[Fiction] The Doubting Disease — Oskar Oprey

I suffer from acute anxiety and OCD, but I prefer the old Victorian term for my condition: the doubting disease. I like how it turns the mental into the physical. It suggests my problems are palpable, and hopefully even grotesque — like leprosy, or the final stages of syphilis. I wish my constant worries would manifest as buboes and swollen glands. I dream of banishment to OCD Island, where I’ll be quarantined off with all the other worrywarts. But most of all, I crave contagion: one snotty sneeze from me and soon you’ll all be plagued with intrusive thoughts. Please forgive me, I’m just very sick and alone.  

I want to find myself a nice OCD-afflicted husband, someone to fret with under the bedsheets. Our romantic strolls would always be abruptly cut short, due to the sudden need to flee back home, hand in hand, and triple-check that the gas hadn’t been left on. We’d scrub away the germs together in scalding-hot bubble baths, savaging each other’s flesh with pumice stones until we bled (before each taking a separate shower to remove any cross-contaminated bacteria). Oh, what bliss.  

There was someone, not too long ago — though he wasn’t mentally or physically unwell, quite the opposite, and that was the problem. In those first few months I’d let him reassure me, he’d gently drag me away from my front door and that desperate impulse I had to go back for the millionth time. “It’s fine babe, I saw you lock it — I literally just stood here and watched you do it with my own eyes,” that’s what he’d say, with a smug little snigger and shake of his head. Shamefully, I succumbed to his rationality, at least for a while. 

That was our honeymoon period, but the novelty wore off soon enough. By the end of our relationship, I’d taken back full custody of my compulsions. He said the only thing I really loved was my cleaning routine, and he wished us a long, happy future together, “truly, sincerely. On the night we broke up, he told me that he planned to start piling up his kitchen sink with dirty dishes, leaving them there to fester for days on end. I wouldn’t be around to tidy up after him, no more reprimands and tellings-off. He was excited to block up the shower drain with his pubes, to strew his bedroom floor with a week’s worth of musky underwear. It would be just like the good old days, before he met me, and all my hang-ups. His statement crushed me, not the cruel intention behind it, fuck that and fuck him — it was the thought of all those piss particles soaked into his Y-fronts, the decomposing food encrusted onto his crockery, all that loose bacteria running wild. It truly devastated me.  

We had agreed not to speak for a while, but on that morning, I had to reach out. I was attempting to suffer through an eight-hour transatlantic flight, 35,000 feet in the air with nothing but an ensuing panic attack for company. I hyperventilated and browsed the in-flight menu as my doubting disease had its wicked way with me. The seeds had already been sown on the way to the airport, back when I’d started to agonize over the hair straighteners in my bedroom. I had used them the day before, letting the ceramic plates cool down thoroughly before storing them away in a drawer, but of course the doubting disease had burdened me with the crippling, all-consuming fear that I had actually left them switched on, even though I definitely hadn’t, but then again I might have done, even though I clearly remembered turning them off, pulling them out at the socket, but the thing is I could have been mistaken, and maybe this was a fantasy, a memory from some other time, and I had no proof because I’d been so stressed trying to deal with the kitchen. I wish I had just brought them with me, instead of the pathetic ‘mini travel’ tongs I had packed in my luggage.

I live in the bottom floor apartment of a ten-story block. I started to envisage the impending devastation, the corpses of all my neighbours. There were some kids from the fourth or fifth floor, I didn’t know their names, but used to see them playing outside. Now I could only picture their charred little skeletons, huddled next to a scorched iron bed frame and lump of molten barbie dolls. The penthouse residents would be littered across the communal courtyard like confetti, having leapt from their rooftop pads in despair in a last-ditch effort to flee the towering inferno I’d carelessly unleashed from my vanity table. 

I had considered making my own escape from the aircraft when we were still on the runway. I could take a taxi home, make sure the straighteners were 100% turned off, and then book another flight for the following morning. I spent so long weaving together different scenarios in my head that it was eventually too late, we’d taken off. I wondered whether the pilot would turn back and make an emergency landing if I explained the situation, the impending risk to life. No, probably not. Eventually the seatbelt light stopped flashing and I had access to Wi-Fi again. As you’ll agree, it’s better to be safe than sorry, so I decided to drop him a WhatsApp, for old time’s sake. 

