Amen, Amen, Amen

An exploration of how obsessive-compulsive disorder can be a gift

guilty until proven otherwise

It was inevitable that they would have to duke it out.

They were supposed to stay respectfully in opposite corners. Look but not touch. If there's one thing I've mastered in my 37 years of life it's how to keep my rituals and obsessions behind a well-marked curtain with signs that scream NO TRESSPASSING! PRIVATE! KEEP OUT! I think that's what my first post here was about - the intimacy of OCD and how I know something has moved from habit to ritual by how much I keep it a secret.

I never wanted my children to have to deal with my inner machinations. When my husband asked me how we were going to explain my going into the basement to pray for 35 minutes each morning, I shooed him away.

"I'll tell them, don't worry."

How do you think your kids will learn to enjoy food if you don't eat with them? asked my therapist.

"I'm working on it," I assured her.

Even this blog was supposed to be a separate space. An exploration of where I am now in the swervy path of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Yes, that includes kissing our mezuzah thirty times while my family waits to get out the door. Singing lullabies in a certain order that I can't diverge from. Making bathtime routines that are as much for their comfort as my own. But I was determined that OCD would never harm my daughter or my son in any way.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

I have a steady image of the two of them in their jammies in one corner. A slick, hulking giant representing OCD in the other. And some bikini clad bombshell strutting across the boxing ring of my brain with a poster board announcing the score.

It was inevitable that they would one day have to duke it out. Last week, I'm ashamed to say, OCD won the first round.

My son is deliciously chubby and giggly. Completely happy healthy (which is one of the phrases I have to repeat and write in my journal at least twice a day). I was excited to show him off for his four-month doctor's appointment. I was sure he'd be at the top of the charts for height and weight. He's already figured out how to get the rattle into his mouth and to roll onto his sweet belly.

The week before his appointment, one of my closest friends, Beth, had an unexpected miscarriage. I know most miscarriages are unexpected, but I think I'm reporting my shock. And fear. Which soon translated into guilt that I had something she did not (a completely happy healthy baby). Which then clearly nosedived into my causing Beth's sudden loss.

Fifth's disease is a pretty innocuous and hard-to-diagnose illness. Main symptoms are a stuffy nose, slight fever, and a rash that looks like a slap in the face. The biggest danger of Fifth's disease is that it can be fatal in fetuses that've been unknowingly exposed to it. My husband is Irish so our son flushes a hot red color after bath each night. He gets his stuffy nose from his toddler sister and there was a nice sprinkling of spots on his chest, plus his head felt warm. I made the leap easily. Beth's two-year-old and mine are good friends. We'd gone over to her apartment to play a few days before she started bleeding. In my tightly wound brain this was a simple as 1 +1. I was sure my baby had Fifth's disease and I had carelessly exposed and killed Beth's fetus.

Here is the other insanely predictable part of OCD for me. It strikes down the people I feel closest to and makes me their worst enemy. So just as I started to get really close to Beth - we text each other in the middle of the night with odd fears or anxieties, share cold pizza and unshakable demons - I murdered her child. Which, of course, I couldn't say out loud.

I tried to. I mentioned it in passing to my husband. He stopped me head on.

"Really? You think you did this Abby?"

"It's possible..."

I brought my son and my story to my therapist. She mapped out for me how I went from fear to culpability in record speed.

"Right," I said. "I know."

Still, I couldn't answer that angry what if? that pressed on my lungs and pulled at my skin. Beth was truly courageous and calm through her whole procedure. I was the one cowering in a self-absorbed knot, wanting so badly to be there for her wholly, and to clear my name.

I love my children's pediatrician. She's always been just the right balance of concerned and comforting. She is keenly in tune with not only my kids' aches and pains but my own.

The beginning of the four month check up went great. She told me my son was at the top of the charts for height and weight. She tickled his pudgy double chin and got a gummy smile. Then she turned to me.

"And how are you doing?"

"I'm good. We're good. It's just..." I told her about my friend's miscarriage. I had another friend who'd miscarried earlier in the year and was now pregnant and I was scared to see her. I described my son's rash, the flushed face, stuffy nose. She nodded thoughtfully. Let me talk myself out before saying she was fairly certain he didn't have Fifth's disease. Fairly certain. Not positive.

"And is there any way to test for it?" I asked shyly.

Her face clouded, her eyebrows folding with concern. Or more like disappointment. Which, according to my recent fascination with Thich Nhat Hanh I think means that's what I was seeing because it's what I was feeling about myself.

"We could draw blood," Dr. A said slowly. She waited for me to answer her. I tried not to look at her reflection-of-my-inner-projections face. But the only other alternative was to look at my drooling son, wiggling and cooing unsuspectingly.

"You have a few minutes to think about it."

My son was going to get his four month vaccines, so there was no way we were going to get out of the doctor's office without some needlework. But if I could slow those few minutes down...as if they weren't ploddingly slow and claustrophobic enough already. It was the bell finally going off in that boxing ring I call my brain. It was the slippery ten-ton giant ducking all of my deep breathing and mantra work to flatten my children and me in one thud.

Where do you think you're going? my lifelong companion/bully jeered. Can you really just walk away and think I won't follow you forever? You are a murderer. You killed that baby. You made this loss and there is no way to take it back.

When the nurse came in, I asked her to draw my son's blood.

It's rare that I can see the underlying selfishness of my OCD. I've always maintained that if I missed a dinner because I was praying or made us late because I had to kiss the mezuzah another twenty times well that was because I was saving my loved ones and the world at large from harm. But watching my 17 lb son pinned under my arm while the nurse tapped for a vein. His look of terror and betrayal as he shrieked. The one then two vials of his bright blood being sucked out of him. There was no question that I had let OCD trounce on both of us. When the test was over I grabbed him tight and wept with him, whispering fiercely into the folds of his neck,

Mama is so sorry. I'll never do that again. Never never.

Which is a trick ending. When the doctor calls a few days later, I thank her and hang up the phone. I say to my husband, "The test came back negative for Fifth's."

Ding! Round two!

"At least, I think that's what she said."

Abby Sher is a writer and performer in Brooklyn, New York, and the author of Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn't Stop Praying.

more...

Subscribe to Amen, Amen, Amen

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?