Indispensable Objects: My Journey of Overcoming OCD

One of the first things I learned becoming a mental health advocate in college was that every personal story about a mental illness needs to end with treatment. Why? Well, if we just share stories of our battles with mental health issues and stop at the parts where we felt defeated, our narrative doesn’t give hope to those who are currently struggling.

So I would be remiss if I did not share the ending to my story of living with OCD: getting treated and overcoming. Full disclosure this isn’t the whole story, it’s only the beginning of a very long road of treatment, but this is where it starts.

I will admit, at first, it was weird.

When I got on medication, I felt like a new person only after a few weeks. It was great, don’t get me wrong, but because I had been living under the wrath of obsessions and compulsions for almost ten years, my brain seemed strangely quiet as thoughts were able to harmlessly run free throughout my mind.

And some of the people in my life who had lived with my rituals, obsessions and compulsions were absolutely flabbergasted with the new me:

“Squeeze,” my dad called for me as he walked into the computer room where I was doing my homework, “Do you want me to turn the TV down? I didn’t know you were doing homework.” he said, almost fearing my response.

“No, its fine,” I said as I went back to writing my English paper. 

He stayed in the doorway, giving me a strange look, “Are you sure? Because usually you…”

“Yeah I know, it’s not bothering me,” I smiled.

When I wasn’t medicated noises would echo through my brain like someone had an amplifier on high in my ear drum. One little buzz of a fan or chomp of gum would be like nails on a chalkboard causing me to feel disgusted and many times even angry. The irritability certain noises gave me stopped me from concentrating, so when I did homework, I needed the whole house to be dead silent; one noise from the  TV or hum from the air conditioning would drive me up the wall. Now, I had this ability to block out the sounds like I never had before. 

Then there was my figure skating coach. 

“You just did your scratch spin in the left corner,” Coach Simone commented.

“Yes I did,” I smiled.

“I’ve been coaching you for ten years, and you always do your first spin of every practice in the lower right corner of the center circle.”

I just gave her a nod, she wasn’t wrong.

“But not today?” she asked, still in shock.

My OCD wasn’t completely gone, and I know it never will be. I still sometimes have to wear ear plugs at night if there is a noise getting on my nerves; however, not every single noise irritates me anymore.

Ritualistic thoughts still pop into my brain, but I gained the coping skills from therapy to say to the thought, “no, you are a ritual, and you are not real”. And it goes away.

Although I would say my rituals were the most impairing part of my OCD in terms of everyday functioning and the misophonia gave me the most stress and anger, the hardest symptom for me to overcome were the hoarding tendencies.

There are a lot of things I still feel compelled to keep, but I’m proud to report if I really need to do a “Marie Condo” on my apartment and only keep what “sparks joy”, I can scale down. However, my mom still has bins of my old things in my bedroom back home.

In December of 2011, I was nearing the end of the first semester of my senior year in high school. I had been diagnosed with OCD back in June and started my treatment in August.

On Saturday, the 10th of December, I had just arrived at the Neville Public Museum to play the infamous, Bruce the Spruce, Northern Wisconsin’s second version of Santa Claus (if you are unfamiliar with this concept, please see blog post #4). I had about 20 minutes to spare before my shift started, so I took a detour into the museum gift shop.

“Looking for anything in particular?” asked the sales clerk.

“Christmas gifts, I guess,” I replied, “I still need something for my grandma.”

“Well, what kind of things does she like?”

I decided to tell the clerk about how my grandmother had trouble getting rid of things, and how part of me didn’t want to get her more stuff to just keep and jam in her little nursing home room or haul down to our basement.

The clerk asked what my grandma all kept, so I told her about all the cards, letters, journals, record discs, newspapers, anything to do with Poland, anything to do with Catholicism and just about everything else under the sun.

“She has newspapers from 1945?” she asked.

“Yeah, like the Chicago Tribune from the day Roosevelt died and the day World War II ended.”

“You know,” began the clerk, “your Grandmother’s hoarding could be used for a good cause. So many museums and historical archives would just die for artifacts and records like that. She could donate her things and come see them in an exhibit.”

I had never thought about that before. 

