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The Jewish Coming-of-Neuroses

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I thought I’d escaped my mom’s OCD, then I grew up 
10/13/2008

Stefanie Pervos photo

Stefanie, realizing the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

Growing up, I didn’t really think anything of the way my socks were put away, each pair bundled together into a perfect ball, arranged in rainbow order (yes, people wore colored socks back then) in my top drawer. In my closet, clothes were arranged by season and color and every hanger and seam faced the same direction. My mom did laundry (several loads) every night and putting the clothes back into the drawers sometimes took five tries to get the folding just right. The cleaning lady came once a week and my mom cleaned thoroughly both before and after her visits. The house was always spotless. We never ate Cheetos and got wiped down with paper towels after every meal. I learned never to spill.

Then I got older.

Suddenly, it became incredibly irritating that I couldn’t just leave a single pair of jeans out over night (I was just going to put them back on in the morning) and that I had to make my bed every morning (I was just going to get back into it that night). And that even after putting everything away, having been told repeatedly, my mom would still come in and refold the jeans and remake the bed herself—I could never (and would never) get it just right.

In college, my roommates knew that my parents coming to visit meant it was time for some serious cleaning. We scrubbed and scrubbed until we thought our apartment was spotless. But when my mom arrived, cleaning supplies in hand, without fail it was never clean enough.

My mom isn’t trying to drive me crazy—and she doesn’t really want to refold my jeans any more than I want her to. My mom comes by her OCD honestly. It’s there with her, through every single moment of every single day, and though it sometimes gets the best of her, I admire her strength in fighting through her urges and not letting them rule her life.

I wasn’t always so sympathetic. I’ll admit that growing up, I just didn’t quite get what my mom was going through. Instead of being understanding and considerate, I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked G-d for sparing me my mother’s obsessive compulsiveness and allowing me to be the laid back person I was. As far as I could tell, I was as easy going and relaxed as they come. I could travel with ease, not even school stressed me out and while I was no slob (I had been trained very well), I was totally cool with leaving a pair of jeans out overnight.

These days I have a much better understanding of what my mom is going through—thought I never really wanted to understand quite so well.

I entered the “real world” and it hit me like a ton of bricks.

You know how a bar or bat mitzvah is supposed to mark the Jewish coming-of-age when a young Jew must start taking on responsibilities for herself? I think this occasion should actually be marked about eight years later when she has to get a job, moves out and the real responsibilities kick in—we could call it the Jewish coming-of-neuroses.

As much as I tried to fight it, the older I got and the more stressful life became, I felt aspects of my mom’s disorder starting to creep out. It started with some minor anxiety and stomachaches, and then, one day I found myself scrubbing my bathroom shower for over an hour thinking that I just couldn’t get the tub white enough. I realized I had a little more than just a few bad cases of the nerves.

No, I do not arrange my socks in color order, and it’s entirely possible that the clothes in my closet are not all facing the same direction, but I am definitely guilty of some obsessive-compulsive behavior, and often times my anxiety gets the best of me.

This is something I struggle with every day, battling the anxieties in my head, never knowing what will set me off or when. I am learning to take on each new challenge as it comes, and to never let my neuroses stop me from living my life.

We all know the stereotype of the Jew as neurotic, as portrayed by Jewish mothers everywhere and Woody Allen, and this one, I’m afraid, isn’t too far from the truth. I think we all know someone who is a little neurotic, or nervous, or obsessive about something—everyone has their shtick. How could we not, with a religion that tells us to question everything, repeat this line three times and wash our hands before every meal?

But whether my tendency toward OCD is dictated by my religion, my genetics or too many Woody Allen movies doesn’t matter much. What matters is how I’m going to choose to deal with it going forward--whether I can get myself out of the bathtub scrubbing frenzy and move on with my day.

I know that the stress of grown-up life will never fully go away. So in the meantime, I plan to take lots of deep breaths, sign up for a yoga class and get through one day at a time. Luckily, I have someone close to me who has been through it all, to help me push through and keep things in perspective.

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