In order to figure out where my future could go with HSAM, it turned out I had to start by digging deeper into my past.
I want to start by telling you about the bain of my existence in Catholic elementary school: card changes.
Did anyone else have these? It was a discipline system made out of construction paper, and they also happened to be my greatest fear.
Every day all the cards started on green but if you did something wrong, the teacher would give you a card change. This meant you had to go in front of the class and change your card to yellow, indicating you made one mistake. And it could literally be anything from forgetting to finish your assignment to something as extreme as hitting Someone. The cards order went: green, yellow, orange, red and finally black. These stages ranked the severity of your punishment, yellow was just a warning but get all the way to black and it was detention and a call home to your parents.
As a third-grader, it was my biggest goal to never get a card change. But I knew this year I had gotten put in the strict teacher’s classroom, and as one of my classmates, Max, put it to us on the first day of school:
“Guys I walked by our new classroom last year before school let out and all the card changes were on red. We’re all doomed.”
I was afraid my streak of green cards would end. So on the second day of third grade I told my mom as I was getting out of our red mini van, “I hope I don’t get a card change today.”
And you know what happened? I didn’t get a card change.
From that day on telling my mom “I hope I don’t get a card change” became part of my daily routine. Every day right before I got out of the car to go to school I would say these magic words, which I believed made me immune to being punished.
Then one day we were in a rush, and I forgot to say the magic words. I worried all day at school something would go wrong, and then it did.
My entire class lined up to show our teacher our completed homework for religion class. When it was my turn to approach the teacher, I turned to the page in my book that was assigned for homework and to my dismay, I had forgotten to color the Virgin Mary. The cost was one card change.
I bawled my eyes out.
My teacher had to take me out into the hallway just to calm me down. “Markie, everyone makes mistakes,” she explained, “it’s going to be okay.”
But in my head this wasn’t just a simple mistake… something was telling me this all happened because I did not say the magic words to my mom that morning.
This ritual stayed with me all the way until the 6th grade, but what was strange was that it was no longer relevant. I had transferred schools to the public school district in my hometown after the 5th grade, part of my motivation being to get rid of these rituals and start fresh.
My new school, Foxview, had no card changes. Yet, I still felt like I had to say something to my mom before getting out of the car or I would have a bad day at school.
“I hope I don’t get a card change,” Changed into a longer speech: “I hope I have a good day at school, don’t get in trouble or have forgotten to do any homework. I hope I make new friends and you and dad are safe while I am at school.”
Funny enough, my mom never questioned why I said the same words to her every day, she just let me talk because I think she knew it made me feel better. But now that I went to public school, I carpooled with two of my neighbors every day, Tyler and Jacob. Tyler, who had been my best friend growing up, called me out on my ritual one day— and was the only person who ever did.
“What do you say to your mom before you get out of the car?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I shut him down quickly.
“It’s not nothing, everyday you say something before you get out of the car to your mom so fast that I can’t understand it. And you literally say it every single day!”
I shrugged it off like I didn’t know what he was talking about. So he just gave it up and said his usually parting words as I struggled to get my large euphonium for band class out of the trunk of my mom’s van, “Should’ve played the flute, Markie,” he laughed and went into the school yard.
But that wasn’t the only ritual I had, there were beginning to be so many in all different parts of my life.
I not only had a set or rituals for school, but also for figure skating, church, soccer games, and just about any other setting I was in on a routine basis where I felt something was at stake.
For example, although I loved figure skating competitions they came paired with a lot of anxiety, and therefore, a lot of rituals. I had rituals that required me to wear my hair certain ways for certain events. For artistic skating, which was more like show skating to fun songs in goofy costumes, I always had to wear my hair in pigtails or I wouldn’t place in the top three skaters. I believed this because the first time I won an artistic event, I was wearing pigtails.
As I got older and pigtails looked rather juvenile, so I purposely came up with programs that required me to wear wigs– so I could wear pigtails under my wig and complete my ritual. That’s why when my coach suggested I skate to this funny song she found called “Beethoven’s Wig”, I was beyond relieved for reasons unknown to her. Exhibit A:
And this was not the only ritual, I had to do a certain number of warm up exercises, no more no less, or I believed I would fall during my freestyle skating program. When I did my cap amount and my coach told me to keep warming up, I was very hesitant.
I had to do my first spin of the five minute warm up before the programs started in the middle circle on the right side of the hockey line or I believe I would fall during a spin in my program.
