Here is my morning routine: when I get out of bed, my feet must touch the edge of the rug, one at a time, while I softly vocalize two magic words that are best described as puffing and plosive sounds. If my feet don’t touch correctly, or if I don’t say the words right, I get back in bed and try again. Once I have properly performed this initial procedure, I again tap my left foot on the carpet while vocalizing the first magic word, and then—while holding my breath and without moving my mouth or tongue one millimeter during the duration—I silently incant a phrase that is far too nonsensical and embarrassing to share publicly, then tap my right foot while vocalizing the second magic word.
This can take anywhere from ten seconds, if I’m lucky, to two or three minutes. Once executed to my satisfaction, I am able to go downstairs, unplug my phone and perform roughly the same procedure on it, with my thumbs instead of my feet, and then I am allowed to use my phone. Likewise, the refrigerator door when I’m making coffee. Likewise, the edges of my laptop when I power it on. With these routines completed, I can start my day, open a Word document, and begin writing.
I realize this sounds bad, but it’s a compromise I’ve reached after decades of managing my obsessive-compulsive disorder. I’ve gone cold turkey before, renouncing all habits and tics, but they eventually creep back in. A therapist once described OCD behaviors as a “blob,” which felt apt; whatever part of it you press down on, another part bulges back up. These little routines are, in a sense, a deal I make with myself, so I don’t have to perform random routines all day long. Not doing them is not an option. If I don’t do them, the world will end.
I can’t remember exactly when it began. As is true of so many disorders, medical literature generally links OCD with the onset of adolescence, and this tracks with my earliest OCD memories: missing the bus to middle school because I had to touch mailboxes and the curb in a certain sequence; playing songs on my cassette deck over and over in order to pause on an exact word or chord; staying up in my teenage basement lair, flicking the lights on and off in patterns that, if my parents had noticed, would have looked like some Morse code call for help, which in a way, it was.