As told to Temima Shain
Maybe a match would do it.
I held the lit match over the bed as close as I could get to the fresh sheet without burning it.
Heat ... maybe heat would fix it.
I waved the match slowly over the sheet. It burned down. I shook it out and lit another.
Intensely passionately trying to infuse the flame with the power to burn away the contamination. I didn’t have another clean sheet. I had nowhere else to sleep tonight. My sleeve had touched the bed and the bed was now contaminated.
My skirt is dry-clean only. I couldn’t wash it. I have to put on it on even though I was wearing it before.
But I can’t.
I just can’t. Not when it’s going to be Shabbos and I was supposed to be clean for Shabbos ...
My mind casts around feverishly for a way out of the problem.
I carefully walk into the kitchen grimacing as I open the cabinet. A new box ... Oh Hashem please make there be a new box....
A new box. There.
I pull it out and open it. I wash my hands and carefully carefully carefully pull out a garbage bag. I tear it open and step in. Carefully taking one foot at a time out of its shoe then putting it back in without touching the floor. I tie the bag around me securely. Now I will be clean.
I look down. My legs. The bag isn’t long enough to reach the top of my clean socks. I’m exposed. My skirt will touch me.
I close my eyes.
Gila’s voice slides through me honey in my starving mind. Sweetheart she says and I hear the compassion in her voice. Gila is my older cousin.. She used to take me out late at night and we used to talk. She’s far away now busy with her own life and she’s not coming. She’s not here for me. I am alone.
I am exhausted but my nerves are taut tight with anxiety and fear.
Maybe I can do it. Maybe I can allow the skirt to touch my skin and I can just push my way through it and I will be okay and I will be safe. Can I do that? Will it work?
I close my eyes. Help me help me help me ... The faces are too far away they are only blurs. There is no one there to help me.
Wait. If I move the garbage bag down lower ... till it reaches my socks ... My shirt is long ... I can pin the bag to my shirt ... but oh no oh no the safety pins; they’ll touch me ...
I’ll sterilize them.
I hold them under the hot water but it doesn’t feel right. Not clean enough. Not safe.
Steam pours from the faucet. My fingers burn from the hot metal. Careful! I almost touched the counter with my shirt. Oh no oh no oh no...
It’s hard to wash my hands with soap while holding the safety pins but eventually I get it and wave my hands till they’re dry and then I manage to pin the garage bag around to my shirt.
I carefully pick up my skirt and put it on.
I close my eyes and breathe in relief. I get my stuff together and soon I am out in the street. The garbage bag is showing a little underneath my skirt. But picking it up would be too risky. I just hurry along and hope I don’t meet anyone I know.
Now I am back in my apartment. Everything is a mess and needs to be cleaned up for Shabbos, but first I need to change into my Shabbos clothes.
I lay out my Shabbos clothes on the garbage bag lying on the couch. I manage most of it, but I must wash my hands because I touched my skirt and now I need to put my hands into the clean laundry.
Shabbos is in ten minutes.
I hurry into the bedroom and my movement creates a wind and the tablecloth flies out behind me and brushes against my leg.
And I’m standing there frozen. The place needs to be cleaned for Shabbos, and the food needs to be taken care of, and now there are only five minutes left till Shabbos, and I don’t care about anything but the fact that the tablecloth has brushed against my leg, and it is pushing, pushing, breaking, spilling over my eyes, stretching, stretching, stretching me—
But I can’t afford to fall apart now. I close my eyes and hold it all back, and whisper, a whisper to give me strength, “Hashem, please, please have mercy, please....” and I put my shower slippers back on, and I go into the bathroom, and turn on the shower, and push the shower curtain all the way open and caaaaarefully pick up my right leg, the one that touched the tablecloth, and hold it under the water—
And it trembles, it’s hard to hold my leg straight long enough, but it can’t touch the bathtub, oh no, oh no, it can’t touch the bathtub, it mustn’t—
And I know you can’t daven in the bathroom, but I have to, I have to, because I need Hashem’s help now more than anything in the world, and I have nothing else to hold on to—
And somehow I do it, and my leg comes down, and I am weak, but I’ve done it, and I’m clean. I carefully walk out through the kitchen into the bedroom. Here is my laundry, my absolutely uncontaminated, pristine laundry. I bend down from a distance, so the outside of the laundry bag won’t touch my leg, and I put my clean hand into the bag, and I pull out one pair of stockings, but there are other things clinging to it, but I can’t use my other hand to help, because it turned off the shower with a tissue, so I have to shake out the stockings with one hand. And I see, but it’s too late, that my other pair of stockings is clinging to it, and it’s falling falling falling to the floor — the floor! — the carpet, which was never washed — and I have nothing else to wear tomorrow.
