Disgusting Things I’ve Done: Reckoning with OCD and the New Normal

An old bottlecap on a rocky ground. pictures help manage OCD
Photo courtesy of the author.

I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but not the kind that makes me wash my hands constantly. I have the kind that makes me touch things. I am compelled to touch seemingly random things in stores, at home, and in my purse or pocket. I want to pick pennies and safety pins from the dirty ground. In pandemic times, this is a problem.

An obsessive thought leads to a compulsive act. A scene from Scorsese’s film The Aviator circulates on Facebook. Howard Hughes, a famous l’homme des affaires with OCD, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, scrubs his hands raw, accidentally touches something and then returns to the sink to scrub some more. True, we should all be washing our hands more painstakingly, but should we ever do anything compulsively? And what is a compulsion, other than a burdensome habit? The pandemic age is forcing me to change my behavior, causing me to take pause and think about what will actually protect me. Like many, I’m riding this wave, but I can’t shake from my mind the dirty things I’ve done.

Very Superstitious

Superstitions are powerful suggestions — even if we don’t fully believe them — and they can provoke obsessive thoughts, which then in turn lead to compulsive behaviors. Once I walked into a restaurant and plopped my handbag on the ground since the table space was tight and there was nowhere to hang it on the chair. “Oh, don’t do that, honey,” the waitress scolded. “It’s bad luck to put your bag on the ground.”

My father-in-law would drive around the block if he saw a black cat. I ignore this omen because I love cats. In fact, I adhere to Scottish belief that black cats are good luck. Ladders, too, are another point of contention. In this case, the superstition seems rooted in logic: It’s not safe to walk under ladders, but as an aerialist, I find myself beneath them on occasion, reasoning that the person on the ladder is in greater danger than the person under it who’s keeping it stable. When traveling through, I’ve been known to take the path of convenience, as it’s quicker to walk through an A-frame than to go around. At times, I adhere to what beliefs suit me and ignore the rest. 

Sometimes our superstitions tie us to others or our pasts. I pour my first sip of alcohol to Marie Laveau after seeing a man named S.T. do the same thing one Mardi Gras many years ago. S. T. once walked through a friend’s glass door. Not badly injured, he destroyed the door and at the time didn’t have the money to pay for the damages, but returned months later and made good on the cost of repair. 

As a family we go out every November 2 to look for the Day of Dead parade and to remember those who passed. I burn sage to clean the air and ward off evil. I put a wooden Jean d’Arc doubloon with my son’s things whenever he is away from us for the same reason. According to Cajun lore, we buried his umbilical cord in the backyard to protect him from harm and evil.

I say “rabbit rabbit” at the start of each new month. On New Year’s day, I make sure to serve black eyed peas, cabbage, and various greens. I look for red birds and welcome lady bugs and four-leaf clovers.  

My mother once told me “no hats on the bed,” and now I’m careful to not put a hat on the bed, or shoes on the table. I watched my husband smash a mirror as we gutted a friend’s home after Hurricane Katrina. No one worried about bad luck then. 

Rituals and Compulsions

Besides familiar and not-so-familiar superstitions, those of us with obsessive-compulsive disorder create our own compulsions. OCD is funny that way. I met another OCDer who said that he would scratch his palms when he passed fire stations because he believes doing so keeps his family safe from fire. In stores I touch boxes of band-aids and toothpaste containers to prevent injury and cavities. I do the same with children’s cold medicine. This twisted logic makes me think my son’s well-being depends on touching a box of Children’s Tylenol. This is time-consuming, and this has to stop, especially during a pandemic. So now I tell myself the opposite: Touch nothing unless you’re buying it. Don’t even look at the band-aids.

From a former student I learned to spit if my foot is swept by a broom, for only spitting can reverse any bad luck brought on by the sweeping. Another former student once gave a lecture on all the superstitions of the lunar new year, and there are so many that over the years, I’ve read more about them and consumed myself with worry, especially since no one gave me red underwear to don on the lunar new year. 

Before performances we say “Knock ‘em dead” as is customary in circus as opposed to “break a leg.” I stay away from wearing yellow on stage for it’s believed to be a bad omen unless, of course, I’m dressed as a chicken.

