I must have been eight or so when I first discovered the folklore/customs/mythology section in my small town library. Maybe we had a white witch or Druid as our head librarian because for a modestly stocked collection, it was heavily weighted towards the metaphysical. I don’t think the books I borrowed triggered my OCD but they certainly fed it. When I read about a piseog (Irish for superstition) that decreed it bad luck to leave a house from a different door than the one you entered I hungrily incorporated it into my life. It was joined by many others, one more random and bizarre than the next. I was skipping over cracks in the pavement along time before. By fourteen years old my life was so ritualised that my ‘consciences’, my compulsions took up most of my day.
My family didn’t know it, but I had entered a faustian pact (with whom? It must have been the devil ) and had to do one conscience in exchange for one day of their lives. I wanted them all to live long lives so I was in debt to zillions of the compulsions. An impossible ask. But to a child’s mind it was do-able. If I could bank up a few hundred every day, I could just about save everyone I needed to. I did a lot of my banking late at night. I would head up to my bedroom two hours before my sisters and before lights out. I’d have to kiss every doll and soft toy I owned. (how crestfallen I’d be at Christmas as my brood expanded). That meant locating them first or reaching for the ones perched on shelves and dressers. I remember that there were as many as 24 to include at one time. Next I’d touch every corner of every poster in my bedroom. Leif Garrett, Donny Osmond, Holly Hobby, the china-faced Pierrots. Then I’d touch the corners again. Another life. Soon the ones became threes. To buy a day, I had to do three wretched room circuits. Over time this nudged up and settled on an exhausting 9. In fact most things did. To satisfy the beast. To buy me one day for one soul.
It was easy to find conscience opportunities. I had all my shoes to line up, pens in pencil cases to face one direction, items on dressing table to separate so they weren’t touching. Before I retired for the night I made myself pen an entry in to my diary. This I did every day for ten years. It started with a quick check-in on a slim Enid Blyton diary (identical to one that I’ve recently found traded as vintage on ebay!) and moved towards much more wordy outpourings as an angst-ridden cynical teenager.
Sharing a bedroom with my sister I needed to be the one who turned off our light. If she did it, I’d hop out of my bed to turn the light back on so I got to be the one to turn off the light – 9 times. And while I was prostrate doing that, I’d tap my knuckles against the door frame – 9 times. Sometimes I’d repeat the 9 times trice. And sometimes I’d do the same with the landing light before attending to the light switch in our room. And I would always do the Johnboy callout -Goodnight. When the goodnights came back in from sisters I’d say mine once more. They HAD to finish with me. Some nights out of divilment or maybe out of irritation one of my sisters might challenge me with a delayed Goodnight. She couldn’t have had any idea of the anxiety that her delay caused.
But that was part of my pact – these operations had to be covert. How could I keep such mad behaviour hidden. To this day my parents don’t know about it. My sisters knew something was amiss but none of us would have heard of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder back then. I just knew I was cursed.
In my world right reigned over left. I accepted that, knowing that Judas had sat on Jesus’ left hand at the last supper so left was inferior. I might be sitting comfortably on the sofa or in the classroom and I’d notice my left leg was crossed over my right. My left leg was acting superior. So I had to uncross and place the right limb on top of the left. Sometimes I’d make myself do this 3 times or 9 times. To an onlooker this could seem odd so I’d have to do it very slowly, maybe over a period of time to pull off the manoeuvre without raising suspicion. When as a family we’d recite the rosary at night, I couldn’t leave my decade of Hail Mary’s at ten. I’d mumble another prayer or two until my dad would say’ That’s enough now’. In those moments, in that act of defiance, another day (or two) was earned. A conscience that caused me a lot of distress was when I’d pass a stranger on the street and inadvertently bump up against them with my arm. I had to run ahead and pass them again, only this time I’d need to brush against them with my other arm. I would somehow manage to do it. Without getting arrested. People weren’t so suspicious in the 70’sand 80’s.
I would have to leave a forkful of everything on my plate even if I was eating dessert and I’d just been served a helping of Baked Alaska – my favourite. That was harsh. When I moved to secondary school and made more friends, people I wanted to live long lives too, my compulsions picked up pace big time. I clocked up many by tappings and touchings or holding my breathe until a certain word was uttered. I’d have to memorise the last whole sentence on a page before turning the leaf . Or sometimes I’d need to repeat it in reverse. I had to find words on billboards or in editorial copy that had an A at their centre – words like cAr. I’d get distressed if my eyes locked on a tEn. I didn’t like E. It meant a fail.
When I was thirteen my parents consented for me to go on a six week holiday with the family who lived next door. To France. Camping. I’d never been abroad. In fact I had never spent a night away from my family. I can’t recall much about the trip only that I must have been anxious and doing my consciences throughout. I do remember bizarrely that I kept a diary I retrospectively call “the poo diaries” where I recorded in a jotter every toilet stop we made during those six weeks. Where, when and what I left behind in the toilet bowl. I must have been in some distress. I pressed and sellotaped a Wendy’s chip carton from a motorway stop to one of the pages. Now that’s the type of thing you might have expected from a holiday scrap book. Not a bowel movement tally.
Many years in to the obsessive compulsions and mentally exhausted by their execution I wasn’t sure how long I could carry on. But I didn’t know how to bail. How to end it. Somedays I’d curtail my own physical movements so I wouldn’t have to do the rituals. And that’s when I started to internalise them. I found I didn’t have to be near my dresser or pencil case or posters or light switch or door frame or lamp post. I could plant 9 dots in my mind. North, South, East, West, NW, NW, SW, SE and cente. And then repeat it. Three times. Then 9 times. Then 9 times 3 times. Aaagh!
One night my pre-med student sister called me to her bedroom. I was 14. “This is you” she said and read me a paragraph on OCD. I recognised myself instantly though I didn’t confirm the diagnosis for her. I left her room knowing I had to do something about it. Very gradually I started to drop some of them. I figured I’d bought the lives of the whole town at any rate. Long lives. Slowly I slashed them back to a manageable load. Over the years I’ve cut it back ALMOST to extinction. I keep a couple that I perform at night time just before I fall asleep.
I still feel sad when I think of how OCD took me over and spawned Doubt and Fear which I hosted for so much of my younger years. I felt isolated, burdened and odd. I knew I was odd because I did such odd things even if I managed to do most of them undetected. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder left it’s indelible mark on me. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This is true. And while I can’t imagine a life led without it I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.