He’d be dead by the time I wake up tomorrow if I don’t do this perfectly.
“Just turn off the lights and go to bed!” my older brother would tell me every night as I stood by the door of our bedroom, flicking the light switch on and off about a dozen times until I achieved the perfect sweeping motion with my finger. The blinking lights from my fiddling with the light switch turned our bedroom into a cheap ‘80s disco inferno every bedtime. A dance-mix of Donna Summer hits would’ve been the perfect accompaniment to this nightly neuroticism, but that’s probably where my brother would’ve drawn the line.
“I want to go to bed as much as you do but I HAVE to do this,” was my constant reply. I didn’t know what my brother was complaining about especially since his life depended on it. I was dead serious about this lights out ceremony and would do it all night if I had to.
This strobe light action was part of my elaborate bedtime ritual, which included opening and closing the drawers at least three times, touching the sleeves of my hanging shirts in the closet at least six times, knocking on the door (from inside the room) three times, and making the sign of the cross two times. The final touch was positioning my bedroom slippers neatly side by side and pointing them at a 45-degree angle from the side of my bed. Oftentimes, I’d have to do the whole thing all over again because I missed a count or touched the corners of the cabinet the wrong way. With all the to-ing and fro-ing and opening and closing I did, I looked like a flight attendant tinkering with the numerous contraptions in the galley while my lone passenger tried to get some shuteye. And each time my sleep-deprived brother would wake up the next morning, I’d think it was all worth the trouble.
“You’re welcome,” I’d say.
“What for?” he’d wonder.
My brother was clueless that he gets to live another day because of me.
I don’t remember the exact time I started developing these obsessive habits. They probably started when I was about seven or eight years old—mostly driven by the fear of something bad happening to me and my family if I didn’t surrender to what my brain thought was a rational way of controlling life’s uncertainties—death being at the top of the list.
I grew up believing that as long as I did certain things the way my twisted head deemed necessary, we were all going to be safe. I saw myself as a superhero whose powers didn’t exactly include phenomenal strength or the ability to fly, but a proficiency in tapping a faucet at least eight times before turning it on like it was nobody’s business. If I wanted to prevent an asteroid from crashing into Earth and killing my relatives, for instance, all I had to do was gently touch the doorknob with my right elbow, quickly followed by the left one, in three sets. It looked like a routine straight out of Olivia Newton John’s “Let’s Get Physical” video. Unfortunately, reversing the sequence didn’t work for times when I actually wanted an asteroid to kill my relatives.
In my warped account, I’ve saved people I know from car crashes, plane crashes, volcanic eruptions, electrocution, burning, and drowning (and of course asteroid attacks) at least hundreds of times. It was a tough job to keep everyone I cared about alive while trying to accomplish what would’ve otherwise been regular tasks. Brushing my teeth, for example, turned into a mathematical undertaking as I counted every stroke for each part of my mouth (which I divided into 14 parts), brushing them in equal counts and making sure to never, ever end with an odd number.
“You have perfect teeth, hijo,” my grandmother once told me. “Remember to always brush your teeth,” she said.
Little did she know that if I didn’t, she wouldn’t even be alive to remind me.
So when she died one summer afternoon, I began to question the efficacy of my powers (and toothpaste). Did I miss a count? Did I touch the doorknob the wrong way? Was I too sleepy to consider running my nightly ritual just one more time? And more importantly, who’s next? I remember staring at my grandmother in her coffin, her wrinkled eyelids shut for good. “If you try opening her eyes, they will crunch like dried leaves,” my cousin whispered behind my ear. It scared me to think how a woman like my grandmother, with her imposing personality, was now as crunchy as a dead leaf. Hers was my first exposure to death. I was too young to grasp the gravity of my grandmother’s passing but nonetheless felt a break in my cadence. One day she was there, the next day she wasn’t. There was suddenly a lola-shaped hole in my known universe and no amount of gum-bleeding tooth brushing could’ve changed that.
This idea of dropping dead and the apparent lack of choice anyone had about it made me desperate to control just about anything I could to maintain what I considered to be the natural order of things: a world where no one dies and where closets are impeccably organized. But when pets, neighbors, and relatives started dying on me on varied occasions as I grew up, I figured that the latter was perhaps a more attainable worldview.