Whenever I feel anxious, especially before performances, I reach for the talismans that I keep in my handbag. Just touching the fava bean or Virgin Mary metal will keep us safe. Often my hands are filthy, covered with rosin and or chalk to improve my grip. 

I pick up pennies and pins, for the original expression is: “See a pin, pick it up. All day you’ll have good luck.” Does the sort of pin matter? If it’s a hair pin, say, should I pick that up, too? Or should I just gather safety pins? What about push pins? 

I used to think that the outcome of my day depended on finding a penny heads-up or seeing a cardinal. But as of late, I pass the pennies in the streets and the safety pins that litter the ground under the wharf by the river — I suspect they are leftover from the labels of racing runners. Leave them be, I tell myself. Picking up pins is not a good practice. Now I acknowledge the pennies and pins. I look down and step on them. Sometimes, I take a photo.

My dad liked to say “One spec of dirt won’t kill you.” He’s right. It’s not the dirt that kills, but the virus that lives on things. 

Disgusting Things I’ve Done

I recall the disgusting things I’ve done. I put a baguette that had been on the stage floor of One Eyed Jack’s, a French Quarter nightclub, in my mouth. It was a prop for a burlesque show aerial act in which I was a mime in love with another mime. Why wouldn’t we put the bread that had been on the stage — the same floor that had been trounced upon by heels and bare feet alike, rolled over with naked bodies and go-go boxes — for a whimsical post-show picture?

Before our last show over ten weeks ago, J, the sound guy at Jack’s, showed up with a fever, sore throat, and cough. He touched everything: the ladder we climbed to rig the equipment, the lights, the chairs, the curtains, the microphone. He had to. After the show, he said he took edibles because when he’s sick, he wants to be high and let it pass. I totally understand. I stood fewer than six feet from him, drinking a beer and enjoying the post-show comradery. 

At the MOMs (Mystic Krewe of Orphans and Misfits) Ball, I used a portable toilet. There was no sink, just hand sanitizer. I patted my hands with rosin and spit on them for better grip of the aerial fabric. After our three-person monkey swing act, I sipped straight from a bottle of Veuve Cliquot that was being passed around and smoked from a stranger’s bowl. I ate and drank from the dressing room spread. I hugged strangers and moved through a tight crowd. I partied with people, among them a man from Washington State, which was the first state to mandate closures because of the virus. We all danced and coughed. 

On Mardi Gras morning we walked through claustrophobia-inducing crowds and spent most of the day on a balcony in the Marigny, looking down on the revelry and creating our own. Crowds of people clustered about hand-made floats and danced like the empire was ending. We were a circle of parents and friends. Inside the second-floor apartment, our children jumped on the bed with abandon, screaming and sweating and learning how to navigate head-locks. We drank cocktails made with beet juice and ate fried chicken for dinner.

Children get coughs, my son included. He had one a while back during the Mardi Gras holiday. He had no fever or other symptoms, and after a few days the cough went away. Many people got sick after carnival time, something that happens every year, but this was different. 

New Habits

These are the gross exaggerations, the disgusting things leading up to this moment. On Friday the thirteenth, the last day we got word that school and work as we know it, would be different, we went grocery shopping and picked up lots of stuff, an apocalypse shop, perhaps. In the bakery at Robert’s, our local market, samples of fluffy white cake sat on display. I passed them by the first time I saw them, but in a brazen moment of defiance and a bit of compulsion, I popped a tiny piece of cake in my mouth. Not doing it would result in Murphy’s Law, illness for certain. 

If some undereducated miscreant suggests injecting disinfectant for logical or magical reasons, I just may be tempted to follow instructions. The power of suggestion is dangerous. 

Every day I see at least one cardinal, and for this reason, I feel a little lucky but still anxious. In a strange way, pandemic life may lessen the worry of those with other types of anxiety, social anxiety, for example. A few of my students are doing much better than before the Covid-19 school closure since they don’t have to come to class in person any more. Some people are worse off, no doubt, and some feel validated, I suppose, but most are just adjusting like me. 

When he was toddler, my son puked in my face. I used a Sharpie to black out a tooth. I accepted sneezed-on papers from students. I drank the bubbly, hit the joint, ate the samples, hugged the strangers, and didn’t wash my hands. If we ever get back to a post-pandemic world, I will continue to say the alphabet in French three times as I wash my hands, but it’ll be hard not to pick up those pennies. 

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