If you happened to be in the Jonathan Edwards courtyard around 1:30 on Mondays and Wednesdays of last semester, you may have seen me discreetly opening a door with a leaf curled in my palm, trying to avoid touching the handle.
You may have wondered why I didn’t just open the door with my sleeve. I wish I had a more logical reason than the one I did, but my thinking was this: that had I opened the door with my sleeve, it would be contaminated and that anything I touched afterward would also be contaminated.
That night in my suite, to avoid feeling distant and foggy and lost, I would have to carry out an elaborate ritual. My binders, my laptop and my water bottle had to be cleansed with a disinfectant wipe, and my bag had to be fumigated with a disinfectant spray. Before I did this, I had to wash my hands until they felt clean. I remembered what I had touched since the last time I washed my hands, and I needed to wash each touch away. If anything I had already cleaned happened to touch my clothes, I had to clean it again. After this, I had to take a shower. Only then could I feel okay.
But you didn’t see me that night, just as you don’t see all the trails I leave behind me, spun by obsessive-compulsive disorder, between contamination and me, between the handle and my sleeve and everything I own. It’s also likely that you didn’t see me in the art supply store later, hiding behind tall shelves of paint, crying on the phone with my mother.
I was there, though, asking my mom, earnestly, “Why me?” A sad question, and a dramatic one, but one I felt justified in asking. I talked to her about my anger, my envy of other people who wake up and don’t think about the things I feel forced to obsess over. “I don’t want to be like this,” I told her. “I don’t want to be crazy anymore.” And it was all true. I am envious of everyone I see who drops something on the floor and just picks it up. I would literally do anything to be able to touch the shower door handle without washing my hands after. More than that, I am terribly, terribly jealous of those who don’t even think about those things. To live a life that involves no obsessions, no compulsions, no daily struggle against them is a blessed one, to me.
“Honey,” my mother’s voice crackles over the line from Georgia. “Other people have their problems. And you don’t want those.”
Hearing my mom say this made me mad. It felt like she didn’t see how I was so miserable with my own struggles that I was willing to deal with anything else.
Since then, I’ve thought about how little my OCD shows. Few of my compulsions are visible, and I can hide them away as quirks. If you don’t know me, my compulsions are just little oddities. Different, maybe, but just blips on the radar, easily explained and not too troubling.
Your quirks are the same to me. I only see the little blips. Skipped meals, spending sprees, sleeping in, shyness — they each seem like little things in a person. In you, even. But to you, they may be part of something enormous and difficult. I’m sorry I don’t always see that. Sometimes, we can only see of each other what you saw of me in the courtyard — a discreet leaf curled in a palm.
Looking at the postcard display in the art supply store, I saw that my mom was right. I don’t want my problems, but I don’t wish for yours. I don’t know them. I am blind to the rest of your night. I can only see you opening the door the way you know how.
Abigail Grimes is a first year in Pauli Murray College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .