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My Compulsiveness Used To Make Me Feel Lonely. Now It Makes Me Feel Safe

"That’s how my mind works. I see green dots everywhere I go," writes Maya Hoffman. (Hannah Busing/Unsplash)
"That’s how my mind works. I see green dots everywhere I go," writes Maya Hoffman. (Hannah Busing/Unsplash)

I don’t remember the last time that I touched a doorknob with my bare hand.

Approaching a door for me has always been accompanied with an accelerated heart rate. A little twitch. A shuffling of the feet. A tensing of the shoulders. I shimmy my shirt cuff down to cover my hand — then I can open the door. I've never been formally diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, but my experience of the world is consistent with everything I've read about it. Opening the door is a sweet-taste-of-victory moment, and I have about 30 of those a day.

I realize that opening a door is not a triumph for everyone. I also realize that it’s annoying to be waiting behind me to get through that door. But just imagine how annoying it is to be inside my head.

I literally think in PSA videos: the ones that tell you to “wash your hands to prevent the spread of germs” and then show you an animated narration of a woman shaking someone’s hand with green dots dancing all over it. Suddenly her hand has green dots; then she drives to her house and the steering wheel has green dots; then her daughter runs out to greet her and she hugs her daughter and her daughter’s whole body becomes a vessel of swirling green dots.

That’s how my mind works. I see green dots everywhere I go.

This is my daily life — adjusting minute objects, checking the burners on the stove six times over, setting out my glass of water in the perfect location (exactly one inch apart from everything else on the side table), putting on my lotion in specific steps as part of a precise daily ritual.

What’s really notable to me is just how important we atypical people become when all illusions of normalcy are shattered.

But then, in mid-March, the global pandemic hit, and something truly crazy happened: everybody began behaving a lot more like me.

I am now back home living with my mother for the “pandemic” semester. I was never very open about compulsions at school. I managed to conceal most of it, excusing myself from gatherings with friends to anxiously scrub at my hands in the bathroom. I would sometimes go AWOL from my phone for hours, stuck in some pattern of behavior, like adjusting a bottle of lotion in my room, one centimeter at a time, while my mind spun out of control like a rabid spider.

I was devastated when they announced the closure of my school — naturally, this was my last semester of college. But more than the disappointment, the closure alerted me to the severity of the pandemic, and I was ultimately relieved to land back in an environment I could control. I knew that staying in the petri dish that is my college campus would have been ultimately unsustainable for my mental health.

Now, at the grocery store, I see people walking around with masks covering their mouths, but resting under their noses. After shopping, I host a “post-grocery store sanitation extravaganza.” My mother has defaulted to leaving this part to me, probably the result of all the times I yelled at her for improperly sanitizing a cereal box (she always misses the spot where she’s holding it) or placing a non-sanitized item on the sanitized side, making me start all over again.

I can’t blame her — she hasn’t spent her whole life seeing in green dots. But I keep a mental checklist on where she goes in the house and what she touches, so I can chase her path down afterward with a Clorox wipe.

The strangest thing now, as the world tumbles into chaos, is that I feel like I’ve finally found some sense of control

What’s really notable to me is just how important we atypical people become when all illusions of normalcy are shattered. While the rest of the world is just learning that germs live on surfaces for extended periods of time, we’ve been assiduously touching nothing for years.

I haven’t sought a formal diagnosis or treatment for my compulsiveness (for many reasons), even though I’ve had symptoms for a long time. When I was 10, I learned about carbon monoxide poisoning, and it set off a series of panicked behaviors that became part of my daily routine.

The strangest thing now, as the world tumbles into chaos, is that I feel like I’ve finally found some sense of control. I get to completely regulate the space I inhabit. There are only ever two people in and out of our house. I deep clean every surface in bleach every Friday while my mom works. I can be confident that every light switch, every heating dial, every door handle is pure.

In the past, I would get saddled with sudden anxiety, which would trigger an episode — I’d start adjusting, twitching, cleaning, fixing. It was in those moments, when I’d realize my thoughts and behaviors weren’t “normal,” that would land me on the floor in tears. Now, everyone everywhere is singing "Happy Birthday" to themselves as they wash their hands for the 20th time and open doors with their sleeves.

People around the world are in their homes double-checking their bottles of hand sanitizer, and I’m doing OK.

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Maya Hoffman Cognoscenti contributor
Maya Hoffman will graduate from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass in May 2020. She is a double major in politics and French.

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