And if I didn’t do any single one of these specific things, I was doomed to lose the whole competition.
When my calendar path formed and my HSAM began, more rituals began to occur because now I had evidence.
Even though these associations were very illogical, I now had proof to say something like, “Well I wore my orange shirt on October 7th and I got a perfect score in my math test. And now I have worn that same shirt on October 24th, November 6th and November 19th and I got a perfect score on my math test every single time.”
My calendar memory acted as not only as evidence, but also as reinforcements for my rituals. And because I could remember so many small details about what happened before and after an event, it was easy to spot patterns and make new rules for myself to either make good things happen again or prevent bad things from happening.
Then when I was going into eighth grade at age 13, something much more valuable than a first place medal, a score on a math test or a card change became at stake: someone’s life.
One of my best friends in the entire world, Jenny, (whose name I changed because on August 23rd, 2007 She made me promise her I would never write about her depression using her name) was experiencing what I now know was suicidal ideation. I was the first person she told she was thinking about suicide, and although I did the right thing- told an adult and got my friend help- the weight of her life became heavy on my shoulders.
Suddenly I had over 10 rituals I had to do a day or the consequence was Jenny would attempt suicide again. And because I loved my best friend more than anything in the world, I made sure all things lined up and each intricate ritual was in place because my brain was telling me this was the only way, to keep her alive.
The worst of all the rituals? I believed if I told anyone about my rituals, Jenny would die. So even though my parents sent me to therapy, and I had the space to tell someone how I was feeling, I suffered in silence for a very long time.
What calmed me down? Spending Saturday afternoons going in my basement and digging through my mother’s totes of pictures and memorabilia to be reminded of a time when everything was okay.
Flash forward to February 22nd of 2011. I was 16 now, my hometown’s pride and joy, the Green Bay Packers, had just won the Superbowl with quarterback Aaron Rodgers leading the way, and everyone was still trying to perfect their “dougie” and “stanky leg”.
On this particular Tuesday evening, I was sitting in front of the computer in the back room of our house. I had Google open with an empty search box. I typed in the word “superstitious”.
I had heard about people who were superstitious and that they believed if they broke a mirror they believed they would have bad luck for seven years. Or that if a black cat crosses their path, they would be cursed. And for the last almost ten years I had gotten used to making up rules for myself much like these superstitions that naturally made my life harder. And through the years I had only admitted to one person that I had these types of toxic thoughts: Jenny, who was still alive and is alive today, but was fighting her own battle or mental illness.
Even though these thought patterns became my reality, they didn’t feel like my own thoughts. It was almost like there was a bully in my brain bossing me around, telling me what to do. And that night I finally had an ounce of courage to figure out what was going on.
The Google search for “superstitious” came up with numerous results, but there was one result near the bottom of the page that caught my eye: Symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I clicked on the link.
“OCD?” I thought, “Wasn’t that the thing that made people want to be really clean?” That’s all I really knew about it.
As I read the list of symptoms for OCD, I was in shock: I had never read something that had so accurately described the way I thought before. I had always believed my thoughts were a big secret, but here they were simply listed out on a website so bluntly. It read:
Intrusive or unwanted thoughts
Obsessions with certain numbers, words or colors.
Rituals that have no clear explanation
Need to constantly check things, although you have already checked them
Fear of contamination
I finally had an answer. I had finally figured it out. I had outsmarted the voice in my head because I knew what it was now— and it wasn’t actually me— it was a mental health condition.
A few weeks later on March 6th, 2011, I was sitting in front of that very same computer just staring at the screen saver as I heard my parents arguing in the room across the hallway.
My dad had been lying in bed every day for almost two months now. The ulcer in his ankle became too big and he couldn’t walk anymore. He would go to work in a wheelchair, come home and just go to bed. It was honestly like my dad suddenly disappeared out of my life.
If I wanted to find him, he would be lying in a dark room at the very end of the hallway, but I rarely went in. His presence in the rest of the house was noticeably missing. And although I was 16 going on 17 and out with my friends most of the time, it was still something on the forefront of my mind at all times.
I was attempting to do homework for my AP United States History class, but through the closed door I could hear my mom’s voice loud and frustrated, my father’s soft and defensive. I couldn’t sit there any longer, I needed to leave the house. But where could I go?
I needed someone who wouldn’t ask questions, and who would believe my terribly, unconvincing “everything thing is fine” that I planned spit out with a smile on my face. So I ran out the door, got in my rusty, old, black Pontiac, and went to visit Grandma Evelyn.
