Live Through This

One Way or Another

Conquering obsession.

Illustration by Cynthia

One hot July morning when I was nine, my mom cleared her throat at the breakfast table. There was going to be some construction on our house, she said, and she wanted to let me know that I wouldn’t be able to use the driveway for a couple of days. She was apprehensive, watching for my reaction.

“Oh,” I said, meticulously nibbling my toast into the letter T for Thursday. I did this every morning. Monday was the hardest.

Mom was watching me. “It might even be three or four days till you can go out there, Krisser,” she said nervously. Why was not being able to use the driveway a big deal? I obviously couldn’t drive.

I’ll tell you why: because I had a schedule to keep. The driveway was where I bounced my collection of high-bouncing rubber balls while I managed, in my head, a series of long-running novellas, the current one about a wheelchair-bound girl I had named Kendra and her identical, able-bodied twin sister, who teased her mercilessly in the schoolyard alongside her mean friends. In my story, I was always the one who stood up for Kendra.

After that, I needed to hit racquetballs against the garage door for an hour while I waited for an Olympic tennis coach to drive by the house, spot my raw talent, and take me to a training facility where I would live in a boarding house with other tennis prodigies. Years later, I would give heartfelt interviews on TV and mourn the fact that “I gave tennis my childhood.”

After that, I needed to water the front garden. Each flower individually, in the order in which they best pleased me. I was God, deciding who would drink the life-giving liquid and who would wither in the sun. I imagined their thin, flowery voices, pleading with me as I poised mercilessly over them with the watering can.

So if I couldn’t go out on the driveway, I couldn’t write the next chapter of Kendra’s story, I couldn’t hit racquetballs against the garage (and today might be day the Olympic tennis coach drove past the house), and the flowers would fight each other for the last remaining dewdrops of the summer morning. It would be chaos.

I was clearly living in my own world. I’d always told myself elaborate stories, but now it seemed like I was coming back to real life less and less often. Whispering to myself, I would sit alone at my mom’s sewing table in the basement, obsessively completing, destroying, and re-completing a 500-piece puzzle with a picture of tiger cubs on it. I had also just begun making abstract pictures out of tiny dots in my diary, filling up the whole thing with page after page of thickly-packed little circles. Mom found it and freaked. Child psychology books began appearing in the top drawer of her bedside dresser, where I searched through her scarves and old photographs on a weekly basis.

Everything came to a head that August, while my mom and I were in a fabric store. I was waiting for her, methodically arranging the spools of thread in the discount bin into perfect, even rows, sorting them by color and size. I was the strict headmistress at a very exclusive school for spools, and I was only accepting perfect students—no loose threads, no damaged paper labels.

And suddenly my mother was there, snatching the spools of thread out of my hand. “Let’s go,” she snapped. She grabbed my arm and dragged me out of the store. In the car, she told me she was going to have me “tested.” This meant, as I found out years later, that I was being tested for OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Lots of kids feel compulsion—a need to do things a certain way. My mom thought mine were getting out of control.

The therapist, a woman in a maroon turtleneck who spoke with a soothing voice, chatted casually with me, arranging objects—little wooden blocks and tiny dollhouse figures on a table, asking me if it was OK to move them and change their order. I kicked my legs in an overstuffed armchair. I didn’t care where she put the objects! What was this? I knew why I was there!

“My mom thinks I’m queer,” I told her, using a word I had just learned in a book that had British characters. She laughed. “Do you mean ‘odd’?” I nodded. Then we talked a lot—about my morning and nightly routines, about my high-bouncing balls, about the journal full of dots—and I was returned to my mother in an hour with a smile. Diagnosis: overactive imagination.

“She’s fine. Try to get her into painting. Or maybe miniatures. Something constructive.”

MAN DID THAT THERAPIST HAVE MY NUMBER.

See, I wasn’t attached to the obsessive, methodical activities because I thought something bad would happen to me if I couldn’t do them—they just gave me something to do while I made up stories in my head. These fastidious activities allowed me to work with my hands while my mind raced. That’s why I had to do things like hit a racquetball against the garage door obsessively: I needed a cover for talking to myself. You can’t just sit around staring at nothing and whispering. People will get freaked out. When I was busy with a task I knew well, my mind was engaged, but free to roam.

