Grade: 11th grade
Age: 17

Not Another Cancer Story

Save pagePDF pagePrint page

Nothing upsets Oliver more than hand soap. Or earbuds. Or pen ink. Really anything that’s related to his frustratingly high need to be clean all the time upsets him.
Every day Oliver wakes up at seven AM regardless of if it’s a school day or not. He starts his day off like everyone else; he goes to the bathroom and washes his hands. Then he washes his hands again. “Double the wash, double the clean,” he thinks. Of course he knows this is irrational. Sometimes, though, he can’t help but think of the consequences if he didn’t wash twice. He often reminds himself that hand soap is only ninety-nine percent effective, meaning there’s still germs left on his hands. If there are still germs on his hands, then those germs must be powerful because they’re the last point-one percent. And then he’s going to get sick from these very powerful germs. His mind jumps to cancer. He’s going to get cancer if there are still germs on his hands.
It confuses Oliver. He doesn’t know anyone with cancer. He’s never been seriously ill in his life. Then why is he so afraid of getting it himself? It’s simple— the world in unpredictable and he can’t control it. He’s seen cancer stories everywhere online, reading about how parents lose their children too early or a recent scientific story linking a common object to cancer. From there, thoughts of him getting cancer took over his mind. In class, for example, Oliver can’t use earbuds. Not because they won’t fit, but because the build up of dirt and bacteria is far too much for him to handle. Tedious state-mandated testing that requires a student to listen to a recording are the biggest threat to his cleanliness bubble. Some teachers will let him in the hallway. He is so thankful for them. For the others that don’t let him, he spends the test holding the earbuds just outside of his ears, turning up the volume to where it’s mostly audible, but not loud enough to disturb others. Likewise, he struggles finding pens to use. He has a very strict set of rules including rules against pens.. Blue ink is better than black because it’s lighter; and red is worse than blue because it’s brighter; green, purple, orange, and any other unnatural pen color is just unacceptable. For size, the pen must not have a large range of width. Oliver likes consistency. Smearing is pretty obvious to him. If it smears, it shall never be used. As a left-handed person, smearing is very important. If even a small dot of ink lands on his skin, he’s launched into a full-fledged panic attack and he has to find the nearest sink to get it off. Those days are the worst for him. The chemical compounds, he thinks, are sure to leak into his bloodstream and interfere with his cells. This kind of repetitive thinking is distracting to him. School comes as more of a challenge as a result. He tries to get all of his homework done, but sometimes the thoughts run freely in his mind, and suddenly they’re grabbing him by the hand and leading him through a world full of germs and hand soap. His compulsive behaviors make him embarrassed, so he often resorts to staying quiet in social situations. Because of it, Oliver struggles with making and keeping friends.
It’s no different at home. Yes, the thoughts ease slightly because he knows the environment better, but it is still an exhausting motion to go through. His parents don’t know how to help him. They have tried everything from glove-wearing to taking away the hand soap in the bathrooms. He was in the eighth grade when his parents tried the soap-confiscating technique. He has a distinct memory of coming home from school after taking the bus. Due to a sudden movement jolt, Oliver quickly grabbed the seat in front of him to prevent himself from falling. Naturally, this was not okay, and he spent the rest of the ride aggressively rubbing the palms of hands against his jeans and breathing in and out too quickly. When he reached his stop, he raced home and immediately went for the nearest bathroom. Upon discovering the missing soap, Oliver let out the most piercing scream. He went from bathroom to bathroom, hunting for any form of soap, but there was nothing to save him. At the third and final bathroom, he already had hot tears streaming down his cheeks and sweaty palms. When his mom finally caught up to him, he was unable to speak, sitting motionless in the hallway. After what felt like hours, he calmed down. His mom suggested a shower, to which he obliged, and fell asleep without eating or doing any work that night. He knows his mom was only trying to help, but part of him couldn’t forgive her. He still can’t.
After the hand soap incident, Oliver’s mom took him to a therapist, but he didn’t find it productive. All he could focus on was how many people had sat in that chair before him and when it was last cleaned. He honestly doesn’t remember a word the therapist had told him.
That day in the hallway, that day in the therapist’s office, is a day he constantly goes back to. If anything, that day fuels his need for cleanliness. Every time he washes his hands, or touches earbuds, or accidentally mark himself with pen, his mind flickers between the memories and reality. The fear of returning to that day, that feeling of helplessness, is paralyzing. It— what it is— has an iron grip on Oliver’s mind. Everything he does is for his fears. The mental maps of where a sink is, the insistent need to make sure the pen ink won’t graze his arm, the noncompliance to wear earbuds, it all dictates his every move. And he doesn’t know how to stop it. He doesn’t know if he ever will.

3 thoughts on “Not Another Cancer Story

  1. Exploration of OCD. Worth a second read, gives a sense of how difficult it is to live with this disorder. Too close to the themes in “Turtles All the Way Down”? Or just a high schooler’s realistic view on how the lived experience of OCD is?

  2. I was instantly hooked, and wanted to know more. I’m not sure it fully delivers, and it becomes a little repetitive, but it’s interesting, well and carefully written, and unusual. A nice effort and a writer I’d like to see more from in a longer format.

  3. This is a fascinating character study, full of detail and insight, but it’s not a narrative–no storyline. Would have been much more effective with Oliver taking steps, however futile, to overcome the OCD. You just cry out for this young man to get medication, then counseling!

Leave a Reply