I’m standing in front of my closet, contemplating which outfits to plan for the week. This saves me time in the morning when I inevitably spend an extra half hour snuggling the cat in bed after my snooze button goes off three times.
A sweatshirt would be ideal for today since it’s still in the 40s, except all the sweatshirts have been worn more times than the long-sleeved Gap shirts that pair with scarves, and have all the scarves been worn an equal amount of times before being put away for the season? Maybe I should wear one of those instead…
The average woman might stare at her full closet and feel excited by all her choices, but when it comes to wardrobe, too many options overwhelm me. I have to wear each item an equal number of times per season or I can’t keep it. The thought of holding on to things I don’t use is distressing. If months go by and it hasn’t been worn, it goes into the Goodwill pile.
My husband lightheartedly tolerates my Goodwill binges, but gets irritated if I contemplate giving something away without asking him. Those dress shirts in the back of the closet he hasn’t worn in all six years I’ve known him? “I might need them someday.” Someday?! That makes no sense to me at all.
In the last several weeks I’ve donated half a dozen grocery bags of clothes, because I’m a slave to Out of Print and buying a new item means giving away an old one. It’s the Rules. I can’t buy anything new without doing a full closet inventory first to see how a new item will fit.
My therapist suggested that my inability to hold on to “clutter” is some kind of metaphor for my inability to have “clutter” in my life. I’m starting to think there’s something to that theory, but I’ve always been a type A neat freak; it just gets worse as I get older. My apartment is spotless not just because I like it that way, but cleaning things helps me deal with stress.
Josh left his breakfast dishes on the counter again, not in the dishwasher, which I can’t un-see. I have to at least put them in the sink and let them soak in hot water so I don’t have to deal with it later that night. No matter how starving I am after class, those dishes have to be dealt with before I take out new ones. Anything out of order must be put away before I can get anything done, like organizing all the shoes Catniss once again pulled off the shoe rack, and then there’s litter tracked on the floor, crunching under my feet. Can’t. Un. See. I clean it all up hoping I won’t be late for class.
People think of OCD as an obsession with hand washing, but mine is nothing like that. For me, it’s all about patterns. The order in which I eat my food (can’t start with salt and end with sweet. Always the other way around). Right foot steps over sidewalk crack first, then left. Counting things: traffic cones, stairs. Equal number of graphic T-shirts to solid ones.
There’s a song on the radio that He Who Must Not Be Named introduced me to. I remember him singing it, high-pitched and over-the-top dramatic. I switch the station but the memory is already playing like a tape and once it starts, I can’t stop it. I always have to finish what I start, even when it’s linked to PTSD. If I were at home, I’d be pressing my fingers to my temples trying to squeeze it out, rocking back and forth like I’m in the throes of labor. Driving, I can’t do that. I count the second until the stoplight turns green. Thirty-two. An even number! I like even numbers. Half of thirty-two is sixteen, half of sixteen is eight…I keep this going until The Memory finishes playing. Numbers are always my salvation (when giving directions, I always give the exit number, never the city. Drives my husband crazy: “I don’t know what Exit 257 is, just tell me what it’s called!” Hell if I know).
This is why it’s so important to learn to manage my triggers. The average person might be able to push an unpleasant thought away by thinking of something else, but not me. Whatever I start must be finished. Maybe this is why I was so vulnerable to abuse all those years, so inclined to believe the damage of stopping what we started, even when it no longer felt right. On the plus side, this finish-what-I-start thing made me an excellent employee. Except when I had to set the project aside to talk to customers. That got me in trouble.
This is still what my mind looks like even with medication. It’s also an unpredictable time in my life right now, as grad school gets harder, family dynamics change, and Josh and I begin our Adult Conversations about taking out our first mortgage…and it’s never going to get any easier.
This is my Normal. The best I can do is learn to manage. Living with a mental disorder is all about managing.
Sarahbeth Caplin has a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Kent State University, and is currently at work on a master’s degree in Creative Nonfiction at Colorado State. She is the author of three novels, one collection of poetry, and one memoir, which ranked #1 in Amazon’s top 100 bestselling personal growth books in August 2015. Her essays have appeared in xoJane, Feminine Collective, and The Stigma Fighters Anthology.