FROM QUARANTINE TO A NEW NORMAL
The Atlantic ocean is so much colder than I expected. Wading into the water is a frigid and frustrating process. My body naturally shrinks up and I can feel my core muscles start to tremble. I almost curl into myself, desperate to find any inch of warmth. My skin isn't goosebumps; it is tiny pinpricks, sharp and jarring and covering my body- now vulnerable and naked except for a simple swimsuit. I think back to my time on the shore, warmed by the sunshine and stifled by the heat, but comfortable knowing with (almost) certainty what to expect. Somehow, in spite of the discomfort and the pain- instincts alarming in my brain telling me to back out, to return to the warm safety of the shore- I notice the water around me. The ocean isn't really delicate or beautiful. It's enthralling- the invitation to get lost in the depths is intoxicating. My sun-dried skin protests my squinting, as I try to absorb millions of tiny sparkles from the sunshine that cuts into the water, illuminating it crystal blue. Then finally, I notice you. Your head is bobbing on the water, following the waves, spiral curls dripping and bouncing on your shoulders with each current that you catch. I have my muscles tightened and my jaw clenched, trying to ward off the shivers. You're smiling, playful and radiant- I can hear you giggling even from here. I am astounded by how it is that you're so exuberant in a moment like this.
My sun drenched face turns to a pout- this is not what I expected. I grew up in Texas and am deeply accustomed to the bathwater temperature of the gulf. That is the version of the ocean that I expected today. The journey that I've taken over the past two years- descent into the madness of a severe case of un-diagnosed OCD and the recovery from it- has taught me how my brain craves predictability; how I have some type of neurological preference to rigid thinking patterns that is both incurable and persistent. At the beginning of May, I was fairly apprehensive, taught by the prior two summers to associate the long days and the smell of chlorine with terror and relentless panic. Summer, the season that once served as my very favorite, became scalding and terrifying- a white hot Texas sun illuminating every broken piece of me as I would inevitably slip into the obsessions that came to threaten my life.
I grew up hearing the story about the "Country Mouse Gone to the City". My family and I use it to describe the distinct feeling of un-belonging that occasionally comes up since we left our small, rural hometown. We regularly joke about our colorful, diverse background- one of survival by a single parent with no child support and two generations (myself included) of high school dropouts. I never was much of a country mouse at heart, although the odor of impostor syndrome still lingers on me like the smell of cigarette smoke and the scratchy feel of the dark green carpet in our old trailer house. Even then I would become entrenched in city lights when we would go to Dallas and I always bought into romantic comedies, using a generous and kind version of the city mouse character as inspiration for the person that I hoped to someday fall in love with. I would unleash my childish imagination and dream endlessly about leaving my town and moving somewhere grand- something that was both wildly exciting and risky at the same time.
In January of this year, not long before I moved into my first Boston apartment, I wrote this about my time living with untreated OCD:
"I'd accepted the only thing I knew to be certain, which was that this was the end of everything. Life would never go back to normal. I'd long ago grieved the tragedy of my early death, the end of all the things I'd once hoped for, and grieved the girl who was once known for a resilience and determination, passion and empathy, unmatched. This illness came after my values, and nearly took everything from me."
Later in the year, right on the cusp of June, I wrote this about the previous summer:
"That moment felt like an ending- like every regret and mistake that I'd made over the past year stood there on the side of the road with me, degrading me, shaking and empty as I was. As the blood flowed from my nose and mouth, staining my hands and clothing, out spewed too the rage and disgust that I held for myself and was accompanied by the massive disappointment which was even more scalding than the Texas sunshine."
Time passes so strangely in a quarantined summer. What feels like years is only weeks, and some afternoons seem to drag on, far beyond wearing out their welcome. It becomes so easy to slip into the vignettes of sun streaming through trees and the sounds of piano somewhere in the distance. This summer was the span of a few months painted warm, slipping through my fingers even more lazily than usual as we kept to ourselves. Mid-June brought panic and subsequent courage when I flew to Texas and visited my hometown. July brought family celebrations and a vacation on the Cape filled with friendship and the scent of saltwater in the early morning. Then, somewhere, tucked between lapses and sun-soaked naps on the drive home came a summer evening that would define the rest of my life.
Strolling through South Boston and admiring the brownstones, giggly and flushed by the wine from our dinner on the patio at the restaurant where we first met, I stumbled upon something profound. I sobered quickly to the sound of your voice, shaky and soft and noticed then the fountain, the details of falling water in the background. In that moment that seemed to last forever, the tics and the worries became so blurry and distant. The memories of the previous summers, often haunting my calendar and my thoughts, became so irrelevant there. Instead, my erratic brain fixated on other details: those same spiral curls, strands that inspired books of poetry from me in the beginning; or your hands on mine, trembling and warm. I'm not sure that I remember even now exactly what you said but I knew immediately what you were asking- and I knew immediately my answer.
