Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Meet the Neurotics.

[Here's a kind of Meet-the-Neurotics essay about our obsessive-compulsive disorder and the therapy that my daughter and I went through when she was a little kid. It was first published in Because I Love Her: 38 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond.]

My daughter and I are driving home from her therapist’s office. We have just touched dog puke. This ranks as a glowing success, according to Dr. Jennifer who is young and still believes in, well: One. The curative powers of touching dog puke. Two. Most of the things she learned in graduate school, and … Three. That she can change the world with most of the things she learned in graduate school – one overwrought kid at a time.

“I feel like Benny Ogden,” I say.

“Who’s Benny Ogden?” my daughter asks, piping up from the back seat. She’s ten -- an earnest kid with mussy hair who wears her zip-up boots sockless. She has enormous blue eyes and light freckles. She’s recently started using a lavender colored conditioner that makes her smell like a teenager, and she’s become increasingly afraid of going to the movies, birthday parties, and a place called Fun Station – which, according to her, should call its parking lot a barfing lot because of all of its germs. She has a fear of germs and of barfing.

“Benny Ogden was the kid in our neighborhood growing up who would do anything.” If ten or more kids gather, one of them is bound to become the kid who’ll do anything, and one is bound, I suppose, to be the one to dare him to do anything – it’s a childhood society standard. Benny Ogden couldn’t stand up to simple taunts accompanied by chicken-bocking. “Benny Ogden would do anything a bully would ask him to. He made a naked snow angel and ate cat food. He moved the neighborhood dog poop, bare-handed, into Mr. Hoffman’s yard.”

"Was that the mean old man who made his wife sell her afghans door-to-door and was always re-tarring his driveway?”

“Yes, him.” It dawns on me that I tell too many stories about my childhood. I should be handing over real information, things that will be important later in life, or at least more relatable than Mr. Hoffman, the compulsive re-tarrer of my childhood.

Have I told her about Napoleon, Lincoln, Betty Ford? No. And I feel guilty all the sudden about this. Chairman Mao? Richard Feinman?

“I feel like Benny Ogden, too,” she says. “But I’m glad you touched the dog puke with me.

"Of course, absolutely. I wouldn’t let you touch dog puke alone.” What kind of mother lets her kid touch dog puke alone? Not me! And I didn’t have to touch the dog puke either. It wasn’t part of the plan. But when Dr. Jennifer told me how things would go, I volunteered. At first she’d looked at me skeptically. I was figuring that around the same time in graduate school when you learn how to get a dog to puke and then scoop it up, you’re also learning how to look at people skeptically.I said, “I’ve got issues, too – as you know.” She likes when I admit my culpability. “I mean this is mostly my fault so I should model, at least, good things like this.” Good things like this? Certainly it’s dawned on me that the desensitivity training is idiotic. Certainly it’s dawned on me that I prefer the question: What kind of mother lets her kid touch dog puke alone? to the question: What kind of mother lets her kid touch dog puke at all? Well-intentioned – that’s the most I can hope for here. But my decision to touch the dog puke showed a glimmer of forward-thinking intelligence on my part. I know how these things go down … as a parent. If you don’t touch the dog puke and only the kid touches it, and the kid becomes a memoirist – which is a possibility every parent should prepare for – then the mother has scarred the child. But if you do touch the dog puke, you were just stupid. In the grand scheme, I’ll always opt for stupid. In most cases, it’s the best I can do.

“It’s all going to work out,” I tell my daughter now, with a grand sense of authority. “I mean, I think things are getting better. If you can touch dog puke, you can touch the joysticks at Fun Station, right?”

“I think it’s pretty rare for people to catch sicknesses from dogs.” Since we adopted two dogs from the Humane Society earlier in the year, my daughter has been watching Animal Planet. Occasionally, she’ll say things like “Whale nipples are retractable.” I’ve learned not to question her random knowledge of animal life. Plus, our neighbor is a vet, and Phoebe spends a lot of time over there, talking about dog issues, and, I suspect, retractable whale nipples and other things I’m not so sure about. “Oh,” I say.

“Plus,” she adds, “if we’re Benny Ogden then Dr. Jennifer’s the bully. And you know what you think of bullies.” Unfortunately I’ve lied about what I think of bullies. I’ve told the kids to stand up to bullies, that they usually back down. But I’m pretty sure this isn’t true. Bullies are bullies because they have a history of bullying and are likely, based on that history, to bully again. And I realize that I’m terrified of Dr. Jennifer. Her youth, her conviction! Give me the old doctor who just shrugs and says, “Have it your way.”

