Excerpt from “I Look Better in Binary” by Becky Pourchot.
Spittoons Aren’t Just for Cowboys
An excerpt from the book I Look Better in Binary
Becky M. Pourchot
Each night as a third grader I willingly endured News Scene Fifteen’s footage of bombings in the Middle East and images of starving children in Africa knowing that if I waited long enough, the happy human interest stories would begin. Instantly all my sadness and fears would be washed away by pot belly pigs at the county fair, mayors in one legged sack races, and roly poly polar bears at the zoo. Who could ruminate on gang violence when there were dogs in the world who saved kittens from their death?
But on this particular night Don Dannon, the tan coated news caster, was more serious than normal. With a saddened expression, he told his television viewing audience about a series of Chicago deaths related to bottles of Extra Strength Tylenol that had been laced with cyanide.
I watched intently as they described the death of a twelve-year-old girl—just three years older than me. According to the story, authorities believed that someone was going into grocery stores and filling capsules with poison. The death toll was up to seven people. I hoped desperately that Don Dannon would still showcase the story on regional cheese makers that they had promised the day before, but it never came.
Wanting urgently to make sure everyone in my family was safe, I ran up to my parents’ medicine cabinet and dumped every pill we owned into the toilet and flushed.
That night my mom came in to tuck me in. Looking a bit concerned, she asked if I’d seen her contraceptive pills.
I just shrugged.
“What is cyanide, Mom?” I asked, quickly changing the subject.
“It’s a very deadly poison,” she said. “It can kill humans with even the smallest dose.”
“Like how small?” I asked eyes wide.
“Oh, I’d guess even a quarter teaspoon. But don’t worry. Those Tylenol deaths were isolated incidents. You are very safe.” And with that she kissed me on the head, turned out the overhead light and shut the door.
I lay in my bed staring at my poodle lamp, which had survived several bouts of redecorating. The happy poodle stood on its hind legs balancing a yellow ball without a care in the world, mocking me. I thought of all those pills I had dumped into the toilet.
What if poison dust from the medicines became airborne and made its way into my lungs? I thought.
Or maybe the poison is still sitting in my mouth, and with a single swallow I’ll be dead.
Not wanting to take any chances I let the spit pool in my mouth until I couldn’t hold it anymore.
I got out of bed, headed down the hall to the bathroom and spit in the sink. I watched the saliva inch its way down the bowl, then spit two more times for good measure.
The next day I went to school and had no thoughts of poison until Alan McCormick brought up the Tylenol scare in current events. According to Alan, there was now a guy on the loose who was putting cyanide in packages of Nerds candy.
“Just the strawberry ones though,” Alan said tipping his head back to let some grape flavored Nerds roll into his mouth.
“I’ll take that, Alan,” our teacher, Mr. Healy, said, placing the box in his “mine-until-the-end-of-the-day” drawer. We laughed at Alan’s notions, especially since he’d been eating out of the strawberry side all morning and hadn’t shown any ill effects, but the class was still concerned, so Mr. Healy had us arrange our desks in his trademark semi-circle and let us continue our discussion, skipping both math and reading to air our pressing concerns.
Several kids shared the rumors they heard about children at neighboring elementary schools who found stickers laced with LSD. When we asked Mr. Healy what exactly LSD was he said, “It’s a drug that makes you see things that aren’t there.”
That didn’t sound so bad. My brother Eli believed a whole bevy of imaginary beavers lived under his bed and Mom thought he was hilarious.
But then Carmen asked, “Can LSD kill you?”
“Well, probably not. But too much of it can be very bad news.”
The ambiguity of “bad news” set me on high alert.
Though Mr. Healy did what he could to soothe our fears, I was feeling more anxious than ever. Richie Munz, sitting beside me, took our discussion time to carefully sketch a bottle of poison on to the surface of his desk, complete with a skull and cross bones and a label that said ‘drink me.’ Richie was really good at drawing skulls. I shuddered.
Mr. H noticed the drawing, but not wanting to squelch his student’s artistic talents, kept his criticism to a minimum. He simply handed him a bottle of diluted spray cleaner and said, “You know what I want you to do with this.”