Being overly tidy and organized became my new coping mechanism to help me deal with life’s volatility. What? Our teacher fell into a crocodile pit and got ripped into pieces? Come take a look at my color-coordinated wardrobe. It looks perfect! To me, a disorganized space meant a disorganized inner state. And with all the instability that the external world presented, the last thing I wanted was to feel chaotic both inside and out. I cleaned to feel in control, especially at times when I wasn’t. As long as the things on my desk were in perfect symmetry, I’d be safe from harm. One could easily tell my level of anxiety simply be looking at how wrinkle-free my sheets were. There’s a war in Israel you say? Here, put more starch in your linens. Such an outlook in life was like hiding in a bomb shelter made out of properly labeled boxes and folders—a mere distraction to cover the fact that a crocodile could indeed tear me apart if I wasn’t careful, regardless of whether my paper clips were stored according to color or not. I had a hard time dealing with the arbitrariness of the environment beyond my organized closets.
Hence, my compulsive habits intensified to compensate for feeling so powerless over seemingly random circumstances. And thanks to television, even ridiculous situations became plausible and needed my full attention. I couldn’t walk too near the side of buildings for fear of a potted plant or a grand piano falling on my head. This required me to look up in the sky every ten seconds, which made me seem like a cave-dwelling child who has never seen buildings in a big city before. I couldn’t ride a car without an exit stunt strategy in case it lost its breaks while going downhill. Despite the fact that I lived in a flat suburb with no ravines of any shape, size, or form, the thought still required me to touch the external door handles of a car before getting in as if dusting for fingerprints. I couldn’t dip in the ocean or a swimming pool (public, private, or plastic) without half expecting a shark attack. For this, I had no counter tactics. I just hoped that the shark would eat the other kids first.
Deploying specific tactics for would-be disasters wasn’t enough. I needed something more. Soon enough, I discovered one trick that helped. Ironically, it also made people want to kill me.
“Stop touching everything on the table!” my mother scolded me one time during dinner. “You’re acting like an octopus!” I never forgot that statement of hers, firstly, because I was scared of anything with eight legs emanating from its center and, secondly, because it was an accurate description of me.
Touching things was the only way to allay my fears, mostly involving sudden death and the overall destruction of mankind. It was my prophylactic spell against impending doom. I couldn’t stop touching things as though they were all begging for my attention. “Please run your fingers across my porcelain skin,” I imagined the plates on the table pleading to me. “Touch me or your entire family will die!” Some plates were more demanding than others. Needless to say, my fingerprints were etched on every known surface in our house. I literally wouldn’t have gotten away with murder.
Home décor shops and glassware sections were off limits to me. My mother always instructed me to sit and wait outside to stop me from breaking everything with my “tentacles.” She forbade me from coming with her to the wet market and often left me in the car to prevent me from contracting germs from all the touching I would’ve otherwise done on raw meat. “See all my blood? Touch me please!” the raw chicken would’ve called out to me. “Salmonella is good! Salmonella is fun!” It would’ve taunted. This principle was so deeply ingrained in me that I never even knew what a wet market looked like until the day I finally dared to venture into one for the first time. I was twenty-eight years old.
I soon became self-conscious of my neurotic behavior and learned to hide it from others, especially as I entered my teens. I had to find a way to continue saving people without annoying them at the same time. So instead of touching things a certain way to ease my mind, I resorted to silently counting things.
In church, I’d sit and count the number of cherubs painted on the ceiling. People must’ve thought I was a pious kid, looking up to the heavens in prayer. None of them knew of course that I was just trying to calculate the figures in my head, which was challenging for someone like me who was terrible in math and easily distracted by all the singing and monologues in front. I would’ve brought a pen and notebook to church for proper tallying but that would’ve caught more attention with people mistaking me for either a young saint in the making who was transcribing the entire sermon or a child prodigy with a penchant for appraising religious artifacts. I found solace in praying the rosary in church and in school. It was a very soothing activity because of its repetitive nature, plus it had all those beads to keep my counting on track. Even if I hardly understood any of the prayers I was chanting, the act of repeating something over and over again brought me to a trans-like state that restrained my overthinking. As far as I knew, any prayer that involved the act of counting and the words “world without end” was fine in my book. Amen.
I found myself counting just about anything I could. I counted flights of stairs, lampposts, billboards, moving vehicles, even the moles on someone’s face, which proved more difficult than counting cherubs because I couldn’t hold people’s faces to stop them from moving. I had to concentrate to make sure I didn’t miss a mole or miscount by adding a wart. While the intense look I gave people made me seem like a good listener, all I could really think of was, Blah, blah, blah. Stop moving, you jerk, or you’ll make me lose count!