The therapist’s suggestion of getting into miniatures worked like a charm. My mom took me to a store in downtown Green Bay, Wisconsin, where I suddenly discovered a world I hadn’t known existed—a world made of really. Tiny. Things. I basically spent the rest of my childhood bent over a table in the basement with a magnifying glass and a spotlight, painting flowers onto china teapots the size of a pinky nail with a brush I made by tying several of my hairs together onto a toothpick. The DIY kits were endless and utterly absorbing. There were tiny plaster birthday cakes the size of a quarter to decorate! Eensy working grandfather clocks to assemble! Bitsy watercolor paintings to paint, frame, and put up on the walls of the mini-kitchen I had built! There were even—gasp!—miniature wooden jigsaw puzzles that you had to do with a pair of tweezers.

Mom was relieved. This she could classify as “a hobby.” The only downside now was dealing with the creepy guy who owned the miniatures store downtown and his horrible, horrible breath when he bent to show you a detail on a flea-sized refrigerator magnet designed for a deck-of-cards-sized fridge.

As I got more and more involved with miniatures, the strict rituals I had governing my meals, grooming, and playtime slowly abated, then stopped altogether. I didn’t need them anymore. I began to feel free—suddenly, I had more time! I no longer needed to eat my toast a certain way, or hit racquetballs against the garage door for exactly one hour every day. I was in the thrall of tiny things, but by my own choice. And more important, I could continue to tell myself stories while I focused, which is what really mattered all along.

When I was 12, I abandoned the miniatures altogether and began just writing everything down in notebooks, from fact to fiction. I’m pretty sure that’s how I became a writer. Ya know, the old-fashioned way—by painting miniature food for tiny kitchens. ♦

38 Comments

  • ravenflamingo May 17th, 2012 11:28 PM

    I love this! I’m literally obsessed with miniature things. It’s great that you found such a cool hobby.

    http://ravenflamingo.tumblr.com

  • Elva May 17th, 2012 11:30 PM

    Hehehe. I stumbled into rookie a few months back, and this is probably one of my favourite articles to date.
    I love tiny things and have many a silly obsession.

    Thanks for the giggles! You’re a fantastic writer.

  • lylsoy May 17th, 2012 11:50 PM

    How funny, I used to play tennis/ soccer/ dance in the front yard, just incase a coach or so would drive past! ;) Glad I’m not the only crazy child out there!
    http://bewareofhipsters.blogspot.com.au/

  • taste test May 18th, 2012 12:00 AM

    this is written wonderfully, and I relate so much. I also have a quasi-obsessive habit when I’m thinking about my writing: pacing. specifically, pacing in my tiny room while listening to music. if I’m really lost in a new story, I can do it for hours. there’s nothing like it to work out plot difficulties or get to know a new character, no matter how much it freaks people out. I’d love to know how far I’ve walked distance-wise doing that. it’d probably be good if I tried to replace it with a constructive but somewhat mindless hobby, haha

    • sternenfall May 20th, 2012 5:28 PM

      doesn’t that have something to do with bilateral stimulation or something?

    • anonymouse May 21st, 2012 11:13 PM

      I sit cross-legged on my floor and rock back and forth, it helps me focus. And you are totally right, when your lost in the intricacies of a story, there is something that grabs you and wont let you go until you’re done. :]

  • Tyknos93 May 18th, 2012 12:02 AM

    Oh this is so cool I just found the youtube channel RRcherrypie this year, and it’s one of my favorite things. Cute miniatures oddly soothing sounds and cool crafts.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iy2iygFMNVo&feature=channel&list=UL

    http://blazoningpens.blogspot.com

  • Susann May 18th, 2012 12:37 AM

    Great article :)

    http://fashioninpepperland.blogspot.com

  • Mags May 18th, 2012 1:32 AM

    I, too, am obsessed with all things wee.

  • SweetThangVintage May 18th, 2012 1:41 AM

    This is gorgeous! I enjoyed reading it very much! I love that you did all of those things!

    Now I want mini things!