As Richie squirted his desk, I watched the excess spray float in the air towards me like an evil toxic mist. I sealed my lips shut and stopped breathing through my nose for as long as I could. Who knew what toxins Richie had conjured up.
When I could no longer hold my breath, I exhaled, still keeping my mouth closed, allowing the saliva to accumulate like I did the night before. When my mouth became overloaded I ran out to the hallway and spat in the sink.
The following week at school, every time I felt the fear of contamination I’d raise my hand. With my mouth full of saliva, I’d ask, “Mu I go to thu buthrum?” As I walked briskly to the hallway trying my darndest to keep stray spit strands from oozing out, the kids quietly chuckled. Fortunately, I didn’t have the energy to care what the other kids thought. My life was at stake.
A few days later, Mr. Healy handed back a science worksheet. When mine landed on my desk with a round purple sticker with the words “Grape Job!” printed across it, I knew that I had succeeded.
Before thinking twice, I leaned down, scratched the circle, and inhaled the candied scent of a job well done, but as the grape fragrance moved its way through my nasal cavity, I panicked.
With that little scratch, could I have just released LSD fumes into the air?
My heart thumped like a rock in my chest as I envisioned myself carted away by the authorities, thrown into a padded room and left to rock back and forth in a white coat yelling “Keep the beavers away!” I had heard it myself. LSD was “bad news,” and I had just unwittingly inhaled it.
As had become routine I raised my hand and rushed to the hallway. I spit over and over again until there was no more moisture left in my mouth. Mr. Healy slipped out from the classroom, leaned over and said in a cool voice, “You need yourself a spittoon, missy.”
With my two brown braids hanging around my face, I kept my eye on the sink.
He went on, “You know back in the late 1800’s cowboys liked to spit a lot. Without spittoons those cowboys would have been slipping all over those saloon floors like clowns on banana peels.”
I looked up at him and smiled. Mr. H made my bizarre behavior sound kind of cool. It couldn’t be so bad if big, brave cowboys did it.
That evening I asked my mom to purchase a spittoon for me. She looked at me perplexed then said she didn’t think I needed one. But later that evening, when she found me spitting repeatedly into my favorite novelty mug, she changed her tune, started being extra nice to me, and asking obscure medical questions like a pediatrician might do: “Are you experiencing excessive amounts of saliva lately?” “Are you noticing any tightness in your throat?”
I looked up from my cup—the one that said “Hang in there”—shrugged and wiped my lower lip.
With a sympathetic tone she said, “You know spittoons are hard to come by these days,”
She continued, “But I’ll keep my eye out for you at yard sales.”
The next day at school after everyone else had left for home, I was still at the sink watching my saliva pool in a little puddle in the steel tub. Mr. Healy came up to me and handed me an empty chocolate milk carton, opened at the top.
“This might come in handy. You can keep one at your desk so you don’t have to leave all the time.” He paused and looked at me sympathetically. “Any chance you want to talk about this new habit you’ve acquired?”
I couldn’t do it. I knew if I said, “I’m afraid of poison particles that could kill me at any moment,” I would sound nuts. The truth was I knew what I was doing was completely illogical, but I couldn’t stop myself. I was an intelligent nine year old and had enough sense to know that a misdirected squirt of window cleaner probably wouldn’t send me into convulsions. I rationally knew if my classmates weren’t dropping to the floor like wasps doused in Raid, I probably wouldn’t be either. But no sound judgment could overtake the raw, animal-like fear of death by household cleaner.
I did not know how to answer Mr. Healy, so I just shrugged.
“Well if you feel like talking, I’ll be happy to listen.” He patted me on the shoulder, and I returned to the dehydrating work of filling the sink with spit.
One day, a year later in fourth grade, I skipped down a hill, arm in arm with my best friend Jen on the way back from school. As we focused intently on synchronizing our Wizard of Oz trot, Jen giggled, “Watch out! Step on a crack, and you break your mother’s back.”
Not thinking much about it, I followed her warning. We skipped, avoiding the cracks all the way home, laughing when we’d get a little too close.
