Monday, March 19, 2012


 The fridge of an anal compulsive. The magnets match. The edges line up. If you come over and mess it up, I'll wait till you're not looking and make it perfect again.

I've always used control as a way to try to hold things together. Attempting to control my environment, my life, has been a little like keeping all the delicate pieces of a shattered eggshell together. It's so easy to lose focus and allow the pieces to fall apart. And once that happens, who knows how I'll ever be able to fit all those fragments together again!

It's reflected in my physical environment. I like things just so. Living with another human being for as long as I did helped me learn some flexibility with this one, but now that I live alone again, my drive for order and neatness has resurfaced, full force. There is just something about my space getting cluttered and messy that makes me feel out of control. The moment I can get the clutter under control, I feel myself relax. All is right because that which I actually have direct control over is under control.
And wow, how helpful it's been to have everything lined up just perfectly. Obviously, the fact that every drawer is perfectly organized has really made life so easy for me! hasn't been so easy. Oh.

It shows itself when I leave my home. I compulsively go over a list in my head that ensures that nothing terrible happens while I'm gone. Stove? Off. Candle? Extinguished. Door? Locked. Sometimes I head back to my door after walking away, to try the lock, just in case I forgot to lock it. I can't fully relax until I've convinced myself that, when the tragedy comes, at least it won't be directly my fault. I imagine that the next terrible tragedy is around the corner, waiting for me. All of this has been really effective in warding off terrible events. Oh, wait. Dave died anyway. Huh.

It reveals itself in my relationships. There is a part of me, always readied to shut down in anticipation of abandonment or rejection. I replay things I've said and done in the company of others and try to pinpoint the behavior of mine that will end up being the final straw for them and cause them to reject me. I give people I really like being with "off ramps" as my good friend has termed it. Off ramps are when you give someone lots of chances to do what you are just waiting for them to do eventually, anyway, which is reject you. It works like this. Instead of saying to someone "You and me. We're spending some time together soon. So there," I am more likely to say "Do you want to hang out? I understand if you're too busy, so it's fine if you can't." There's your off ramp to make it easy for you to say no, because I expect rejection anyway. The lovely part of this one is that I probably come off seeming disinterested when, in reality, I'm so interested that I'm afraid of being rejected. That might not be working so well for me. Hmmm...

So, if these super rational and productive ways of life aren't helping me and in fact are making me a little bit cuckoo, why do I keep doing them? I think I've struck upon the reason. Of course, part of it is that they're ingrained. Everyone knows how hard a habit is to break. But the other reason is that when I can't control something (life), I desperately search for something I can control, and direct my energies to doing so.

Little by little, I'm learning to let go of the death grip I have on my eggshell. I'm watching the pieces fall apart and noticing that the world didn't end when they did. I've watched as people didn't reject me outright (or if they did, I was better off without their influence in my life anyway). I've watched as I jumped into the unknown and uncontrolled world of this new life of mine and I didn't fall flat on my face. I landed relatively gracefully and carried on. Even when the pieces were all over the place, never to be put back together in the same configuration again.

We can't control a damn thing and when we think we can, it's an illusion, anyway. It may feel comforting to control little details, but these rituals don't ward off bad things.

I'll probably always prefer a zen, orderly home. I'll probably always fear rejection. I'll probably always check my stupid lock three times before I leave. But all of that was true of me before tragedy struck and my life as I knew it was completely upended. Lots of help THAT was!

To that end, I will make an effort every damn day to let go of some of the unhelpful control and let the pieces fall where they may. Let love in. Let mess in. Let risk in.

There's something strangely freeing in knowing that the shit will hit the fan no matter what I do, so I might as well loosen up and free up some space in my life to just enjoy the ride as much as possible.

Just don't judge me if I line up the books on my coffee table so their edges are perfectly parallel with the table. It makes me feel better.


  1. Oh Cassie, you must be living inside my head!!! The terrible fear that if I am not in ordered control of my environment I will.......... well I don't really know what, but it would be terrible! Ha Ha Thank you for your words of sanity. I'm off to toss magazines on my coffee table willy-nilly! : )

    1. Good for you! Glad I'm not the only one, though.

  2. I could have written a lot of this post.
    I label things inside my cupboards. I can't leave the house with the bed unmade, the newspapers not in the recycling bin, a glass in the sink. I too feel this immense relaxation when things are neat and anxious when they are not. The upside is my house is neat, clean, orderly. I can find things. I can have company at almost anytime day and night.
    How did I spend my weekend - mostly alone. In my perfectly neat and clean house.
    When my husband was ill - there was so much clutter. All the medical things, drugs, lists and wheel chair and cane and blankets etc. . .
    I remember struggling with it at first - it challenged me so much but everything else was such a big thing eventually that gave way.
    I would go back to the mountain of stuff to work around in a minute. now, right now.

