“Dad! Dad! You’re treading on the lines!” my five-year-old daughter cried, tiptoeing and jumping her way down the sidewalk. “That’s not allowed. A bear will come and get you.”
My daughters (aged five and two) were walking down the street and I was stepping on the cracks of the pavement. I found myself getting angry.
“Don’t be stupid,” I replied, “there’s no bear and I don’t want you worrying about the cracks, just walk normally.”
Chastened, she stopped and looked upset. I resolutely carried on walking, standing almost deliberately on every crack I could see.
I know, I know, I’m a dick. Game-ruiner, bear-encourager. But this isn’t my normal behavior. What my daughter doesn’t know is that when I was younger, I couldn’t walk on a crack. Not wouldn’t. Couldn’t. Because if I did, something bad would happen. Not a bear – I live in a market town in England, not Yosemite – but something amorphously unpleasant would happen to me or the people I love. It took time, therapy, and sheer bloody-minded willpower to get over that. Frankly, it still pops into my head whenever I’m out doing chores.
Let me backtrack a little. I’m a counter. I count things – how many steps I’ve taken, the number of times I’ve checked the oven is off, the amount I’ve swiped my finger across my phone screen in a particular way before I go to sleep. There are literally hundreds more. When I was a teenager, there were thousands. Touching the light switch twice every time, making sure my shoes were in line, and then counting up to a certain number before I could move onto the next thing. Repeating the Lord’s Prayer a specific number of times before I could turn and sleep on the same side (the left) every night.
I didn’t – I don’t – do this because I enjoy it. Although it’s good to check you’ve turned the gas off, like, once. I do it because I have to.
And I’ll tell you why. Because I have these intrusive thoughts, thoughts which make me believe that if I don’t do these things something bad will happen. I’m not quite sure what that bad will be, but, even though I know intellectually what I’m doing is irrational, somewhere, deep in my core, I believe it to be true.
As a result, I formulate compulsions. Some people would consider them routines, which, for want of a better word, neutralize my intrusive thoughts. So, if I do such-and-such, then I can prevent such-and-such bad thing from happening. This, in essence, is what Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is and it’s a fucking nightmare.
There are lots of different manifestations of the OCD and they exist at differing levels of intensity. There are people who hoard, people who can’t stop washing their hands, people who have unwanted sexual thoughts, people who are convinced they’ve caused harm to someone even when they haven’t. It’s why I can’t watch any of those shows where people amass too much stuff. I just yell at the TV, “This person has a disease! Stop filming them!”
Some people, like me, get on with life. They suffer with it quietly, with barely anyone realizing (that’s part of its insidious horror). Others can’t leave their house because they have to take 25 showers a day, or can’t get to the front door because their home is so full of crap.
Trust me when I say this is a mental illness. Everyone has intrusive thoughts. People have them all the time. We worry about this, or we fret about that. We wonder what might happen if we do this and joke about what might occur if we did that. The difference between someone with OCD and someone without is that those of us who suffer from it can’t just shrug off those weird, unsettling, or plain crazy feelings. It’s exhausting.
Anyway, I explain all this because it needs to be explained, but also to try and put you inside my head. Close your eyes and think what it must be like for all this chaos to be going around your brain 24/7 and then open them and imagine you have a small person to take care of as well. A child to assign all this nonsense to, someone you love with every atom of your being. And worse, someone who, when you think about a single drop of harm coming to them, it fills you with pain and rage.
Think how tired you are when you’re a parent (lack of sleep exacerbates my condition, which is pretty shitty considering I’m tired all the time as I imagine you are). Think about all the stuff that when you weren’t a parent, at most, existed on the periphery of your mind, but has since moved towards the center — the size of grapes and how chewable they are, where the bleach is kept, fuel emissions, paedophiles.
When you’re a parent, your gut instinct is to try and stay in control. Hell, it’s expected of you. And when I say control I don’t mean being coercive, I mean responsible, a grown-up.
OCD is like trying to be in control times a million. And as we all know, that simply doesn’t jibe with being a parent, not really. Sure, we can manage things and we can be vigilant and we can be caring, but the world is the world – capricious, big, and, ultimately, unknowable.
As someone who literally likes to quantify stuff, that’s difficult to take.
I don’t want to end on a downer. A lot of OCD sufferers respond to treatment, whether it’s medication, cognitive behavioural therapy, plain old yoga. I’m not convinced it can be cured. I see it more as a leak in your brain that you can plug, but you need to keep an eye out for other cracks in the wall. I hope I’m not being flippant when I equate it with addiction in that way. I’ll always be a recovering OCD-er and some days are worse than others.
I’m going to try to get better. I hope to explain why I do what I do and feel the way I feel with both of my children at some point.
But for now, it feels great to explain it. And I’m sorry, kiddo, I’m going to keep stepping on those cracks.