Just like touching, counting became too cumbersome for me and I began to outgrow it by the time I entered college. But in its wake, I somehow found a way to take everything up a notch by conducting games with personal wagers. If I can finish tying my shoelaces before that car drives over that hump, I won’t flunk my math exam tomorrow, I thought, challenging myself. It just so happened that I was impossible at tying shoelaces, so that bet never made any difference (this has been my math alibi for years). These dares started simple enough but with my habit of taking things to the hilt, they later evolved into high-stake gambles, even as I got older. If I can fish my keys out of my gym bag before that elevator door opens, I won’t die a gruesome death tomorrow. The way I panicked and sweat over these private challenges you’d think I was a desperate game show contestant. But instead of a grand kitchen showcase, my life was at stake. And sometimes, my life really was at stake like when I almost choked to death trying to gorge a cupcake before the next television commercial came on. At times when I failed such challenges, I would try to override the bet with another bet, then another, and then another, until it became one exhausting loop that made me want to go back to counting moles again.
“This one’s tightly wound,” a psychic family friend told my mother one time, referring to me as if I wasn’t in the room. I was much older at the time but still displayed the same self-imposed anxiety I carried as a child. “He feels too much, more than an average person does, as if everything is magnified ten times,” he continued. This made a lot of sense to me and explained why I had to mentally and emotionally overcompensate all the time just to seem normal. I had to find ways to self-regulate to address my fears and overactive imagination. These habits were attempts to recalibrate my direction during bumpy times just like a GPS device would with every wrong turn.
Ironically, in my attempt to be in control, I ended up being controlled—by my own mind. I was a prisoner, compelled to do such stunts as a way of staking claim over things outside my sphere of influence, like outer space for instance. How else can I prevent an asteroid from killing us all? I pondered.
Then one day, years after I thought I’ve gotten over all this nonsense, a likely solution came to me via email. Ping! It was a letter with a glaring subject that read: DO NOT STOP READING THIS OR SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN TO YOU!!
“Well, what do you know, an easy way to stop bad things from happening,” I said under my breath, glad to finally find a simple solution to a long-standing concern. I was surprised to learn though that the letter came with instructions, which I had to follow carefully otherwise I’d meet the same fate of the other people who didn’t.
I read the letter in horror as I learned about how a certain Mr. Manuel Santos ignored the instructions because he was late for an appointment and then fell to his death in an empty elevator shaft. I imagined Mr. Santos plunging deep into the bottom of his office building and wondered whether he regretted not doing what the letter had asked him to do before stepping out. “You should’ve followed the damn instructions you fool!” his wife probably said as she stood over his grave. The poor man was probably late for his appointment because of having read the instructions. I read case upon case of ill-fated people who failed to do as they were told and were forced to pay the consequences—from a 19-year old college kid who fell off a cliff while mountain climbing to a 50-year old businessman who lost his entire fortune—all from not following directions. I was convinced that I had to forward this email to as many people as possible in a span of 24 hours, as it commanded, or my name will be added to this growing list.
The letter wasn’t all doom and gloom though. It also contained accounts of people who were rewarded with good fortune for their obedience. I smiled as I read how a man landed his dream job the same day he forwarded the email to 10 friends in a span of 30 minutes or when a woman found the man of her dreams the moment she sent the email to 12 people within 15 minutes. The rewards seemed to get higher the bigger the number of people involved and the smaller the amount of time it took to do so.
The thing that struck me the hardest about this experience was the fact that my friends, who seemed like rational thinkers, kept forwarding me the same kind of letters, sometimes even scarier ones. READ THIS NOW OR YOU WILL DIE TOMORROW!!! All these letters seemed to be in a hurry and in such a foul mood all the time. YOU WILL BE DEAD IF YOU STOP READING THIS!!! And they all seemed to have the tone and temperament of librarians who turned into bank robbers.
Because I received such emails, I suddenly felt in the company of others like me—those who wanted to make sure that they’ve got everything covered, just in case. What took them to yield to such morbid thoughts? I’m sure we all knew deep down that we weren’t going to die just because of a chain letter, but what if? This question is what has driven most of my compulsions throughout the years. I was eager to know how insane everyone was too behind closed doors and whether, like me, they too longed to make sense of everything beyond their grasp. Do these people obsessively count too? Do they have to touch the doorknob a certain way to dispel all the “bad jujus” in life?
