“One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three.”
My father tapped the sink faucet and the light switches. He moved to the front of the stove and counted as he tapped the knobs to each burner. Though groggy and miserable with Sunday school looming, as kids my brother and I laughed when we passed him on our way to the cold car running in the driveway, our breakfast of strawberry Pop-Tarts clutched in our barely awake hands.
I knew my father was crazy. He had to be. He was clearly insane for sniffing the electrical sockets before leaving the house, for listening for the water to stop running after a toilet was flushed, for needing his coffee mug to be in exactly the same spot every day, with a sugar spoon resting inside of it, handle pointing toward the kitchen sink.
My brother and I made fun of him. We burst into giggles as we imitated him counting and checking switches and knobs, just to be sure things were really turned off or closed enough to meet unknown standards.
My father didn’t have a name or a good reason for these behaviors. None of us did. My mother’s explanation was screamed from the car as she waited for him: “You’re going to be late for your own funeral!” If anything could be true, it seemed as though my father sauntering in 15 minutes after the start of a wake held in his honor was a real possibility.
My father was slow and methodical and always late. He needed to be the last one out of the house, and when we tried to go somewhere as a family, we were always late. We only saw the effects of his actions, not the cause.
Anxiety heightened my need to urinate, and our Sunday mornings were nothing if not filled with tension and stress. As my younger brother played on his Game Boy and my mother applied her makeup, I ran into the house and passed my father in the kitchen. I interrupted his rituals, as he interrupted mine, and the cycle began again. I ran down the stairs after a trip to the bathroom as he climbed the steps to listen to the newly flushed toilet until the running water stopped filling the bowl.
It would be years before I understood we were both undiagnosed, textbook cases of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Thankfully, I received my diagnosis in college, after leaving home and creating physical and emotional space from my distant and explosive father. For many reasons, too many to get into right now, I began to see a therapist when I was 18. This was done at the urging of my best friend and the woman who has since married me and given birth to our three children. I am thankful for the nearly 15 years I had to understand myself, my ticks, and my triggers before I had kids of my own.
I have vowed to not let my OCD have the impact on my kids’ lives the way it did on my own childhood.
Just because I understand the way my brain works, living with OCD is not easy. Unlike my father, I know why I feel panicked and anxious throughout the day. I know why I can’t concentrate until a compulsion is acted upon. And I know to let the obsessive thoughts come in so I can let them go; the harder I fight them, the more agitated I become. Understanding my mental illness does not make getting stuck in it any easier, yet it has helped me be a mindful parent as I navigate life with the same illness my father has probably never put a name to.
I have vowed not to let my OCD have the impact on my kids’ lives the way it did on my own childhood. Without saying anything, I cringe inside when sand falls off of my kids’ feet or clothing and onto the living room floor after playing outside in the sandbox. I hate that I walk into a room and see a mess before I see three happy kids playing with each other. I worry that my kids will notice I take too long in the bathroom before we leave the house. And I hope they don’t pick up on my reluctance when they offer to help me clean.
I take a deep breath and remind myself that they need to learn cleaning skills, so I give them a wet rag to wipe surfaces. They each have little brooms to sweep the kitchen floor, which I do at least twice a day.
But if at all possible, I try to do the vacuuming when the kids are asleep or not home, though between the compulsions and an actual need to clean up a mess, my kids are usually available to assist. When they help me vacuum, they walk right beside me, holding the machine or cord, slowing down my process and interrupting something I desperately want to accomplish to relieve some anxiety.
I think of my father in these moments, in the ones where I want perfection and when I want to be alone to cycle through my rituals without interruption. Then I think about how I was a kid and how it felt to know that he wanted the same things. He got what he wanted with anger, with not showing up to my school events, and with the inability to be a present parent. As my kids get older, they will understand what OCD is, but they do not deserve to ever live in its shadow.
I just want to vacuum alone, I think when my twin toddlers offer to help. Every nerve in my body wants it too, yet I summon everything I have to patiently let them each put a hand on the side of the Dyson as we walk at a snail’s pace across the carpet. Because much like the small relief in performing a compulsion, the relief of saying no to them in the moment would cause worse feelings after the fact.
As we move the vacuum across the floor, I count in my head. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. My children and I are not fighting with or avoiding each other. We are not moving with much grace either, but we are moving together in steps I am trying to learn. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. We are dancing.
I have not talked to my father since 2002, but I imagine he is still counting and checking, knowing only the grip of OCD and not the beauty of its release.