We played this game for three days, until one day Jen got picked up early from school, which meant I was left to walk home alone, accompanied only by my anxious mind. The first part of the walk across the grassy field was easy. No cracks there. But on the sidewalk, I widened my stance to make sure my heels would clear the cracks, just like Jen and I had done. When the right toe of my new Jellies sandals landed smack dab on the crack, I panicked. Instantly I imagined my mother, grabbing her back and calling out “My spine!”
Hoping I could repair the situation I tried implementing some new, improved moves. I now walked up the hill, this time stepping over the crack only with my left foot first. But it didn’t help. I still sensed (with some sort of psychic ability I had apparently acquired) that my mother was in trouble. So with each step I began leaping off my foot with a hop that landed me into the next square. If any thoughts of my mom in a body cast emerged, I’d had to go back—sometimes a whole block and do the steps all over again. I had taken the game of ‘Break your Mother’s Back’ to a new level of obsessive ferocity.
So from then on, every Tuesday, when Jen was picked up early for piano, I did a tedious shuffle-skip-hop all the way up Shiloh drive. I am sure that by the end of the school year, the old lady who spent the afternoons gardening in her yard knew me well.
One night as I lay in bed, I noticed that a spot on the left side of my mattress felt dangerous to me—like by just resting on it, it had the ability to singe my skin with disease. My rational mind tried to discount it: It’s just your imagination. Diseases don’t live in mattress covers. But my panicked lizard brain took control, contorting reality, and convincing my better half: Rest too long on that spot, and you’ll get pancreatic cancer.
I wedged myself into the safe half of the bed and eventually fell asleep.
Every night after that these danger zones appeared on my bed—each one latent with evil, magical power with the ability to give me whooping cough, lose the feeling in my toes, or get attacked by wild dogs. These zones were vague at times and shifted as I lay there. Sometimes it took hours to contort myself into a safe position before I could fall asleep. Many nights I just gave up and slept on the floor.
My hard, scratchy carpet worked alright until the hot spots migrated downward. Pretty soon, not only did I have trouble sleeping in my bed, but in order to get there I had to leap from imaginary spot to spot in my room, counting “one, two, three, one, two, three, one” to guarantee my safety. Getting into bed became a not-so-fun childhood game of “hot lava.” Miss the safety zones and burn a fiery death.
In fifth grade, as my math skills developed and my anxieties blossomed, my rituals advanced to digital clocks. One day as I headed up the stairs to my room, a thought flashed in my mind that I might get lost on the way to school. I instantly saw myself wandering down darkened streets, landing in dead end alleyways where men with crow bars waited for me. My sane self knew this made no sense, as the closest we got in our neighborhood to dead end streets were cheery cul-de-sacs, where helpful dads mowed lawns and mothers had cookies to share. None the less mobsters, with their black body bags and switchblade knives were ever-present in my mind.
To protect myself from an impending loss in sense of direction and the ever present mafia, I decided (for some reason) that it would be prudent to calculate the number of minutes left in the hour on our kitchen clock.
“It’s 8:16. That’s 43 minutes left in the hour.” Once was enough on the first pass, but by the second day, still feeling the intense threat that someone might come and kill me, I tried to abate a potential attack by standing in front of the flip clock on our oven and repeating in my head: “Nineteen, nineteen, nineteen,” over and over until the panic subsided. God help me if the number flipped mid way through the process and I was forced to do my calculations and repeat the procedure again. By the end of the week I began anxiously adding to my arsenal of rituals: wiping my ears (protection against gangrene), tapping my feet (protection against loose bowels), and fluttering my eye lashes in sets of three (protection against an invasion of dust mites), trying desperately to gain power over every area of my life that I had no control.
During this time numbers became increasingly important to me. Threes were safe, but sevens were the safest. When my clock calculations ended on one of these numbers, I felt an instant comfort, satisfying me enough to go on with my day (at least until the next time I walked by the clock). Unfortunately fours and eights were deadly. If my number recitation ended in a set of four or eight the angel of death would come and lop my head off in my sleep, leaving my parents to find me in the morning, wondering what exactly went wrong.
One day as I got stuck on 4:48, flapping and tapping like I was playing a game of hokey pokey for lunatics, my younger brother Eli came into the room.
