At night, my temperature drops. Something in me shuts down, some spark that warms me during the day.
So I pile on blankets: a pink flowered quilt, a yellow flowered quilt, an acrylic blanket dimmed with coffee stains, a bright blue fleece with someone else’s name sewn into it. Sometimes I balance a floppy pillow overtop, craving the needless security, a paperweight in an airless room.
My bedroom will never be in a decorator magazine. I’ll never meet a man who doesn’t push the blankets to my side of the bed, who doesn’t retreat to the furthest edge of mattress because where I am is too stifling.
Some nights, it’s not enough. Some nights, my heart breaks through its housing and beats in the cold night air, wild and afraid.
And I have no choice but to join it.
* * *
Here’s how it starts: a guy urinates in my friend’s dorm room. Somewhere between drunk and sleepwalking, he opens her unlocked door, drops his pants, soaks the prickly brown carpet between her dresser and her bed. I’m 20 and shy, an unkissed former Catholic schoolgirl, and I can imagine nothing worse.
So I check, every night before bed, that my door is locked.
One night, as I lie in bed, fear snags through my drowsiness. What if I thought the door was locked and it wasn’t? What if I’d forgotten which way the knob pointed when the bolt was thrown?
I throw off my covers—at this point, still a single, featherlight comforter—and drop out of my narrow bed. I open the door, shut it again, turn the deadbolt’s knob. Better.
Opening the door becomes part of the routine. Open, shut, lock. Right before I crawl into bed, because otherwise I might unlock the door again and forget. As I fall asleep, I rehearse the memory of checking, reassuring myself: It’s fine, you’re safe. You can let go now.
Once, as I drift off, I wonder: What if I’m remembering last night’s check? What if, tonight, I’d forgotten?
Back out of bed. Bare feet on the dry, scratchy carpet. I open the door, a slice of light from the hall burning in. Close it, throw the bolt. My heart still beats fast. I still imagine someone standing over me as I sleep. So I do it again—open, shut, lock, open, shut, lock—waiting for something that pricks me from the inside to soften, something I can’t yet name.
A crisp tangle of weeds that tumbles forward, growing and growing.
“It’s fine.” James tosses in our bed—king-sized, so we can sleep without touching—and turns away from me, away from my red eyes and the taut strings of my neck.
Over the past seven years, my repertoire has expanded. I tap each of the knobs on the stove and recite to myself: Off, off, off, off. I open the oven, stick in my hand to check for heat, stick in my head to sniff for gas. I pass my fingers under every faucet to confirm it isn’t running, because what if my eyes trick me and I flood the whole building?
Sometimes I creep out of bed in the middle of the night, power on my laptop, and check that I didn’t inadvertently send a work email to the wrong person, or use a curse word in a message to my boss.
“What if I got distracted and forgot to turn it off?” I dig my fingertips into the pile of blankets and quilts unfurled over my side of the bed. The obsessions worsen at night, the urge to check and check and check.
“Oh my God. Just let me sleep.”
But my car. Could I have left it running, could I be poisoning my entire apartment building—the shy girl on the first floor, the mother and daughter downstairs who shout about boys and homework?
“It’s not like I want to be this way.”
“Then don’t. Go to sleep.”
Sometimes I ask James to do the checks for me, because it’s so much easier for him. Unlike me, he can feel for my car keys in the bowl above the stove—thereby confirming that they’re not in the ignition—without having to re-check the entire kitchen, without sniffing every burner for gas or tapping the freezer door to make sure it’s closed.
This time, he gets up. Confirms that my keys are in the bowl. As he drops back in bed, resentment boils off him. “Happy now?”
No, because my mind doesn’t know where to settle. Can’t I ask for this one thing? Or: I’m crazy, you’re right. I’m sorry.
I don’t know what to think.
I don’t know what to think. Or I do, and I don’t trust it.