Dr. Jennifer is supposed to call me this week to discuss the next step in the process, and now I realize that I’m going to have to stand up to her, and that the reason I’m going to have to stand up to her is two-fold. One. Because she is a bully. Two. Because my daughter is playing me.

For good measure, she adds, “Next time she’ll have us picking up dog poop and putting it in someone’s yard – with our bare hands!”

“Right,” I say. “Right.”

“She has to be stopped.”

Here is the real issue: I don’t want my daughter to turn out like my mother. Glenda Baggott, is an overly anxious, OCD matriarch, who doles out equal doses of love and worry and I'm baby, still. She has spent her life trying to keep us all alive and intact, which, to her mind is no simple task. She believes that the world is out to get us. She’s not content to warn against drinking from germy water fountains, sitting on public toilets, eating foods past their sell-by dates. No. Her fears are much wider in scope, including dented canned goods, unscrubbed fruits, flea dips, sushi, doctor offices, gas fumes, idling cars, microwave ovens, household cleansers, the edges of bologna, elastic waistbands that could compromise the circulation of young children … Et cetera!

My mother takes her medication now – off and on – so that she doesn’t scrub pots until her hands crack and bleed. But sometimes the medicine itself seems too poisonous to ingest and sometimes the medicine makes her too tired. It seems that not having enough energy to scrub pots until your hands crack and bleed can be worse than scrubbing pots until your hands crack and bleed.

There are plenty of other quirks and phobias – some of which she’s handed down to me, and some of which I’ve unwittingly handed down to my daughter. If there’s anything I can do now to spare my daughter this fate, I will, which is how we wound up in the clutches of bullying effervescence of Dr. Jennifer.

The truth is, though, germ-phobes don’t have a chance in today’s market. There’s too much money to be made in single-use Clorox wipes. Back in the sixties my mother went through a phase of wearing mail-order disposable paper dresses. It was a mini-craze – there were paper bikinis and bathrobes. Unfortunately, the paper garments had flammability issues and, when women started to catch fire, they pulled them from the market. The paper garments were marketed at busy women on a tight budget, but what they didn’t realize was that they were a huge hit with closet neurotics. This is no longer a secret. Marketeers have learned not only how to attract germ-phobes, they’ve also learned how to create them in order to sell more products. Once upon a time, my mother and I were the only ones pulling down our sweater sleeves so that we didn’t have to bare-hand doctors’ doorknobs and using the brown paper towels to open bathroom doors. Now it’s perfectly acceptable to slicker-up in Purell, mid-conversation, if not admired. And does part of me want to Purell the joysticks at Fun World? Sure. But another part of me knows that some day soon, kids – armed with their personal Purell bottles – may do just that – and not just the second- and third-generation phobics, but the nouveau-phobic.

How sad. How very sad.

Dr. Jennifer called on a Monday, mid-day. I was in the middle of things and picked up the phone without looking at the caller ID. I was surprised to hear her voice – her chipper condescension. I wasn’t prepared, but she certainly was. Her speech was poignant and savvy and cluttered with scientific backing. She had data.

The plan was simple. In the upcoming session, she wanted to get Phoebe closer to the feeling of throwing up without throwing up. Dr. Jennifer explained that she’d introduced this idea to Phoebe already. In fact, she’d invited her to try it drinking a big glass of milk in the session before the dog puke touching – when I was out of town.

“And what did she do?” I asked.

Dr. Jennifer paused. “Is Phoebe lactose intolerant?”

“Not really. I mean I think she thinks she is because our babysitter was and she kind of liked the idea of it – the way kids this age like glasses and braces and casts -- but she eats ice cream happily. So she isn’t.”

“Well, she said she was lactose intolerant and couldn’t. She’s very … clever.” She said the word clever like it was a bad thing. She went onto explain that this week she was planning on having Phoebe drink a big glass of water – to avoid the lactose argument -- and then spin around to show that she can feel sick without throwing up, and that she was then to practice this at home, twice a day.

“Really?” I asked. “But what if she throws up?”

“She won’t.”

“She won’t? I thought psychologists believed in the power of suggestion. I mean if you tell her she’s going to feel like throwing up, she might very well throw up.”

