[Creative Non-Fiction] Sinkhole
I’m afraid of sinks. This terrible little OCD trait is probably a residual bit of stubbornness paired with PTSD from my parents’ accidentally waterboarding me.
They were not bad parents. See, they really really thought they were doing the right thing. When your child won’t wash her hands or brush her teeth, WHAT DO YOU DO?
Really. It’s a serious question. I have to think that the egg came before the chicken, so to speak. I have to think that I was just a stubborn kid and they built this phobia from trying to make me clean myself. I don’t remember a time before the sink loomed over all things as my greatest fear. Maybe, though, I had some real reason once for being averse to these basic hygienic practices. I don’t know.
Still, imagine it. Every single day you must actively interact with your greatest fear. You’re breathing in tiny spiders once an hour. In order to eat, you must stand right at the very edge of a cliff. You would probably lose your appetite.
Here’s a quick list of things you do with a sink every single day:
Now imagine you just can’t do any of those things. You can’t. It is not possible. Don’t argue with me about logic—you’re afraid of spiders. Now: no spoon or glass can be trusted. No wet wipes or dishwashers are on hand. They’re all covered with tiny spiders.
I ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches and fruit. My only option was to eat premade foods and things I could make using only the stove or microwave and eat with disposable dishes.
When I was seven my dad gave my mom a dishwasher for Christmas. It was one of the standalone kinds that you have to connect to the faucet with a hose and the finger strength of a rock-climbing god. Probably my mom wasn’t thrilled about this gift. My dad made all of us—me and my sister anxious to play with our Christmas loot—walk in our pajamas one hundred feet in the snow to the garage to see what he got mom. (Our garage, then, was a mess of piles and piles of paintings he bought on eBay and machines he bought from infomercials two years prior during a manic episode and then ignored away into storage where everyone could pretend it didn’t happen.) I don’t remember what I got for Christmas that year. I was too excited about the dishwasher to consider my toys.
Imagine that. Really think about a seven-year-old kid who has been too afraid of dirty flatware to eat. Imagine being afraid to eat.
I decided to show my gratitude by offering to do the dishes. It was a bad plan. I didn’t consider rinsing the dishes or connecting the hose to the faucet. I didn’t consider I’d be touching the things people put their saliva-filled mouths on.
Every time I touched anything that touched a mouth or a sink I’d fall into a Magic School Bus-like trance. Zoom in on the tongue, on slobber, on the evil little germs I imagined would kill me if I came in contact with them. If I managed to get someone’s mouth germs on me I would scrub furiously in a bathtub and I wouldn’t use the afflicted appendage for the rest of day (at least). It was pathetic. People didn’t carry around hand sanitizer until I was an adult, so the world was a germy hellscape and I had no way to wash.
Once, and this is the saddest example I’m willing to share, in fourth grade I had a friend over. She was my best friend. Her name was Hyabel, she was from Kenya, and she was the second person I’d ever deemed worthy of the best friend title. We played with Barbies even though we were clearly way too old for Barbies. She was obvious best friend material. So, I get each of us a can of Country Time lemonade and I even give her the cold one—I’m telling you this was serious. Then, of course, the worst happened. We were being very mature and classy with our highbrow beverages and gossiping about nine-year-old stuff (Backstreet Boys, maybe) and I grabbed the cold can and I drank the cold lemonade. And for a moment the world continued spinning normally. And then I realized. I. Drank. The. Wrong. Lemonade. Suddenly my best friend was my greatest enemy. Her spit cells were In. My. Mouth.
Obviously, I had no choice but to end our friendship. I didn’t even it’s-not-you-it’s-me her. I just shunned her outright. Immediately. My mom drove her home and that was that. The next day at school I wasn’t her partner and I hid out at recess. Why? Because her mouth germs touched me. It was my fault, sure, but she was now and forever would be part of the dark side.
I had some guilt surrounding my abrupt betrayal of Hyabel but the betrayal I had experienced was much, much greater than the guilt I was feeling. I don’t even remember what happened to Hyabel after fourth grade. See, this wasn’t an isolated incident. Any time I came in contact with someone’s saliva—or worse, if they touched me after touching a sink—I could no longer maintain a relationship with that person.
I cannot explain the logic for OCD. There isn’t any. No part of me has ever thought that touching a sink would hurt me but I have experienced many panic attacks as a result of trying to force myself to use immersion therapy. I don’t have any answers, actually. I spent my entire life believing that mouths are the single dirtiest things on Earth, so I made consistent efforts to clean mine. Early efforts were fairly traditional. I did it alone. I used the kitchen sink to wash my hands and brush my teeth until one day my toothbrush touched the faucet. Then, toothbrushes became problematic for me.
Still, I made slow but serious attempts to maintain dental hygiene. It isn’t all better, though. I can wash my hands and brush my teeth, but I hyperventilate while doing it. I can’t touch sinks that are dirty. Evidence of use causes me to get dizzy or sick. Once, in college, I moved in with my best friend not knowing that she brushed her teeth in the shower. I thought I was doing better. My tooth brushing technique was lacking but I was starting to do it regularly and using the bathroom sink. This roommate would sometimes leave floss draped over the faucet in the bathtub and the floor of the shower was sometimes sticky or slick. I devolved into a child version of myself full of panic and afraid to clean myself. I refused to wear shower shoes in my own home. I loved her. I could share drinks with her. I could eat off her fork. I knew, intellectually, that she had committed no crime against cleanliness or against me. But the shower was supposed to be a safe space. With moderate shame I admit to using the following technique to cleanse the bathtub: upon entering the shower from the faucet-free end, I would urinate as I turned on the water. In whatever way, my OCD brain dictated this would make the bathroom safe for me. Did I later pee in the sink? No. Did I try to brush my teeth in the shower? No. What happened as a result of my best friend brushing her teeth in the shower is only what I described above. My tooth brushing progress was halted for a few months and I peed in the shower with purpose for two years.
Today I’m only six years removed from that shower situation. My habits have grown healthier as my life has grown calmer, but still, every day I struggle like I’m doing something great and terrible when I perform regular hygienic practices. I make fun of myself, I force laughter from my derision because I know how ridiculous it is, but I continue to fear some fate worse than death when I touch even my own toothbrush or sink. I avoid using any bathroom that a child uses because I often grow nauseated at the mess and then, in a panic, look for hand sanitizer when I leave. I try not to use hand sanitizer (and other hand-washing alternatives) because they allow me to continue my avoidant behavior. There is no way to solve this problem by avoiding it. This is my ongoing struggle. No one else is forced to gargle spiders or walk tightropes.
Sarah Elgatian is a first generation writer with a lot of questions. She has a wife and a cat and a beautiful family. Sarah likes bright colors, dark coffee, and wicked clowns. She believes in live music, wild animals, and homemade soup. Sarah lives in Iowa where she gets to experience all of these things every day.