“I looked up and saw a horse whose color was pale green. Its rider was named Death, and his companion was the Grave. These two were given authority over one-fourth of the earth, to kill with the sword and famine and disease and wild animals.”
—The Book of Revelation 6:8
It’s 10 p.m. I take my dogs outside for their nightly routine. I call them and they come running out the door into the garage. With Ernie, I simply clip the leash to the metal part of the collar. With Rainy, however, I place both his legs inside of the holes of his purple mesh harness. He has a problem pulling on the leash, and when he does, he makes awful, goose honk choking sounds. Yet he resists getting into the harness, stiffening when he is hooked in. I walk Rainy first and he pulls in different directions, determined to have his way, like if he doesn’t, he’ll explode.
The wind blows and the scent of lilacs fills the air, but I resist breathing deeply. Earlier in the day, the HVAC repairman came to fix the AC unit near the large bush. He’s essential, floating between homes while trying to maintain his distance because he has an infant at home. It’s agreed that in lieu of a check, he will take a digital invoice, driving away to the next homes on his list. Rainy is lured in by his scent, yanking towards the area he occupied for two hours. I have to pick him up and drag him away, holding my breath as I do so until I reach a “safe” spot of the yard.
In late November when the outbreak in Wuhan began circulating the news, I knew it was a bad idea to watch or listen to anything about it. Unfortunately, I’m drawn to doom-scrolling as much as anyone else on the internet.
You’re just staying informed, I rationalized to myself. But I knew that wasn’t the real reason. I watched a nurse from an NYC hospital as she spoke to the media about how they didn’t have enough equipment to handle the mass influx of patients, both living and dead. One scene showed a truck and dumpster bins outside of the building filled with bodies as makeshift morgues. Yet there were just as many stories of people defying lockdown efforts.
Someone on Facebook shared a post about how one town during the Spanish Flu completely ran out of coffins. Why? Because the town’s mayor decided to go ahead and hold a parade in honor of the war effort. The sickness spread throughout the town and nearly wiped out the entire town’s population. The general involved with coordinating the parade was so ashamed of his part in the parade that he died of suicide in his office.
I don’t think that post has to be true to be true to some extent; people’s irresponsible and selfish behaviors have disastrous results. But you hope that they’re just silly tales instead of ones based off of reality.
It is both cruel and ironic that the latest worldwide pandemic is a deadly respiratory virus. I have always hated going to hospitals for any reason: check-ups, visiting family members, any occasion where I had to endure the sounds of beeping machines and the smell of sterilized medical tools was torture. It made it hard to breathe as I kept myself from hyperventilating. A step further, I held my breath as a child when my parents drove past cemeteries, hoping it would improve my chances of not “catching death”. I once rode in the car with my childhood best friend when she pointed at a cemetery through the window.
“We need to hold our breath until we pass it,” she told me. I enthusiastically agreed, relieved that maybe I wasn’t a weirdo. When we were able to breathe again, she said. “That’s the proper way to respect the dead. You know, because they can’t breathe anymore.”
Without the validation that I thought I had, I knew something had to change. I trained myself to resist the urge, promising myself each time that death would never float in the air. I would allow myself tiny breaths in when passing cemeteries. When I was old enough to attend funerals, it became easier to practice my own exposure therapy. I had nearly forgotten about my quirks until scenes of ventilators and crowded hospitals invaded my news feed.
When March arrived, I was with my students as they worked on their research project about an illness they were interested in knowing more about, specifically chronic conditions. Most were working diligently, but were also chatting about the virus, if schools were going to close, etc. My last block freshmen found it hard to concentrate because it was not only a Friday, but rumors of school closures made it almost impossible.
I couldn’t blame them; I spent my planning period nervously pacing my classroom before walking to the library. Libraries and bookstores have always been the one place, regardless of location, that calmed me. I enjoyed a hotdog and chips with other staff, but not before washing my hands twice: once before opening the bag of chips and once after I gently poured some onto a paper plate.
“You think we’ll be out for a while?” someone asked. It could have been any of us since we were all thinking about it. Others chimed in with their guesses: two weeks, a month, the rest of the school year with a return in the fall.
One student coughed without covering his mouth. On a typical day I’d just avoid the area or Lysol the air to make a humorous point. I made eye contact with him and lifted my arm up to demonstrate the “cough-in-the-elbow-for-God’s-sake” method of blocking germs. He nodded and promised, “Next time.”
For some reason, I didn’t bother to erase March 13th, 2020 from the board when they left.
