HANDWASHING AND OTHER HABITS
April 28th, 2020
Words by Pamela Guerra · Illustration by Anna White
I was free to exist in our safe haven of shoegaze and synth pop
“Pam, you gotta hear this.”
I glanced up from my laptop in time to see a giant pair of headphones skidding across the lacquered wooden library table towards me. Norris flashed a smile, dimples burrowing deep in his cheeks, a sure sign he had something exciting queued up on his iTunes. My hands felt cartoonishly small as I struggled to position the oversized headphone cushions over my ears. Catching a glimpse of my reflection on my computer screen, I noticed that they made me look like a bionic teddy bear, or perhaps a DJ spinning at a college basement party, which was actually something Norris did on the weekends.
I cupped my hands around the headphones and felt my pulse match the dense, thundering beat of the track. For the next three minutes and forty-two seconds, I was hypnotized by a smoldering voice, forgetting—at least temporarily—that I was an anxious, obsessive, broke college student who was slowly losing her grip on reality and had a seven-page term paper due in twelve hours. The track ended, and my eyelids flew open to discover Norris staring intently at me. He flipped his laptop around. The song was called ”Wildest Moments” by Jessie Ware.
“Really good,” I whispered. “Really, really good.”
Norris had first caught my attention in a Shakespeare seminar because he resembled someone I’d had a brief fling with while studying abroad in England. As a senior, I was surprised to see a new face in an upper-level course, especially considering the small size of my university’s English department. Six-feet tall with dirty blonde hair and a soft Southern accent, he often brought up esoteric literary references during class discussions. I was intrigued.
We were both dating people at the time, in that rigidly devoted way college couples often do. Soon enough, my interest in “that witty guy from class who looks like Trey from Oxford” blossomed into genuine excitement at the chance to make a new friend. I’m not exactly sure how it happened—perhaps a combination of forced group projects and intersecting social circles—but at some point, Norris and I started hanging out.
My new friend quoted Yeats at breakfast over plates of bacon and toast, and blasted Best Coast from his dorm room as he compiled surf punk playlists for me to listen to. A haphazard stack of books seemed to materialize in any room he occupied, piled high with novels by Hemingway, short stories by O’Connor, and poetry collections by Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin, all creased heavily along the spines. On weekends, he snuck tracks from Chief Keef mixtapes into his DJ sets at fraternity parties for unappreciative crowds who only wanted drunk sing-a-longs to “Wagon Wheel.” On weeknights, while feverishly highlighting articles for class the next day, Norris told me stories about his gap year after high school: how he had headed off to Europe alone with hardly any money, sleeping in sheep fields, biking hundreds of miles across the Orkney Islands while subsisting on a diet of sour Skittles, and missing his seven siblings back home in the South.
Through these stories, I learned about Alice, a Danish girl Norris met while traveling, who he later realized was a hallucination. Norris was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the age of eighteen, along with a few other conditions. He never tried to hide his mental health issues though, and openly brought up the topic in conversation. I was impressed by the way he seemed to take ownership of his diagnoses, casually talking about his episodes as if they were just pesky neighbors who showed up uninvited to a backyard barbecue he was hosting.
As a teen, I’d had an inkling that my own mental health wasn’t exactly stable either. Spontaneous mood swings, obsessive handwashing, counting and recounting the contents of my purse—one wallet, one-two ballpoint pens, one-two-three-four sticks of gum—the whispered staccato rhythm of the numbers soothing me as I tried to convince myself that nothing had fallen out. Surely most folks went about their daily lives without these compulsions. It wasn’t until I turned twenty-one that these behaviors morphed into full-blown problems, the albatross around my neck, if you will. My knuckles became scarred and scabbed from the handwashing. I was continuously late to class because I couldn’t convince myself that I had locked my dorm room. Panic attacks became a regular occurence, almost costing me my job at the college cafe when I disappeared for half of a shift because I couldn’t stop hyperventilating.
Growing up in a post-industrial town in the Bible Belt, I got the impression that therapy was for wealthy white people, or a last resort for folks dealing with “real problems” like addiction or PTSD. It wasn’t for nervous girls from stable immigrant households who had a few odd quirks and cried a lot. I read "The Bell Jar" as a ninth-grader but could never see myself in Esther Greenwood. Her big city troubles and misfortunes in suburban Massachusetts felt worlds away from my dull existence as an Asian teenager attempting to assimilate in a deeply conservative area on the outskirts of Atlanta. Years later, as I came to terms with my own mental health struggles, I realized that my teenage self had more in common with Esther and the darkness she navigated than I had initially considered.
When I got over these preconceived childhood notions and started seeking help in college, I had neither the funds nor the experience to find proper treatment. I thought going to therapy was like attending a routine doctor’s appointment: You list your symptoms, they figure out the problem and prescribe a solution, and you’re magically cured. My university offered the only mental health option I could afford at the time, through providers in their wellness network. After signing half a dozen consent forms and attending the required sessions, I received a handwritten prescription for 10 milligrams of Lexapro. The medication came with some nasty side effects: night sweats, daytime sleepiness, and a dense, crippling brain fog that clouded my every waking moment. Rather than discussing these issues with my therapist and asking for alternative treatment options, or seeking out a different provider altogether, I cancelled my remaining appointments while continuing to refill the Lexapro. In my mind, the side effects meant that the medicine was probably working. Also, each refill only cost $10. On the other hand, the therapy sessions, four times the price of the pills, required me to embarrass myself in front of a stranger. The sessions gave voice to the worst parts of my inner monologue, which I had no interest in hearing out loud.
