Sara Kirschenbaum
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My Memoir's Prologue

Posted Sunday, May 25th, 2014 at 10:16pm


Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) nips at my heels as I type this. I feel an irrational pull to “reuse” as many letters as possible. So if I’ve typed obsessive and I want to delete that word and change it to compulsive, I can feel the urge to save the letter o and the letters s-i-v-e by not deleting them but reusing them when I type the new word. Of course, it is much faster just to erase the whole word obsessive and start over with compulsive. But a little thought comes into my head that this o and this s-i-v-e— not just any, but this particular o and s-i-v-e on my screen are counting on me, for this, their one chance to make it into the written word. So while I am trying to type, the mortality of the letters I’m beckoning and deleting pulls at me and distracts me. So far, I’ve done quite well. I hardly ever reuse the old letters. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous, of course. But I can feel it slow me down when I’m typing, if only by a millisecond. A little millisecond-long plea for immortality from these goddamned letters.

I fear that if my OCD gets worse, my life as a writer will be sunk. I won’t be able to delete for fear of killing letters.

I get a similar irrational pull when I’m cooking. If I’m spooning out batter for muffins, and I am about to rinse the last coating of batter on the sides of the bowl, I think about how far those bits of wheat and sugar have come, only to have me destroy their opportunity to become part of a muffin. Most of the time, I will succumb to the compulsion and scrape the bowl with my rubber spatula into the muffin tins a few more times before rinsing. But what makes me think a carbohydrate molecule aspires to be a muffin? Obsessive-compulsive disorder is not logical.

I am used to these obsessions nipping at my heels. They have been dogging me for most of my life, although they have slowed down in the past decade. Now that I am well medicated and not unduly stressed, they keep their distance. They barely register.

But one thing that is always lurking is the fear, in various permutations, that I’m about to die. Where it is me about to be deleted on the computer screen, or is left unleavened in the bowl of muffin batter.

Quietly, I brace for doom. And doom has always danced around me. Beginning with the family narrative of my mother’s near-death in the boat fire in which her brother died and she was burned over most of her body. When I was six there was an underground explosion that blew a manhole cover fifteen feet into the air right next to me as I walked down the sidewalk. Once, on a visit home from college, the Puerto Rican terrorist group FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional) set off eight bombs within a few blocks of my parents’ apartment in Chinatown. The explosions shook me on the toilet as I sat. Eighteen floors up. My dad tried to tell me it was firecrackers, but I knew better. I was scared but not surprised.

The World Trade Center was only seven blocks from that same apartment where I grew up. As a child, I had nightmares of it breaking at the foundation and falling flat near my apartment building. When the World Trade Center finally did fall, I thought, “I knew it!”

I am hesitant to visit my family in New York City for fear of nuclear attack. Not one to be caught off guard by mortality, I carry premonitions around, just in case, like perverted form of insurance against being killed unawares. As if foreknowledge will soften the blow of disaster. I have been known to call friends and say, “If I die tomorrow, don’t think I didn’t know it was coming.”

Obsessive worry waits. For a shudder in my postmenopausal estrogen levels, a leaky gap in my serotonin receptors, or a particular stress in my life.

My first clear memory of OCD twisting me into submission happened the summer I started my period, when I was twelve. I was thinking of nothing in particular when I saw a crack in the sidewalk. As I stepped over it, the thought came into my mind that I should stop, turn around, walk back, and step on the crack before proceeding. “Well, that’s stupid,” I thought, and kept walking. About four steps farther, the warning in my mind got more specific: If you don’t turn around and step on that crack, your mother will not have a successful career as a painter. “Well, that’s really stupid,” I thought. By now, I was even farther away from the break in the concrete but worrying: What if it really would doom my mother’s career?

I couldn’t shake the thought.

“Well, I guess there’s no harm in it,” I decided. And turned around and walked the twelve paces back, and stepped on the damn crack with a feeling of relief.

Now I could get on my way.

Or could I?

When I was two steps past the crack the second time, another thought popped into my mind: If I didn’t turn around and step on that crack a second time, my father wouldn’t succeed as a sculptor. I ended up walking back. And then one more time, because the compulsion was still there, even without a specific threat or reward. After that, I ran away in embarrassment.

