I had spent so much of my life being afraid--afraid of making people angry, afraid for my and my children's safety, afraid of not having money. I was afraid of traveling--by car, by plane, by boat. I was afraid that I'd get sick, or hurt, or die. I was virtually afraid of anything out of my own control.
In the process of trying to gain some semblance of control over my life, I developed obsessive compulsive disorder (this began just a few months after my third child was born). It was slow and harmless at first. As a family, we had taken turns picking up every virus that travelled though Iowa in the fall of 2006. I was tired of laundering sheets filled with vomit and stuffing my newborn with antibiotics, so I became more aware of where illnesses lurked.
Around the same time, there were spikes in the number of food poisoning cases around the country. Salmonella and e. Coli were showing up in peanut butter, spinach, and dairy products. I was beginning to feel sick every time I ate, and I wondered if I had contracted one of these awful intestinal bugs.
As a result, I began being more vigilant about washing my hands and using hand-sanitizer in my classroom at school. I started shying away from potlucks--questioning who had touched the food, where it came from, or how long it had been sitting out. By the time summer of 2007, rolled around, I had dropped 15 good pounds of baby weight just because I stopped eating all the cookies and candies that sat in the staff lunch room. But it wasn't because I didn't enjoy the homemade treats, it was because I was afraid of the germs that might have infiltrated them.
Meat--being the most common source of e. Coli and salmonella--was the next to go from my diet. After months of inspecting every piece of meat to make sure it was completely cooked before I put it in my mouth, I simply crossed it off my list of acceptable foods to eat. No more beef, chicken, pork, eggs, or fish. I didn't have to worry about was was in it if I wasn't going to be eating it. Thus began the rules (the obsession) and the subsequent rituals (compulsions) to ease the anxiety of breaking, or even thinking about breaking the rules.
In addition to a list of foods I would not eat, there were other rules to ensure that my relative state of good health remained constant in addition to making sure that nothing passed into my body that I hadn't deemed acceptable. I required myself to sanitize my hands after handling money, after touching doorknobs, after using the phone, and after shaking hands. I used toilet paper to lock the bathroom stall door, and my pinkie fingers to handle cupboards and drawers. If someone coughed or sneezed while walking down the street, I held my breath as I moved through the space in which he or she had just walked. However, most heart-breaking of all, was the fact that I stopped kissing my children. I held them, but I couldn't kiss them. The anxiety was too much.
Yet, while I focused on holding so many things at bay, my perception of fear began to shift. Though preoccupied with controlling food intake, managing germ exposure, and creating mantras for easing anxiety, I began a journey of finding an individual strength I'd never had before. I faced larger fears by starting a new career as an editor, filing for divorce, and going after a dream I'd long forgotten--music. I let go of expectations for who I was supposed to be and start believing in who I wanted to be.
And as each new song was written and mistakes of the past forgiven, I was able to let go of one of the rules I was punishing myself with. I understood that the only thing I had control over was my Self. I couldn't stop my ex-husband from being angry, no more than I could stop a train at high speed. I couldn't change the mistakes I'd made in the past any more than I could prove what would happen in the future. I finally settled into the realization that the only moment there is, is Now, and that I had a choice to make: I could choose fear or I could choose Trust.
So I chose--and continue to choose--Trust, despite its vulnerable state. And while I can not yet claim complete recovery, I can say that I have returned to eating lettuce from restaurants, sharing pizza with friends, and only washing my hands on appropriate occasions (in the bathroom, before eating, or after taking out the trash). I eat without anxiety: savoring flavors and enjoying a sense of being full. I live each day now with a sense of wonder, instead of confounding dread. And best of all, and as often as I can, I embrace my children and kiss them goodnight.