Escaping your shadow

Well, I haven’t written post in over a year. It’s about time for an update I suppose, and it isn’t a good one. When I posted back in autumn 2013 that I’d decided to escape the contaminated environment back home by moving to another country, I wrote, “The interesting thing now will be to see how long it takes for this new city to become unbearably contaminated”. Well, the answer to that was a little over a year; the city I live in now is completely contaminated.

When posting about my first big contamination experience some six weeks into life in a new city, I wrote that I was “…enjoying the lack of contamination around me after the unbearable cage that the environment back home had become”, but also that “I knew that this new-found freedom wouldn’t last forever (and probably not even very long), because eventually I’d run into someone who had big nasty warts, and it would all start from there”. And so it did. As I wrote:

“However. The trail now starts. That guy with warts – where does he go? Where does he eat? Which shops must I assume are unsafe due to their proximity to his?… What if he uses the subway? He probably does, in which case he uses my stop. Which means it is no longer my stop. I’m already walking the extra 10 minutes in the other direction to use a different station. If I lose that one too, it will 20 minutes yet another way to use a stop on a different line altogether…. So, although flying over here got me a temporary respite, it hasn’t rewired my thinking, and I expect things to slowly snowball from here”

And that was indeed how it slowly but surely happened. The contamination spread throughout the city. At first, in just a few places; I could remember them as no-go zones, black holes on the subway map. But gradually, as there were more and more of them, it became the other way round; I had a number of safe zones, islands in a sea of contamination, and then one by one I lost each of them. The last safe supermarket was finally contaminated during the New Year holiday, when I saw an elderly customer there with a huge wart on his face. Since then, the procedures I have been following are very similar to those I had back in my home country, as are the amount of time and money they cost me.

So, what to do? Leave this country and relocate to another? I am seriously considering that course of action. But won’t the same thing just happen again? Well, yes, probably. But, that said, the country I came to on this occasion was a poor choice – the number of warts I see on peoples’ faces and hands here is far greater than any other place I’ve been to, which has made things much worse. I can’t say why that is; though I have a few pet theories relating to cultural reasons, there’s no actual evidence.

Maybe I should go to a country that I have been to before and liked, and that I don’t recall encountering many warts in – South Korea and Thailand are in that category. But maybe even they would eventually be contaminated.

Perhaps I can just keep relocating to new countries every year or two, escaping the contamination when it gets too much… but it’s like trying to run away from your shadow. It will always be there following close behind. I make a proportion of my income online; if I can grow that to a high enough level, maybe I don’t need to live anywhere. I can just keep travelling, constantly on the move, a month here, a month there. Would that be a good way to live? Better than the way I’m living right now, for sure. I’m still thinking all this over, but a move seems not so far off now… next update from Thailand or Korea?!

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Small Victories

I talked in my last post about how I’ve recently been trying a little bit of light self-CBT to try and reduce my phobia of floors:

“I’m not actively seeking exposure (which is what proper CBT requires, but fuck that), but trying to accept it when it arises. If I can do that, and win a series of small victories, perhaps I can remove a huge part of my OCD”

So, a couple of recent episodes in which I’ve forced myself to accept some fairly serious contamination:

Last week I met some friends for drinks, sporting a freshly shaven head. As often happens a group of people rubbed my head in greeting, which I was fine with as there was no contamination at the time. However, multiple beers later, one of our number lost his balance and half-fell to the floor – stopping himself with his hands, one of which he planted directly on my foot. Not so long ago, this would have been a red flag warning for me to make my excuses and head home, as the contamination would rapidly spread; foot to hand, hand to bartender’s hand, bartender’s hand to the money in the till, and from there I would have to assume to potentially every pair of hands and therefore every glass, table and door in the place. But I made myself stay, told myself I had to stay for the whole duration of the night out, told myself that the top of my shoe isn’t actually a place from which anyone is going to catch warts. Then, just a few minutes later, to my horror, I suddenly found my bald head once again being rubbed by a mob of people – including the guy who’d just had his hand on my shoe. And this, not so long ago, would have been a whole new level of disaster. I would have bailed so fast, got a taxi home, and spent a crazy amount of time in the shower. But again I forced myself to stay, and I stayed out until the end of the night. I can’t say I wasn’t uncomfortable – I didn’t much enjoy the rest of the evening – but I made it to the end. Once I got home, I’m afraid to say that I did wash my hands repeatedly and then wash my head repeatedly in the shower, so I doubt a cognitive behavioural therapist would approve, but I feel that just having forced myself to stay in the bar and not flee was a significant breakthrough. And while I did engage in ritual cleaning that night, I have since returned to the same bar and then forced myself to not do any hand-washing afterwards.

