Many years ago when I lived with my parents we had a little storage shed in our backyard that my father had converted into a closet for me. I kept my dressy clothes in the outside closet and my everyday slob-wear indoors. Every time I had a concert or special occasion to attend I’d go out into my dressy clothes closet and try on outfits. On my way out, my troubles would begin. I knew I wouldn’t be back in the closet for a few days so I wanted to make sure I didn’t leave the light on but for some reason I could never really be sure I had turned the light off. I would flip the switch, lock the door with the key and then as I started to walk away I’d feel compelled to walk back and make sure I’d turned off the light. I’d unlock the door and flip the light switch again and say out loud, “I’m turning off the light.” Then I’d re-lock the door and walk away, somewhat satisfied that the deed was done.
As time passed, this simple ritual was unable to provide me with the kind of absolute certainty I required. It seemed to me that I couldn’t be sure that I had said “I’m turning off the light” on any given day because maybe I was just remembering having said it on another day so I started to add the day of week to my statement: “It’s Tuesday and I’m turning off the light.” That kept me happy for a while but even this method wasn’t fool proof because after all, there were many Tuesdays. As I walked away, I wondered if I was recalling the statement from a previous Tuesday. The feeling of uncertainty would haunt me and I’d find myself compelled to unlock the door and check the switch three or four times in a row before walking away. Sometimes I’d be fully dressed and ready to leave the house but felt that I couldn’t until I checked the switch one more time.
I decided I could lick the uncertainty once and for all. I had been working as a schoolteacher and I knew that when I taught my students a new song they seemed to remember it better if I incorporated physical movements into the lesson. I decided to add small motions to my rituals to help me differentiate my actions from one day to the next. Now, not only would I say to myself “It’s Tuesday and I’m turning off the light,” I’d tap my head and say: “It’s Tuesday and I’m turning off the light and tapping my head.” The next day I might say: “It’s Wednesday and I’m turning around and turning off the light.” But not even that elaborate series of reminders cured me of my doubt. Eventually the ritual actions had to be doubled or combined in different ways to be distinct from the actions of a previous day until eventually I just couldn’t do it anymore. After a while I just left the door open and refused to turn the light on at all.
My husband laughs at this story. He can picture me doing the hokey-pokey and talking to myself. Many times, he’s had to drive back home to reassure me that I turned off the tea kettle. He’s had to hold my dry, wrinkled hands that look like they belong on a 90 year-old woman instead of a 52 year-old one, courtesy of my compulsive hand washing. I guess it’s a little funny but it’s also a drag.
Lately, I find myself stopping at the corner on my way to work. I look out my car window and check that the garage door is closed. Two or three times a week I drive to the corner, check the garage door from my window, then drive around the block and return to check the garage door before rushing off to work. Sometimes I drive around the block more than once and make myself late to work. Maybe I should just have the door removed!