“Then they would never be forgotten about…” I muttered to myself.  All my fears of letting things go, of memories fading away with the objects as I disposed of them started to be comforted.

The clerk regained my attention as she cleared her throat and said, “You know, sometimes the things we give away to others are the things we end up remembering the most.”

That Christmas my challenge to myself was instead of buying anymore gifts, I would give away my things to people. Things that were meaningful to them too because I knew I could trust them to treasure my belongings as much as I did.

Therefore, I want to tell you the stories of three gifts I gave away that Christmas: two beanie babies, a restaurant table sign, and an old letter. To you these objects may either seem like items to put in a ‘free-bee box’ at a rummage sale or, even more bluntly, the garbage can. But to me these objects were my memories in physical form, precious gemstones I could physically hold in my hand.

I knew I had to start getting rid of things, even if I only started with a few.

The Beanie Babies

My tendency to keep things really started with the 90s trend of Beanie Babies. I even remember getting my very first Beanie Baby at three-years-old.

I was at my grandma and grandpa’s house in Indiana, the one that looked like the Vatican and Warsaw in a greenhouse. My grandma told me she had a surprise for me. She took me in the kitchen and pulled out two little stuffed animals, a turtle and a giraffe. She told me that when she was at the mall a few weeks ago people were just going bonkers for these new little, plush animals.  She said that immediately when the sales clerk put them on the shelf people were grabbing them left and right, so she grabbed a few too before they were gone.  

She told me I could pick one of them to keep and the other would be sent to my cousin, Arynn, in North Carolina. I struggled for a minute to choose between them because turtles and giraffes were two of my favorite animals. The turtle’s name, ironically, was Speedy and the giraffe’s name was Twigs. I chose Twigs.

Twigs started what would soon become a large, fully registered Beanie Baby collection. Yes, I said registered

I recently read and article about Ty, the company that produces Beanie Babies, and how it was the first company to have a website engage its consumers with its products. And from the day my grandma Evelyn gave me Twigs and for another almost ten years, I would be a very engaged consumer. 

The Beanie Baby Club website was the first website I had an account for at the early age of five. The website allowed me to track the Beanie Babies I collected, with the help of my parents, of course because I was still learning how to read, and research new ones that I needed to find. I also had a plethora of Beanie Baby books that I dug into when I did learn how to read. I owned collectors manuals, Beanie Baby themed cook books, and I even collected Beanie Baby cards. 

I was shook when I started kindergarten and kids were talking about Pokemon cards. Why would anyone collect Pokemon cards when Beanie Baby cards existed? *Side note: this is the beginning of the story of how I did not become a cool kid in grade school.

My Beanie Baby collection was my pride and joy for most of my time spent in the single digit age range. And yes, I know a lot of people in the 90s collected these toys thinking they would be worth money someday– in case you haven’t heard yet, they aren’t worth a thing. And yes, I did use this line on my parents to justify buying so many of them. I told my parents when I was in high school I would sell all my Beanies to pay for college. Well here we are, I am talking to you about my senior year of high school, and as you can probably tell I was barely ready to give up one of my Beanies, not to mention all of them.

I could remember where each beanie came from. I got my favorite dog Beanie Baby, Spunky, at a little gift shop in Green Bay called “Magic and Mischief” with my Aunt Dee Dee. There was the time I finally added Speedy to my collection, the Beanie Baby I had to give up for Twigs. I bartered from him at a flea market in Cedarburg, Wisconsin called “Maxwell Street Days”. This was an annual event my family went back to Cederburg for, where we lived the first three years of my life, to peruse the fairgrounds for someone else’s junk that would be our new found treasure. 

Every year, after saving up all my birthday money and allowance, I took my collectors books and went hunting for Beanie Babies to add to my collection. I would go up to sellers who had booths with piles of Beanie Babies and point to a specific Beanie in my collector’s manual and ask if they had one like it for sale. At age seven, I was under the impression that someone who had what I thought was the privilege of selling Beanie Babies would obviously also own a collectors manual, but looking back I think I gave people who were simply trying to have a rummage sale a little too much credit.    

Once I was able to read, I much preferred Beanie Babies with the tags still on them. First of all they were closer to being in mint condition, second of all the tags included their story, and third (and most importantly) the tags included their birthdays. This became a fascination of mine around age six and seven: I wanted to collect as many different birthdays as I could.

