The first breath of summer came with the chirp of crickets and inch-thick humidity dancing off the roads. Getting a decent breath was damn near impossible. The sun pricked my exposed skin, stinging my arms. My foot tapped against burning concrete. My grandmother was on her way, covering for my at-work mother. As each humid moment passed, I grew more and more impatient. Sweat dripped slick down my shoulders, rolling down the small of my back. She was late.
Several minutes passed before her blue minivan rolled up to the front of my high school. She had beads of sweat dripping down her weathered skin. Her crow-footed eyes crinkled as she offered a thin smile. I sat beside her. She opened her mouth, perhaps to speak, perhaps to simply exhale, but was muted by the incessant, too-loud ringing of her cellphone. A wide smile spread across her face. Her eyelashes kissed the apples of her cheeks. She turned her phone screen to me. Sean. My brother. Freshly fourteen and experiencing all the lovely hells that go along with it.
She answered the phone, holding it to her ear. “Hey buddy, we’ll be home in a few minutes. Everything okay?”
His answer was muffled, not much more than low notes and static. My grandmother’s face tightened; her widened smile stiffened into a murky grimace. Her teeth crumbled to dust as she let out a wheezed sigh. “Call your mother. I’ll be there in five. Stay outside until I get home.”
She put her phone down, pressing the gas pedal to the floor. The ride home was quiet. My questions were met with a stiff look. I wired my mouth shut.
Pulling into the driveway, the house looked the same as I’d left it that morning. Tan siding, red shutters, a grated front door with chipping paint. It stood humble as it always had. My brother slumped against the cement stairs, peeling petals off my mother’s barely budding chrysanthemums. He didn’t register us pulling up, continuing to pick at anything he could get his hands on. Mom’s chrysanthemums, the paint from the door, the barely healed wound on his knuckles. My grandmother cut through the lawn to him, tapping his shoulder.
“How bad is it?” She said through a series of huffs, a tremor hiding in her lips.
“Really bad, Gram. They’re everywhere.” He returned to the mostly nude flowers and continued to strip them of their petals.
Middle school, as I’ve come to learn, does not treat most people very well. Something about the perfect combination of fresh hormones and pre-teen angst brewed a sweet, stubborn torture. I skated through middle school mostly unscathed, leaving with minimal bullying and a blossoming mental illness. Unaware of it at the time, I attributed it to quirks. Weird habits. A fear of bugs and a few odd routines.
My mother would visit me at night, speak in quiet words about her shitty boss and how she missed “the good old days” without any clear idea what they were. It was later than usual, circling midnight. She sat on the edge of my bed, the fabric of my comforter wrinkling around her. “Kelsey,” she spoke. “You need to get over this whole stink bug thing. They won’t hurt you. They can’t. It’s irrational.”
What words did I have then to explain that I knew it was irrational? That words did nothing to stop my heart from strangling me if I so much as had them pass through my mind? That all the tapping, the flicking the lights on and off, the paranoid checking (checking checking checking one more time) was the only thing keeping me from teetering over the edge?
The words I had were these: “I’m sorry.”
Her lips tightened around her teeth, almost understanding. She nodded. “It’s okay. You just need to work on it.”
My head was heavy, full of sleep and clenched teeth and untapped anxieties. I let it sag, dropping against my chest. I picked at the raw skin around my nails, watching them bleed and picking them more. I offered, “I’ll work on it.”
A fleshy lie. My skin pricked violent with goose bumps, dancing along the edge of my skin. I watched my mother glide out of my bedroom and turn the lights off behind her with a gentle, “Goodnight. I love you.”
My eyelashes pressed against each other, interlocking as my eyelids glued to my corneas. My brain, lacking sight, offered a series of horrors within my squeezed eyes. Thin, stick legs. Clung to fabric. Latched feet. Firm. A solid, hardened body. Hue of brown. Green. Prick of orange. Long antennae. I ripped my eyes open, staring hard at the darkness. My heart thumped in and out of my chest, bouncing through my legs and arms and throat. My nails scratched at the almost healed scab lingering on the back of my hand, peeled the clot back, and I relished in the brief distraction.
I tried to catch Sean’s eye, grasp some of the situation from what little conversation had taken place. He didn’t look at me. He was rattled. Sean had this habit of curling into himself when he was nervous. Imperceptible most of the time, but he didn’t make much effort to hide his disdain for whatever had happened in our house.
