Friday, January 8, 2010

Our own plague of tics

I have always loved the essay by David Sedaris in which he describes the way that, every year, his elementary school teachers would come to his house to talk to his mother about his tics, and she would say something like, "Oh you mean this?" and imitate his way of twitching and banging his head and licking his desk, and they'd laugh and drink cocktails while he cowered in the hall, mortified to see his mom imitating him so perfectly, when he believed that his behaviors were private, even secret.

I loved his depiction of his mother, so very different from my own, a chronic worrier with her own case of OCD about which I tease her mercilessly. Hers takes a more obsessive than compulsive form. "I had you bloody on the street," she used to say to me when I was little and I came home ten minutes late, meaning that she'd envisioned me hit by a car. She obsesses still about car crashes, especially if I'm visiting her home, or if she knows I'm going to be driving somewhere. "How will you get to the mountains?" she asked recently, upon learning that I was going skiing. "Will someone else drive?" she said hopefully. I found this mildly offensive, as it suggested that my own driving skills leave something to be desired. (Okay, so I did go through five cars over the two years I lived in Japan. It was hard to learn to look right and left at intersections!) Her worry about car crashes extends to my husband now. Upon learning that he'd gotten into graduate school at Berkeley for composition, her first comment (after a rapid congratulations) was, "Will he be riding Bart?" Because I know her too well, I knew that her mind had immediately spun out into scenarios in which he was "bloody on the street" (or behind the wheel) on the Bay Bridge. With her car phobia, she's a big fan of public transportation.

I tease her, but I'm not a stranger to the "sickness," if you will, although I'm pretty sure that everyone is afflicted with some form or manifestation of OCD. I tend to obsess about food. I often wake up at dawn and lie there in bed making grocery lists and planning upcoming meals, figuring out when in my crowded day I'm going to do whatever prepping the meal requires. I don't think it's normal to be planning ordinary dinners at four in the morning, and I'm sure there are more productive or creative ways that I could be spending that time. Last night, my obsessing had a soundtrack. We live on street level, and the street happens to be a busy one. A 24 hour laundromat is right across the street, and the machines go fifty percent off after midnight, which believe it or not means that the place is bustling at 2, 3, 4 am. Well, last night, someone who'd come to do a load had a car that wouldn't start, and every half hour they would get back behind the wheel just to make sure that the engine really wasn't going to turn over. There is perhaps nothing as annoying as the sound of an engine that won't turn over. If that persistence--the engine grinding and churning at regular intervals--isn't the sign of OCD then I don't know what is. I was tempted to call AAA myself.

In the last week, my two and a half year old son has developed a tic. Well, we think it's a tic. We hope it's a tic. (I think we hope it's a tic). He blinks his eyes hard and often, especially when he's tired, especially when he's getting in trouble, as he did this morning after opening the refrigerator (yet again) and ignoring me (yet again) when I told him to ask before attempting to help himself to a gallon of milk. He scrunches up his eyes and his long lashes flutter and it's hard to say whether he's doing it on purpose or involuntarily. After a day or two, I Googled the words "toddler blinking a lot" and proved true Anna Deveare Smith's assertion that there's nothing more dangerous than a thirty-something year old woman with access to the internet. It could be a tumor! It could be Tourette's! Or...OCD! I am not making light of the situation or my concern (okay maybe I am just a little) but of the way that the internet feeds fears with Too Much Unfiltered Information. Still, the worrying had set in. I booked a doctor's appointment, and the first thing that this new pediatrician said, (it was our first visit) was, "So I see that you have a tic in your hands... the way they shake."

It has been a long time since I thought about my shaky hands. I don't remember when they started shaking, or when I first noticed that they shook, but I was in the fourth grade, a new student at a snobby all-girls school, when one of my new classmates said, "What's wrong with you?" in a very judgmental tone. "It" was my own tic, according to my father, a medical student at the time, who assured me that it was involuntary, nothing I could control, and nothing to worry about. I didn't, much, except when kids asked me about it, as they continued to do whenever I went to a new school. Much later, when I was a TA in graduate school, it took a few semesters of course evaluations in which my own students commented, "I'm not sure why she's so nervous!" before I realized that they were mistaking my tic--my shaky hands--for a sign of profound tremble, and I learned to tell classes early on that this wasn't the case. But in truth my hands do shake more when I'm nervous, which I generally am at the start of a new class. Just like my son seems to blink harder when he knows that he's about to get in trouble. "Are you happy?" he asks in a high-pitched voice, after spitting food on the floor. And when I say no, he says, "Can I kiss it make it better?" Two and a half years old and already he's manifesting signs of anxiety, causing his father and me to worry in return. He's only a toddler! He shouldn't have anything to worry about yet! Have I/we passed on our manageable cases of OCD? Or do we live in a culture where everything gets pathologized (see Google), our desire to slap diagnoses on emotions a way of controlling our fear about things (like tics) that can't be controlled?

OCD. I'm pretty sure that everyone obsesses about things. Right? Right?

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