“Hi 

I caught the flight

I’ve left the hair straighteners on X” 

It was still only 5AM by this point, but he’d popped up online immediately. The idea of waking him so early was a nice thought. Two blue ticks indicated that my message had been read and received, but there was no reply, and then he was gone again. I was preparing myself for the worst. I kept refreshing the news websites, both local and national, over and over — nothing so far to indicate an unfolding hellfire back home, so there might still be time. I shuffled in my seat and commenced the breathing exercises. The trick is to inhale for seven seconds, then exhale for ten. I’m very good at keeping these ruptures to myself, and the old woman sat next to me would have been oblivious to my turmoil. She’d have simply written me off as a fidgeter: the knee-crossing, thigh-scratching type. I was sat in an aisle seat. I always book aisle just in case I fall asleep and accidentally soil myself. It makes darting to the toilet less awkward, and I pack a spare pair of underwear in my hand luggage. I’m not incontinent, I just plan for the worst. 

I was in this sorry state because of the kitchen, which had taken up way too much of my precious time. The Uber arrived at 1AM, whilst I was still photographing the hob, making sure each knob was turned to zero and clearly visible in the shot, and then I had to double-check again, my head bobbing along each dial hissing “off, off, off, off, off, off,” under my breath. Thankfully, I live alone these days, with no prying housemates to catch me in the act. 

In an ideal world, the hob and I would have had another minute or so with each other, but I still had to take iPhone snaps of the unplugged toaster and kettle, making sure the plugs and empty sockets were in the same frame for extra reassurance, as this would rule out the possibility of a cable slithering out of sight and plugging itself in somewhere else. Taps were turned off, the handles twisted firmly, the absence of running water confirmed and documented; a hand was also placed underneath each tap for extra reassurance, as these safety checks also need to be tactile and not just purely visual. Then there was the whole ceremonial stuff with the front door, meanwhile the Uber driver was losing his cool, and in this ensuing chaos I had forgotten to properly document the straighteners, releasing a minuscule sperm cell of doubt, which would soon fertilise my OCD, resulting in a demonic surge of panic to swell up in my belly like Rosemary’s baby. Hair straighteners can reach a maximum temperature of well over 200 degrees Celsius. They have reportedly been the cause of over 650,000 house fires in recent years. I dropped him another message. 

“I’m scared there’s going to be a fire

 This is a genuine emergency 

You’re the only other person who has a key 

I need you to go and turn them off

Please babe” 

They diagnosed me with OCD at the age of thirteen, back when I was going through my ‘cleanliness phase’. Mum had caught me using surface cleaner as shampoo and she flipped out. By late adolescence, they’d managed to wean me off the hand soaps and the bleach, but my focus had already shifted into an apocalyptic guilt complex. I fear that my health and safety negligence will cause a huge disaster, that my true calling in life is to accidentally kill a large number of people. My therapist wants me to embrace the ‘positive qualities’ of my doubting disease. She tells me that I clearly have a deep love and respect for humanity and all manner of life, that I can’t bear the thought of causing harm, and surely that’s a good thing, no matter how debilitating these worries can often seem. Years of cognitive behavioural therapy have helped reign in my more extreme behaviour, as has the medication, but I’ll never be truly set free.

The doubting disease ruined our second anniversary celebration, table for two in some swanky restaurant on a perishingly cold November evening. He’d forbidden me to nip back to his apartment and unplug the electric fan heater. We bickered throughout the meal, about it being his heater, in his home, so therefore his fire hazard and ultimately his problem and if the whole fucking flat went up in flames then so be it — he hated it anyway, thought the rent was too steep and the landlord a prick. I was told to chill out and enjoy the six-course tasting menu he’d booked weeks in advance. He said he didn’t want me ‘owning’ his problems because my own were bad enough. Over dessert, he wondered aloud as to whether or not I was the root cause of his receding hairline.  

I’ll never forget that one solitary occasion in which I had been correct, although it didn’t feel like much of a victory. We’d been watching TV in bed and all I wanted to do was nip to the kitchen and make sure the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine was definitely turned off, but he kept insisting that he’d already checked, had held me there in his grip, tickling me and making siren sounds, “Neeeeeee Nawwwww, Neeeeeee Nawwwww.” What followed the next morning was one of my more hysterical episodes. I still can’t figure out what was worse: his deliberate lies, or the realization that we’d slept in the adjacent room whilst that fucking thing sizzled away all night. I spat at him. I unplugged the still-hot George Foreman and hurled it in his direction, before finally clawing at his face with my fingernails as he tried to restrain me. That particular confrontation lasted a while. It ended with me sobbing into his shoulder. He stroked my hair, pointed out that we were still alive, and also that “the grill has a useful built-in safety feature whereby it would automatically turn itself off if it ever became too hot.” It was true, we were indeed still alive, there was a built-in safety feature and I agreed with him on all points, said I was sorry. But truth be told, I’d rather we’d both died of smoke inhalation just to prove my point. 

