It would always happen like this: I'd check to see if my keys were still in my purse. Then,
I'd check again and again because ... maybe I didn't really look well enough the first time. If they weren't inthe little interior pocket, I wouldn't be able to get in the house, and if I couldn't get in my house, I'd really be screwed.
Next would come the deep breaths, and I'd admonish myself to relax. This would never help, but at least it made me feel like I was doing something. I repeated this ritual several times a day, and told myself that since I knew I was acting crazy, my obsessive-compulsive disorder didn't really count. It was kind of like the old adage, if someone knows they're crazy, they can't be that crazy.
My OCD began manifesting itself after I processed the fact that I had been in a severe car
accident which had resulted in my being in a coma for six weeks, a traumatic brain injury, and my almost dying. Since that time, I learned that unexpected, bizarre things can and do happen all the time.
I was a case in point.
It was about six months after the accident and I found myself in a total panic because Jessica,
my good friend from Toronto, was coming to visit. She wasn't the only friend who had tried visiting me post-accident. They were everywhere -- like stars in an inky sky -- soul mates from Connecticut, Los Angeles, Boston and Detroit, each trying to out-twinkle the other by scoring a visit with the brain-injured one.
Since the accident, my mantra had been, "Please don't come now. I beg you. Come another time." But, my pleas meant nothing to Jessica. She was relentless in her pursuit to see me.
Jessica had been a friend for decades. We met when I relocated to Toronto years ago but it felt like she had always been in my life. She was like that first cup of morning coffee -- the one you looked forward to and never tired of; the one you needed. And, just like the dependency that forms on morning coffee, I had withdrawal symptoms if I had to go without speaking to her for just one day.
She was a constant, a given, the recurring chorus of a favorite song. To say she was a "best
friend" trivialized the whole relationship, yet, after the accident and all that ensued, I couldn't
help but feel indifference toward her. This shocked me. But, a life brimming with loved ones felt so remote and distant that even a friendship like the one I had with Jessica couldn't override the feeling that I was damaged and needed to purge everything that was once meaningful.
Jessica belonged to me when I was whole. Now, I was broken.
Of course she knew every ugly detail about the car accident. She told me over and over that
she was coming to see me in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived now, and that she would either just show up on my doorstep one day, or together we could decide when she would visit. She made it clear that it wasn't an issue of if, it was an issue of when, and left me no choice but to come up with a weekend in the early spring.
Once I was resigned to her visit, my only hope was that I would still be able to zone-out on
the couch. That is where I was at; that was my major concern.
My real fear was that Jessica would intrude on my personal space. This was the new me. This is how I was with all of my friends who loved me; I didn't want to be with them. I felt there
were expectations I couldn't live up to. I knew this was ridiculous. Good friends didn't need you to perform; they just needed to be with you, and they especially needed to be with you while you recuperated from a near-fatal car accident. I thought I would let people down if I wasn't the fun, smart-ass friend they loved ... and expected. Also, I knew they would pity me because I had developed such an obvious case of OCD.
I wanted to be left alone at all times, to lie on my bed resting my sore shoulder, not having to
engage or think of a world outside of myself. I wanted -- and felt I deserved -- what was easiest. That meant going to sleep by 8:00 p.m., knowing that the front door was locked and my phone, glasses, wallet and keys were safely stowed away in the little spots I had designated tor them. I just needed to focus on my survival, and anything less than survival seemed petty.
When the evening of Jessica's arrival came, I heard the cab screech up to the house, and there
she was, looking wonderful as always: long dark hair, light eyes, fashionable glasses, a tee-shirt with a trendy, long blazer over skinny jeans. Suddenly, it was like ingesting a jolt of Red Bull, which was so not what I expected. Despite my dread, I felt momentarily rejuvenated. Just seeing her made me feel closer to the old self I assumed was lost. It felt wonderful to sense that self poking through the surface again.
I opened the door, and Jessica and I embraced for a long time. This was the easy part: the
"welcome to Columbus part"; the "welcome to the heartland" part; the "welcome to my house" part. Now came the harder part. The "welcome to the new" "me" part. I felt different, but was I really different? A psychiatrist would tell me, "No. The real you is inside you. Bring her out to play."
Jessica took a step back to look at me and reiterated that her visit was only about me. She told
me I should say whatever crazy, foolish things came to mind. It immediately put me at ease when she said we'd chill, sleep, relax; I was nervous she'd want me to actually do something.
But, I no longer did anything. That was the happy me, the energetic me. I was ecstatic when she said she didn't want trendy shops or restaurants, that she just wanted to be with me.
I slowly began to tell her how I felt so fragile, so vulnerable, so nervous all the time. I told her
how I've become so "O.C.D.," always checking and double checking to make sure I have my keys and cellphone. I also told her my biggest shameful secret which was my sudden need to "hoard" in case, God forbid, I run out of something as essential as toilet paper (which I have 40 rolls of) and can't seem to get more of. That merged into a conversation about my need to have tons of tinted moisturizer on hand at all times, every brand imaginable: Aveeno, Neutrogena, Physicians Formula, Dermalogica...
I talked about all my post-accident issues: feeling so removed from everything and
everyone; needing to have all the Ts crossed and Is dotted (if I didn't, I wouldn't be the good girl and get the gold star); feeling like I was always on the brink of getting in trouble for one lame reason or another.
We had been talking for over an hour, and I felt like I deserved a prize. Then, I became
worried about keeping my nighttime ritual of going to bed at 8:00 p.m., and was suddenly preoccupied with keys and glasses and wallets and locks and phone.
Having an extreme case of O.C.D. is actually a very selfish act. There is a laser-like focus on
your own compulsion, and a willingness to appease it at any cost. Ultimately, there is no ability to prioritize. Other people's issues are secondary to your own desire to seek comfort and control in continuously repeating the same ritual. I knew this, and yet I was becoming agitated. Did I lock the door?
I got up and walked to the door, at first trying to appear nonchalant, then giving up the façade and giving the bolt a full stare.
Despite this disturbing behavior, I couldn't get away from my need to be the "the best traumatic brain injury patient in history " -- the overachiever in me -- so when Jessica asked me what I thought would be the most helpful thing for me right now, I quickly responded with, "I really don't need anything. I'm fine." She shook her head in her hands indicating she wasn't buying the lies.
Before she left to pick up our take-out, she found a photo album I had tucked away on my bookshelf. It was filled with photos from a vacation we had taken together last year in South Beach. I studied all the pictures: Jessica on our balcony; me in the lobby bar, sipping a glass of wine. I hadn't looked at the pictures for a long time.
It pained me to see images of myself when I was pretty and confident and creative and oh so together. Jessica forced me to look at every picture with her, reminiscing about the different locations in the backgrounds.
There was something in the act of Jessica bringing the album over to me, and making me really
look at each one. She intuitively knew that connecting with the pictures would make me feel more like myself and therefore less tentative and vulnerable...and less obsessive. I had to process the past before I could move forward toward the future.
Jessica lit an old grapefruit scented candle I had on my coffee table, turned my radio to the local NPR station, and was out the door.
The steps toward recovery really are in the details: the radio, the candle, the photos, the scented body lotion -- an item Jessica brought with her that now sits inconspicuously on my bathroom counter.
Being with a compassionate and caring friend who loved me enough to know the little things I needed --long before I did -- allowed me to take the baby steps necessary to relinquish my OCD and engage with life once again.
Tomorrow, we may even see a movie.