The idea that I could “catch death” came from the spellbook of my mind, the same one that told me to never step on the darker tiles when walking in the mall unless I wanted to die or that if I placed my foot in front of the arrow design on the carpet at home, I would start a house fire. Anything involving disaster or death, I had a method of ensuring it wouldn’t happen.
I once packed all of my stuffed animals in garbage bags and insisted to my parents that they needed to come with us during one of our outings. My age was not yet in the double digits, but I was still old enough to understand that I shouldn’t need to haul three large garbage bags of stuffed animals in the back of the SUV. My parents didn’t press the issue; we needed to get errands done and if the only way to get them done was letting me indulge in my silly behavior, so be it.
I felt relieved, a humble hero. I knew if I didn’t, the house would be in danger of crumbling apart or catching on fire. And everytime we came back home and I saw everything intact, I knew my plan worked.
Though I outgrew my stuffed animal antics, my mind found other ways to torture and terrify me as I got older. My brain enjoyed playing games of Whack-A-Mole with me; one moment I had everything under control, other times there were infinite mind-gophers.
My first panic attack happened at age 11 while experiencing my first week of seventh grade. I was suddenly gasping for breath for an unknown reason. I no longer needed a reason for my anxiety to exist; it came and went as it pleased. I diverted my attention from rituals and compulsions for a time to learning how to stabilize myself during a panic attack.
While faith got me through the early stages of my anxiety disorder, I can say one of the absolute worst things for me to learn as a preteen was the Rapture. The majority of the time, I felt at peace in church and the people who attended Bible study with me. But learning about the Rapture awakened a new set of compulsions and obsessions all to do with what I thought Jesus would want.
If I saw a cross necklace on my vanity upside down, it was fixed immediately. I would then say a quick prayer asking for forgiveness. Sometimes I would have to breathe in a certain pattern to dispose of the “Satan-germs” I could have absorbed while looking at something unholy. If I played a track on a CD with the number six more than twice in a row, I had to skip through the tracks until I broke the string of sixes.
I would sometimes see classmates in the hallway with a T-shirt sporting Bad Religion’s band logo, a cross marked out behind a red X. I prayed for them immediately. If I saw them in advance, I would hold my breath until I passed them. When I began driving, I never exited the garage without first saying a prayer for safety. If I didn’t, maybe God would change his mind if I died in a car crash and send me to Hell for not being thankful enough.
I knew it had to be strange, but when you are a regular at an evangelical church in the South, it’s just known as being devout. So I continued to hide my rituals in the name of God.
In my 20s I was finally diagnosed with Tourette’s, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary movements and sounds. I did not know officially until I was 22, the same age I found my old neurology records and saw “OCD traits” scribbled under my then-diagnosis of chronic motor tic disorder and anxiety. Suspected, but not confirmed.
Even so, my rituals and other bizarre behavior never came up at my neurology appointments. Why would I mention anything else that would make me even more “abnormal” than other kids? It was already bad enough that I blinked way too much for a 4th grader and stretched my neck in strange directions. My doctor wasn’t necessarily the best with bedside manner, often talking about me like a subject of a science experiment.
“I observed her in the waiting room exhibiting tics, an exacerbation of her anxiety…” he would say matter-of-factly. This would be the point where I would tune him out. After all, if he had no interest in involving me, I had no interest in investing precious time telling him more of my quirks to dissect and correct. He never knew my need to repeat songs with certain track numbers an even amount of times to “balance” it out. No one did.
And that’s how I wanted it.
My therapist concluded that my OCD, even if no one else knew about my behaviors, made sense, all things considered. My body made the rules for me, so to have control over something was the bit of power I lacked.
She also suggested that I should write a “Letter to Death” confronting every little thing that scared and tortured me. I often avoided hard topics because writing them or speaking them meant acknowledging them as reality. My mind sometimes convinced myself that expressing my fears will breathe life into them.
I began and ended at the first few instances I understood how fragile life could be, that humans were not meant to live forever outside of a spiritual context. At age four, my great-grandfather had passed away. Around the same time, my family was at the local mall on a night where a bloody fight ensued between a police officer and a suspected robber. I saw the crime scene taped of, copious amounts of blood splattered like a preschooler’s sponge art. To top it off, there were two incidents of my family leaving a store right before a fire broke out. Many people noted it as luck, but I only saw it as an omen.