And finally around age ten, I stopped collecting Beanie Babies. I became more concerned with spending my money on the newest “Art Stuff” roll-on glitter gel from Bath and Body Works. But also, coincidentally or not, this was around the time I started collecting my own dates in my mind instead of in the form of stuffed animals. Now instead of gathering Beanie Babies from far and wide, I kept old calendars, planners, or anything else with a date on it instead.

So there I was, a senior in high school, who had not bought a Beanie Baby in almost eight years and still had an entire large, cylinder basket of them in the back of my closet collecting dust. There was a part of me that felt secure having them there. But I knew my new therapist and my mom were really working hard at coming up with creative ideas to control my hoarding behaviors.

It was Christmas day of 2011, and I was watching my two little cousins play together. They were running around my house during our family Christmas party using their wild imaginations to make up stories of adventures through the jungle and daring quests to save an imaginary friend in despair. And that is when I decided who my Beanie Babies would go to, who could be trusted with them.

I led Adele and Miranda into my bedroom and opened my closet. Their eyes glowed when they saw the plethora of Beanie Babies that laid before them.

“You each can pick one,” I told them, “as your Christmas gift from me.” The girls started rummaging through the Beanie Babies, overwhelmed with what choice to make- just as I was at three-years-old when I picked out Twigs.

“Oh, one thing,” I added, “there is one Beanie Baby I need to keep.” I grabbed Twigs out of the pile and explained to them how he was a special gift, and because of that I was going to let myself keep him, and just him, forever.

I will admit, my heart broke a little bit as I saw my Beanie Babies being ravaged through like I had done as a little kid back at Maxwell Street days. But once Adele and Miranda each picked out their favorite, watching my Beanies be played with felt therapeutic, and in a way freeing.

The Table Sign

On December 12th, 2011, two days after I had spoken to the clerk at the museum gift shop, I was writing an English paper on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar when my mom appeared in the doorway of our computer room.

“Markie, I found this in the driveway just now.”

On the desk next to me she laid a plastic, pink table sign from a restaurant. It was like the ones they give you when you order something and bring the food to your table that folds over and stands on its own without a metal holder. My heart stopped when I saw the number on it: 54.

It all started at a hockey game. 

On Saturday March 1st, 2008 myself along with three of my friends from my figure skating team were in a town about an hour south of us called Oshkosh. It was a game of a  hockey league for dads who wanted to keep playing the sport recreationally. We were there because a few of my friend’s little sisters were performing on the younger synchronized skating team during halftime– we really took any gig we could get. 

As we were sitting in the bleachers, a woman approached us with a large sign and asked us if we would hold it and cheer for her husband who was playing. The sign was not decorated, all it had on it was his hockey number thinly drawn in sharpie across the whole sign. It was the number 54.

So my friends and I were left with a large sign, with just the number 54 on it, and we thought it was hilarious. 

My friends Jenny, Daisy and Hazel all were joking that the number “54” had some deeper meaning because as we sat there, we started to notice 54 everywhere. On the on the clock, on different banners around the rink, in phone numbers on the advertisements on the boards. All three of them kept saying, “Oh my gosh, it’s 54!”

“Oh my gosh!” I exclaimed, making fun of them, “it’s 39!” I said pointing at the scoreboard.

“What does 39 mean?” asked Jenny.

“I don’t know, what does 54 mean?”I laughed.

“Oh my gosh! Look now, its 45 seconds! 54 backwards!” I added. We all were laughing so hard we were almost in tears.

From that day forward, my friends and I experienced something I now know as “frequency bias”, when you notice something for the first time and then you see it everywhere. As if it were magic, we all started seeing the numbers 54, 45 and 39 just about everywhere, and it became one huge inside joke. 

Things were a little different for me, however, because at this time I was living with undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder, so 54 became the number I was obsessed with. 

And this number did not only become a joke with my figure skating teammates, all my friends at school started to know about 54 as well.

Eventually, the number 54 became the equivalent of signing my name.

For example, after I graduated high school, I gathered a bunch of my friends and to TP the house of every boy I went out with in high school–just because why not?