My breath was stuck halfway between my chest and my throat. I was spinning. My half-rotted brain offered a million horrible solutions to my lack of answers. (Burglars. A fire. Injury. Were the dogs okay? God, if Sandy got hurt… But wouldn’t my grandmother just tell me?)
I cycled through the same thoughts again and again, making my way to the side of my house. My feet fell heavily against the cement, willing me away from the long-broken screen door. Curiosity, all consuming, got the best of me. A whirring sound bled out from inside the house, soft and almost unrecognizable. My body stiffened, hardened. A realization washed over me.
Dinner was popcorn chicken and Kraft mac n’ cheese—my mother’s go-to. She sat weary-eyed on the couch, tiredly moving her mac n’ cheese around on her plate. When she came home, she bemoaned her work and her boss and her life. “I wanted to be a teacher. Back in Arizona, I worked with kids. I should’ve stuck with it.”
She went back to watching the television. Some old re-run of a sitcom or a cheesy feel-good movie or another Property Brothers binge. I can’t quite remember. A bored teenager, a portraiture of pubescent angst, I finished my food early and decided to find salvation in the tomb of my bed. I stared up my staircase. My fingers connected with the end of the railing, lingering on the chipping, white paint. Inhale. Exhale. Tap tap. I took my first step. Left foot. Don’t start on the right. Get it perfect. Each step was met with its associated number. Thirteen steps from top to bottom. I planted my feet at the top of the staircase, tapping twice at the top of the railing. Two steps were met with two more taps and then once more. The walk from the edge of my railing to my door frame was eight steps. Spaced out and timed perfectly. Not a step more or less. The walk to the door culminated in a final light switch routine. Olympic level precision was the only thing that could keep me safe (I’m not safe).
My fingers fumbled to the light switch. I flicked it on, expecting the room to fill with light. There was nothing. Darkness. No light. The light switch didn’t work. Or the bulb was dead. Or it was a sign. Something bad was going to happen. My nails clawed against my throat; tears pricked my eyes. My eyes, bright and blurred, glued to my bleeding cuticles. Pick. Pick. (You did this. This is your fault.)
More than anything, I wanted to run back to my mother. Tell her what was wrong and have everything fix itself. But would she understand? Would she write me off yet another time? (What kind of daughter are you? Wanting your mother to enter your room instead of you? Make her sacrifice herself for your sake? You should be ashamed of yourself.) My eyes squeezed shut. Tears rolled across my screwed face, falling to my legs. The tears bled through worn jeans, burning a hole in my thigh. I held myself, wrapped my shaking arms around my shaking body and hoped it would be enough to hold it all in. I found my way to the old, red rocking chair at the other end of the hall. Counting, tapping, retreating into the worn cushions.
When my grandmother held the side door open, a series of small bugs, barely visible, escaped from within. Run. Now. You can’t handle one stink bug, what makes you think you could handle this? My fingers curled, wrapped around the pads of my hand, and dug into my skin. There would be marks there for weeks, I was sure of it. I didn’t care. I was a mile above the ground, and I couldn’t breathe. The air was thin. My lungs, half full of air, were gasping. They were tight, wringing my ribcage around them and hanging themselves from my sternum. I swallowed. A thick lump made its way through my mouth, down my throat, and fell heavily to the bottom of my stomach. I made my way closer to the door. My feet dragged themselves up unwashed cement. One, two, three. Tap tap.
The entryway of my home was peppered with black. Small, some moving, some dead. Some halfway there. I dodged them, tiptoed between pulsing swarms, and stared into my once clean living room.
The coffee table was left in disarray; small bugs danced on half-finished, now abandoned algebra homework. A pencil laid discarded across the table. My brother’s backpack, brand new at the start of the year, was bug-laden. They clung to the fabric, to the zippers, to the Harry Potter keychain hanging off the side. More than anything, I wanted that backpack to be clean. My brother’s backpack. His new backpack. Was this my fault?
My brain circled, trying to bring myself back to that morning. Had I done everything right? Did I forget the first tap? The second? Had I stepped off on the wrong foot? (This is your fault. You must’ve done something. You did this.)