“If she does, she’ll realize that throwing up isn’t that bad.”

“Throwing up sucks. It makes you feel completely out of control.”

“She needs to see her therapy through.”

“But, you see, I want her to say no to people who make her drink things that make her feel like throwing up. I mean, we’re heading into the teen years. I can tell her to do what you say because you’re in authority, but in a few years her peers are going to be the authority. And I want to teach her to say no.”

“Look, I know that you may want to back out, because, well, you have enabling issues, but I really think you should see the program through to its end.”

“I think I have commonsense issues. I don’t want her to be afraid of throwing up anymore, but I don’t want her to associate drinking water with throwing up. We’ve got enough associations with throwing up.”

She responded to this. There were more facts. There was more data. It was all really compelling. “It’s a controlled environment. It will be fine.”

“Well, I don’t want her to develop a bad association with controlled environments either. I mean, I mean …” I wasn’t being articulate. I was being bullied by the chicken-bocking of data and facts – with my family’s history clanging in the background. I decided to deflect. “How did you get that dog to throw up anyway?”

“It wasn’t really dog vomit,” she said. “It was a mixture of cottage cheese and vinegar and some other ingredients.”

“Do you even have a dog?”

She didn’t answer at first. She just asked me if Phoebe and I were coming in for your next session.

“That depends,” I said. “Do you have a dog or not?”

“I don’t understand your logic …”

“Do you have a dog or don’t you?”

“No. I don’t have a dog.”

“Did you have a dog as a child?”

“I didn’t need a dog for Phoebe’s session to be a success. You touched what you thought was dog vomit, and …”

“Did you have a dog as a child?”


“Did you have a little brother or someone who would let you pretend he was your dog – crawling around on all fours and barking?”


“Did you have a little brother or someone who’d pretend to be your dog?”

“No. I was an only child.”

“Did you always want a dog as a child? And was your childhood lacking because you never had one?”

“Maybe a little.”

“Okay, then.”

“Okay what?”

“We’re not coming in.”

My logic was simple. All childhoods are lacking in something. All childhoods are difficult. All childhoods are held together by painful joists. And, I’m not sure, but one of the main things we can hope for is a true expression of that pain – an honest expression of what’s going wrong and why; and we need to find out why we try to avoid that pain and why we’re afraid of that pain, and maybe that can only be done in real life – not in a controlled environment at all.

That afternoon before my daughter comes home from school, I drink a big glass of water and spin around. I sit down on the sofa and watch the room churn. I’m reminded of a time when I was on a high school beach trip, dating the guy who powered the spinning boardwalk ride where the floor drops out. I drank a lot of peach schnapps and was spun, and I haven’t had peach schnapps since. I feel like throwing up, but I know I won’t, and I don’t.

I ask myself, “What did I just learn?”

I answer, “The contemporary suburban human being of a high-strung nature and mediocre intelligence has been force-fed the obvious masquerading as insight for so long that they no longer know the obvious.”

And then I burp and the burp’s a little high in my throat, and I gag.

A few minutes later, my daughter comes home from school and finds me on the sofa. She plops down her backpack and sits next to me. “You look weird.”<

“I talked to Dr. Jennifer.”

“Do we have to go back?”

“We don’t if you’ll do one thing …”

“You have to go to Fun Station and touch all the joy sticks in the place.”

She eyes me, gauging my seriousness. I’m serious. “Okay,” she says.

“And you’re not lactose intolerant. You know that, right?”

“I know.”

“And I’m not an enabler.”

“I don’t even know what that is.”

“If it comes up later, in your memoirs or something, just remember that I wasn’t an enabler.”


We sit there on the sofa, looking out over the back yard where the dogs are lying in the sun.

“She doesn’t even have a dog,” I tell Phoebe. “It was fake puke.”

“I thought so,” Phoebe says.

“You did?”

“Yeah,” she says. “I’ve been thinking about Dr. Jennifer and about bullies.” She gets up and walks to the window at the yard, rutted with dog paths and dug-up holes.

“What about?”

“I’ve been thinking of Benny Ogden, too. And I was thinking that one day, we could bring dog poop over to Dr. Jennifer’s yard. Like proof.”

“Proof of how healthy we are? Proof of how we’re glowing successes?” She smiles and nods.

“Bare-handed?” I ask.

“Of course not. That would be crazy.”