stomach like a rock and plop itself there, an eternal resident of my digestive system. I knew it was a foolish thought, and I kept it to myself. But I believed it nonetheless.
In eighth grade, I cried because I knew something wasn’t right. Nothing was ever right. But I was never sure what. Breath taut, like a shrinking elastic. Four in, seven out. Harsh beams of light filtered through my sterile shades; the four strips of white that shone on the sliver of the floor between the bed and the wall were the same every day. Four was a bad number, so I avoided them. One foot on the cold hardwood, another, until they were side by side, toe to toe. Three sips of water. Gulp, gulp, gulp. Cup back down. Center it, good. Every morning was the same, and I liked it this way.
It was also in eighth grade that I developed my x-ray vision. It was a Tuesday when Max Jacobs threw up in the middle of first period. Mrs. Peterson was explaining the importance of special right triangles and he started coughing. He didn’t even bother aiming for the sink or a trash can, it blanketed his desk like a cocoon, spilling over into his open backpack.
“Oh, dear,” began Mrs. Peterson, but I didn’t stay to listen to the remainder of her sentence. I pulled on my sweatshirt and hurdled over an empty chair to reach the door before any of his germs spread to my open lips. I saw things nobody else could, the bacteria floating through the air, crawling along the carpet, clinging to the bottoms of my shoes, sinking into the raw skin on my palms. I despised the nurse’s office. It was the most germ-ridden room in the entire school. They were everywhere in there: in the bathroom where countless stomach ache cases had thrown up, on the armrests of the benches where the cold cases rested their sweatshirts after they’d coughed in their sleeve. I avoided this hell hole at all costs. But I didn’t know where else to go. I perched myself on the table as I hyperventilated. I had never breathed so fast before, but I didn’t have time to be impressed with this new skill, for the nurse was rubbing my back with her hand, the same hand that had rubbed hundreds of other backs that same very week. I tore away and shoved my hands in my pockets where they wouldn’t touch anything else, held my breath so I wouldn’t have to breathe the infested air. By the time I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, she was dialing the number on my emergency contact sheet. I breathed into the hood of my sweatshirt and waited.
When I got home, I stood under the bathroom’s judging light. I scrubbed the antibacterial soap into the bleeding canyons on the backs of my hands, cracked from a combination of over washing and the biting winter air. I used only the hot water until the skin beneath my fingernails turned purple like the bath toy my mom used to give me that changed color in the pink bubble bath steam. I clenched the skin of my cheeks in my molars until my eyes watered and counted to one hundred. A solid number. A safe number.
“What are you doing?” My dad flicked off the faucet. I was just relieved that I didn’t have to touch it. Hands suspended in the air, water dripping onto my socks, I whispered, “Washing my hands.”
Suddenly, I found myself in a cold office. All the laminated degrees, they meant nothing to me, but they must have meant something to my parents, for it made them trust this man with my care for hours at a time, even though they hardly knew him. I was told his name was Dr. Clump, and that was all I really knew about him, besides the fact that he graduated with a PHD from Brown. It haunted me that he knew so much about me, yet I knew so little about him, and I was determined to find out more. All I knew was what I could see, and I never liked that, because there were always things lurking beneath the surface. I knew he leaned back in his chair as he talked, and his stomach protruded over his thick black belt, landing on top of his desk. I knew a diet coke left a wet ring on top of a textbook sized, “A Comprehensive Guide to Adolescent OCD” Perhaps he was going on a diet, a rather unsuccessful one, I presumed. I knew he closed his eyes while he talked, inspiring me to coin the nickname later when I described the session to my parents: Closed-eyed Clump. His desk lacked any photographs of his wife, kids, even a dog. There were only generic framed pictures that it was clear he didn’t take, a fall leaf, a droplet of water on a brick, they seemed meaningless, and they were hung crooked on his wall. I wondered if he had done it like that on purpose, because surely no grown man could manage to accidentally center a photo that poorly.