I thought about finally finishing it during the beginning of the pandemic. After all, I would have to cope with it somehow, but even my distractions weren’t a distraction. Early on in my pandemic journal entries, I wrote about the exasperation of being reminded of the virus no matter what I did:
Took a walk outside. I’m getting skinnier from forgetting to eat. Played The Outer Worlds. The ironic thing about The Outer Worlds is I thought it would be a big distraction from what’s going on. It’s supposed to be a RPG about outer space exploration. But already, it’s been talking about the horrors of “plagues”, the unemployed, not enough medicine for the sick, terrible working conditions, and most of all, “Spacer’s Corona”. Sigh.
In the next paragraphs, I danced around the subject of the letter I was supposed to write three years prior. I wondered if I should write a will in case I got it and things didn’t work out in my favor. That’s the ultimate Death Letter, the one where you acknowledge that someone has to handle your stuff after you’re gone and it is no longer your stuff. The worst part was this time, it wasn’t an overreaction; nurses, teachers, and others deemed as essential workers had to face this reality. Without knowing whether or not I would be required to go back into the building in the fall, I contemplated going through the process. At 24, it was not as likely to kill me, but could still give me disastrous post-COVID symptoms. Or worse, small actions really could influence whether someone around me lived or died.
I remembered how much I connected with Stephen King’s IT the first time I read it. I worked as a marketing intern for a real estate liquidation company specializing in hoarding cases. When I read the intro manual, it noted that many people with hoarding disorder also have OCD. It’s all about feeling a sense of control. Those with anxiety and OCD tend to crave a sense of control over the average person. I listened to the audiobook version as I worked, connected deeply with the kids and their adult counterparts having to face the personification of their fears not once, but twice. Like them, my own worst fears were brought to life, and in order to defeat it, I had to fully embrace the lingering childhood fears to get through the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic nightmare.
Until further notice, the world from the inside of my home would be my involuntary exposure therapy, my personal Pennywise.
At the beginning of lockdown, I turned to some of the same coping mechanisms I had in middle school: painting and drawing. I have always loved art in all of its forms, but dedicated most of my time to writing. When writing became strictly for venting fears and documenting history, I needed something devoid of paranoia to work on instead.
I tried drawing animals like I did as a girl: bunnies, dogs, and horses, some of my favorite animals. But the horse reminded me of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Pale Horse brought starvation, war, and plagues. I felt the need to resist it, but determined that there was no use in avoiding it. I instead painted it a pale green color. It did not throw me into a loop of ritualistic behavior; quite the contrary, it helped me have a sense of control over our current “plague”. I decided to draw it and what it should represent. Nothing else decided for me. I did not have the power to bring a plague into the world or control how it happened. Having control over the pen was healthier than trying to control the universe.
The real challenge was resisting the urge to read the COVID gospels some faith leaders posted about how this was most certainly the End Times or if God was the one who created COVID-19. When looking up references for my art, it was inevitable to come across them. Instead, I focused on the Pale Horse and drew reins across its feral head.
Social media, the grocery store, anywhere humans speak, tweet, post, boast, someone makes that all-too-familiar quip again: “I guess we all know what it’s like to have OCD now!”
I try not to snort or do that agitated pff that would spread “respiratory droplets”. Learning how to wash your hands isn’t OCD, I want to say. But I don’t feel like giving my life story to strangers, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual.
Practicing good hygiene is, or at least should be, normal. Yet somehow, people tend to lump those with OCD as an ultra-clean monolith. Sure, prior to the pandemic, getting sick was something I always aimed to avoid, but I never wiped surfaces several times a day or cowered at the sound of a person sneezing in a room. I don’t lose sleep over my pens not being in ROYGBIV order; as a matter of fact, my workspace is often a disorganized cacophony of junk.
But I empathize with those who do. People like us know of an alternate reality that is both real and unreal at once. We have already prepared for the current and next worst case scenario...in both life and death.
It’s another 10pm and Rainy is predictably picky. He runs circles around me, trying to find the perfect place to do his business. I sigh, wanting to tell him that there is no such thing as the perfect place to poop, but if he could speak, he would probably tell me there is no perfect place to breathe, either. So I let him sniff out the safest place, performing his own nightly ritual.
About the Author
Gretchen Gales is the executive editor of Quail Bell Magazine, the co-editor of Her Plumage: An Anthology of Women’s Writings, a freelance writer, and educator. Her work has appeared in Next Avenue, Ms., Huffington Post, Bustle, Plainsongs, Nebo, Sheila-Na-Gig, Headlight Review, and others. See more of Gretchen’s writing at www.writinggales.com.