A voice came from behind me, my grandmother, a muttered curse. “Damn termites.”
A word to the horror I had come to. “I’m… I’m gonna check how bad it is upstairs. Real quick.”
My grandmother offered a distracted nod, a quick dismissal. Her jaw hung open momentarily, shutting. Opening. Shutting once more. The look in her eye offered my only moment of solace. My grandmother was just as horrified as I was.
The cicadas buzzed through the summer night. They filled the air, echoing between one car and the next. My dad needed something from CVS that night. A Mountain Dew, a pack of Nicorette gum, medication for his poorly handled diabetes. Entering the car, my mother dropped the bag of purchased goods at my feet, putting the car into reverse. Through clenched teeth and mile high anxiety, I said, “Mom, can I talk to you about something?”
She nodded, pulling out of the parking spot.
Inhale. Exhale. “I think I need to go to therapy.”
She stopped the car suddenly. Her fingers tightened around the steering wheel. She swallowed a breath and turned to me. “You don’t.”
I had expected resistance. My mother, despite all she has done for me, was always wary about mental health. “I think I do. All the tapping and the lights and stuff… I just, I think I need to go to someone about that, y’know? It’s an issue. I can’t not do it and I want to stop.”
She shook her head. “Kelsey, you’re fine. You don’t need to go to a therapist because you have a couple of quirks.”
“But I don’t think it’s that. I think I could have OCD? Or anxiety? I just… Something’s not right.”
She laughed, mostly in spite of herself. “Everyone’s a little OCD. You’re just being dramatic.”
“But I really—”
“We’re done talking about this.”
“No, but I—”
She turned to me, something strange and unfamiliar brewing in her eyes. “Kelsey. I said we’re done talking about this. Drop it.”
And then silence.
What could I say?
What had I really expected from her?
I rounded the corner, finding the entryway to the staircase leading to my room. Dead termites collected in the shag blue carpet my dad installed when I was a kid. They hung to the walls, collecting around picture frames. My ninth grade honor roll award. The sheet music from a solo I’d performed at my church when I was eleven. The large painting of Pink Floyd that my dad got when he was still in college. They covered everything. My things. It was dirty. My blood stung hot against my shivering skin. Every cell in my body told me to run as fast as I could in the other direction.
I held in a lurch, a creeping mass leaving my stomach and finding home behind my teeth and on my tongue. I swallowed the vomit, careful not to let anything escape. I need to fix this. This is my fault.
I tapped at the foot of the railing, twice. I closed my eyes. Inhale. Exhale. Step off on your left foot. Don’t make it worse. I counted each step carefully, one through thirteen, each step perfectly placed between termites and debris.
The thirteenth step led to my worst realization yet.
The first time I heard the words obsessive compulsive disorder paired with my name was in my third therapy session as a college freshman. I don’t know what I expected. That I was more elusive than that? Harder to read? That I’d somehow made it up and that a therapist would clock that in a second? That I was crazy?
The therapist smiled at me, equal parts happy to have found a solution and disheartened that she had to be the one to tell me it. With a careful, rolling voice, she murmured, “Can I read something for you, Kelsey?”
I nodded, watching her pull a book from her bookshelf. The spine of the cover hit the light momentarily. DSM-5. I knew what was next. I knew just enough about psychology to know that she had something in store. The therapist began to read.
Presence of obsessions, compulsions, or both:
Obsessions are defined by (1) and (2):
1. Recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or
impulses that are experienced, at some time during
the disturbance, as intrusive and unwanted, and that
in most individuals cause marked anxiety or distress.
2.The individual attempts to ignore or suppress such
thoughts, urges, or images, or to neutralize them with
some other thought or action (i.e., by performing a
Compulsions are defined by (1) and (2):
1. Repetitive behaviors (e.g., hand washing, ordering,
checking) or mental acts (e.g., praying, counting, repeating
words silently) that the individual feels driven to perform in
response to an obsession or according to rules that must be
2.The behaviors or mental acts are aimed at preventing or
reducing anxiety or distress, or preventing some dreaded
event or situation; however, these behaviors or mental acts
are not connected in a realistic way with what they are designed
to neutralize or prevent, or are clearly excessive.
She looked up from her book with a furrowed brow. “Does any of this sound familiar? Ring a bell?”