Before that though, a month or so ago, I’d had another alcohol-fuelled exposure to floor-related contamination which was even worse and which I’d dealt with better. This isn’t a sex blog, so I’ll skip the gory details, but basically I picked a girl up in a bar and took her home – a contamination risk I would never have taken just a few months ago. As she sat on my bed, I actually took her high heels off with my bare hands – no gloves! Amazing. I was pretty hammered which probably helped, but I literally had not touched a pair of shoes with the skin of my hands, at all, for about 7 years. And during the course of the night, at one point she ended up the wrong way round on the bed – her hands down where nothing but feet should ever be, and her feet up by the pillows – which would normally have spelled the end of the evening’s fun and the end of that set of bedsheets. The whole lot would’ve needed throwing out and replacing, and anything else she touched in my apartment after having had her hands down there would also have been contaminated. I really had to force myself not to freak out, not to send her home in a taxi, and instead to just manoeuvre her back into a safe position. I was even able to handle her continuing to touch me with her tainted hands after that, and most significant probably was that I made myself continue using those bedsheets afterwards (after washing them of course, but they needed that anyway!). I probably only managed to override my compulsions that night because I was really drunk (and she was really hot) but it was a major step in the right direction.

Other, smaller victories have been happening and I’m finding them easier and easier. There’s a great little coffee place in the station with better coffee than the bullshit chain stores at half the price, but the other day I saw the staff pulling some stuff out of a cupboard which fell to the floor. They picked it up, and I sadly thought that I would just have to start paying a bit more for my coffee elsewhere; but today I went and got a coffee there and drank it and then didn’t wash my hands. Just like a normal person! There’s a long way to go yet, but I’m heading in the right direction.

CBT

I posted a while back about my first major contamination episode in my new country-of-abode, and towards the end of the post touched on my thinking about how I might be able to fight my OCD off somewhat, or in any case make it more manageable. To recap, I am morbidly afraid of warts, and exposure to them compels me to engage in some full-on decontamination procedures while places become out-of-bounds once contaminated by such exposure episodes. I don’t know how to tackle this.

But there is a secondary mechanism by which I feel exposure and contamination happen, stemming from the time when I still had verrucas… that is, a time when I had a phobia of warts whilst actually having warts on my feet, and basically as a result had a phobia of my own feet and by extension myself. Anywhere I had been, I had contaminated the floor… if anyone dropped anything there and picked it up, that person – and very soon the whole place – would be contaminated.

Well, I don’t have verrucas any more, so that line of logic should collapse and I shouldn’t be afraid of floors anymore. But OCD doesn’t work that way; the behaviours become self-reinforcing. The original logic no longer holds, but panic and anxiety are emotional responses and it is oh-so-hard to suppress them logically; the compulsive behaviours already learned are the only way to alleviate the anxiety. A feedback loop, enslaving the mind.

The only proven way to take these feedback loops apart is cognitive behavioural therapy. CBT breaks these thought patterns up by permitting small amounts of exposure and then denying the performance of compulsive rituals. This of course causes distress, but the idea is that over time the patient is able to accept incrementally larger doses of exposure without increasing the stress level and the resulting compulsions to perform rituals. After long enough, the patient should come to see that their rituals aren’t really necessary, that they don’t really change anything, that they have in fact been wasting their time and their soul on meaningless bullshit.

However.

There is absolutely no way, not one fucking chance in hell, that you are getting me to sit in a room with someone I know has warts on their hands and try to touch something they’ve touched. Impossible. And, as I pointed out to the one CB therapist I once went to see, where exactly are you going to find someone with warts to come along and play their part in that particular scenario? “Hey, this guy thinks your hands are so disgusting that he wants to puke and would rather jump out of the window than shake hands with you – come and have a cup of tea with him!”

That, along with the hefty price tag of therapy sessions, led me to decide against signing up for a course of CBT.

What’s funny about me having OCD is that I have a degree related to psychology / neuroscience, I know exactly what’s going down in my head, and yet I’ve been powerless to do anything about it.

Well, I know how CBT works in theory, and while I can’t (or don’t want to?) do it for my wart phobia, I think perhaps I can use the basic idea to fight against my floor phobia – something that I logically have no further justification for.

So, having bailed out of my life back home to escape my contaminated environment, I think I’m in a place where, by my own logic, the floors are contamination free and I should be able to start allowing some small exposures, and to deny myself from performing my cleaning rituals afterwards. I’m not actively seeking exposure (which is what proper CBT requires, but fuck that), but trying to accept it when it arises. If I can do that, and win a series of small victories, perhaps I can remove a huge part of my OCD – I feel now, after almost 8 years of this, that OCD is with me for good. But I can make it much more manageable.

