Once is never enough.
The rituals take shape in the rooms where we live out our unguarded hours, a mixture of yearning and dread. They were devised to save us, or so we believe.
I was eight when I first sensed the unease, a nebulous contagion that tinged the edges of my perception. The dim haze beneath the lone streetlight at the end of our driveway, a phantasm I translated into smoke, a harbinger of fire, led me to burst into my grandparents’ room, pleading for the kind of assurance that only adults could give. That our house was fireproof. That we were secure in our lives. That the impending catastrophe was merely a figment, an artifact of my overactive imagination.
But adults grow weary, their patience wanes, and my grandparents forbade me, ultimately, from breaking into their sanctuary. I was left with a void, the gaping absence of certainty. Rituals sprang from that void, intricate dances of in and out of bed until some arcane equilibrium settled within me. I had bartered with God, or so I imagined: perform the rites correctly, and there would be no fire, no loss, no moment when my life would rupture irreparably. I would not have to worry. I would not have to leave my grandparents. I had something of a knack for worry; it fit me like a second skin. The very marrow of my child’s soul thrived on anxiety. I looked out of my bedroom window before setting off for school each morning, ransacking my mind: What could I worry about today? It didn’t matter what it was — a reprimand from a teacher, a rebuke from my grandmother — as long as it stirred the pot of fear. My comfort lay paradoxically in a state of worry.
For years, this was my compass. While other children discovered life’s subtle joys and heartbreaks, I was the girl by the window with ritualized distress. There were periods, shadows, when my spirit seemed to dull, and its colors faded, but it took years for me to recognize these shades of gray as depression.
I was much older when I found the name for my rituals — Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, a psychiatric diagnosis rendered in sterile clinical terms. Suddenly, my secret rites had a taxonomy and were subject to therapy and medication, as if cataloging them could leach away their power. But the patterns are resilient; they mutate and find new avenues, even as we gain the vocabulary to discuss them. The rituals had been both my curse and my sanctuary. They were the complex calculations I had devised to navigate a world that always seemed just one false step away from disaster.
And so we remain, each of us wrapped in our illusions and compulsions, an intricate pattern of neuroses. We find comfort in repetition, in the cyclical acts that assure us we have some semblance of control. Even if it is all just a mirage, we keep on for fear of what might happen if we stop.