My throat filled with battery acid. Every word I had disintegrated within me and I simply nodded. I knew what came next.
She closed her book, showing me the front cover with an almost prideful gaze. “That was the DSM-5 definition of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I really think we should try to get you in touch with the psychiatrist. You’ve been struggling with this a long time. It could really do you some good.”
My eyes sunk to my twiddling thumbs, watching them battle back and forth. Years of debate with my mother led to this. This was what I wanted, wasn’t it? A diagnosis. The language with which to describe what I’d been putting myself through for years. Yet, it felt wrong. Bad. I felt as though I’d failed in some indescribable way. Wasn’t I good enough to do this on my own? Without a diagnosis? A prescription?
The therapist watched me with a questioning look. “What are you thinking?”
My head shook. My hair stung against the back of my neck, too abrasive. Everything hurt and nothing hurt, and I couldn’t find the language to describe the thoughts speeding past me.
The therapist redirected, found something else to cling onto, and offered that as a distraction to what she’d said. I nodded, swallowed what she said, and let it sit at the base of my stomach.
In front of me, black swirled along the formerly visible hardwood floor. A half-inch thick mass bubbled in front of me. A twisted dance, the vagrant shimmy of half-life. I couldn’t get to my bedroom. There were no clear spaces to tiptoe through. Just black and movement and buzzing. God, the way that buzzing rang through my ears. I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping that enough pressure would will the termites away. For the first time in years, I prayed. My hands clasped each other, tears living behind my eyes. A half-assed plea fell through my lips to a god I only half-believed in. (Idiot. This is your fault. God can’t help you.)
My brain whirred through a slew of angry thoughts.
(This is your fault. You did this.)
I tried to rationalize the anger within me. How could this be my fault? What could I have done to prevent this?
And yet, the thoughts persisted. They dug into my scalp, my chest, laid roots within my throat, and strangled me. I wanted to gasp for air. My mouth was glued shut, lest termites crawl inside of me through the open cavern of my mouth. I should’ve done something. I did something wrong. What was it? Did I not tap the railing enough? Was my timing for the light switch off? This is my fault. How could I have just let this happen?
Diagnosis and medication didn’t come until my sophomore year of college. The psychiatrist said it with kind words and a handful of papers. His papers asked a series of questions. Do you hear voices? No. Do you exhibit paranoia? Kind of. How frequently do you experience anxiety? Everyday.
He offered the same conclusion as the therapist. But it didn’t hurt this time. It felt almost warm, familiar. Somehow the conclusion made all the more sense. He brought up medication with a soft look. “I would recommend a starting dose of Sertraline. Mood stabilizers. It won’t make it go away, you’ll still have to work on that, but it will make life easier.”
I nodded, already typing Sertraline into my search bar. Something consumed me finally, a moment of brief decisiveness. “I’d like to try that. What can it hurt?”
He smiled and I smiled back.
My feet found a small separation in the black mass, creeping above them. (tapTap.)
I turned the corner of the railing. (tapTap.)
I found myself facing the door straight. (tapTap.)
I pushed my left foot forward. One. The next foot followed. Two. Six more steps followed in suit. Left, three. Right, four. Left, five. Right, six. Left, seven. Right, eight. Plant your feet. I stood at my bedroom door, finding my bedroom untouched by the horror behind me. I turned the lights on. Off. On. Off. On. Off. On. Off. On. I inhaled, a feeling of relief washing over me. It will be over soon. I turned on my heel, and followed the same process back down the stairs. Stepping, tapping, tiptoeing, left and right and careful, make this better.
Lumped bile caught in my throat. Could I make this better? A younger me would’ve been horrified to know what I had done. What had I done? What could I do? This wasn’t my fault. There was enough insight living between one intrusive thought and the next to understand that I couldn’t have done this all myself. (But you did.)
And what of the rest of my life? The tapping and the paranoia and the counting and… Was this forever?
My grandmother leaned against the door frame, watching me inquisitively.
“Did they get to your room?” She stood at the base of my stairs, her right brow lifted to her forehead.
“No, they didn’t get much further than the hallway.” I admitted, shuddering at the thought of them.
“That’s good, that’s good. I called the exterminator, they said they’ll come by later tonight. Everything will be dealt with before you go to bed.”
I heaved a sigh. Finally. (tapTap.)