Nowadays I am just a two. Once I was a five. I think that is the most times I have checked something. In my twenties, I left my house and automatically checked the lock as I walked out the door, locked (1). But then I had a gut feeling that I forgot to lock the door. After a few steps, I went back and yanked on the door: yup, locked (2). Then, as I got to the curb, I wondered if I had checked it right. I had a strong gut feeling that I needed to check it again. I went back and made sure one last time: definitely locked (3). Then as I got back out to the sidewalk, I wondered if I had checked it right right: Had I jiggled the doorknob? I walked back, shook the latch: locked (4). Now I got as far as a block away and, shit, I gotta check the lock one more time. This time there was no good reason. I just needed to check the fucking lock one more time. I ran back and yanked on the door. Yup, locked (5). After five checks, I set off on my way, demoralized, spent.

A fiver is not unusual. All over the world, we compulsives wash hands, scrub kitchen garbage pails, close drawers, straighten books, touch bureaus, align silverware, check doors and stoves, and even check to make sure we have not run someone over in our cars, waiting for that elusive biochemical satiation that tells us we’re done. There are sixers, seveners, eighters, and into the hundreds and thousands. I once watched a man sitting in front of me in an airplane pull on the hair on the top of his head thousands of times as we crossed the continent. Obsessions have their price: the compulsion you need to perform to quiet the anxiety, at least for a moment. That’s what drives people with OCD to do absurd things over and over like washing their hands. They are buying very expensive, and sometimes only fleeting, relief from worry or obsession.

A handful of times, I have checked on things compulsively—only to find out that they did need checking. Once I was drying black-and-white photographs in a heated print-dryer. I had left the house and walked a few blocks away when I had a nagging feeling that I might have left the thing plugged in. “That’s silly,” I tried to tell myself, “I’m sure you turned it off!” and “Stop wasting your time with worrying!” But I could not silence the niggling feeling. I turned around and ran back to the apartment, only to find the thing smoking and the photographs burning. The apartment was filling with smoke. That kind of thing can really mess with your compulsions…for years.

Sometime I check things to divine an answer I am particularly anxious about. Should I stay with him? Will I ever get pregnant? I look for answers in lights, trash, shadows, and my ability to predict things moving. As if the universe is flipping a coin for me to see, for me to interpret.

The string of obsessions and compulsions that runs through my life can, in a wicked way, tell my life story, and an historical one at that. Obsessive-compulsive disorder has a way of rooting—like a pig for truffles—for the very fear or image that is the most disturbing. That image will intrude on my mind when I least expect it. For me, this Worst Thought has changed as I’ve grown up. It is interesting to me that as a twelve-year-old girl, the worst threat that my Uber mind could come up with was my parents’ failure as artists.

Even earlier, when I was in elementary school and the United States was racing to put a man on the moon, my worst fear was of a meteorite crashing through my window and hitting me in bed as I slept. I’m not sure if this was early OCD, but it did keep me up every night, with my mother sitting next to me, periodically trying to creep back to her bed without me sitting bolt upright and calling her back in a panic.

Just when I was getting over it, and able to sleep, I came upon an old Life magazine photo-essay about a meteorite that hit thirty-four-year-old Ann Elizabeth Hodges in 1954 on her couch in Sylacauga, Alabama. She is the only known person in human history to be hit by a meteorite. The images—of the hole in her ceiling, black bruise on her thigh, and the doctor in his bowtie examining the eight-pound rock—kept me awake at night for at least another year.

During the Vietnam War, I was convinced that if I ever let myself get directly under a plane that was flying overheard, it would drop a bomb on me. I would run frantically and hopelessly whenever a plane flew over. I found that you can’t outrun a plane.

In college in the late 1970s, I feared daily for my life, knowing that the world was bristling with nuclear weapons. A fear that has not gone away. I couldn’t come up with a compulsion to make it go away, despite years of organizing peace groups, visiting the Soviet Union, and marching to nuclear facilities across the country. Maybe because it’s not an irrational worry after all. Maybe it is a bigger threat than anyone can bear. So I write letters to the president and silently know that the end is not unexpected.