  • whisperedglasswords May 18th, 2012 3:12 AM

    That sounds do much like me, but in a magnified-times-ten way. I make up and tell myself elaborate stories all the time, while doing practically everything from washing dishes or pacing, to walking through the grocery store or laying on my carpet and tossing something at the ceiling repeatedly. I even do it while trying to fall asleep! I did it way more when I was younger, before I realized that it was better to just tell the stories in my head instead of whispering them out loud to myself. Sometimes I wish that there were a way to transform thought-stories into books without having to write/ type them. Because whenever I get them down as words I become overly critical of myself as well……

    • teen goth May 18th, 2012 4:54 AM

      ‘ Sometimes I wish that there were a way to transform thought-stories into books without having to write/ type them. Because whenever I get them down as words I become overly critical of myself as well……’

      That is me to a T. I wish there was something exactly like that because I analyse my words, when I try to write them down, to closely as well. I thought I was the only one.. :)

    • KatGirl May 18th, 2012 7:27 AM

      I’ve been doing that since I was 4… I’m 15 now. I agree with the thing about typing them, though. Whenever I try to write down a thought-story I always end up thinking about how stupid it is and stopping… but in my head I always keep writing.

      • missmadness May 20th, 2012 12:52 PM

        Keep writing! Stream of consciousness craziness, no matter how ‘dumb’ you think it sounds. I have a ‘scraps’ notebook and computer file for these snippets. One day you’ll be writing a story you really like and run out of stream. Digging through your scrap file will often inspire you or jog our creative brain back into thinking.

      • keezey July 16th, 2012 9:31 PM

        oh my god, ME TOO!

  • Magpie May 18th, 2012 3:50 AM

    Thank you for writing this. I used to do many of the things you describe (hitting balls for hours, shower routine, chewing routine, etc), and have been slightly worried for the last decade that, who knows, I might be OCD? Not until I read this piece did I understand why not: I didn’t think something bad was going to happen either. I just needed the legitimation to wonder and be alone.

  • Stine May 18th, 2012 4:41 AM

    I love this article for two reasons:

    1) Yay miniatures! In fact I went to a dollhouse fair last weekend to revisit my childhood obsession with all things tiny and I loved it.

    2) Tip to over obsessivey types: Weaving. Perfect takes-forever-meticulous-activity! I’ve gone through literally months of audiobooks and podcasts. Plus it’s cool, of course.

    Thanks for the article, I enjoyed it very much!

  • Roo May 18th, 2012 12:36 PM

    I used to love miniatures
    Then I watched The Lovely Bones and I got kind of creeped out…
    Those blogs you linked to are the epitome of cool, though!

    http://iamvivaciousdammit.blogspot.com/

  • Samantha May 18th, 2012 1:35 PM

    Loved this! Sounds very similar to my childhood – I’d ride my bike in the same route or spend hours bouncing in patterns on my trampoline, thinking up crazy stories, humming about them to myself as I moved.
    Now, I always do a long hike or a bike ride before I sit down to write, composing my thoughts in my head.

    http://poorgoop.com/

  • all-art-is-quite-useless May 18th, 2012 1:48 PM

    I used to bounce a netball up against the wall of my house or roller skate around the patio all time when I was younger, making up stories in my head!

    I’m glad I wasn’t the only kid who did this

  • Maddy May 18th, 2012 2:30 PM

    I thought this was going to be more people obsessions! Interesting and nice links! I like looking at them, but I don’t want to make them.

  • meels May 18th, 2012 3:17 PM

    Love this article!

  • Abby May 18th, 2012 4:00 PM

    Good for you! This was a good article.

  • aliceee May 18th, 2012 6:34 PM

    I’ve always been like this, making up things in my head & muttering to myself, & I was also obsessed with miniatures! My friends & I made THE COOLEST cities for playmobil or, um, potatoes. I don’t build that stuff anymore, but I still mumble to myself about things I’m imagining… it’s actually gotten to the point where I have a hard time concentrating since I stay in my head too much… I was trying to force myself to stop, but now I’m going to set aside a time for thinking while doing something that doesn’t require concentration (one person yahtzee, anyone??)

  • Runaway May 19th, 2012 2:08 PM

    Loved this!!!! What I did, and still do, is listening to music. I don’t make any playlists; I just choose the song that comes next according to where my story is going to.
    My mom was mighty worried, too, ’cause I sometimes preferred spending the whole afternoon like that to going out with my friends. Not that I am anti-social; it’s just that I’m introvert. People often mistake this with being shy, but I don’t think I am (I used to be, but not anymore). It’s just that us introverts need to spend more time on our own than extroverts.