The first house we did was Gerald’s house, who was my prom date junior year and my rebound after my big breakup with Thomas. One of my friends wrote “54” with sidewalk chalk on his driveway while the rest of us were all tossing rolls of toilet paper up in the trees. When I saw she had written that number, I panicked.

“What are you doing? Writing that number is basically signing ‘Markie Pasternak’ at the scene of the crime!” Although she thought originally I was overreacting, I proved her right when 20 minutes later I got a text message from Gerlad:

“Well hi there! It’s been awhile- why did you TP my house?”

Even to this day, anytime one of my friends from figure skating, high school or even college sees the number 54 they will send me a Snapchat or text message. And even though I eventually had to get away from focusing on 54 so much, I love when people reach out because what was my obsession is now being turned into a means of connecting with people.

Back in high school, I decided 54 was always the answer when I didn’t have one. This even ended up serving me well on math tests. If I didn’t know the answer to a question, I would fake some work and put the number 54 as my answer. I kid you not, this strategy actually worked for me on three separate occasions. Why might you ask? Well, because it was 54. 

So this brings me to Friday, December 4th 2009: my first date. 

If you remember my first boyfriend, Thomas, from other blog articles, the one who bought all of his clothes at Fleet Farm and was lost for words when my dad offered him a hot dog, he is the one who was picking me up for a date that evening.

He pulled his gold, 2002 GM Saturn into my driveway, which was still clear of snow, rare for December in Wisconsin, as I rushed out to his car– not wanting my parents to meet him at the front door.

The first part of the date was actually really romantic to my 15-year-old self, he drove me around Green Bay and showed me all of his favorite Christmas lights after taking me out for a butter burger at Culvers.

Then Denny appeared.

Denny was Thomas’ best friend who had a tendency of crashing all of our dates… even our first one. He literally found Thomas’ car as we were driving around Green Bay and drove behind us until Thomas realized it was his Volvo following us. I was a little displeased the first time this happened and very much did not know how to act I’m this situation.

Denny, Thomas and I went to the mall, and as I walked around I tried desperately to look for people I knew. Green Bay and De Pere are small places, there had to be someone from either school or skating that could get my out of this awkward third wheeling, bro-mance situation.

I didn’t see a single familiar face, but I did see a familiar number.

On the back of someone’s sweatshirt was the number 54. Suddenly my phone started to vibrate, it was my friend Kamry.

“Hey Markie, I know you’re on a date, but I just called to see how it was going.” This was a very Kamry like thing to do. She was also the friend who knew my house’s garage code and would be watching TV in our living room on a Saturday morning when my parents and I woke up ready to be included in whatever the Pasternak family had planned that day.

“Kamry!” I exclaimed, “We are at the mall and guess what number I just saw on the back of someone’s sweatshirt?”

“Oh my gosh, oh my gosh!” she replied “54!”

I am really not kidding you when I say some of my friends got just as excited about this number as I did. Here is some proof:

Me and Kamry at junior prom with the number 54.

This phone conversation got Thomas’ and Denny’s attention as they heard me exclaiming about 54.

“What number? What are you talking about?” they asked. And from that moment on, Thomas (and Denny) were in on the 54 game. A few weeks later Thomas (and I guess Denny too) and I started dating.

My parents thought Thomas was so sweet. But who was the happiest about the new couple? Well, when Grandma Evelyn heard I had snagged a boy who was Polish AND Catholic, she was convinced he was my destiny.

54 made for cute moments on Facebook, between Thomas and I, as most relationships shared in 2010. He posted a picture once while he was at Culvers with his buddies of the table sign number he had gotten– and of course it was 54. “My favorite restaurant, your favorite number <3” the caption read.

Later that year, at the end of August, when was going into my junior year, Thomas left for college in Milwaukee. Two hours away felt like an ocean away, and I decided we had to break up.

I knew college life would be different and that I wanted to continue enjoying high school. Then on Thomas’ second day in Milwaukee, I was sitting in my living room in full break-up-mode watching Little House on the Prairie with a pint of ice cream in my lap when my phone rang. It was Thomas and he was crying.

