When her father died, Abby Sher, 11 years old at the time, dealt with the loss by kissing his photo—a few times a day at first, and then hundreds of times, till his face flaked off. It was the beginning of a colossal battle with obsessive-compulsive behavior, which spiraled into hours of fervid praying each day, and eventually led Sher to start cutting herself with nail clippers and pounding her head with her fist, as many as 250 times in a row. In her new memoir, Amen, Amen, Amen, the 35-year-old author describes her dark, very repetitive journey.
Q: What sort of prayers did you startsaying over and over as a kid?
A: It started with traditional Hebrew prayers; I'd repeat them in the morning and at night, and I'd ask for forgiveness for my transgressions. Then I started thinking about other people who were sick or in need. If I heard an ambulance siren, I'd say, "I hope they get there in time," over and over, under my breath. Then I began to do it when I heard any siren—fire engines, police cars. I'd do it 25 times, then it went up to 50, then 100. I felt like if I didn't do this, I would cause damage to countless people. By the time I reached college, things had really escalated. I was praying several hours a day, and if I got interrupted, I'd start over.
Q: Did people around you know how intense these habits were getting?
A: I put on a really good charade. The nature of most addictions is secrecy. I had a therapist when I was a kid, and she would try to talk to me about my problems, but I felt that talking about my praying would be like complaining about it—and that would be blasphemous. I didn't want to abandon my faith.
Q: You also started obsessively collecting odd things ...
A: I picked up sharp objects—staples, safety pins—things that could harm people. It was connected to a flat tire we'd had when I was a kid; these items were dangerous and could cause a flat and a wreck, so it was my duty to pick them up. Eventually, I started stockpiling all kinds of things—flammable gum wrappers, pieces of random metals, paper clips, banana peels. When my mom came to my college and found piles of them in my room, she drove me to the doctor.
Q: So then your life balanced out?
A: Yes, with a combination of medication and therapy, I was able to set limits on the number of prayers I said or the amount of things I picked up each day. I'd sing a little song to help me stick to the new routine: I'm picking up one last thing. You. Are. It.
Q: But it was still a roller coaster.
A: Right. Over the years, new things would take on an obsessive quality at different times. During one particularly anxious phase, I started cutting myself with nail clippers. The pain reminded me of how I felt as a kid when I hugged my dad's photo frame so tight, I hurt myself with the sharp corners. Then later, I started making tight fists and rapping them on my skull. When my boyfriend Jay realized what I was doing, he helped me get it back under control.
Q: How are you faring today?
A: It's a dance, for sure. I'm married to Jay, we have a 9-month-old daughter, and I'm currently on medication. When my mother died a few years ago, I think I finally realized that no one could take care of this for me but me.
Q: Any advice for others?
A: Talk about it. I know it's hard because there's power in secrecy. But find someone you trust, and send an e-mail if you can't say it out loud.
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Abigail Pesta is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for major publications around the world. She is the author of The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down.
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