After another episode of panic, my husband comforts me as we sit on Jack’s Ninja Turtle bed.
“We all have our weaknesses,” he tells me. “I can’t see three feet in front of me without my glasses. If we were in the wild, we’d be dead already. The herd would have left us behind.”
I scowled. “I’d like to think my hypervigilance would be an asset to any herd.”
“Maybe if you’re a meerkat or something,” my husband conceded. “But not if you were, like, a buffalo. It’d be like, ‘Hey guys, what’s going on?’” At this point he earnestly endeavored to act the part of a hypervigilant buffalo, and I’ve gotta hand it to him: he nailed it. I started giggling.
“The herd would hate you,” he continued. “They’d be like, ‘Would some Indian come along and PLEASE use every part of this buffalo?’”
I giggled harder.
“Abby the Manic Buffalo is not a good thing,” he said.
“However,” I pointed out through my giggles, “an excellent title for a children’s book.”
I have an amazingly supportive husband. And funny. And hot. I try not to acknowledge these realities too often, lest his ego assume intolerable proportions.
But I don’t love him.
At least, that’s what the thoughts and pictures and voices say.
When I was a teenager, my obsessive thoughts were usually about my getting sick (almost always from a brain tumor), or about my parents or boyfriend dying (almost always in a sudden car accident). My earliest memory of these thoughts happened around 11 or 12 years old, when my parents were a few miles down the road at the local mall, and I was struck with terror that they’d never come back. Since then, the physical and emotional experience of panic has run its course the same way every time, through well-worn neural pathways.
As I got older, the obsessions became almost exclusively relationship-oriented. Yeah, sometimes I still worry I’m dying from a brain tumor or leukemia or a cinnamon overdose or some undetectable ricin that a bakery terrorist slipped into a package of muffins at Safeway. But for the most part, my brain tells me the worst possible messages about my marriage, the foundation of my adult life.
Sometimes when I’m quiet, the letters rise like balloons: L. I. A. R. You are a liar, a fake, a fraud. Sometimes the words are already there in my mind when I open my eyes: You don’t love him. Most recently, the words were auditory, screaming in my ears when he was talking: I hate you. And once: He could die in this surgery and you wouldn’t even care.
These obsessions aren’t new. I’ve had them in pretty much every romantic relationship. The words You don’t love him appeared behind my eyes first with Gills-and-Fins, and they kicked off a 3-month-long episode of anxiety in which I destroyed my relationship and nearly destroyed myself. I was in perpetual fight-or-flight. Couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t rest. The only thing I could do was work, and try to trust that the pain would end. I’m not saying that I didn’t make the right decision in ending that relationship. But the decision to end it should have come from an entirely different place, not that place where upsetting words and images were driving my behavior. Obsessions—even the most ridiculous ones—seem utterly real to the person experiencing them. For a while, even into my relationship with my husband, I believed that the presence of anxiety signaled some truth breaking through to the surface, some deep desire begging to be heeded. But then the anxiety came back during my engagement to my husband, and I was forced to accept that maybe those obsessive thoughts and messages weren’t truth.
Maybe they were sickness.
Either possibility is terrifying. If the obsessions are true, then I have to conclude that I’m not capable of being in any relationship for more than a few years, not capable of feeling truly connected to another human being. There will always be doubts, barriers. I’ll have to be alone.
If the obsessions aren’t true, then I am really fucking messed up. Maybe this is the week or month or year that the medication stops working, and I’ll break down. I’ll have to be institutionalized.
Either way, the pain might never end.
In actuality, I think, the “truth” more elusive. Of course those obsessions are “true,” just the way mythology is “true.” The obsessions are not literally and factually true, but there’s truth in them. We all have dark thoughts. We all get visited by the imp of the perverse, and feel the natural human desire to think and behave precisely contrary to how we should think and behave. Do I feel angry at my husband sometimes? Sure. Do I sometimes wish I could escape the responsibilities of my domestic life and enter a chamber of blissful solitude? Of course. And we all feel those things. Most people can accept them and shrug them off. I can’t. That’s the way I’m made. And I don’t know why these are my obsessions, why it’s not the hand-washing demons or the postpartum-I’m-gonna-hurt-my-baby demons, which, although they seem irrational to me, are just as torturous for the people who experience them as my obsessions are for me.
I know I love my husband. I know I made the right decision in marrying him, and I know I’m not going to freak out and leave. But in my moments of panic, I’m immersed in a completely different, isolating and terrifying reality. I, the ever-vigilant animal, have been swallowed, and I can’t see anything outside the belly of the beast.