The ring still sometimes feels heavy on my finger, a sparkling piece of jewelry, the nicest and surely the only diamond that I've ever called mine. The last time that I heard of a diamond was the one that my mother had to pawn to pay for a birthday party when I turned nine. My guess is that my inner country mouse, forever polite and humble, will be adjusting to this new version of life- diamond rings and celebrating with champagne and dinner in the city- for a very long time; but that's not what I'm thinking of as I am lying on the bricks warmed by the sunshine, right next to that fountain. I'm thinking instead of a lifetime together.
Since we decided to keep the engagement private and to announce to the rest of the world only when we were ready, that's usually been in small moments. I think about when I said yes and what exactly I was agreeing to- yes to more afternoons of lying in the sunshine together and watching you iron your dress while you dance to music in the background; yes to soft, quiet mornings where I can write and wait for you to join me; yes to endless days spent on the beach, letting ourselves slip beneath the waves; yes to all of the travel that my anxiety told me was impossible; yes to all of the things that I said that I couldn't do, and did them with you; certainly yes to many more spirited arguments, sighs and dramatic exits and all; yes to a town-home in the city or a country home with a piano on the water, a gallery wall with prints or paintings, a huge family or a small family with cats or dogs and rain or sunshine- yes to whatever may come that we will navigate together.
I've grown quite accustomed to living with doubt; doubt that embedded itself into my values, making me question everything that I once knew. This disorder is something tyrannical and abusive that attached to me far before I met my now fiance, although it often feels like she's been here since the beginning. There are so many lessons in that grief. I learned one which seems to become more relevant each day- that being human is the experience mixing the "dirty and the clean", or the thrilling and the horrifying; I learned that trying to separate them and experience one without the other would keep me frantic and exhausted forever- that I never was and never will be in control of that; that each and every ritual was a lie that I vowed to keep telling myself.
The truth is that there is an unbelievable amount of risk in most things that we do- undoubtedly in marrying someone that I met during a pandemic just five short months ago. I never was known for learning anything the easy way; still, the adversity that will follow us around, living as two married women deeply in love, is overwhelming even for me. In spite of this, there is buried somewhere inside of me a sense of calm, a thread of wisdom, in having discovered this brilliant love. If this incurable illness and recovering from it over and over again has taught me anything, it's that there exists no certainty nor guarantees.
I've spent endless hours searching for a sense of certainty that doesn't exist- that cannot exist in the unpredictable and erratic beauty that characterizes life.
Suddenly, it occurs to me- that just like so many other things in life, the temperature of the water is uncontrollable. You're calling to me again, impatient for me to join you in the deep. Halfway will not suffice for you. You want us to weather the waves together. My choices are quite simple: I either choose to swim or I don't. I either enjoy the thrill of the waves crashing on me, allow the saltwater to blanket me, risk drowning, risk losing myself in the tidal waves of despair, tolerate the incredible discomfort of ignoring the instincts begging me to turn back to the shore, or I stay.
My crossroads are familiar to me- I know for certain that I will continue to be miserable if I avoid the water; I have no idea what will happen if I decide to jump in. Your head disappears beneath the water. You're coming back to me, like I know now that you always will, regardless of what may come. When you finally resurface and you're there in front of me, the same amber eyes shining with excitement, I know the choice that I must make now- that we must make together; certain or not, dangerous or safe, happy or sad, beautiful or horrible, both good and bad and every single thing in between.
When I lift my arms over my head, you're beaming- proud and excited at once. And then I am underwater. I am part of the ocean. I am part of the world again. There is a flicker of a mouse- both of the city and the country scrambling to adjust to the water around me. The cold is unbearable, sending my body into a small shock and I yelp into the water, sending bubbles flying to the surface. Before I have time to process it, I begin the feel the sunshine cutting into the water again, this time inviting warmth in.
In an interview question that I answered at the very beginning of Hard Quirk, during the few weeks right before I met you at that bar, I said:
"There was a point I realized like- Oh, my OCD will not be happy until I am not consuming any food, any water, any time. OCD tried to kill me, and really probably still tries to kill me. I guess I decided that I want to live."
Thinking back on that moment now, I know that I will always remember it- the kind of moment that was created so exquisitely, that no amount of paints or pencils could ever bring it to life. You can consider this my first love letter written to my future wife- undoubtedly one of many. Now there is a current, one that is much stronger than fear, which carries me out into the depths with you next to me.