This piece is presented as part of The Frisky’s How To Deal Week, in which we’re focusing on mental health issues.
I have five fingers on each hand. I use them like this: I hold up my thumb and whisper, “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Thank You.” Then my pointer finger. “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Thank You.” Then my middle finger, my ring finger, and my pinky. I give small kisses in between each “Thank You.” I do this five times for a total of 125 “Thank Yous.” Then I say “Thank You” for specific things, like how bright the sun is today or how soothing it is to feel my wet hair on my back. These I repeat just once for each finger. Then I thank G-d for his infinite wisdom, infinite grace, infinite compassion, forgiveness, and honesty—one accolade for each finger.
This is the prayer I say when I get on the subway in the morning. I have to say it.
“Or else…?” asks my therapist.
I have obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I always have and I always will. When I was 11 years old, this meant I had to repeat rhymes and songs and couldn’t step on cracks in the sidewalk and had to check the knobs on the stove, the electrical outlets, the light bulbs five times each. (Five became my safety number because it’s odd and prime and protects the world from six, which is symbolic of the devil, or so I thought then.)
After my aunt and father died in quick succession, I stepped it up a notch. By age 15, I was whispering pleas to ambulances that they would get to their destination in time to save whoever else was dying. I pleaded with G-d each morning and evening to forgive me for whomever I’d hurt. I had lists of people I’d poisoned, maimed and thrown into oncoming traffic. I was sure of two things: I was evil and I needed to repent for my evil ways by counting, singing, listing, and praying.
Soon I would have to take my punishment into my own hands. I had to cut myself in neat slices up my arms and torso. I had to run on the treadmill and eat only diuretic teas and gum until I felt faint. I had to pound my skull with angry fists and pray, pray, pray that this would absolve me of my evil ways. For dessert, I kissed the picture of my dead dad, my prayer book, my bicycle, my mezuzah (a Jewish prayer scroll) up to 500 times each.
I had to. This is the only way I can describe it. I had to. There was a boundless landscape of danger and destruction awaiting the world if I didn’t perform these rituals. Doctor after doctor asked me to finish this simple sentence, “Or else … ” And I could only say “I have to.”
At age 30, I’d starved and pounded myself into an empty husk. My boyfriend drove me to an eating disorder clinic where I had to physically answer this question. Where I had to start drawing and writing about the palpable taste to this fear. It swells in my chest, presses on all my internal organs, cinches my lungs into an unbreachable dark. Choking off my breath and pinning me to the ground.
It leaves no room to see these thoughts as separate from me.
I have lived through this treatment. I have learned how to feed and breathe for myself again. I have survived the death of my mother, who stood by me through 30 years of this disorder and never once betrayed my trust. I have started to write about this disease, so its secret cannot trap me any more.
I report today from the present. I am 36 years old and I have OCD. It does not have me. I have OCD as my trusted and constant companion, as my lens through which to see the world. I have OCD and I hold it close, as definitive as my cowlick or the birthmark on my shoulder. Sometimes it still is out of control—daydreams about the fires I’ve set or the need to count up all my fat grams, restarting my prayers because I’m sure I said them wrong or not enough. But this is part of my genetic makeup, which I see as a gift.
I have this prayer to say. It is simple and short and helps me through my day. I no longer wake up with thunder creeping in my skin, chased by the corpses I thought I killed—my dead mother, my dead father, the ambulances stalled, blocking the sky. This prayer I say on the train is my friend. Its words are easy and reliable and taste sure on my tongue. When I recite it, I mean it truly. “Thank You,” whoever You, G-d, He/She is. “Thank You” for this calm possibility, for this moment of everything being OK, for me being here. When I say these words, I have a chance to gather myself for the day, to see I really still have five fingers on each hand. I have eyes to see them with and ears to hear with and wet hair gracing the skin on my back. I have all these things and whatever I’m fearing melts away in the rhythm of these words. It has a definite cadence and lilt, the kisses in between, percussion for my ballad. I speak in a tone just above a whisper, so only I, and hopefully He, can hear.
I have faith. I have faith in a G-d who is all loving and all forgiving and infinitely compassionate. Maybe this is part of my OCD, too, but I am sticking with it. I don’t need to distinguish between my beliefs and my actions, as long as they are both healthy.
I also have a loving and supportive husband, a circle of friends and family who know and accept me, a therapist who has me check in with her daily, this page (screen?) on which to write. I don’t have answers or solutions, but rather new ways to redirect myself—a yoga practice, countless journals, a flowerbed and a prescription for Zoloft that I expect to refill after I give birth this fall.
I have my children. One is in my belly, still growing fingernails and eyebrows and fluttering wildly when I eat ice pops, perhaps knowing when I tighten in unanswerable fear before I do. I have a daughter, Sonya, who is 21 months old. She is beautiful and mischievous and dances to the Black Eyed Peas ferociously. She watches and waits for me to kiss our mezuzah 20 times whenever I enter or leave our apartment. I have to do it 20 times because I promised my therapist I would do it 18 times (18 = chai, or life, in Hebrew) and I tack on the extra two just to be sure I really got to 18.
Sometimes, when I have her in my arms as we set out for the park, my daughter imitates me. She lifts her toothpick-sized finger to her lips and makes a smacking kiss sound. Sometimes she does this three, four, even six times. The number does not mean anything to her. And I wonder, what does it feel like for her to try this on? Does this give her some peace of mind? Does it give her the rhythm, the refuge, the trusting embrace it gives me? Or is it really just something silly she thought might be fun?
Abby Sher is the author of the fantastic book, Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir Of A Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying. Make sure to check it out.