    I know it is about trying to control the uncontrollable.
    I know it is impossible.
    I (like you) give my friends and family "off ramps". I don't want to appear to needy, that I can't cope or that they have to entertain me. So I make vague offers for coffee, or a movie or lunch. I often say - you know the weeks are busy, but we should get together soon.
    For me it is not as much about rejection as not wanting people to feel sorry for me because I am now alone. Not wanting them to be in my company because they feel bad. I want to be wanted just for me, not out of widow pity. I know it is crazy. I and my inner amazon want to carry on and prove - I can handle this great tragedy in my life.
    So I spent Friday and Saturday night alone. Me and my puppy. We did okay. I was lonely but I did it.
    However, I don't want to spend every weekend alone and so I have to makes some plans - a solid plan with no off ramps that says "Hell yes, lets go out for dinner. Hold on while I check the door".

    I get you - no judgment here.

    1. I'm an introvert, but there's something about being alone now that I'm widowed, that is scary. Making solid plans makes me feel connected with the world. With someone else. Like I only exist if I'm expected to show up in someone else's presence. It's a strange feeling for someone usually so comfortable with solitude.

    2. I feel the same way. I am very comfortable with "aloneness" but that is completely different than "lonely". I am surprised how much "coupledom" still feels weird. Yet, I don't want to spend my life with single people - only. I want diversity, a village - a YMCA village full of people who get it. I guess that is a bit what it is like here.
      Thanks for saying it is scary. I like to think of myself as a "tough ass" ( you would never guess this by my outward appearance). I have lived through losing most of my family to cancer.
      But - sometimes when I wake in the night and think "alone" - it can be scary. Having to make the big decisions without input can be that way too. But every day - I do it. I hope with time the fear disappears.

  3. Cassie,
    I once saw a man on tv who got on the floor and combed the fringe on his rug, just please don't start doing that! Funny, I was once that neat orderly person, now I am more apt to let the clutter build up, it doesn't matter anymore because there's no one else to see it cluttered but me, and I don't give a hoot. And locking doors...I just discovered that one in my family room has been unlocked all winter! I never use it in winter, so just assumed it was locked.

    Do whatever makes you feel better. I had to keep things in order early on after Doug died, or else I couldn't find a thing, my brain was too lost in the fog to recall where I put things. But now, 2 years later, the fog has lifted and I have relaxed a bit. I think I'd rather have that orderly life, but some days it doesn't work that way. And I wouldn't think of messing up your fridge! Would you like to reorganize mine? Please bring matching magnets!

    1. Cathy, I saw that, too and I haven't fringe-combed yet, but I'll be honest, I kind of understood where he was coming from! ;)
      And, yeah, I'll reorganize your fridge with matching magnets ANY day.

  4. I have begun to compulsively check things but I think it's less of a control thing and more because I AM forgetting things. I now triple check that the garage door has closed behind me - even to the point of driving back home because I HAVE driven away with the door wide open. I set timers to remind me to turn off something on the stove because I HAVE left the house with the gas burner on.
    And that was never me before... (forgetting OR needing to check...)

    With the passing of time I can look back and sequentially watch my life implode when the bottom dropped out beneath me. (not that I enjoy doing that - but sometimes it happens...)
    And there was next to nothing that I could have done to prevent it.

    So, I find your summary so true:
    "There's something strangely freeing in knowing that the shit will hit the fan no matter what I do, so I might as well loosen up and free up some space in my life to just enjoy the ride as much as possible."

    My husband was the "free spirit" while I quietly kept things in control. He always told me I was his rock. That I grounded him. He died too young, but he lived a full life and pretty much did whatever he wanted to do. And I'm thankful for that. That at 45 he had few regrets.

    So, yes. 'Shit will hit the fan no matter what I do' and I may as well try to enjoy the rest of my life to the fullest. I'm currently letting love in again and I have the feeling that it could get messy - and I don't care!

    1. "I'm currently letting love in again and I have the feeling that it could get messy - and I don't care!"

      Valerie, I love this.

    2. Me too. Let it in the whole freaking mess of Love. Let it in and let it mess up the house and blow open the windows and show us life isn't about perfect but about the living.

    3. Interesting post. I have also always been OCD (ish, as I enjoy saying) so I get where you are coming from. I understand being comfortable in an orderly environment and I enjoy knowing where things are. Now, putting on my counselor hat (that's my profession)...OCD runs on a continuum from not having a big impact on your life, to taking over your life. Going back to check a lock is low on the continuum, going back five or six times or to the point where you can't get to work is a different story. It's all about how much it gets in the way of daily functioning. These behaviors include checking, counting, washing, cleaning, or however the compulsion expresses. Being widowed, I've had times where some of mine have given me pause, particularly when I leave the house in the morning. Did I unplug the coffee pot, my hot iron? Did I put on the alarm? I have started pulling out of the driveway a few times in a mad rush, and then gone back to check. It's getting better. But I don't think it's a bad thing to be slightly cautious.....