The Weight of Hands
by Lizzie Bankowski
There are a couple of ways to hold things. He, for instance, holds things tighter than I do: he grasps a beer bottle with a full palm while I balance a bottle between my first two fingers and thumb, as if that were enough to keep things from falling. He does the same thing with my hand. He doesn’t just hold it—he takes it fully, wraps each finger between mine and maintains a squeeze. The pressure feels nice until the tips of my fingers tingle from lack of blood flow. I have to let go and pulse my hands like the tentacles of a sea anemone. Once the feeling returns, I intertwine our fingers as they were, and he adds the same amount of pressure. We do this over and over in the car, our hands resting on my left knee in the passenger seat, until we get where we’re going. Even after we’re out of the car, I still feel the sweat from his palm lingering in the cracks of my left hand.
Sometimes I have to remind him to wash his hands when he gets home. It’s the first thing I do once I’m through the door, but to him it’s an afterthought. He reaches out to touch me, and I ask, “Are your hands clean?”
He laughs and marches to the bathroom, knowing better. But until he washes them, I can feel the dirt on his hands—the skin is heavy, grainy, covered in a layer of the day behind him. When they are clean, his hands are cooler and smoother to the touch.
I know his hands well: the width of an index card with a sharp curve before his thumb. His hands are the one place on his body without freckles. Smooth, yet to be cracked from years of labor. Short fingernails with receding cuticles. He has come to know mine: chubby fingers, no freckles or scars or bumps, purple fingernails when they get cold. Otherwise indistinguishable.
As long as I can remember, the anxiety attacks have come from small things—a comment from my mother, a changed plan, my bed not made the way I prefer, and on this particular night, dog hair on my pants.
I sit at the foot of my bed with an old-fashioned red cloth lint remover—the only one I could find—and swipe at my pants over and over, only to see more dog hair appear as I swipe. It looks like more, anyway. He sits a few feet away, saying things that sound like words of encouragement or comfort, but I can’t hear him over the buzzing in my ears, customary to what happens next. I want him to leave.
The familiar feeling of the walls closing in and the air thinning creeps up. I throw the lint roller across the room and flee to the bathroom, leaving him with my mess. Looking in the mirror, I rehearse all of the techniques that a nice doctor once suggested to me.
He hasn’t been present for an attack yet, so I fight it off.
“I’ll go get my lint roller from my house and fix this tomorrow,” he says when I come back to my bedroom.
“You can just go home.”
I wring and pinch the pads of my fingers, grabbing the skin where my fingerprint lies and pulling upward. I never look up at him, only at my fingers. But he grabs my hands and stops the pinching.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” he says. “Sometimes the smallest things are actually the biggest. It’s okay. It’s perfectly okay.”
The symptoms of my Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder manifested before I knew I had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I always felt a little off-kilter, but when I was nineteen I had an attack so fierce that I stared out the living room window, ready to run out the door in front of the next car that passed. Not to off myself, but to ask for help. No car ever passed. A few days later, a very nice doctor told me that I wasn’t crazy and I wasn’t losing my mind. Like millions of Americans, I had an anxiety disorder. She prescribed me some Xanax, recommended some self-help books, and sent me on my way.
I was able to chart my OCD from there. When I needed to medicate versus when I didn’t. When I needed to be alone versus with people. When I needed to be wrapped tight in a blanket versus open space. When I needed my inhaler versus fresh air. I got it down to a science.
And then he came along.
Justin has never had anxiety, so he doesn’t quite understand, but he tries. He is patient and attentive when I tell him that sometimes he is the source, like when he does reckless things or stands too close or hangs the hand towel up with the tag showing. There is a learning curve for us: he has never dealt with this, and I have never dealt with talking about it. Not with someone who doesn’t already get it.
Loving him is like standing on a solid foundation that he built. So many things are certain, and everything feels like it’s in its rightful place. Until it’s not. Until I notice one of those small-but-not-really-small-at-all things. Until I think about planning a wedding or buying a house.
I mostly worry about what will happen when there are kids around, and they’ll have to ask why Mom just ran in the other room and why she always picks her fingers and why the food has to be arranged a certain way in the pantry. I worry that Justin will have to explain these things, and he won’t know how because I could never fully explain them to him in the first place.
I picture myself exhausted, bags under my eyes and purple fingernails, rummaging around our future house and organizing the toys of our future children in a certain way minutes before they wake up from a future nap or return from future daycare just to ruin the order my future self has restored. Then I picture how the spiral would go: picking my fingers, breathing heavy, pacing. And future Justin isn’t home yet from his future job; thus, future me medicates so that she can avoid any future attack in front of the future children. But the future children see Mom take little pink pills all the time and wonder what they are. When they’re big enough to reach the medicine bin at the top of Mom’s future closet, they inspect the pills for fun because they don’t know any better because Mom and Dad (but mostly Mom) never quite found the words to tell them what anxiety is and what Xanax is for. One of the future children tries to talk the other future child out of experimenting with Mom’s weird pills because this future child has inherited Mom’s obsessive-compulsive gene and needs control and order. But the other future child has inherited their father’s reckless gene and takes one of the pills anyway. Come to find that the first future child turns out worse than my future self and has to count the times he locks the door, whereas the other future child realizes how relaxing Xanax is and develops a dependence on pills.
I try not to picture all of this, but once my brain starts, it doesn’t stop. So I slow it down with my hands: I wash or dust or vacuum or organize. I move. I pick up whatever I can find that doesn’t belong, and I find a place for it. I do this until I feel normal enough to be a normal girlfriend and future wife and future mother to future normal children. Until I feel normal enough to reason there’s nothing to explain to Justin and no need to even try.
When we first decided to be together, I worried that neither of us would know how to place him next to the space that OCD fills in my life. I worried that his love would be too heavy for me—that I wouldn’t be strong enough to hold it for him. In the past, I tried to carry the love of others just to find that it either fell apart like a house of cards when it touched my hands, or it felt like full tanks of gasoline, splashing onto my skin as I continued on.
There are a couple of ways to hold things. He, for instance, holds my love like a loaded gun: careful and gentle, but steadfast. He knows what it’s worth—what it could do. And holding his love makes me feel lighter.
Lizzie Bankowski is a documentary filmmaker, nonfiction writer, and environmental advocate. Born and raised on the waterways of Virginia Beach, Virginia, she has cultivated a deep appreciation, respect, and love for Planet Earth. Lizzie uses documentary filmmaking to foster positive environmental and social change. Her prose has appeared in Runestone Literary Journal, Atlantis: A Creative Magazine, and Mangrove Literary Journal. Her films have played at Wilmington Female Filmmakers Collective ChickFlicks Festival, Visions Film Festival and Conference, Gold Reel Student Film Festival, and Cucalorus Festival. Lizzie is currently directing and editing a documentary short about local and sustainable seafood in Virginia Beach.