“For me, his kindness is not diminished by what he felt he had to do to survive. I remember a sweet old man communing with feral kindred spirits, moments of peace with feline vagabonds.”
My family and I sat in our Buick and watched as a sweet old man with snow white hair, a worn charcoal gray fedora, and dress slacks held up by bright red suspenders stumbled down the street of my small Georgia hometown. He held a liquor bottle wrapped in a brown paper sack. I had never seen him drunk before. I just remembered my grandfather as perpetually kind with a never-ending supply of circus peanuts and peppermint sticks in the pockets of his old sport coat. I was too young to understand what was going on at the time. We drove away without him ever knowing we’d seen him. My mother cried the whole way home.
His small, run down house was home to every stray cat in the neighborhood but no one else. He faithfully fed them, and they kept coming. Long divorced, with grandkids popping in occasionally, he knew more cats than people.
“Here, kitty, kitty. Poor kitty,” he would say as he sprinkled food over the ground for the feral horde. I was a little girl then, but I saw his compassion as he watched the cats pop up one by one about the same time every day, tentatively, slowly, scared. “Poor kitty.” He stooped down in well-worn dress shoes, their shine lost long ago from the dust, years, and small-town poverty, to hold out a hand to a cat at once wanting to approach but too frightened at the same time. This was long before rescues were fashionable and the good graces of people like my grandfather were where these starving cats turned for help.
Inside the house, he had stacked junk to the ceiling. I couldn’t understand why he would hold on to so much stuff and refuse to throw it away. I was even told he kept what little money he had hidden in the walls, perhaps a carried over fear from living through the Great Depression. I remember the nerves he experienced while driving. The panic he went through when he spotted a police car. He had done nothing wrong, and yet he would slow down so much that he would get pulled over for going too slow. I was told that no one could think of anything that had happened in his past to make him panic like this.
His old post office box could be identified immediately by the smudges around the lock. On many occasions, I watched him attempt to leave the post office, get halfway out, and turn around to go make sure the box was still locked. There was no handle to pull on the small door of the box and confirm it was closed, so he made many attempts to push it with his thumb to make sure it didn’t bounce back, which would have indicated it was never locked to begin with, as the demanding part of his brain warned. He’d try to leave again before being pulled back by the exhausting compulsion in his brain to check…just one more time.
As he aged and Parkinson’s disease took hold of his limbs, I remember his shaking hand pushing an item on a shelf one inch to the right and then the left, and him turning away and then back to do it again. In hindsight, the drinking, and later, a “problem with pills,” were clearly signs of a man self-medicating to escape the torment in his head.
It was over two decades later while lying in bed at 1:30 a.m. after a particularly bad night of walking back and forth to check a lock on a door over and over again that it dawned on me: “Dear, God! Pawpaw had OCD!” How in the world had I not seen it sooner? He’d been born at the turn of the last century when any mental illness was considered shameful and died long before we were all attaching #removethestigma to our posts. Well, he died long before social media for that matter. Who knows how much better his quality of life could have been with proper treatment and understanding? So, he did his best to quiet the torment raging in his brain.
For me, his kindness is not diminished by what he felt he had to do to survive. I remember a kind old man communing with feral kindred spirits, moments of peace with feline vagabonds. I only grieve the hours he lost due to the lack of proper treatment people didn’t have the access to back then.
But today, we don’t have to struggle alone. We don’t have to self-medicate in shame and silence. Help is available.
OCD can often lead to attempts to self medicate with drugs and or alcohol, compounding one serious problem with another. If this is a situation you find yourself in, you need a treatment center that is able to address both issues at once.
The Recovery Village is an example of such a place that has experience with treating both. https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/mental-health/ocd/
Please feel free to visit my Resources link as well.