When I finally landed in the psych ward in 1991, it wasn’t any of these fears, or compulsions that I couldn’t get out of my head. It was intrusive images of me harming others. My OCD had taken a frightening new turn.

Only once in my childhood did my OCD seem to catch anyone’s attention. It was at a sleepover camp where I was sent every summer to enjoy the cool of Maine summers and give my parents time to focus in their studios. I started sleepover camp at age seven, and the next year my parents signed me up for a double session, making me practically the only kid who was booked for both July and August. This continued every summer for the next six years. When I was twelve, I went off to camp shortly after I stepped on the crack and saved my parents’ careers. I was having trouble with other strange directives in my mind.

One afternoon at Hidden Valley Camp, I got it into my head that I couldn’t eat dinner until I had balanced a Frisbee on a basketball to the count of seventy-three. I carried the Frisbee wobbling on the basketball into the mess hall and held them as I sat on one of the narrow wooden benches along the tables. The Frisbee would fall, and I would have to start over. A row of girls were sitting on the bench, so once I climbed on, I couldn’t move the seat away from the table. Squashed between the bench and the table, I kept balancing and counting. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and then it would fall! One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, fall. The damn Frisbee kept slipping, and I’d have to start all over. I began to cry because I was hungry and I was so embarrassed. It wasn’t until most of the kids were finished that I finally made it to seventy-three and got to eat.

Later that night I was called into the camp director’s nicely furnished living room. “Wow,” I thought, “We have to stay in bunk beds, and look how he lives! It should hardly even count that he’s at a camp!”

The director came in and gently said, “Hi, how’s it going?”


Then, in a serious tone, he asked, “Have you ever been to a psychiatrist?”


I got the message that going to a psychiatrist was crossing a threshold that one could not undo.

That was it. He didn’t ask anything more.

I was afraid he’d call my parents, but he never did. When the break arrived between the July and August sessions, the camp director suggested I switch to the older kids’ camp, Camp Med-O-Lark, down the road, and off I went, no longer a problem to watch out for…

That was it. No one, including my parents, teachers, friends—and even my best friend’s mother, Bea, a child psychiatrist—had a clue how I was suffering from these obsessions and compulsions. (Ironically, when I slept over at her house, I’d sleep on Bea’s proverbial psychiatric couch in her home office.) I once told Bea about my compulsions, and she reassured me that it was a common way many children attempt to gain control of their lives. Not to worry.

And in one way, she was right. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a grasp for control or reassurance. But it is ephemeral.

It is probably just as well that nobody tried to help me; no medications were available for OCD then, and virtually no treatment was successful.

Some friends and coworkers who know I have OCD think they are being clever and funny when they say how handy it must be for me to have OCD. They imagine that OCD helps me be both persistent and meticulous. In truth, I have never known OCD to be anything but painful and disabling. A supervisor who knew my diagnosis once dismissed my pushing for programmatic change by saying that my persistence was actually just the work of my mental illness. But when my OCD gets stuck on an idea, it is never as logical as policy adjustments at work; it is usually about something as irrational as checking the knobs on my gas stove or trying not to look at a meat slicer in the deli.

As more people claim these three bulging letters as part of their vocabulary and understanding of human nature, I am sometimes frustrated by their underestimating its viciousness. People will joke and say, “Oh, it’s just my OCD!” when talking about something as mundane as taking too much time cleaning their desk. But thorough does not equal OCD. Not even extra thorough. I am glad that people now have a way to conceptualize and discuss obsessions and compulsions, because everyone has them. But I say if the compulsion doesn’t grab ahold of you and twist your arm into submission, and if the obsessive worry doesn’t take over your life and make you cry, it ain’t OCD.

The next time a colleague jokes about how handy it must be for me to have OCD, maybe I’ll tell them the handy things I have gotten from having this anxiety disorder: humility, compassion for others with mental illness, a profound respect for pharmacology, and an appreciation for intuition when it makes itself known through worry’s incessant noise.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder puts all crises in perspective: If it doesn’t send you to the psych ward, how bad can it be?

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