OCD ballet

I was just reading an article about the awarding of the 2020 Olympics to Tokyo, and it got me thinking about the time and money you lose when you have OCD that could be put to better uses. (As I worked out over 8 weeks from July to September, I was wasting 3 hours a day on average, and over a 3-week period in September I was wasting almost £50 a week). Olympic athletes, musicians, and anyone else achieving a high level of mastery in their chosen disciplines dedicate many hours every day to practice and training. OCD sufferers dedicate many hours a day to avoidance behaviours and decontamination procedures. All those hours lost and gone with nothing to show for them. But actually, I have become really good at a few very particular things. I could (in my previous place of abode, before switching countries) walk from the door of my bedroom to the kitchen downstairs in the dark without touching any walls or light switches, with a soap dispenser and a bottle of hand sanitiser gel plus a couple of packets of pocket tissues balanced on a hardback book in my hands, closing my bedroom door behind me with my foot. Quite a feat, honed to perfection over many repetitions. I could probably make a run for the medals if such a thing were recognised as a sport.

In fact, living with OCD in that house became a kind of never-ending dance or piece of performance art. I knew the footsteps to get me from here to there within a room or around the house without coming into contact with anything, and could do them in the dark. Door handles were biggest difficulty, no amount of OCD ballet can open a door for you, so I still needed to use all those gloves I used (and of course I needed them for tasks like cooking and doing laundry). But if I’d spent all those hours actually learning to dance, I’d be a really good dancer by now despite the two left feet (no way I’d actually do that though, with all the rolling around on the floor and whatnot).

So it’s really good to be here in a different country and being able to decide what to do with the extra time available to me now that I don’t have so much OCD stuff to deal with. I’m learning the language, exploring this city and remembering how to have a social life which isn’t fraught with contamination danger. I’m still having some issues, and expect them to grow but for now it’s not too bad.

You can take the boy out of the contaminated environment…

…but you can’t take the contamination fears out of the boy. At least, not with something as quick and easy as a plane ride…

So here I am in a new country, enjoying the lack of contamination around me after the unbearable cage that the environment back home had become. I knew that this new-found freedom wouldn’t last forever (and probably not even very long), because eventually I’d run into someone who had big nasty warts, and it would all start from there. Well, I had my first big trauma the other day after 6 weeks of not really having any problems. I knew it was bound to happen sooner or later, but it was a bad one when it finally did!

I had to get some documents printed for work visa purposes, and I didn’t notice the warts on the guy’s hands until I’d already sat down, used a computer in the shop, and printed my stuff out. Too late to bail, damage already done. I think perhaps my 6 weeks of relative freedom had lowered my vigilance levels, which means that as much as I would like to be able to let my guard down here, I really can’t. I obviously hadn’t completely let it down though, because I’d done everything in that shop one-handed (with my left hand firmly in my pocket throughout) – the door, using the computer, handling the print-outs, and paying – which made the contamination easier to deal with. Not sure why I did that in that particular shop, but I’m so glad I did – I’d have been locked out of my apartment otherwise! (it’s tempting to think that I’ve developed a 6th sense for detecting which people have warts, but that must actually be a load of bollocks. What I do know I do absurdly well is spot warts a mile off – like on someone’s nose at the other end of a train carriage – but in this case the guy had his nasty hands in his pockets). Anyway, I used my one good hand to get into my place, put the papers down on a bin liner, set everything up for my first big hand wash in my new apartment (I’d already worked out how I’d have to do it when the time came), and then spent a few hours decontaminating. (While I’m on that subject, I just want to say, why does water have to splash up out of the basin? Just fucking stay in there and go down the drain, don’t leap up and get me on the arm! An hour of hand-washing can easily become 2 or 3 hours with a couple of unlucky splashes, as it did the other day. Fuck you water!) Once I had my hands clean, I then had some contaminated papers to deal with, which was fairly easily done with some gloves and a couple more bin liners, and I had to do some very thorough laundry of the items I’d been wearing and unfortunately sat down in.

(I can’t even describe how relieved I am that I hadn’t already photocopied my passport in that shop, as I needed to provide a copy with my visa documents. That is one item that just can not be allowed to get contaminated.  There is no way to avoid handling your passport when presenting it without looking so suspicious you get taken for questioning, and you can’t just keep replacing them. Besides, after all the trauma I went through to get the thing in the first place, it would be an absolute disaster!)

So, the damage done was just a few hours that day, plus dealing with the laundry, plus going out again the next day to a different shop to print everything out again – one-handed, just in case – so about 5 or 6 hours all in. Not too bad – compared with August and September, losing a few hours in a week really feels like nothing at all. In 8 weeks from late July to late September I recorded that I’d wasted a total of 168 hours, which I’ve just realised is exactly 21 hours a week / 3 hours a day. So just 3 hours this week is still a massive improvement.

