My dad was dead. My mom was depressed. My sister was a mess. And I was fine.
I mean, sure, I was sad, but sad an appropriate, normal amount. I was handling things. I was the responsible one. I was organized. I did my homework. I cleaned the house. I was the one who kept everything under control. I was totally and completely fine.
And people believed me.
They believed that I was handling things. They praised my behavior, rewarding me with constant approval. They wondered why my little sister couldn’t just act more like me. They bypassed my mother and talked to me. They trusted me with extra responsibilities because I was clearly fine.
And I loved it.
I loved being known as “the responsible one.” I loved putting myself in charge. I loved getting good grades. I loved bossing my little sister around. I loved the reward of approval from outsiders, those outside my tiny family who hadn’t really seen me. Their praising look that said, “Wow, you have gone through so much, but you are handling everything perfectly.”
Of course, it was all an act, just a smokescreen.
The rug had been ripped out from underneath me and my world was quickly spinning out of control. My mother and sister decided to spin with the world, but I foolishly decided that I, alone, could stop the world from spinning. My mother and sister allowed themselves to jump into the black hole, I somehow thought I could escape that massively powerful gravitational field. I thought I was in control.
The obsession with control.
So, my family has always had its harmless quasi-OCD qualities. If we crack one knuckle, we have to crack every knuckle. As kids, my cousins and I had to pick our bread apart and sculpt the dough into tiny spheres before eating it. My sister and I both went through a childhood phase where we would “write” out words on our leg using our pointer finger and “erase” it using our hand. But, these were funny, mild Adrian Monk-ish traits that we all joked about at family parties.
And then there was grief.
Suddenly those funny little traits served as a way for me to control that black hole, to stop my spinning world. Whatever terrible or scary emotion I was feeling could neatly be packed away into a funny little trait.
After my father died, my sister and I were (and still are) terrified of losing our mom and each other. So, instead of dealing with that unpleasant fear, we started saying all kinds of nice things to one another before going to sleep each night, just in case. In fact, it became such a time consuming project that we shortened it to, “All good things you say at night.”
After my father died, I tried to control any and every aspect of my life. If only I get good grades, everything will be okay. If only I clean my room, everything will be okay. If only I clear the clutter from the kitchen table, everything will be okay. If only I clean my sister’s room, she will be okay. If only I clean the whole house, our family will be okay.
Control becomes an obsession.
After my father died, I became convinced that someone was going to try to murder me. Now, my dad died of cancer so I’m not quite sure where the murderer fear came in – maybe it was because we watched Monk the night after he died and to this day my sister and I are still absolutely terrified to watch those same episodes. Whatever the reason, I was completely paranoid. But, I needed to be in control; I couldn’t let outsiders know that I was terrified. So, every night I would patrol the house for murderers (and occasionally the wicked witch from Snow White, because she still kind of scared me). I would check behind all the curtains (twice), peek behind all the doors, double check that all the doors were locked, check my closet and look under my bed (twice). And then, and only then, could I go to sleep.
After my father died, I became nervous around light switches (yes, light switches). You see, I believed that if I touched a light switch and my hand was wet, the next person who touched the light switch would die. In my mind, I would picture a teeny, tiny, microscopic water droplet leaving my hand, transferring into the light socket and waiting, deadly and dormant, to electrocute the next person.
After my father died, I worried that I was going to accidently kill someone (please don’t judge, this one’s the craziest). While this fear was already present (see light switches paragraph above), I became obsessed with this fear after watching Secret Window with Johnny Depp. While at a family friend’s house, the cool, older kids were watching it, so, even though it terrified me, I stayed and watched (I couldn’t let anyone know I wasn’t fine). At the end of the movie, you find out that Johnny Depp’s character is actually insane has been the one killing everyone. For me, the idea of developing a murderous alter-ego without knowing it terrified me. I was scared beyond reason that I would wake up one day and everyone I knew would have been killed.
So how did my mind process and package away this fear? You see, in my mind, I decided that I simply needed a way to wake my real self up when my murderous alter-ego was awake. And I found it: Socks! Yes, those warm, fuzzy things you wear on your feet. Every night, I would pull on my socks and then roll them half way down my foot, so my heel was exposed but my toes were covered. My reasoning was that it was uncomfortable to walk like that, so my real self would wake up if my evil alter-ego self started walking around (again, please don’t judge too harshly – I know it makes no sense).
So how did I pull myself out of this intensifying and spiraling obsession with control? I wish I had a clear-cut answer for you (and for me), but I don’t. I believe part of it was the progression of my grief. I know it’s a cliché, but time does help with grief. Thankfully I also had my mother and sister for leaning on and being leaned on.
Another part of letting go was inviting figures of new hope into my life. Firstly, my puppy; he eased my anxiety, gave me something happy to focus on and gave me the peace of mind at night that no strangers were lurking in the house. Secondly, my step-family; when my mother remarried and my new step-father and step-brothers moved in, I knew I couldn’t go around constantly switching lights on and off, checking behind doors and obsessively checking behind the curtains – I didn’t want them to think I was crazy…
However, the biggest part of letting go was realizing how much my obsession with control was controlling me and my actions. I started to hate always having to check the entire house every night because I just wanted to go to sleep. I was tired of being nervous to flick a light switch. I knew that my sock routine was absolutely bonkers and was tired of having to hide it when my friends and I had sleepovers. My funny little traits to control my fears were taking over my entire life – they had complete control over me and I didn’t like it.
Of course, this kind of relationship with control is never completely over. There are moments in my life where I feel it flaring up again. I still double check the toaster oven and stove before leaving the house. I still tell my loved ones that I love them and to drive safely multiple times before they leave to go anywhere. I occasionally find myself doing a double take when I lock the front door at night. But I forgive myself in those moments; I take a breath and remember to spin whenever my world is spinning because eventually I will find my balance.