I sought solace in the small octagonal window behind him, the sky blue, grey, black, orange, depending on the time of day I was dragged to this stifling room, always cold in the summer and warm in the winter. I loved the drive home from his office, from the city, buildings stacked neatly side by side, precisely planted shrubbery, because I knew I didn’t have to stare past his ugly glasses into curious, prying eyes for at least another week. But I loathed the ride there, the car-seat fabric stretching between my white knuckles, rolling the window up and down because I couldn’t get it just right.
During one of our earlier sessions, I noticed his computer had adopted a new screensaver: polar bears. It changed about every thirty seconds or so, and each depiction of the animal featured a new pose, one leaning against a rock, one sitting cross-legged, one standing on its heels begging for fish, one resting on its back, its stomach stretching out over its legs. Then and there, I decided my shrink quite resembled this arctic species, but his most accurate likeness was certainly the last image on the slideshow.
“Do you know why I chose the polar bears?”
I shook my head.
“Now that I brought it up, and you’re staring at them, you can’t stop thinking about them, can you?”
I shook my head again. This was our usual routine. He would say something he thought to be profound or groundbreaking and smile to himself at his own genius while I either nodded or shook my head, depending on what I deemed appropriate.
“It’s like OCD. As much as you try to stop yourself from thinking about your compulsions, they will never go away. You have to stop trying to make them go away, and they will.” This seemed extremely counterproductive. Wasn’t his entire job to cure me? Not to make up reasons why I wasn’t yet cured. I realized how unfair this entire thing was. Why me? Dr. Clump told me I had the perfect case of OCD, but he also said nothing was perfect. He was full of contradictions. It comforted me, knowing that something about me was perfect, just right: my OCD. That meant there were other people like me, probably a lot. And as I watched the sinking orange beyond the car windshield, past the puzzle of buildings, while my dad whistled his usual backing out of a therapist’s driveway tune, I thought about this idea. I thought about it quite often. Nothing is perfect. What exactly did that mean? I had heard things described as perfect before, so how was it possible that perfection didn’t exist? It was August when I realized he was right. During one of our dimmer, lamp-lit sessions over the winter, he told me to go kayaking. I was watching sleet blanket a telephone wire through the octagon as he described the ripples in the water that stem from the rivulets dripping off the paddle. How they appear unflawed at first glance, the rings all equal lengths from each other, separating slowly until they sink into the black depths, continuing far into the distance.
“But,” he had said, “even one of the most seemingly perfect sights in nature is still not entirely perfect. A boat could drive by, disrupting the pattern. And this is essentially what OCD is. Something disrupts the pattern and it upsets us.” This sounded like something a bearded man with horn-rimmed glasses framed by Brown degrees would say, but it was also one of the moments when I was most fond of my therapist. It was a very therapist thing to say, and I liked that. I liked that it was expected, but I still wasn’t sure how that piece of advice could fix me. Come summer, though, I did as he told me. As soon as I stepped into the boat, I immediately became ill-at-ease. It tilted with the shifting wake, I never liked being off balance. Water soaked through my shorts, prickling the skin on my thighs. My breathing began to tighten again. 7,4,7,4. I watched the sky warm to a pale red reflecting in the water on the ripples. It’s true. They aren’t perfect, but they’re still beautiful. Exposure therapy, a term Clump liked to throw around a lot; I knew it was important for me to get better, but I kept putting it off. Getting better, it seemed hard, far away, the future you imagine on the hopeful edge of sleep, but in the back of your mind know will never find its way into reality. I dipped my fingers into the cool pink water, sweet on my chipped fingernails. I let them stay there for a solid amount of time. I didn’t count, just waited for my fingers to grow numb as I stared at my rosy reflection in the lake water. I tried to remember the second part of what Clump had said. As he was finishing his sentiment, I remembered, I was watching a cardinal flick ice from the telephone wire,
“Even if something disrupts the pattern, don’t let it upset you. Nothing’s perfect, and that’s okay.”