The real danger of obsessive compulsive thoughts: all those starting guns and alarm bells and policeman’s whistles in your head, you lose faith in them. Write them off as misfiring neurons. Dismiss yourself, your judgment.
Eight weeks before our wedding, James and I stand at a scenic overlook. Beneath us, waves crash on rocks. Spindly pines sway in the breeze. A pickled sunbather flips onto her stomach.
“I’m not sure I love you enough,” James says, and the back of my neck goes cold.
Shouldn’t I know how to fix myself, control myself, how to be whatever it is that he’ll love?
That’s what I’m always trying to do: give people what they want. When secretly I worry I’ll flood your home with toilet water, or let the oven leak gas until the good air flees our lungs everything you and I love blows away.
At the end of the appointment, I say, “There’s one thing I didn’t mention?”
The psychiatrist looks up from her prescription pad.
I’m a worrier, a handwringer, a Googler of symptoms. But I’ve avoided learning about OCD. I don’t want to hear about common obsessions, I don’t want to read case studies. I worry that exposure will be contagious, that other people’s irrational fears will cling to me like burrs.
Which, when you flip it around, means I worry my issues will infect other people.
James has trouble sleeping now. He lies awake for hours, sitting in the blue light of his phone on the other side of our big bed, so far away my fingers can barely reach him. He started doing the nightly checks after my dad died, when the dull ache of my anxiety sharpened and every movement hurt, everything, from the inside out.
“Again?” James groans each night when I ask him to do the checks. “This was supposed to be temporary.”
Each night, I say, “I’m sorry. I need this.”
It’s been months now.
The psychiatrist brings me back to the moment by plucking a fresh box of tissues from her desk drawer. I’ve depleted the last box, it turns out.
“I don’t know if this makes a difference,” I manage finally, “but I do checks. Like, obsessive compulsive checks.”
She’s kinder than I thought a psychiatrist could be. When I told her about my dad’s death, the slow ravages of his illness, I thought she might start crying too.
It’s possible that she tells me it’s not my fault—the anxiety, the depression, the constant dread that I’ve done something wrong, forgotten something, left something amiss.
She might say that. If she does, I don’t believe it.
Before I leave, she hands me the sheet from her prescription pad. “This will help,” she promises. “It may take a few months, but it’ll help.”
I force a smile. Because I don’t have a few months. I need to save my relationship now.
The bathroom faucet in my new apartment drips. Each night, before I go to bed, I lean against the chipped doorframe, watch the fat drops gather and fall. They splat one by one against the sink, which is smeared with my roommate’s shaving gel and sometimes clogged with his hair.
In the years since I started checking, so many of my worst fears have come true: James and I canceled the wedding, broke up. My dad died. Depression and anxiety crashed on my shores, again and again.
But so many other fears haven’t materialized. I haven’t wrecked an apartment building or backed over a pedestrian or triggered a gas explosion.
As I study the faucet’s slow, inexorable drip, there’s a war: between the voice in my head that says The sink’s fine, it won’t overflow, and the voice that says How can you be sure? Between the voice that says I’ve never been wrong, and the voice that says Not yet.
Eventually, I peel away from the bathroom, drop into bed, pull up blanket after blanket. I lie awake, wondering if everything is OK.
Somehow I fall asleep, even though the answer is I don’t know.
Laura Romain is a writer, editor, and writing coach from the wilds of suburban New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Penny, Day One, The Hartskill Review, Rust+Moth, and Shape.com, and is forthcoming from The Manifest-Station. She is currently finishing her first book, a literary suspense novel, and she blogs about writing, creativity, and mental wellness at lauraromain.com.
Cover Image:"We all lay down together"H 24” x W 48” x D 75”porcelain, glaze, wood, acrylic, lights 2016Jessica Kreutterdescription: 80 thin porcelain sheets with lace/vein like imprints rest like a quilt on a lighted bed. Four pillows made of porcelain vines are stacked at the head.