“Mom! Dad’s here!” my son called with panic in his voice. Michael is 11, and he still gets anxious when he goes to his dad’s for the weekend. I grabbed his bag and hugged him tight, planting a kiss on his freckled forehead. “Mom, you’re going to call first thing in the morning but no later than 8:30 right? Then between 3 and 4 for the afternoon call and between 6 and 7 for the goodnight call? And if I don’t answer, it just means we’re out or something, and I’ll call you right back.”
I told him, as always, I wouldn’t forget to call and my alarms were set. My weekend “off” was about to begin, but it never really does.
Michael headed out the door, looking back several times. A few seconds later, he came back to the door. “Mom, my arm touched the bushes over there, and I’m afraid they’re poisonous.” His dad waited impatiently, adding to Michael’s distress.
“They’re not poisonous sweetie. I promise. We’ve lived here for four years, and I’ve touched those bushes a hundred times.” I smiled and ruffled his hair. “Everything’s OK my love.”
But I know it’s not OK, not for Michael. He’ll wash his arm as many times as his father will let him.
This is where my anxiety kicks in. When the door is closed and I hear the car leave, I pray that he’ll relax. Michael has OCD and anxiety. The signs started when he was 3; his preschool called because he was devastated that they threw his sandwich away, and he wanted it back. When he got home, he was so distressed that he wanted me to find it somehow—in a dumpster or landfill. How do you explain to a 3-year-old that it’s not possible?
I understood why he was upset, because it was probably for the same reason when I was his age I would rather have a loose barrette dangle from my hair like a Christmas tree ornament than have someone fix it. My mom put that barrette in, and no matter what, it was staying that way. I had made Michael’s sandwich, and in his mind, it was somehow blessed with magical mother love.
Over the years, Michael’s OCD has waxed and waned. One year, he was terrified of germs and poison. He turned off light switches with his arm. He washed his hands until they were chapped. Later, he was afraid that if he didn’t tell me everything (and I do mean every single thing) that it wasn’t real. He’d talk endlessly, like a stream of consciousness, and I would listen. My heart would ache, and my head would spin. Then I decided I needed help in my battle against Mr. Worry, so I called in the professionals. As much as I reassured Michael, my mother love was not enough. Mr. Worry was bigger than that, and I hated him. I was supposed to be enough.
Michael is wise. He describes Mr. Worry as Pinocchio. That makes sense; Mr. Worry lies. But the problem is Michael can’t see his nose grow. Instead, he gets caught in an ornate spider web, not knowing how he got in or how to get out. Over the years, therapy helped, but since Michael is young, cognitive behavioral therapy was not easy. So I did it for him. I drank expired salad dressing. I licked a park bench (I know, gross). I held bugs that made my legs shake and pretended they were my cute little buddies. But that’s what we do as parents; we hold the terrifying bugs for our children—while praying not to get slimed or stung—just so they can get over their fears.
When my alarm went off, I called Michael. He asked me if I knew where the gravity hammer that goes with his action figure was. Of course I did. Last week, that hammer flew out the car window, and thanks to some miraculous force, I found it a quarter-mile back mixed in with gravel (the hammer is the size of a toothpick and black). Thank you, God, for saving me from a night of “Mom, it’s getting run over by cars! I need a new gravity hammer. We’ll drive cross-country if we have to right? Every store in every town in the country?” eBay Michael, eBay.
I tell Michael that his mind is as complex and ornate as the stars in the sky. That if he weren’t so strong and smart he would never be able to get out of those sticky webs, while at the same time trying to maintain a life. Mr. Worry is a thief. He robs Michael of his carefree childhood moments. Grass becomes toxic, bugs are poisonous, my car is going to explode, and a black hole will consume us. I would give anything to see Michael in a peaceful moment—free of the webs and explosions and catastrophes.
Then again, maybe this is who he needs to be to get to a place in life I can’t yet foresee. His mind is a galaxy of constellations. It’s hard to see through the fog, but on a clear night, they tell a thousand stories. That is my son’s beautiful mind.