I arrived at the very unpleasant smelling Santa Maria Nursing Home on the other side of Green Bay. I normally wouldn’t have been able to handle going inside of a place that smelled so wretched of urine, but for Grandma Evelyn, I endured the odor every time. Mostly by plugging my nose until I got into her room.
I walked up to where she lived on the third floor. The place was very crowded, with nurses everywhere, it had tiny hallways with the rooms close together. It was also a very old building, having a parlor and what looked like the first elevator ever invented. When I got to her room, I saw that she had a little shamrock outside of her door with “Evelyn Pasternak” written on it. Which I knew she was not pleased with because my grandmother despised St. Patrick’s Day. She preferred St. Joseph’s Day, which was celebrated by most Polish Catholics later in March. St. Patrick was too “Irish” for her liking.
I slowly peered inside the door. She looked shocked to see me, which I did not blame her for. I never showed up unannounced or without at least one of my parents.
“Markie, what a surprise!”she exclaimed. “Where are Mom and Dad?”
“Just at home,” I shrugged, “I thought I would stop by and say ‘hi’ before skating practice.” Which she very well knew was on the other side of town, but I made it seem like a natural courtesy.
Grandma and I talked for a while as she sat on one side of the room in her wheelchair, and I on the other. I was her only grandchild. That is why her room was overwhelmingly filled with pictures of me. The entire place was like my personal shrine.
Her room at the nursing home was very small, smaller than most of the dorm rooms at the colleges I was currently touring. But somehow my grandmother managed to pack everything and anything into it. I noticed a large stack of greeting cards on her dresser. My grandma kept every single card she was ever given, and I mean every single one. I knew we had boxes of her old birthday cards in our basement somewhere from the 1930s because she just couldn’t throw them away.
Even beyond cards, she kept just about everything else you could imagine. What really puzzled my parents to no end was when she kept things like old candy wrappers and other things most people would consider to be “junk”. But I never said anything about her compulsive need to keep things, though, because I did the same thing.
The voice in my head would say things like, “You might need this someday. If you throw it out, then it is your fault that you don’t have what you need.” Sometimes I was able to combat that voice though. Logically, did I really need the dandelion that a boy I liked picked for me in the 8th grade? Or a ticket from the movie I went to on February 18th, 2008? But then the voice would say, “If you don’t keep it, it wasn’t real. All you will have is a memory, and how do you even know if your memories are real?”
And anytime my parents suggested I throw things away, I would just burst into tears fueled by anxiety. So I would end up keeping the dandelion and the ticket and everything else that cluttered my bedroom, just so I had something to reach out and grab when a memory came back and for it all to feel real again.
Or if anyone doubted the accuracy of my memory, I had the the evidence available to prove to myself I was correct: I had the birthday party invitation or the hand written note or my planner from the 6th grade, all providing me with accurate dates.
What parents didn’t understand was that keeping all of these things made my memories more real. For my grandma these letters and cards in her room I think made my grandpa more real again who had passed away back in 2004.
I sat and talked to my grandmother for awhile, who was simply going on about getting her nails done the specific color red she liked, why she decided to give up Bingo for Lent and how she wished my new boyfriend, Gerald, wasn’t German and Protestant. And then one of the phrases that showed up on my Google search last month flashed in my head: hoarding tendencies.
“No, it couldn’t be…” I thought to myself.
Suddenly my mind flashed to every time we drove passed the Mausoleum where my grandfather was buried and she would have to blow him a kiss and say, “Love you, Willy”. And if she forgot to do so, she didn’t forgive herself for the rest of the ride and insisted we drive by again.
Rituals that have no clear explanation.
And then there was when she used to live in her condo, which had white carpeting in the dining room. I remembered how many times I had heard fret about anything being spilt on that carpeting, even when no one was eating or drinking. She would go on and on about the “what if’s” of a stain.
Fear of contamination.
“Markie,” Grandma Evelyn began, “where are your parents, really?”
I saw the concern and the worry in my grandmother’s eyes. She knew I was here because something was wrong, she could feel it.
I had a choice right then and there- I could tell her about everything- my dad’s sickness, the arguing, my OCD. But she was about as ready to hear these things as was to admit them out loud. And I especially knew I couldn’t tell her about my parents. I knew her brain all too well.
So with all the compassion and composure I could muster up in one breath, I took her hand, squeezed tightly and managed to choke out, “Everything is fine, promise.” Just like I had always done.