“I’m miserable here. I’m homesick already, so I found the nearest Culvers to get a butter burger and when they gave me my table number it was 54.”

I tried to calm Thomas down and tell him it was okay. I tried to tell him that college would be great and he would meet a lot of new people.

A long time ago, I heard a quote, “If you love something, set it free, if it comes back it is your’s and if it doesn’t, it never was.” That was my philosophy with Thomas. He was my first love, at that time I had never cared about someone romantically the way I cared for him before. So I mustered up all my strength to spit out:

“You will meet another girl better than me. She will be pretty, fun, and in college. You won’t even think about me once she comes into your life.”

“But I don’t want someone else,” he replied.

There was silence over the phone.

“I want a girl who loves the number 54, who figure skates, and who plays the goddamn Euphonium!”

“Well I am sure there is another…”

“No, no there isn’t, Markie. Where the hell would I find one? You’re too unique. I want you.”

Those words echoed in my head as I stared at the pink, cracked in half, table sign my mom had just laid on the computer room desk. I hadn’t heard from Thomas in over a year. We tried getting back together, I was crushed, he admittedly was crushed too and asked for me back again. I said “no”, it was too painful to hold on any longer. And soon after he found another girl, just like I had predicted. But if he was so happy with her, why was there a 54 sign from Culvers sitting in my driveway?

I didn’t know what to do. I told some friends about the sign and asked, “Who do you think left it, did you?” hoping one of them would say “yes”. But I knew who the sign was from, my friends knew who the sign was from, and so did my family.

Grandma Evelyn was ecstatic. The Catholic Polack had fluttered back into my life and there would be no more running around with Protestant boys like Gerald. But I talked to my grandma about what happened, while my parents were making a payment to the nursing home, and I told her the truth.

“Grandma, I’ve always wanted to have a love like you and grandpa had. Sometimes I read your love letters from the war and the old cards you kept. I know you think Thomas is the answer to your prayers, and mine, but he’s not. I just know.”

Maybe it was the medication. Maybe it was the therapy. Or maybe it was my intuition but this was the first time I didn’t need 54 to be the answer.

So here I had another thing to keep, another thing to hoard. An old broken in half table sign from Culvers that reminded me of heartache.

But then I thought, did it have to be that way?

So there stood, the night of December 23rd, 2011 all the way across town in Thomas’ driveway. Two weeks after my mom had found the sign, and one week after I had gotten a Facebook message from Denny that him and Thomas had indeed left the sign. My friends Nicole and Efua (Despite my quirks, I had a lot of friends in high school. I am not trying to confuse you with all the names—promise.) dropped me off in front of Thomas’ parent’s house and slowly drove around the corner, awaiting my return.

There was a snow blizzard that night. As I walked to Thomas’ front door, the blowing snow became calm. If I had to choose a moment in my memory in which there was the most stillness, the most quiet, it would be this one.

I walked up to his doorstep and put an envelope with his name on it next to the door, sticking out from under their doormat. I didn’t ring the doorbell, I knew someone would find it eventually. Looking at his house one more time, where so many memories were made, I took a deep breath, walked away and let it go.

Inside the envelope there was a letter that read something like this:

Dear Thomas,

Hi. I hope you’re doing well. When I found the 54 sign from Culver’s on my driveway, I honestly didn’t know what to do. So I decided to write you a letter. 

First of all, here is what I know about you now: I know you flunked out of college and are living back home with your parents. I heard that through a friend from skating. I know you are now taking classes at the local technical college, and I know you are still dating that girl you met in Milwaukee. But that’s really it.

So here’s an update on me: I am trying to figure out where to go to college next year. I am between Madison, Marquette and St. Thomas up in Minnesota. I want to study psychology, but I don’t know exactly what I want to do with it. I was diagnosed with OCD a few months ago and have really found treatment to be helpful, and I want to help other people. Also my dad is handicapped now. He can’t walk anymore, and to be honest it’s been really hard. Those are really about as far as my updates go.

Here’s the thing: I don’t care what you do with this letter. You could just throw it in the trash when you’re done reading it. You could put it in a drawer and save it forever, like I probably would. Heck, you could even burn it. But there is one thing you cannot do- reply to it.

