In this poignant personal essay at Design Observer, Chappell Ellison recalls her brother’s crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and how their family coped with his rituals as his disease worsened. As a designer, she examines how her brother’s obsession with germs informs her design choices and how those choices might help improve the lives of people with disabilities.
When my brother walks into a room, every single object has a voice that screams only at him. The sofa, the rug, the throw pillows; they scream indiscernible commands that all seem to say “Don’t touch me or you will die.” His fear of these objects and the perceived germs they carry cause him to stand in the middle of the living room, paralyzed with his palms pressed together at his waistline. It has become his standard position. He might watch an entire half-hour of television, standing in that very spot. We’ve gotten used to it. In the past five years, I’ve realized that some objects scream louder than others: door handles, light switches, cushions. But his interactions with some particular objects have provided stories that cause my family to laugh and cry years later. We have learned that objects designed to make our lives easier, prove disastrous for him. As his condition worsens, we have to take stock of these objects and adjust our own behaviors in the process.
The combination of an ear and germ obsession results in daily laundering of pillowcases. We’re not sure why, but he prefers doing his laundry at my parents house rather than his own. He carries the laundry in a black garbage bag, clutching it tightly and never once placing it on the floor. On one winter’s afternoon, he pulled a few articles out of the dryer, carrying the heap in his arms through the kitchen, walking towards his bedroom. That’s when the pillowcase fell. The sound of it hitting the floor was thunder to my ears. He didn’t notice. This would be avoided if he could use a laundry basket, yet the plastic lattice work on nearly every basket sold translates to dozens of nooks and crannies for him to clean. Washing them upwards of 30 times a day, his hands are the only trustworthy receptacle for carrying clean laundry. After he went to his bedroom, I sat at the kitchen table and starred at that dark green pillowcase, lifelessly sprawled across the orange tile of our kitchen. It was Sophie’s Choice. Or Let’s Make A Deal, without the prizes or fun. I had a choice to make: put the pillowcase back in the dryer and lead him to think he left it there by mistake, or leave it right where it was. I couldn’t bear to lie to him. My legs turned to stone and I sat, knowing the consequences. He eventually returned to discover his error, muttering curse words under his breath. Our household suffered from a minor meltdown until dinner eased the tension. He could never use that pillowcase again. My dad has since devoted his free time to searching the internet for laundry baskets that can be easily sanitized.