For all the callousness of these letters, they all ended with a request to pray, usually in the form of one Our Father, three Hail Marys, and one Glory Be. Some even came with special prayers of petition to different saints. I couldn’t fathom how my life went from being in danger of possibly falling into the crater of a volcano, like a certain Mr. Ramos, to suddenly being embraced by salvation—all by reading a letter and doing what it said under time pressure as though a gun was pointed to my head. That’s when it hit me—nothing as strong as when a flying roof hit the head of a certain Mrs. Diaz during a thunderstorm, but just as jolting I’m sure—these letters reflect people’s most basic aspiration to make peace with the unknown by lifting it up to a higher power. This is why these letters have caught our attention and amusement for such a long time. Never mind the exaggerations, the vivid incidents in these letters represent our mortality in all its fragility and unpredictability and more strikingly, the fact that there’s nothing we can do about it—except pray.
Prayer, to whomever and in whatever form, is not so much about imploring as it is about trusting.
We all know that we’ll cease to exist at one point in our lives—turn into crunchy dried leaves, if you will—but we somehow hope it won’t be as tragic as what our fears project. So what do we do? We grab whatever we can get hold of—a hope, a wish, a prayer, or an elaborate set of instructions from some random letter—to steer away from an undesirable outcome. I’ll do everything you ask me to do as long as I don’t die in a plane crash. How does one stop bad things from happening, really? The same thought process goes into the other end of this spectrum. How does one make good things happen, really? A hope? A wish? A prayer? An elaborate set of instructions? Just show me the rules and I’ll follow, I promise.
We’re all looking for that grand voice, our own Wizard of Oz—someone or something to remind us that in all our ordinariness, we’ve had the power within us all along. And that power is nothing more than the courage to accept and let go of things we simply cannot control. It may seem like the most passive of actions but in reality, it’s one of the most emotionally-exertive things one can ever do in this life.
For the first time in a long time, this fact rang loud and true when my father was diagnosed with cancer. In the middle of deciding ways to take this beast by the horns and wrestle it helpless, we as a family suddenly had to come to terms with our own helplessness. What else is there to do, really? After you’ve done all you can, the only thing left to do is stand with the strength of your own faith. And while faith, most often than not, asks us to do incredible things in its name, what it’s really asking us to do is to surrender to doing nothing except believing in that which you don’t understand. It’s out of my hands.
Everyone hopes for the best for themselves and their loved ones. Everyone wants to ensure that that proverbial asteroid, whichever form it takes—sickness, bankruptcy, and even painful death—is kept at bay. No matter who we are or where we are, at our core, we all want and worry about the same things and often look to something beyond ourselves for some form of heavenly backup—a divine lifeline to assist us when we’ve done all that we possibly could. Some kneel all the way to the altar. Some walk barefoot for miles. Some sing hymns of praise and worship. I touch doorknobs. I do this perhaps as a poor attempt to enter a portal of all things unknown, where I can stand face to face with my own limitations and feel safe enough to let go and trust in a power far greater than me. This is the best that I can do and as much as I can take. Please help me with the rest.
We all have our own way of accessing that place where we can surrender all our fears whether real or imagined (like most of mine growing up). They may look and feel different, based on our personal beliefs, but we all find ourselves in that place however we choose to define it and whether we’re even aware of it or not. When our wife’s pregnancy is problematic, we enter that place. When our brother slips into a coma, we enter that place. When our child goes missing, we enter that place. When our father gets cancer, we enter that place. These are the moments when we feel most powerless. But they are also the times when we are the most powerful because of the hope and the strength that we summon to get through them somehow. During such times, we realize that the only thing we truly have control of is the present moment and what we choose to do with the time we have in between such “asteroid attacks.”
To this day, I still find myself doing some of the things I used to do as a kid—a touch here or a swipe there, just for good measure (I also now carry a hand sanitizer). Perhaps I’ll never outgrow such habits. Maybe that’s a bad thing; maybe that’s a good thing. However, the intention behind all these has changed. From a desperate act of control, they’ve turned into an acknowledgement of my lack thereof. Each touch, each swipe has become a form of dispelling bad thoughts that enter my head—a way of expunging them before they propagate any further. My habitual tics are now more like gentle nudges to remind myself that I may not be in control of everything, but I can always trust that all things will work out, maybe not exactly as I planned, but how they’re meant to be.
“Have you ever considered seeing a shrink?” one of my friends asked me one time during dinner.
“What for?” I replied, looking at the bottom of my glass after a sip of wine. Apparently I’ve been doing it after every sip since we sat there—one of those habits I never seemed shake off.
“You look like you’re always about to give a toast,” she said, mimicking me.
“Well in that case, I think we should have one,” I said.
“A toast to what?”
“How about to the fact that we’re sitting here enjoying this moment?”
“I’ll drink to that!” she clinked her glass against mine.
I smiled then looked up, not to count cherubs or to check whether a grand piano was falling, but to thank my lucky stars that I’m alive and well.