When I was a child, I was obsessed with death. Unlike Harold in the 1971 flick Harold and Maude, I wasn’t infatuated with dying. I was obsessed with trying to do everything possible NOT to die. Staying alive was just as consuming as orchestrating those lavish bloodied death scenes in the movie.
My obsession with not dying started when I was about six. My Uncle Johnny told me that people with dwarfism had short lifespans. The details are fuzzy now, but for most of my childhood, I was convinced that I would die before I became a teenager. I’m pretty sure my uncle didn’t know much about dwarfism. He likely heard or read about another form of dwarfism and thought every small person died at a young age. I like to think that he decided to share this with me because he wanted me to be realistic, but WTF, I WAS SIX!
I don’t know why I didn’t talk to my parents about this revelation. I was a sensitive kid and it made me very uncomfortable to see people being sad. Did I think my parents would get mad at Uncle Johnny for telling me the truth? Would I bring up a delicate topic they didn’t want to discuss? Was I afraid they wouldn’t care and I’d end up being sad by myself? I’m not sure why, but I chose to deal with my fears on my own.
One of the many problems I faced was not having enough information. All I knew was that I would more than likely die at an early age, but I didn’t know how my death would be executed. Would I die in my sleep? Would I die because of a certain condition I would develop? I knew no specifics. In my child mind, I imagined it would just happen because I wasn’t like everyone else. Since the possibilities were limitless, I constantly feared death would happen at any moment.
Instead of enjoying every day of my limited life to its fullest, I developed what I now realize may have been OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). In a means to cope with my inevitable death, I would make fictitious short-term “goals” that would ensure that I would live a little bit longer. For example, if I didn’t step on the lines in the pavement, I would wake up the next morning. If I held my breath through traffic lights, I would survive. It was a never-ending list of odd thresholds to cross in an effort to avoid death. If I do (or don’t do) __________ … I WON’T DIE.
I used to try to cheat death a lot. There was a cabinet in our old apartment that stood about five and a half feet high. I would tell myself that if I ever got to the same height as the cabinet, I would immediately die. By that time, the doctor had already told me I wouldn’t grow taller than four feet, so it seemed like a sure thing. …or was it? In hindsight, I probably did this to cope with the reality I wouldn’t grow like other kids.
Since I lived on the sixth floor and my favorite candies were Sixlets, six had became my safe number. I would obsessively count to six throughout various events that scared me. During visits to my orthopedic doctor, I would count to six over and over again while the doctor examined me. In my mind, I knew this was a sure fire way to avoid his malicious surgery threats. It was also a way to distract myself from my Mom crying next to me.
Six was my safe number until someone pointed out that it was part of a satanic trio. I was horrified. I hated the number six. I stopped eating Sixlets and wanted to move to a different floor. My parents dismissed my unsound reasoning and I eventually accepted that I lived on the sixth level of doom.
When I learned about germs in school, I became a germaphobe. My Aunt lived with us and always kept our home very clean. She would often make comments about how “other people” (i.e. people that weren’t Korean) were dirty and didn’t wash dishes well. Thanks to my clean freak Aunt, I started to distrust non-Korean sanitation methods and I unintentionally became a racist/intra-racial racist. This was especially awkward since I’m also half Japanese.
A part of me knew that my Aunt was always one to be dramatic and her generalized views on “others” were unlikely true. Yet, I didn’t want to take any chances. The only non-Korean people I trusted were my Dad and paternal Grandma. Since they raised me during my young life and I managed to survive, I was convinced they were exceptions. Everyone else merely was just part of a breeding ground of deadly germs. They also made really good sandwiches.
At some point, I made efforts to overcome my fears. I missed many chocolate ice cream opportunities because of my germ phobia and began to feel cheated out of life. One of my early attempts took place at my non-Korean neighbor’s home. She offered me chocolate pudding and I cautiously accepted. I remember staring at the pudding-filled spoon for what seemed like forever. I just couldn’t do it. My stomach turned as I thought of all the invisible microorganisms taunting me from that stainless steel spoon.
Even though I knew that the idea of dying via chocolate pudding cup was completely ridiculous, I couldn’t stop fixating on those germs. Since there was a chance that spoon wasn’t vigorous washed in scalding hot water, I didn’t have the guarantee I needed that it was clean. The thoughts of those germs silently killing me were overwhelming. I eventually gave in and told my neighbor I didn’t feel well. I gave back the uneaten pudding cup as she scolded me for wasting food.
For me, the most frustrating part of having OCD was that people didn’t understand me. Unless a person has actually dealt with true OCD (not just the “I keep hand sanitizer in my purse. I’m so OCD!” nonsense), OCD is really hard to conceptualize for most people. It was also difficult to share my situation. In the chocolate pudding scenario, how was I supposed to tell my neighbor that I was skeptical about her dishwashing procedure? I might as well have pointed at her and screamed “You’re dirty because you’re not Korean!”. It was always easier to just accept the disapproving stares and semi-unwarranted scolding.
About two years ago, one of my best friends endured a severe case of OCD following a very traumatic event in her life. Up until then, I thought OCD was just an acronym to describe good cleaning habits. She shared her experiences and I followed up with my own research so I could understand what she was going through. I eventually made the connection that I had OCD as a child. The experience of being there to comfort her helped me to understand why I struggled during my childhood.
Over the years, I’ve gotten better. Along the way, I slowly dealt with the things that triggered me. I sought help from an amazing therapist who helped me with the issues I had neglected to address in the past. I still have traits of OCD, but they’re manageable. I don’t like to eat with my hands because touching food makes me feel gross. Well, it’s not the food itself; it’s the lingering scent of food left on my fingertips [which cause me to obsessively wash my hands]. There was an episode of Seinfeld where an older gentleman ate a Snickers bar with a knife and fork. Most people thought it was weird, I thought it was beautiful.
I like to consider myself to be an open-minded person. Sometimes, I’m not. I am especially closed-minded after a few too many cocktails and have a bad habit of judging strangers out of boredom (and likely jealousy). I try my best to understand where people are in their lives. I try not to be too judgmental because judgments are never based on the whole story. I’ve been very fortunate to have a great network of people in my life who also maintain an open mind (and accept that I eat pizza with a fork). We all have issues. We all have the human experience of wanting to be understood.