I think this is where our story ends, but it doesn’t have to be a sad thing. When you left the 54 sign on my driveway, either me or one of my parents ran it over with a car. The sign cracked perfectly in half. So I decided I get to keep one half and you get to keep the other. If you choose to save your half of the sign, I hope you will remember not how much it hurt when we lost each other or the fights we got in over the phone. I also hope you don’t hang on to memories that are no good to you anymore, reminiscing on the night we spent out by your campfire or laying in the sun together on the beach. But what I do hope is that every time you look at the number 54, you remember what your first love taught you.

Merry Christmas,


The Old Letter

Sitting in a circle two days later on Christmas day of 2011, my family took turns opening gifts one by one. I watched as my little cousins played with their new Beanie Babies and would pull my mind back from drifting off thinking if Thomas had received my letter.

My family always went around the circle youngest to oldest, so everyone had to watch each other open their gifts.  My little cousins went first, unwrapping their presents, glowing with excitement. But it seemed as we went around the circle, the excitement grew less and less with age, until finally it was my grandma’s turn to open her gift. She just looked sad.

Grandma Evelyn got some shirts and scarves from other family members, and expressed her gratitude as much as she could. Since my grandpa Bill died, during the holiday season she always seemed to have a dark cloud looming over her head instead of the joy of Christmas the rest of us seemed to be feeling while unwrapping presents and digging into our slice of pumpkin pie. And finally this year, I had an idea of how to cheer her up.

After a few rounds of gift opening, Grandma Evelyn picked up the envelope with “Grandma” written on. She knew it was from me, since I was her one and only grandchild. At first she opened the card with little enthusiasm until she pulled out the contents of the envelope: which ironically was another envelope. This envelope, however, did not illuminate the bright white the other envelope did, rather it was brown with age. As she held the second envelop, her hands started to shake and tears started to well up in her eyes.

“What is that?” my aunt Dee Dee whispered to me loudly across the room, as is customary for my family’s communication style.

My mom, answered for me as I walked over to stand next to my grandma, “It’s from Bill,” she told my aunt, smiling at me. 

That day at the museum I  had finally decided what to give my grandma for Christmas. Since she moved to the nursing home, most of her belongings she had kept were in our basement. But I kept a few boxes of her things I did not way my parents to get rid of in my bedroom- the safe haven for all hoarded objects in my house. In this particular box were the hundreds of letters my grandfather and her had written back and forth to each other during World War II. I remembered what the lady at the museum had told me and thought one day I may donate the letters for historical use, but I knew that Christmas there was someone who needed them a little more.

I found a letter from December 25th, 1943 written by my grandfather all the way from Sicily, Italy where he served in the war. And right there, 68 years later, in my very own living room, I saw the look on my grandmother’s face I imagined she had the first time she saw that very same letter as an 18-year-old girlfriend of a soldier back in Indiana. I could see on her face the memories coming back to her, and I could feel the same joy radiating I felt myself everytime I held in my hand an artifact from one of my own memories, whether it was Twigs or my 54 table sign. But what I had given her was more precious than any gemstone could ever be because for a moment what was just a memory of my grandfather seemed to come alive once more, if only for just a minute.

That was that Christmas I started to realize the good I could by confronting my OCD and sharing my love for memories, not only for my own recovery but for other people too. 

This coming Christmas, now in 2019, I am finally working with the Indiana State Museum on my way back up to Wisconsin to archive my grandmother’s things for research and museum exhibits, including all the letters. 

Later on as I was tested more and more by HSAM researchers throughout college, my hoarding tendencies actually became useful. The researchers used my personal artifacts to create autobiographical questions to ask me when testing my HSAM. Researchers will now just ask my mom for a box of things from my old bedroom, stored away in toats next to my grandmother’s things in a storage locker, and from the journals, planners, pictures, tickets, brochures and birthday cards they come up with questions for me to test my memory and learn more about how it works.

And what makes me know deep down there is a purpose for all of this, the joys that HSAM brings and the trials my OCD brought, is that the research being done on HSAM is being used to find out more about Alzheimer’s disease. So each of my items  I have tucked away for safekeeping is actually helping fight what took my grandfather away from my grandma in the first place. But that’s another story.

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