Part I. The haunting

by Most Popular, Today Letter

Photo by Christie Chisholm, self-portrait

There is something haunting about a rip in your skin. It reminds you that the whole thing could fall apart, turn to ribbons and dust. It reminds you, in fact, that one day it will. And then you are left with that to think about. 

I still remember the small ones. Returning from recess one afternoon and reaching my right hand to catch the door inside, left swinging by the kid in front. The wind came and knocked that heavy steel slab back into its frame, and took my hand with it. For days, the palm was raw and scathed, too tender to touch.

I opened a pair of scissors to cut a box like a knife because I had seen someone use that trick. I clasped the blades like a handle, and they cut across the four fingers.

I slid a ring finger along the lip of a can as I tried to free a stray hair. The aluminum sliced through, revealing layer upon layer of cushioned skin.

Minor injuries, all. But you remember the cuts.

The most painful, of course, are those you don’t see; they do not link like blade to slice. They stretch like horizons.

At times, it is the fear of the cut that rips you. It is the threat of the unpreventable and unrelenting that circles your life like a scavenger.

How many others spent their youths fearing death?

Did it keep you awake at night, too? Did you avoid sleep because you thought it might be your last? Do you mourn now for moments wasted by panic with no reason?

How many counted their heartbeats as they watched the clock? Stood in front of the carbon monoxide detector to monitor the steadiness of its flash, the house dark around them but for the light of the small green flickering? Wondered if a pain, any pain, would travel to their chest; inspected the skin for little red lines, clear infection, that might come to claim them? If you were awake, maybe you would catch it in time.

The most painful, of course, are those you don’t see; they do not link like blade to slice. They stretch like horizons.

The counting started when I was young, as I think it does for most who have obsessive compulsive disorder, before they know it has a name. I went all of my childhood without knowing, and so I kept it safe and unseen. Everyone wants to belong. All children want to be seen as normal. And so you count to yourself, hold your breath, practice sleight of hand. You are an expert at hiding. It’s a cut that slashes particularly deep.

It is hard to write about, even now. There is only so much I can give. I want to tell everything, but then I am halted. I tried a few weeks ago to tell this story, but it turned into something else when, again, I became overwhelmed by fear. So I’m trying again.

Hello, to all of you who know me. Have you ever really seen me? Do any of us ever really see another person?

I spent 32 years not knowing that a pill could help me. I thought it would change who I was, dilute and numb me, take away the fear but only along with the passion. And so instead I fought, silently to others and ferociously with myself. An entirely different landscape undulating a slip beneath the skin.

It was a virus, always evolving. No cure lasted. It was so much more than counting.

We all live more than one reality. We are different with ourselves than we are with others, different in the night than we are the day, sometimes shy and occasionally emboldened, crazy and angry and sane. We are prisms, reflecting our own versions of the scenery.

The projections that haunted me were often cruel. Fear. They always came back to fear. They demanded too much.

If you don’t walk this way, cross the street now, go right instead of left, someone you love will be wounded. Butterflies could propel hurricanes; you never know what adds up. There’s no telling who or what has infected that doorknob, best to avoid it or wash your hands. When you wash them, be careful not to knock your knuckle on the side of the sink, or you’ll have to start over. Don’t touch the faucet, or you’ll have to start over. Do they feel clean? Maybe just one more time. Start over. There’s a rush in your chest, a heat rising through your spine. You feel dizzy. You know you’re not dying, but what if you’re wrong? You don’t know everything.

Maybe the universe has a way of guiding us, if only we know how to ask. Like talking to a string of lights, waiting for them to thrum and throb.

You are not insane. You understand it’s illogical. You don’t actually believe. But the fear compels you anyway. And then it is everything.

It is not always so terrible. Sometimes you win the battle. There is nuisance, but it is quiet, like a secondhand ticking.

But then the fury comes for you, it pounds on your door and wails at the silence.

I didn’t know there was another way.

3 Comments

  1. Yes: one does not know there is another way. Can’t wait for Part 2. I have my own part 2, which hit me around age 60. It was worth trying that long.

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing this, Ron, and for reading. Writing about and sharing these things is frightening, but I always find that whenever I do, I am left feeling less alone. My hope is that others may read it and feel the same.

      Reply
  2. Thank you for writing and sharing this. It takes courage to share these thoughts and experiences. I have Anxiety and a severe Driving Phobia and can certainly relate. Fear can be so debilitating. Even though we logically understand it’s just a feeling – just a shadow we could walk right through, so often we don’t. Thank you for helping me to feel less alone and a touch braver today.

    Reply

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