And I move close to check, desperately, if maybe there is another pair there and my leg, my wet leg, touches the outside of the laundry bag, the laundry bag that sat on the street, and it sat on the dining room floor where there is carpet—
And I can’t take it anymore, and I drop the stockings down, carefully, in the laundry bag, and I move away and hold up my skirt to protect myself and my clothes from my leg that touched the outside of the bag...
and it is the end, end, end, end, end
and I throw my head back and my eyes screw up as my mouth opens wide, as wide as it will go, and I am screaming, screaming inside, screaming that can’t come out in a scream because the landlady will hear
but tears are trickling from my eyes, and I am screaming quietly,
Why doesn’t anyone help me?
This crushing, crushing agony — someone, anyone, help me, help me. Help me!
I stand there, in the bedroom, holding my skirt, and trembling from exhaustion, and I close my eyes, and I rest while I stand on my feet because I can’t throw myself on my bed because my bed is contaminated....
And I cry.
I am alone, and I will bear it.
I will somehow keep going, though it kills me. There is no other choice.
But I know, oh, how I know, I feel it in every spent cell of my body, standing here in the bedroom—
That I am alone.
The OCD Prison
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can be terrifying, debilitating, and disabling.
It can also be treated.
People who suffer from OCD suffer from unwanted and intrusive thoughts that they can’t seem to get out of their heads (obsessions). Some common examples are fear of contamination; fear of illicit, violent, or blasphemous thoughts; fear of catastrophe or loss; fear of not doing a mitzvah correctly; or fear of not feeling right.
In an attempt to neutralize their fears, sufferers engage in compulsions — ritualistic behaviors and routines to try and ease their anxiety. These actions can take the form of excessive checking, cleaning, repeating (these can be physical, verbal, or mental), engaging in physical movements, or hoarding. Some sufferers spend hours at a time engaged in complicated rituals, which can interfere with normal routines. Concentrating on daily activities may be difficult.
Living with OCD may cause sufferers to feel depressed and ashamed. They may hide their torment, knowing that their behavior seems crazy. The helplessness and hopelessness they feel can prevent sufferers accessing treatment. As a society, recognizing and accepting that sufferers are not at fault for their symptoms can help mitigate the shame that can hold them back from seeking help.
About one in forty people suffer from OCD at some point in their lives. As a disorder, it is generally highly treatable. It is important to keep in mind that, as with any other disorder, finding a therapist who is a good fit for the client (personality, style, etc.) can be crucial. Relief Resources (Misgav in Israel), the free frum mental health referral agency, can help people find the best therapist possible.
The treatment currently found to be most successful for OCD is cognitive behavioral therapy using exposure and response prevention (ERP). For the greatest chance of recovery, it is crucial to find a therapist trained and experienced in treating OCD with ERP. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on identifying, understanding, and changing patterns of thinking and behavior. ERP involves gradually helping the client expose himself to the situation or object that he fears without engaging in compulsions. The sufferer thus gradually learns to become less sensitive to obsessions or urges.
A psychiatrist can evaluate whether or not medication is helpful. Although it may take a while to tailor the medication, meds are generally safe and may be crucial in finding relief.
Correct treatment for OCD should take only a few months to begin showing benefits. Certain presentations, such as hoarding or lack of client insight, may make treatment more difficult.
The road to recovery may be difficult, but those who go through the full process of treatment generally gain the tools that enable them to live happy and healthy lives.
Do you know someone who is suffering? If you are in a position to help someone like this, be sensitive in your approach. Empathize with her suffering, and allow her to move at her own pace. If you don’t think you are the best person to approach the sufferer, try to think who is. Even if you cannot find a way of helping the person, maintaining connection can be a lifeline. They may be waiting for you.
Special thanks to the following OCD specialists for their input:
David H. Rosmarin, PhD — Director, Center for Anxiety (NYC)
Dov Finkelstein, LCSW
Sheryl Prenzlau, MSW
For a list of resources for those suffering from OCD, or to contact the author, please contact Family First.
(Originally featured in Family First Issue 270)