by Serena De Marchi
Content warning: This story deals with depiction of mental illness.
Abby is a normal person doing normal things in her life. For example, in the morning, before leaving the house and go about her day, there is something she needs to do. A daily ritual that cannot be deferred or postponed. It’s a matter of safety.
She needs to check. She needs to check that everything is in order – the windows are closed, the lights are off, the a/c is off, the fridge door is shut, the tap is not running. She does this twice or thrice – the check. Windows (living room and bathroom): check. Lights (living room, bathroom and corridor): check. A/c: check. Fridge: check. Tap: check. She can now leave.
Why does she do it? Well, she just wants to make sure thieves won’t be climbing up and breaking in through her window. Also, she doesn’t want to come home and find a huge puddle of water in the kitchen because she has left the fridge door open. She wants to avoid problems.
Sometimes she needs to do an extra check. Or two.
But then she finally gets out the door. Closes it. Did she close it? Let’s check. Once, twice, three times. Ok, it’s closed. She goes.
Sometimes there’s a bonus: after putting her keys in the inside pocket of her bag, she needs to check where she has put her keys. Oh, they’re here. Since she has them in her hand, let’s check if the door’s locked.
Her therapist says it’s a mix of control issues and a bit of anxiety that makes her perform this daily ritual. She says it can be framed within the realm of OCDs. She gives Abby exercises to do. She says she needs to write down what she feels when she does the checking. Truth be told, Abby never does this. It makes her feel stupid (the writing not the checking), and she doesn’t want that feeling staring at her from the notes of her iPhone.
Then you should do it 20 times, her therapist says. Do you feel like checking the window? Well, do it 20 times, and see how that makes you feel. She doesn’t do that either, she only needs to check twice or thrice, which is a reasonable amount.
She woke up today, it’s a regular Tuesday, and prepared the water boiler for coffee. She opened the window to let the air in, checked the sills and the frames and the curtains: no sign of bugs. Since she moved here she’s been struggling with some kind of black flies. They’re longer and bigger than the ones she knows and is used to, so she takes a picture of the one she has just killed and sends it to the landlord:
Do I have to be worried? Do they sting? I don’t even know where they come from!
No worries! They’re regular flies that come out during this time of year, they won’t bite you.
The next day the landlord comes over and brings an insect repellent – a spray. Just for your peace of mind, he says. But she is afraid to use it. She carefully reads the instructions – they’re all in Chinese so she needs to double check every word, to be sure she gets everything. She googles the name of the brand. It’s international. She reads something in her own tongue. It’s flammable. It’s poisonous – well for the bugs for sure, but it could hurt humans too (the eyes, the respiratory tract). What happens if she breathes it? What if it penetrates through the fabrics of the curtains, the bedsheets she’s going to sleep on tonight? What if she sprays it on the window frame and then her neighbor comes to his window – which is adjacent to hers – to light a cigarette and then boom?! There are so many things that could go wrong.
She pictures all the possible scenarios in which spraying an insect repellent is not only spraying an insect repellent but a tragedy with multiple possible endings. The smoker neighbor that lights up a cigarette from his balcony after she’s just sprayed the inflammable gas on a near area. Or, the spray can that explodes due to overheating (it is very hot today). The apartment that goes on fire and then the whole building comes down. She knows that Taipei is prone to earthquakes. The apartment shakes and the spray can falls violently to the floor. Another explosion, another fire (her apartment), another tragedy for the whole neighborhood.
It’s nine o’clock in the morning and she’s exhausted. She’s watched her house burn down for at least three different reasons. Her therapist says she has a cognitive distortion known as “catastrophic thinking.” In her world, every little thing she does or doesn’t do will eventually lead to an actual catastrophe. Destruction, death, horror. And guess who will be left to deal with the consequences of all that? Yep, that’s her. She always survives the devastation.
Instead of writing what she feels when she performs her rituals, as her therapist would want her to do, she writes the stories of the people she has killed and the buildings she destroyed with her careless behavior. She controls the destruction by writing it. She uses words to make all the worst possible scenarios come to life. When she comes home, back from work, she’s relieved to find out that none of it has happened.
She needs to go to work now. She wears a mask, and sprays the bug repellent.
Light, a/c, fridge, windows, door lock: check. She gets out.