“Without gloves on my bleeding hands, I collected the shards of a life ravished by mental illness, gluing them together before wiping them with Windex.” In the age of COVID-19, a lifelong obsession for one becomes the norm and the saving grace for all…
by: Sarah Butchin1
My worst then is applauded now.
When my sickness started, I attempted to untangle the irrational fears that slid between the folds of my brain, embedding themselves beside reason and hopeful thoughts. The obsessions ballooned, squeezing out anything that didn’t serve them, turning a once healthy mind into a computer regurgitating rituals. My body, a vessel for the codes, dutifully carried out the actions that stole my autonomy. And I welcomed the piracy. My compulsions were a firewall, protecting me from the threat of a cold, bug, or flu. There was no virus more debilitating than the disorder that reordered my brain chemicals, convincing me that my immune system was no match for a doorknob or grocery cart handle.
They said it was all in my head, and I knew they were right, but it was impossible to trust rationale with terror wired into the DNA. It was all in my head — the chemicals that swelled and waned, the seas of a tormented mind, a brain as imbalanced as shaking knees.
Contagions were everywhere, but they got nowhere with me because I was careful. Devout. I kneeled at the alter of my illness, and my compulsions blessed me. Knees didn’t wobble when they were on the ground. I gave up social situations, swore off simple pleasures, and sacrificed friendships — pious to my practices. And I was saved.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder gave me physical health and then an SSRI welcomed wellness. Without gloves on my bleeding hands, I collected the shards of a life ravished by mental illness, gluing them together before wiping them with Windex. Cleanliness remains close to godliness, but there is no streak-free shine. My compulsions’ spotless records cloud my view, a reminder of success under their spell.
I knew they were bad then. I saw the way people looked at me when I performed my rituals — the sadness in my mother’s eyes, the discomfort on my husband’s face. But now, somehow, in the time of COVID-19, in the wake of a global pandemic, my rituals are good, expected. I walk barefoot over broken glass, navigating a world that celebrates what I fought. The lack of touch, the gloves, the face masks, I’m not the only one. It’s everyone. Disinfecting groceries, prudent food preparation, questions about modes of contagion, a delicious dialogue about hand washing.
I can talk about hand washing ad nauseam. The way it makes me feel, even today. The breath I exhale when I turn on the faucet, how soothed I am as scalding water burns my hands, the accomplishment of cracked and bleeding skin, the best lotions to hide the abuse. When an ad reminds viewers to wash their hands, I’m drawn to the sink, but it’s okay because I’m conscientious. There is a virus, a reason. It’s not an excuse. It’s a reality. Not leaving my house isn’t agoraphobia, it’s saving lives.
I don’t know where I go from here, where any of us go from here, but I know what it takes to stay healthy, and what my medicated mind is still urging me to do. I don’t know who will prevail in the battle for my body, my brain or Zoloft. I know, either way, I fail. I’m baptized in my old habits and vigilant, or well and at greater risk. There is something to be said for a sick mind and healthy body, but I don’t know if I can listen.
Sarah Butchin lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she is a wonderful mother to her five-year-old twins, a hard-working freelance writer, and a rather adequate wife. Her debut novel In the Time of Towertown will be released through Black Rose Writing in mid-2020. Follow her on Twitter @SarahButchin.
- Header art by David Gilliver. [↩]