We had a make-up fuck there and then, on the kitchen table. I agreed to anal as amends for his scratched face. I lay there on my back, head hanging over the edge. The stench of last night’s seared pork fillet still lingered in the air, filling my nostrils and tormenting my senses with illusions of cooked human flesh and near misses. He seemed to particularly relish post-argument sex with me, and our fights were always somehow linked to my doubting disease. For us, a suspicious electrical fixture was essentially foreplay.  

It was 8AM and still no reply, but he was fully awake by now and back online.

“What if I told you that I left them on deliberately? 

And what if I told you I left all the hob rings on too

And the oven, at full blast

Ball’s in your court

Asshole” 

You might think that I was being a twisted little bitch, but the fact is I couldn’t be 100% certain that I hadn’t in fact gone completely insane. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it won’t be the last. That’s the beauty of the disease: infinite, limitless doubt. He’d be wise to go and check the apartment for himself. Technically, it was his problem now anyway, as I was thousands of miles away and couldn’t just nip home. Rather than me trying to own his problems, he now in fact owned mine, whether he liked it or not. It was my parting shot: the gift of responsibility, of guilt. I wondered how he’d feel tomorrow at the sight of my old place, ‘Ground Zero’, now just a smouldering shell blighting the skyline. Would he have deleted all my messages, feigned ignorance, pretended that I hadn’t forewarned him, that I hadn’t cried out for his help one last time? I’d be holed up in my hotel room, poring over the fatality numbers. My photo would be plastered all over the news, with police keen to track down the mysterious tenant from the ground floor, the suspected culprit and arsonist who’d gone AWOL whilst on a trip to New York. 

I have a back-up plan in which I live out the rest of my days as an aid worker in some war-torn country. I’ll help install water wells or something, far away from electrical appliances and plug sockets, basking in my love of humanity and life, sleeping in a makeshift tent with no door to worry about locking.

The air hostess served me another Bloody Mary as I pressed send on my final message to him. I kept it simple, just the one word, “MURDERER”, all in caps, followed by a skull emoji. I spent the remainder of the flight really riling myself up. I watched videos of buildings burning down until I burned myself out. I went deep into some Reddit thread, initiated by a woman who worked shifts in a donut shop and was worried that she’d left the deep fat fryer on. Some dickhead under the name JuniperJelly chipped in with “Oh Hun, Do-Nut worry about it!” Thankfully, a user called bigmouthbrunette1974 was on hand to save the day, the lone voice of wisdom surfing a tsunami of dumb, irresponsible fuckwits: “Maybe you should call your boss just in case, because if the place burns down, you’ll technically be unemployed.” I found a hilarious home security-cam recording on YouTube, which documents the exploits of a dog who has been left home alone.  The dumb mutt tries to jump up and steal a bag of pretzels from the kitchen counter, but merely pushes said pretzel bag onto the stove, which it somehow manages to turn on with its paws. Obviously, the pretzel bag heats up and catches fire and then within two minutes the whole room has gone up in flames, but I think the dog survived. We were now halfway through the flight, and I was pretty wasted by that point. I showed the dog-pretzel-fire clip to the woman sitting next to me and we both had a laugh. I did, however, make a quick mental note to myself: never ever get a pet. My YouTube algorithm suggested a ‘Sinking of the Titanic’ documentary from the early 90s. I watched that for a while and must have dozed off shortly after the liner collided with a badly rendered CGI iceberg. It was a wonderful sleep, deep and soothing, free from paranoia and catastrophe — the doubting disease rarely ever haunts my dreams.

The jolt of the plane’s wheels hitting the tarmac at JFK finally forced me out of my slumber. I felt like shit — my head thumped, and a bitter taste of tomato juice lingered in my throat. My new friend and travelling companion tapped me enthusiastically on the shoulder to declare, “we’re here!” Yeah, no shit, Sherlock. I was the first to unbuckle my seatbelt, the first to pounce up and make a beeline for my hand luggage in the overhead compartment. I’m one of those people. I managed to push myself halfway down the cabin before getting stuck in a human traffic jam. That’s when I checked my phone — merely as a distraction, to deflect attention away from my uncomfortably close proximity to the other passengers, both in front and behind, who had sandwiched me into the aisle like the contents of a sweaty BLT, similar to the one I’d been served mid-flight. That’s when I noticed his reply, languishing there on my home screen, he’d sent it more than two hours ago:

“What if I told you that the NYPD just received an anonymous tip-off, informing them that a notorious drug mule fitting your description was about to land?

Brace yourself for a very thorough cavity search

Missing you

Love you X”

*

Oskar Oprey is a writer based in London. He is the editor of Scamp magazine and is currently working on his first novel.