101. “X” Marked the Spot

101. “X” Marked the Spot

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


“X” Marked the Spot

Cleanliness is next to impossible.

~Author Unknown

My childhood home had more rules than modern-day air travel. Thanks to a mother who suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, I never developed a liking for rash decisions, impulsive acts, or the utterance of “because I felt like it.” Every action in our home had purpose, and every item had its proper place. I learned early not to disrupt the illogical order of things.

As a teenager, I was the one tapping my friends on the shoulder and whispering, “Hey, guys, you really think we should be doing this?” As they giggled and plotted the next rule they’d break, I paced in the background, craned my neck in search of the authorities, and pictured us cuffed and hauled off to jail in the back of a squad car. I also feared that, while each of my friends’ parents would come to bail them out shortly after our arrival, I’d become a lifer since my mom was a germaphobe and would never set foot in such a dirty place to reclaim me. My friends didn’t know the complicated history behind my aversion to fun, and I believed proclaiming my mother a nut job during those tumultuous high school years would’ve been a detriment to my already damaged reputation as a “goody two-shoes” and a “brown-noser.” Why add “crazy” to the arsenal of insults?

To be honest, I have nothing against routines and rules, per se, as long as they’re logical and beneficial, making one’s life easier and more manageable. At seven, my mother’s insistence that I wash all of the packaged, jarred, and canned food from the grocery store prior to placing the items in the cupboard made sense to me. Since I had repeatedly been told, “I don’t know where your hands have been,” I was able to transfer this logic to her request. I pictured freakish shoppers with greasy hair and goo under their fingernails fondling our consumables, placing us in danger of contracting deadly diseases. So I’d sit on the kitchen floor and obediently scour the cans and plastic wrappers under my mother’s supervision. By the age of twelve, however, new questions emerged.

“If the food is inside the can, why do I have to clean the outside?” I asked innocently.

“Because,” my mother began, “you touch the can before you make the food.” Satisfied, I continued to wash can after can.

Her logic became a stretch when I realized I could wash my hands after touching the can, prior to preparing the meal. I soon found that challenging the rituals and logic of someone with OCD was a waste of energy since a rule was countered with another rule that made less sense than the original.

For instance, I should’ve accepted the rule that I couldn’t sit on the couch because it left the cushions crooked. But I couldn’t help but question the logic since we had purchased the couch with the intention of sitting on it. I was enlightened that crooked cushions affected the symmetry of the entire room. Could it be that her way of thinking was a precursor to the feng shui movement? The simple act of my backside coming in contact with the couch set off the ritual that I coined “cushion counting.” Standing in the middle of the living room, my mother licked her thumbs with precision, and made a beeline toward the cushions to put them back in their proper place. While she laboriously counted the number of times she nudged each cushion (a number she deemed to be lucky), my siblings and I stood wishing she’d crack open one of those sparkling jars of spaghetti sauce to feed us dinner. God help us if she became distracted and had to start counting from the beginning. The fact that we owned a sectional only prolonged our misery.

Unfortunately, the counting ritual bled over into the chore of counting sweeps while vacuuming and, with a wide expanse of carpet, the vacuuming continued on through the night. Both hungry and tired, her children found little benefit to a clean and orderly house. The person who claimed that “cleanliness is next to Godliness” had obviously never lived in the clutches of OCD.

As if we needed another obstacle while trying to get though the day, my mother insisted the family participate in her obsession to ward off germs. Initially, we removed our shoes in the garage since they had traveled outside the house. Coats soon followed, as well as backpacks tainted by those dirty classrooms. The unwelcomed items were lined up like soldiers positioned to storm the queen’s fortress. Next, she requested we use Kleenex to turn doorknobs to enter the house since our hands had come in contact with filthy things throughout the day. I waited for the shower to be installed in the garage, but luckily that never happened.

Lines between dirty and clean became so blurred that I found it best not to touch anything. She deemed that we could, however, sit on the kitchen chairs since eating on the floor next to the couch would have made the carpet dirty, and who needed to prolong the whole vacuuming thing? But there was a rule: the chairs had to be returned to the “X” inscribed on the floor with a black marker. If a chair was off the “X” by the slightest degree, my mother stood in the middle of the kitchen, licked her thumbs, pressed in the chair, and counted her adjustments. It would have been easier to eat in the garage.

Thirty years later, I’d like to think I’ve acquired a healthy dose of OCD: enough to keep me organized and productive without appearing to be a loon. My pantry is stocked, but not alphabetized. My car is clean, but random objects roll around the floorboard. Socks are folded, but mismatched on occasion. Since OCD has a genetic link, I study my children for signs of the disease. “I thought you just washed your hands,” I’ve been known to say. “What exactly is the reason that your corn cannot mix with your mashed potatoes?” And, “Why are you counting your spare change?” has slipped from my mouth.

I soon catch my hyper vigilance and relax, knowing that our house doesn’t have “X’s” on the floors, we don’t wash cans, and my children not only bring their backpacks inside, but they spread their homework on the kitchen table. Not to mention, besides sitting on the couch, we stretch out and make ourselves comfortable. I rejoice that my children are typical adolescents and, if any doubts surface, I merely peek inside their bedrooms at the disarray they call home, or ask my teenage son when he showered last. When he says, “I don’t know. Why?” I just smile, and all my fears subside.

~Elizabeth Philip

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