He said nothing but gave me a glance. I knew his look well, because I had invented it. It’s a raise of the brow and a twist of the mouth that says “what a dork” with just one potent glare. Because of its great power, I had deemed that only older siblings were allowed to use it, but here was Eli breaking the rule—and using it on me! I fumed. Under other circumstances I would have happily tackled him and rolled my knuckles into his temples for giving me such a stare. But I was trapped, held hostage by the grim reaper who at any moment might decide me unfit for this world.
So from then on, unless I was alone, I learned to tap, flit, and flap in secrecy. When in the presence of others I reserved my tapping to small micro movements, and kept counting in my head. I got so good at hiding my habits that even my dad, who was a psychiatrist specializing in kids my age, was unaware of the pigeon dance I performed each day.
Then one evening, about four years after I had become an obsessive vigilante, I got sloppy. My brothers were off at friend’s houses, my mom was busy in her art studio, and my dad was on the phone with a patient in the den. With the house quiet, I stood in the family room staring at the new VCR that my dad had recently bought. It was flashing 12:00, 12:00, 12:00 and I was trying figure out how to manage this aberration. Did I need to repeat the whole ordeal every time it flashed? Or could I just calculate sixty once and be done with it?
Thoughts of rampant toe fungus loomed in my mind, so I decided it was best to err on the side of caution and recite the number over and over again, until something changed. Nothing did.
“What are you doing, Beck?”
I jumped. It was my dad.
I stopped instantly.
“Oh, I’m just admiring the new VCR.” I stuck my fingers in my ears and tried to make it look deliberate. “You know, my ears have been really itchy lately.”
“Maybe you need a shower.”
“Maybe. I think I’ll do that.” I said and ran up the stairs. I’d finish with the clock later.
On two other occasions after that, my dad caught me in the act— once as I wiped my eyes after seeing a dead body on TV and the other when danger zones on the kitchen floor threatened my mid quarter grades. Both times he said nothing and just looked at me. I averted my eyes and left the room.
One evening while I casually hung out in my father’s den flipping through some magazines, he came in and pulled out a book in the section of the shelf devoted to psychology. I was hoping he was retrieving my favorite- “A Cartoon Guide to Freud,” which I had read through twice.
My dad handed me the stiff paperback. “Hey Pumpkin,” he said, using my favorite nickname, “I thought you might be interested in this.”
On the cover in bold black letters it said, The Fear Game, accompanied by silhouettes of demon like creatures hovering around a cowering woman. It was awful.
I flipped through the book past headers that read, “Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” “Panic Disorder,” and “Phobias.” I could name a person on each side of our street, who had one of these issues. With a psychiatrist for a dad, we got to play ‘diagnose the neighbor’ quite often, just for fun.
As I flipped past the page that said, “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,” my dad said, “Stop there. That’s the one I want you to look at.”
I had never heard of it before. I read: “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that causes people to have unwanted, intrusive, feelings and thoughts (obsessions) or behaviors that drive them to performing undesired behaviors (compulsions).”
I looked to him, and then kept reading.
There was a story about a woman who washed her hands until they were raw, spending so much money on soap that she had to resort to stealing it. Then there was a man who was compulsively slow, taking four hours just to take a shower, and a girl who was so afraid of finding a hair in her bed that it took her an extra thirty minutes each night to scour her blankets for stray hair.
This was intriguing, but I wasn’t getting the gist. I felt it was a little over my head and wondered how it applied to me.
“Keep reading,” he said.
I found a story about a taxi driver who needed to count letters on street signs. Sometimes he’d think he missed a letter and have to drive around the block to count again, sometimes circling for hours.
Suddenly I got it. “Do I have OCD?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t know. You might. Sometimes kids just develop rituals that they grow out of, but you’ve had this awhile.”
He’d known about it all along, but was holding back, observing me, waiting for the right moment. This puzzled me and made me wonder how much he knew, but I wasn’t mad. In fact it gave me a certain level of comfort, knowing that my dad was keeping a non-judgmental eye on me, making sure things didn’t get out of control. It’s not every day that a kid with a fear of numbers and sidewalk cracks has a psychiatrist dad watching out for her. I considered myself very lucky.
“Does all this sound familiar to you?” Dad asked.
“Why don’t you hold on to the book and read it. It might be helpful.”