  • Lynvine May 19th, 2012 2:45 PM

    It sounds like you were (or are) a maladaptive daydreamer. To quote Wikipedia, maladaptive daydreaming “is is a term first proposed by Eli Sómer, Ph.D for a condition in which an individual excessively daydreams or fantasizes”
    About maladaptive daydreaming:
    “Some subjects who suffer from this disorder have reported that their daydreaming feels like an addiction and that it has a negative impact on their life, although not always. Excessive daydreaming may begin as an outlet for creativity or as a method of escaping trauma or abuse. The daydreamers experience very vivid and intricate fantasies and may become emotionally attached to the characters in their fantasies or express emotions they are feeling through vocal utterances or changing facial expressions, although most keep such behavior hidden from others”
    Again, this was quoted from Wikipedia.
    Also:
    “A study of 90 individuals who self-identified as having excessive daydreams found that 79% had a kinesthetic repetitive movement accompany their daydreaming, such as pacing, rocking, tapping, or shaking an object. Listening to music while daydreaming is common and hearing music may trigger a fantasy. A repetitive movement may be articulated to music while daydreaming”
    Sorry for the long post!

    • Runaway May 19th, 2012 6:27 PM

      OMG! I’m feeling pretty bad right now…

    • caro nation May 20th, 2012 1:14 AM

      Wow…um… that’s me. That’s very Dancer In The Dark, for sure.

    • Runaway May 20th, 2012 9:31 AM

      Yeah! I’ve gone from “Cool! I’m not the only weirdo who does that and it’s good ’cause it means I’m creative” to “What?!?! I’ve got a mental condition?!?!”. I laughed so hard at the Dancer in the Dark reference. xD

  • koolkat May 19th, 2012 3:32 PM

    I used to sit alone on the schoolbus whispering stories to myself… that was when I learned that people think you’re weird if you mutter to yourself… I learned to keep them in my head pretty quickly! I had whole worlds and full novels in my head, characters that I knew like the back of my hand. I used to narrate my life in the third person. It’s quite sad, because I don’t do it as much now that I’m older. :(

  • Juniper May 19th, 2012 3:33 PM

    Wow!!! What a wonderful article!!! Krista, I idolize you.

  • laurenniee May 19th, 2012 8:29 PM

    OMG I used to spend a good chunk of my childhood just bouncing a ball up against the wall of our yard making up stories, the same ones, over and over again. I really need to get round to getting them onto paper some day.

  • Selle May 20th, 2012 7:27 AM

    Pretty much my childhood was also spent on little hobbies to keep my hands busy while my brain was zooming a million miles a minute. Wow. It feels so good to read I wasn’t the only one! Though I never was neat so my compulsions took the form of messy arts and crafts endeavours rather than organizing and sorting things.
    I suppose you could say thats how I started loving art and is why I continue to make it today. I still have a million stories in my head I tell only to myself :)

  • Jessica Vixenelle May 20th, 2012 2:13 PM

    The beginning sounded like David Sedaris’ “A Plague of Tics”!

  • sternenfall May 20th, 2012 5:27 PM

    raw

  • StinaStarStina May 22nd, 2012 2:30 PM

    Wow! I am so glad to hear other kids did this! The more of your stuff I read Krista the more I see we have a lot in common! I am probably too old to be reading ‘Rookie’ admittedly, but this story was a relief! I always thought my stories and my ‘own world’ we a result of my sensory issues/mild autism or something like that :)

    I used to ride my bike around and around in our driveway and in the woods, and toss basketballs, ice skate in the winter and skateboard in the summer. and even sometimes just walk, walk and walk (we had LOTs of land growing up) and always ALWAYS tell myself elaborate stories, I never knew other kids did that!

    I figured they must but had never encountered it :)

    Thanks again for your story!

  • keezey July 16th, 2012 9:33 PM

    I’m glad I’m not the only who sits around all day just planning out these novellas in my head. I swore I was crazy, and I’ve never really told anyone about it…

  • Livvy Brockhurst April 6th, 2013 2:35 PM

    I used to spend hours on the swings at a playground near my house, planning out these long books I never wrote. For some reason I could only make up stories one those swings, no other swingsets would do.