My mother –in- law has this…thing. It’s not something you can see, touch or smell, it’s, well, sort of a tickle in her brain, a kind of itch she can’t scratch. There is no escape from this “thing” because it is part of her, it is her. She can only reduce its size by ignoring it, but it will never go away. It waits, for that moment when she most vulnerable. That period of time when anxiety rules and caution becomes king. It feeds on worry and the world of “what if.” For my mother-in-law, the remedy has taken shape in the form of household duties, order and cleanliness. That perfect shine, that super clean, that absence of chaos and decay that can only be imagined by a mind that dedicates itself to thinking about the opposite.
I had my first visit from Mr. Thing when I was seven. He planted his seed in my head with a visual image from the cover of a comic. Of course, my mind was fertile ground. I had been prepped by my mother’s continue sprinkling of neurotic worry, and of course her genetics, mostly her genetics. She had developed her own tricks for surviving Mr. Thing and justified them with the same fervour my mother-in-law did. For some mothers it was seen as just a natural extension of mothering, and in most cases it is, but for some, it goes beyond that, and unbeknownst to them, they are passing on the torch of OCD.
The image on the comic book was of a witch, she was on a broom, of course, flying over a haunted looking castle, laughing, probably on her way to kill and murder someone, I thought. The title on the comic said, “Thirteen o’clock, the witching hour.” This started the process. Thirteen o’clock I thought, is there a thirteen o’clock? I wouldn’t know, I usually feel asleep before that, who knows what evil things happened…or could happen. The thought took root and sat screaming in my head until ignoring it didn’t seem to be an option. I had to prove there was no thirteen o’clock. It was a school night and I was tired, but I forced myself to stay wake. At that time my mother had a clock that sang out the hour…hourly. Nine, ten, eleven, then twelve. I had one more hour left, it was just a matter of time, till I would be hearing witches or feeling stupid, hopefully feeling stupid. One o’clock, there, it’s done, no more worry, no witches, nothing. I remember that feeling of relief, that sensation of being let go, released from the grip of anxiety, it was nice. I fell asleep quickly.
The next day I felt a new kind of relaxation. I could focus better, I was calmer. At the time I knew I felt different but I didn’t know why. Then, as night approached, a nagging feeling came to me. Something in my head was telling me that maybe, just maybe, last night was the only night thirteen o’clock didn’t happen. Maybe it will happen tonight. So, just like the night before, I stayed up to hear the clock strike one…and it did. Then, just like the day before, I felt a renewed sense of calm. But the next night came and this time I thought, what if the only way to stop thirteen o`clock was to stay up and wait for it. This new thought was dangerous; there was no way to win. Staying up prevented the witching hour, going to sleep created it, it was a lose lose situation.
Then it started.
Mr. Thing told me that maybe, just maybe if I did certain “things“ a full out witching hour would be prevented. I wouldn`t have to stay up late, but I would have to follow instructions carefully. Mr. Thing was a stickler for instructions and repetition. Thus began the lifelong curse of rituals.
My first ritual was connected with the witching hour but over time had been decorated with a few other equally ridiculous ideas. I had managed to incorporate werewolves, vampires and zombies into my life of pre-bedtime horror. When it was time for me to go to bed my anxiety level was so high, any ritual, regardless how preposterous, was welcome. I was convinced that if the clock hit the witching hour I would be turned into a vampire/werewolf mix and kill my entire family. I truly believed this to be a possibility, not a very strong one, but percentages were lost on me. Like all of us who think this way, it is not the percentages that matter it is the lack of certainty and the inability to find comfort in a world the offers no guarantee. So…my ritual was this; since vampire and werewolf’s had huge angry teeth, I decided to focus on the eye teeth and make sure they did not grow…thus guaranteeing a cancellation of the curse. I would take my tongue and follow the tip of the tooth to its root, then move my tongue along the top of my mouth making sure not to lose contact and repeat the same action on the other tooth thirty times, giving me the feeling of pushing the tooth up into the gum and creating a mental image of cementing the teeth in place. I would then repeat this action again on the bottom teeth, thirty times each. If at anytime my tongue became accidentally detached from my gums or teeth the whole process would have to be started again from the beginning. This ritual, when completed properly within the given time frame and the appropriate hour would allow my mind to rest, knowing I wouldn’t, that night, turn into a vampire/werewolf and kill my entire family.
The years that followed were filled with equally odd forms of anxiety release. But, eventually, with the discovery of alcohol and drugs I was able to temporarily push Mr. Thing aside and live in a world where vampires, werewolves and zombies couldn’t touch me. This of course was only a temporary solution; it would take me decades to find one that fit the bill. Mr. Thing still talks to me, but he is very small, almost invisible. I would live a life that involved several setbacks created by this monster and endure the arrogant stupidity of a health system that simply couldn’t be bothered. I learned several tricks, like exercise, behaviour modification and later, thank god, medication. But it has been a long road that has detoured so often I just stopped looking at the map. That’s ok, I can now live without guarantees that the sun will come up tomorrow…it might not…who knows? No one knows, and that’s ok, it has to be, there’s no other choice.
So I watch my mother-in-law scrub the sink and hold her world tight. I have suggested medication but she is from a different generation. Drugs are for the weak. She’s never said as much but I can see it in her eyes. I want to tell her it doesn’t have to be that way; she can relax, just a bit. The world won’t end if she doesn’t vacuum the carpet today. But she would think I’m the one who is crazy…and I kind of am, so, if she pisses me off, I just say to her…you missed a spot.
Thank you Mr. Thing.