When the Thing You're Afraid of Is You
The summer before
felt scratchy, damp
from the sand-dusted towel
I lay under, so the white heat
wouldn't crackle my skin
I tucked my head
into the soft crook of my arm
smearing waking hours into sleep
willing my heartbeat
I scrunched up on the shiny leather lounge outside the psychiatrist's office, reading a book, Beautiful Boy, while he and my mom talked. That's what I still do when things get bad; I read a book. At least I didn't have a meth addiction. That was about the only plus there. I was sixteen, in the fall of my junior year, and learning the hard way how stubborn my mind really was.
This was the second person we'd tried. He'd had me take a test to find out what condition I had, and he'd give me the results when he and my mom had finished speaking. The seconds hardened slowly around me like pine resin as the wall clock counted them out. Time lingers when you can feel your world narrowing.
I'd told the first person we'd seen that I'd thought I was going to kill myself to bring attention to the plight of the poor. My grandmother and my cousin had both killed themselves. My grandmother had loved yellow roses. My cousin had played catch with me until we'd made it to fifty passes. Even now, I wonder who my cousin could have grown in to, if he'd had the patience.
My belly twisted, and my head went light.
The door creaked, and the psychiatrist stuck his head out. He had close cut black hair and deep creases across his forehead. He had a serious face. A heavy face. His mouth opened. "Do you want to come back in?"
"Sure." I swallowed. I didn't want to come back in. I wanted to be anywhere but there. I wanted to be nowhere. "So, how'd I do?"
"Why don't you come on in?"
I nodded and pulled the door shut quietly behind me. It was a cloudy day, a grim dull day, or maybe I just remember it like that. His office had more shiny leather and a bunch of children's toys scattered around it along with the obligatory miniature sandbox. I'd been in psychiatrists' offices before, once when my elementary school counselor had misdiagnosed me as bipolar. She wasn't a great counselor, but she did almost give my mom a heart attack before we went to get a second opinion. Bipolar disorder ran in the family. It was a word my mom knew to be afraid of.
But this was actually a Zen garden, not a sandbox.
He paused while I scooted onto the couch opposite him, next to my mom. I felt the weight of her soft, sagging arm across my shoulder. After I fidgeted for a moment, he looked me in the eye and said, "You scored very high for obsessive compulsive disorder."
"What does that mean?" I picked up a Rubik cube from the table and turned it over and over in my fingers while he searched my face.
It turned out that obsessive compulsive disorder wasn't all cleaning. I was on the obsessive end of the spectrum, which meant that my OCD thought up the worst thing I could do, then told me I'd do it. Over and over until it was all I heard. I wasn't really suicidal, but I had a voice in my head trying to convince me I was. Voices in your head are as awful as they're made out to be.
My bad dreams didn't happen at night.
They happened in daylight, at ordinary times: watching a movie, eating lunch, walking down the street with the sun on my neck.
The sky didn't fall
crashed to earth
hot blue shards
into a roly-poly ball
my brittle exoskeleton
hiding from the
sticky, cool grass
the stroke of breeze
Psych ward or my friend's Halloween party?
I curled in fetal position by the heater vent at home, a week after getting my diagnosis. My eyes were bloodshot, and tissues hadn't helped. They were only gauzy white squares—almost toilet paper. My medication—Lexapro—had started, but I wasn't up to the full dose yet. I'd told Mom I'd kill her, myself, and my sister, and she wouldn't be able to stop me because I had a blackbelt.
Mom's face loomed over mine, but I couldn't look at her. I could only study the glossy wood of the table leg, the scratchy rug, the worn black mat where my dad and I had used to play fight when I was little. Those were the days before he and mom had divorced, and he was "daddy" instead of "my dad."
Mom knelt beside me. She has never been one to give up easily. She's the stubbornest person I know, stubborner even than me. When she spoke, I wanted to cover my ears. "Do you really think you'll do that?"
"I don't know. I could. And you couldn't fight back." It was all I could do to speak a response. Words dragged up from my fisted belly through my raw throat.
Mom didn't want me going to the party—obviously. This was new to Mom too, and she didn't know what was real yet either, that it was only the mean voice in my head and that I wouldn't actually do it. She called my friend's parents to cancel, but they persuaded her to not to. They said I could go, and she could come with me to keep an eye on things. They said it would be healing, and my friend's mother is an ER nurse, so this had some credibility.
It was okay for me to have a life. My world didn't have to be narrow.
I put on my Maximum Ride costume—a plain blue shirt with brown wings—and cleaned my face with a washcloth. Cool damp soaked through my eyelids, and I tried to blot the telltale red patches from under them. My eyes looked very dark in the mirror, and their expression was closed off and far away. My blond hair was a tangle, and I yanked my brush through it, smoothing out the snarls. The bathroom smelled of damp skin, musty air, and tee tree oil cleanser.
Lastly, I pattered down to the spidery garage with the bare, glaring lightbulb to get the wings. Their paint had clumped in some places and flaked in others. A couple of feathers had fallen out, and the white elastic showed in back.
But they'd fly me out the door.
My cheek rested
leaving an imprint
on the fogged glass
as the tires hissed
over the highway
on a humid night
broken by the spatter
of cool splashy rain
Tom Petty came on
the old truck radio,
and I sang along
in the tender air
I stood in an almost-deserted classroom with my hands tucked in my pockets. Shouts and clangs echoed through the hall outside. It had been over a year since I'd found out I had OCD, since I'd known what was wrong with me. The girl across from me was short and petite with bright red curls; petite was the only option in our high school. She wore a thin blue sweater and tight jeans. Later, I'd learn that she ran track.
Her hands writhed.
She darted a glance at me. "Do teachers...are they understanding? About homework and stuff?"
She had OCD too, and my poetry teacher had asked me if I would talk to her, reassure her, explain that everything would be alright. I didn't know how to do that. Like me, this girl was still anxious about her US History grade while her world tumbled down around her ears. She bounced on her the heels, rocking back and forth, and I softened my expression. "Yeah, they're pretty understanding."
My trouble hadn't been getting accommodations from teachers. It had been taking them. I'd never taken mine, and I'd gotten into eleven colleges with OCD as my personal challenge essay topic. Next year, my world would be a campus with perfect red brick buildings, a lush green lawn, and the motto "to the heights." I looked very put together.
But just then I didn't really want to.
"Do you have any other questions?" I leaned closer. I'm like you. I have a blank stare sometimes. My mom says it looks like I'm gazing at horrors only I can see. I've sobbed into a towel—more than once.
"I'm good." She gave me a tight nod.
"Are you sure?" I wanted to cover her writhing hands with mine. It's hard when the thing you're afraid of is you.
There is a place
that feels like water
a cool murk
under slapping wavelets
where sun shines ochre
and seaweed ripples
like a dancer
writes young adult stories examining family dynamics and neurodivergence. She was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder at sixteen. She is an MFA candidate at the University of British Columbia with publications in Understorey, Wordgathering
Previously, she worked in animal welfare, writing grants and wrangling kittens.