My dad left and I began scouring over stories of word counters, step tappers, and clock watchers. This diagnosis matched me to a tee. What excited me the most was that people all over the world were simultaneously performing the same rituals that I had thought I made up on my own. I wasn’t alone. Apparently, I was part of some weird human malfunction, some defect that made me and my fellow OCDers think we could control the world with irrational actions. Maybe I was crazy, but at least I was in good company.
The next day after dinner I approached my dad and said, “I think I have OCD, Dad.”
“Well, that’s okay. There are things you can do about it.”
Up until this point, it never occurred to me that I could get rid of the rituals. In my mind, my behaviors were simply torturous habits that I was cursed to live with. Just like my friends who had to eat their vegetables, set the table, and take a shower every day, I had the additional job of stepping over poison cracks and counting ceiling tiles.
But it wasn’t that easy, and I knew it. My rules were elusive and changed constantly. It was impossible to satisfy my demons. While my friends were free to walk home from school without worrying about the state of their mom’s spines, I was a slave to my own irrational demands.
So the following day I asked my dad, “What can I do to stop these OCDs?”
He explained the treatment for OCD as if it was as easy as making a piece of toast. “You just have to move past the fear. Face your anxieties head on.”
“Oh,” I said, not sure I understood.
“It takes work, but you can do it.”
I walked away, thinking this through in my head.
Did he mean to not do the ritual?
As horrible as that sounded, I loved the idea of sleeping in my bed like a normal kid, of being able to climb the stairs without having to retrace my steps. If my dad didn’t think the world would fall apart if I skipped a ritual or two, then maybe it really was okay. That night I decided to give it a shot.
I opened my pajama drawer and felt each of my night gowns for danger spots like I always did. The blue one felt the safest so I picked it up. Then I stopped.
Move past the fear.
I put it back and moved to the lacy one—the one that I was sure would cause cancer. I pulled it over my head and my shoulders tensed as I felt the black cancer seep into my back. In psychological pain I forced myself then to step on all the floor’s hot spots, my feet burning with imaginary fire.
Then, trying to remain dedicated to my self-created treatment plan, I laid myself down on the infested bed, letting the acidic pain of my mattress boil my skin. Rigid, I let my brain percolate with thoughts of disease, abandonment, and murder. My body shook, begging for resolution, needing just a simple tap, a few safe steps so I could feel peace. I resisted.
Three minutes in and things got even worse. I could feel the precarious balance of the entire Universe tilt and sway. Tidal waves were crashing, hurricanes thrashing, and humans—so many humans were suffering, starving, and in pain. My missteps no longer put just me and my family at risk. The weight of the whole world rested on my actions. It was too much pressure to bear. I gave in.
I got off the bed, changed into my scratchy, yet safe nightgown, flicked the light switch three times, pulled my blankets from my bed and laid myself on the floor, my heart still racing as I looked up at the ceiling.
Had I done enough tapping and counting to counteract my missteps?
Not yet sure, I stood up, stepping carefully around the hot spots and flicked the light switch three more times.
That night while my family and friends slept safe and cozy in their beds, I lay contorted on a hard floor in my least favorite nightgown with the overhead light still on. I may not have been countering my OCD impulses, but the panic was subsiding, and I reassured myself that with my counting and tapping, the cancer, the mobsters, the toe funguses were all at kept bay. I had stopped earthquakes and tidal waves and kept the earth spinning on its axis with a little flick of a light switch. I could go to sleep—finally—knowing that (at least until I faced the clocks, floors, and sidewalk cracks again) all the citizens of the world were safe from harm.
Over the years my OCD evolved, responding to the real and imagined dangers that presented themselves to me. Sometimes it got worse, and sometimes it got better, depending on the stressors I faced (and how much of the evening news I watched). As an adult I worked with a therapist. I begun taking medicine and using exposure therapy I looked my fears in the eye, resisted the urge to do certain rituals, and got the panic to eventually subside. Now, though I still worry about the oddest things, I rarely feel the compulsion to perform rituals. I can even take a walk in the neighborhood, carelessly stepping on all sorts of sidewalk cracks. My mom’s back—at least so far—has remained remarkably unscathed.