Saturday, December 17, 2011

Stare. On. Off. Stare.

My mother was a beautiful cook.
She no longer cooks. She lives in an assisted living facility and has her meals prepared for her now.
But she was a true artist in the kitchen for most of my life.
She loved to try different dishes, and she read cookbooks like other people read novels. She understood how ingredients worked together and mixed them creatively.
During the holidays, she made beautifully decorated cookies, fruit cakes, hermit cakes, coconut cakes and all kinds of pies, all from scratch.
She learned to cook in home economics classes in high school. During at least one of those years, her teacher required her to cook one meal at home each week. Her family, which included nine siblings, looked forward to her night to cook.
Both of my brothers do some cooking, but I, her only daughter, do very little. I have never developed the love for cooking that my mother had, and I never seemed to have a knack for it.
But I think I have avoided cooking mostly for OCD reasons. Cooking can be messy, and making sure I’ve cleaned everything well enough can be very difficult.
Cooking also usually involves the use of a stove, and I don’t like stoves.
In one of my early posts, I wrote about the different ways obsessive-compulsive disorder showed itself in my life.
One group of symptoms that made my list was checking. One of the things I have checked countless times is the stove.
The compulsion has been to check and recheck the stove to make sure I turned it off after cooking.
The underlying anxiety is the fear that if I leave the stove on, a fire will start and burn the house down and my loved ones will die. The fire could spread, and then others would be harmed.
My favorite recipes call for microwave cooking or no cooking at all.
The “checking the stove ritual” used to be a tremendous source of anxiety and fear. I don’t suffer as much from it now, but I still have that anxious feeling when I cook, and I still start my checking ritual almost without thinking.
I am able to cut off the ritual more easily now, but I have to admit I give myself a blanket reassurance by asking my husband to check behind me.
Even though I don’t go into a frenzy over the stove like I used to, I know that my life continues to be affected by this aspect of my OCD. I still don’t cook a lot. I still almost panic when I’m asked to bring a dish to a potluck.
I wonder if I would be a “top cook” (what my father called my mother) if I didn’t have OCD?
Here’s a picture of what my stove-checking ritual looked like at its worst. I had experiences like this one mostly in my late-20s, when I was in graduate school.

It’s 9 p.m. I need to study, but first I need to clean up my supper dishes, which are stacked next to the sink in my small kitchen in my small apartment. I don’t look at the stove yet.
I wash the dishes and wipe the counter first.
To cook my frozen dinner, I used the microwave, not the conventional oven. No cooking on the stove. I seldom used it.
But the stove is still at the end of the counter. I haven’t used it in weeks, but every night I check it. I may have left one or more of the stovetop eyes on the last time I used it. Or in checking it, I might have left it on.
I turn each knob on, then off, trying to be sure that it’s off. There’s no convenient “click” to tell me when the knob is back in the off position, so I have to press the knob back in a counter clock direction and apply just the right pressure so that it doesn’t bounce back into an “on” position. I’ll do each knob one time, I tell God. I promise Him.
The problem with these knobs is that the line over the word off doesn’t measure perfectly against the word off. Or they don’t seem to measure perfectly. I stoop and stare from different directions. I close my left eye and look with my right eye, then switch eyes. In some positions the knobs look okay. In others, they don’t.
Maybe I didn’t do it right. Maybe they’re not all off. I tell God that I just need to do each knob one more time. I ask Him to forgive me for lying to Him, and I promise Him, this is it.
I start from scratch. Twist the knob to the on position, twist it off, feeling for the right pressure, squinting to measure the line against the word. I pray out loud: “I’m sorry, God. I’ve got this awful feeling inside. I need to do this one more time. Please forgive me for lying to you. I know I’m an awful person. I lied to You, God! But I am promising You, this is it.”
I feel a rhythm. It’s not a song, just a beat that’s going on inside of my head. I turn the knobs on and off to the beat. If I get out-of-step with the beat, I have to start over again. On, off, on, off. Feel the burners. Analyze the heat. On, off, on, off. Forgive me God. One more time. On, off, on, off. Analyze the heat. On, off.
I am going to explode. I jump up and down, then slam my hands against the wall and cry. I wish I had the courage to bang my head against the wall and die.
Back to the stove. The rhythm. The prayers. The tears. The waiting. I’m waiting for that feeling inside me that tells me the stove’s okay. I don’t know where the feeling comes from, but I know I need it before I can walk away.
When I finally feel it, I try not to think about it. It’s not a strong feeling of reassurance. But I am so tired. I am so tired. My legs hurt from standing in front of the stove. My hands hurt from the banging and from the careful examination of the burners.
I pull one of my back-up actions. I walk around to the closet where the breaker box is. I turn off the switch that controls the flow of electricity to the stove.
I’m done. I did what I needed to do before I could start studying. But I can no longer focus my eyes enough to read. I fall on top of my bed. The clock says 3:30 a.m.


  1. Wow, I'm sorry this has been such a long term struggle for you. Where you talk about feeling like you are going to explode - that sure captures it. Sometimes I have been surprised at not having a heart attack or stroke. I don't cook either. We survive mostly on take-out. I fear that my food will be underdone and someone will get sick w/food poisoning. Thanks for sharing. This would be great for someone w/out OCD to read and learn about what it's really like.

  2. Thanks for your support!
    I want to give readers an idea of what OCD is really like. Those with OCD can perhaps feel like they are NOT alone. I know I feel better when I realize that others are going through the same types of things.
    And those without OCD may get a better understanding that they could use with friends and family with OCD.
    But all I can do is put it out there . . .

  3. This is a wonderful post. As someone without OCD I have written often about trying to understand what it feels like to have the disorder. You are doing a great service by sharing this heartbreaking description, and surely nonsufferers will read it and at least begin to realize how devastating a disorder OCD can be. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Thank you for your kind encouragement, ocdtalk!

  5. Wow. This really hit home with me. Checking is one of my worst symptoms. When I was a freshman in college, I thought I was having a mental break down because I couldn't sleep for all the checking I needed to do over and over until it felt "right."

    This post really speaks to me.

  6. You know, I also avoided the stove and cooking for so long because of OCD. Cooking has always been rather stressful for me even though I'm WAY better than I used to be. I had stove fears, knife fears, contamination fears. Oh, it was horrible. Like I said, I'm better now but I know how bad it can be.

  7. thanks for sharing your experience. i too, have problems with checking. although my worst symptom deals with driving (ie. checking to make sure i haven't hit someone or caused an accident) i have literally spent hours checking the stove and electrical outlets to prevent fires. happily, the stove and outlet checking is better- i can get by with checking 7 times instead of endlessly... in any case, i appreciate hearing about your experience, as it makes me feel better that i am not alone in what i am dealing with. i am glad to have come across your blog.

  8. Nat, Thank you for your comment, and I'm glad you found my blog too! I'm glad the stove checking is better. I, too, have had driving symptoms. Sometimes I still do, but not as often or nearly as bad as I used to.
    You're not alone! It comforts me to know that others know what I'm talking about because they have experienced it too.


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