Norris and I shared many of the same symptoms, which we commiserated over, though his hallucinations fascinated me — like the time a parade of slimy black beetles pierced through his skin during a lecture, or when he found himself transported to the middle of the ocean, ice-cold waves threatening to drown him in the night. Meanwhile, I had a tendency to dissociate, threatening to hang myself from a computer cord or driving across state lines with no recollection of doing so. But even more than bonding over our traumas, we spent countless hours connecting through music. LPs, EPs, obscure 7-inches — our friendship unfolded at 33 1⁄3 revolutions per minute. We’d sit in the library, telling ourselves we were there to “study” when actually we just needed the wifi to read what Pitchfork had to say about the latest Daft Punk album, or to plot our next vinyl purchases from Discogs.
Because Norris could relate to what I was going through, I never felt obligated to rationalize or apologize for my mental health struggles. The select few who I also shared some of these struggles with were sympathetic and kind, but I needed someone who could offer more than pity and clichéd advice: "Don’t sweat the small stuff!" and "Tomorrow is another day! Have you tried meditation?" Norris simply accepted the mess, understanding that some days I could be a functional human being who did her homework and ate full meals at normal hours of the day, and that other times I barely had the energy to get out of bed and brush my teeth. On those bad days, Norris stuck with me, feeding me a steady diet of Stereogum-approved singles and popping “emergency” cigarettes into my mouth at the first sign of a panic attack. I was free to exist in our safe haven of shoegaze and synth pop, allowing myself to drop the facade I often wore around other people out of fear, politeness, or both.
Eight years, four therapists, countless rounds of cognitive behavioral therapy, and a pandemic later, I find myself confined to my kitchen table as I adjust to working from home for the foreseeable future. Though the nonprofit I work for has been deemed an “essential business” in my new home state of California, I am part of the fundraising team that usually works out of the main office rather than in the field. And so I spend my days attempting to approximate an office chair using an Eames plastic replica and some couch cushions. As I attend to my spreadsheets, I use my headphones to drown out the sirens and screeching tires of the city.
My hands feel dry and cracked from the constant handwashing as I type emails that start with “Due to current COVID-19 restrictions” and end by wishing that the recipient stays healthy and safe. Strange to think that I spent years of my life trying to stop obsessively washing my hands, and now this nervous habit has become a necessary requirement not just for my own wellbeing, but for the safety of others. It’s as if the whole world just learned a bit about what it’s like to live with OCD, to be constantly at the mercy of your compulsions and hyper-aware of every surface you touch, struggling for balance as you spiral out of control. I wouldn’t wish this fate on anyone.
Norris and I had made vague plans to see each other sometime this year, but, as with most social gatherings nowadays, those plans are on hold. He lives in a coastal community overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and tries to lure me across the country by promising to take me sailing around his neighborhood lagoon. The last time I saw him in person was almost five years ago. Our friendship in its present form stretches across the expanse of four time zones, in a zig-zagging web of texts about watching the NBA, our current favorite pastime, and annual phone calls, condensing a year’s worth of stories into a single marathon conversation. These threads of communication feel both intimate and distant. We laugh at old inside jokes and reminisce over shared memories of late-night chats, but I struggle to form a mental picture when he recounts a lazy Sunday morning in his tiny seaside town, his verbal descriptions failing to fill the gaps in connection that come from having been apart for so long.
Sitting at my kitchen table one day, burning through playlist after playlist in search of a soundtrack to churn out some financial reports, I land on Jessie Ware’s debut album. My heart stirs as I hear the opening drum beats of “Wildest Moments,” and I am twenty-one again, dejected and anxiety-ridden, but not alone. I decide to text Norris: “Hey, Jessie Ware came on shuffle the other day, and I was instantly transported back to 2012 and our days in the library,” I say. I want to tell him how grateful I am to have had him around during that time in my life but realize I’m embarrassed by this sudden onslaught of nostalgia. Eventually I decide on: “Thanks for introducing me to her, and for taking care of me way back when (and sorry to be such a sap over text).” I also mention, “This pandemic has not been kind to folks who have gotten over their OCD handwashing, let me tell you!”
As I fumble through the new normal brought on by this pandemic, I often find myself disappointed by the fact that my nervous habits are creeping back into my life, sometimes completely derailing the course of my day. I end up chiding myself for worrying for hours about the door being locked or washing my hands for less than the recommended twenty seconds, knowing full well that there are worse things happening around the world. In those moments, I try to remember a conversation I had with Norris one chilly winter evening, while stepping out from an all-nighter at the library. I asked him if he was ever afraid of his perception of reality because his world was so different from the “objective” version everyone else saw. He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s real to me, so that’s what I have to deal with.” In the same way, Norris acknowledged my reality, and held my hand as I untangled myself from the disarray, offering kindness, an empathetic ear, and a whole bunch of music recommendations that helped me continue onto the next day, and then the day after that.
Pamela Guerra is a Filipina writer and graphic designer based in Los Angeles, where she crunches numbers and draws vegetables for a living at Southern California's largest produce recovery nonprofit. You can check out more of her work at dinnerpartyblog.com and follow her on Instagram @pdguerra
Anna White is a writer and illustrator based in Chicago, IL, and a Nearness co-founder. She also plays music in an alt-pop project called Dog Beach. You can find her on instagram @annaclairewhite