However. The trail now starts. That guy with warts – where does he go? Where does he eat? Which shops must I assume are unsafe due to their proximity to his? Why does he have to go on living his life and not getting rid of those contagious fucking warts on his hand? Even if I didn’t have OCD about it, I think I’d bloody well get rid of my warts in any case so I didn’t give them to anyone else. What if he uses the subway? He probably does, in which case he uses my stop. Which means it is no longer my stop. I’m already walking the extra 10 minutes in the other direction to use a different station. If I lose that one too, it will 20 minutes yet another way to use a stop on a different line altogether. I can’t even let myself think about the fact that before I encountered him, I’d eaten in places right around there… it’s too late now to do anything about that anyway, I just have to hope for the best. So, although flying over here got me a temporary respite, it hasn’t rewired my thinking, and I expect things to slowly snowball from here. Luckily, this is a huge city and I can always move across it. This will be possible a number of times before the entire city starts to feel contaminated.

As much as this sucks, thinking about it I’ve realised something that might help me to improve somewhat. Before the incident with this guy and his hands, there was already a growing list of places (various shops and restaurants) I felt uncomfortable with – not because of people with warts, but because of people dropping things on the floor and picking them up. Which is to say, there are two mechanisms by which contamination is spreading – people I encounter with warts (red alert!), and places where things get picked up off the floor. I don’t think I can do anything about the first one. I hate warts so much, and am so obsessed with not allowing any exposure to them, that my OCD is firmly in place. But the second one, by my own OCD logic, is something that I should be able to work on. As I said in my last post, I never use socks more than once because I used to have verrucas and was too worried about them spreading. So I wear a pair of socks and then throw them away, and constantly have to buy new ones. Well, by the same line of logic, I became completely unable to touch anything that had been on the floor (or anything that had touched that, or that in turn), just in case the contamination from my feet had got onto the sole of my shoes at some point, and from there on to the floor. If I could have used new shoes every day, I would have! Well, my verrucas are gone now, so the starting point for that whole chain of OCD is gone – but the behaviours are still locked in place. This, I think, is the area I need to challenge. I’m in a new environment on the other side of the world. I never brought my verrucas here. I have to start trying to break down my OCD in relation to floors (fact is I’m never going to like floors, I’m probably never going to sit on them or intentionally put things down on them, but I can at least stop being socially and logistically crippled by other people doing so). So, a start: one small victory this week – I dropped a t-shirt. Not so long ago, it would have gone in the bin, but this time, it went in the laundry – albeit directly, by itself, with a ridiculous amount of detergent, but a victory all the same.

Time and Money Wasted, September 2013

Well, having fled the country to find some respite from my OCDemons, I’m no longer keeping track of the time and money I’m wasting each week. But the file in which I’d been noting things for September has been sitting on my desktop since then and I want to delete it, so I figured I’d give the figures here to wrap up the ‘thief of time‘ exercise.

I was still back home for the first 3 weeks of September before getting on that big beautiful plane to (not quite) freedom, so I have 3 weeks of stats. In those 3 weeks I wasted the following hours:

Handwashing: 16, 9.5, 15 = 39.5

Shopping: 2.5, 6, 6 = 14.5

Shower: 1, 2, 2 = 5

Laundry: 1, 2, 2 = 5

Boiling my keys (!) after dropping them on the floor one day: 30 mins

So, 64.5 hours in 3 weeks. That’s 21.5 hours a week, or 3 hours a day. Pretty much in keeping with the previous month.

I was also tracking my expenses for the same 3 weeks September (prices in £, British pounds):

Disposable gloves: 9.05, 14, 14

Tissues: 2.62, 2.62, 2.62

Hand gel: 1.22, 1, 4.34

Wipes: 0, 0, 2

Laundry detergent: 0, 24, 12

Underwear*: 22, 0, 0

Sandwich bags*: 0, 1.3, 1.3

Hair clippers*: 0, 15, 0

Food*: 4, 6.6, 6.8

Weekly totals: 38.89, 64.52, 43.06

Giving a total for 3 weeks of £146.47. Just under £50 per week! (though there were a couple of things there that made these weeks worse than usual – the hair clippers (a one off, see below) and the laundry detergent (I replaced a number of bottles which had been used over the previous couple of months). Something missing from this list that would usually be there is soap (obviously) but I was already well stocked up at the start of the month) Anyway, at that rate, I’d be wasting in the region of £2,500 a year. That is fucking crazy, and goes a long way to explaining why I’ve been in such deep financial shit in recent years. (Not that this is really news to me. Just shocking to see it in black and white)

There are a few items marked * in the list above, as they might need a bit of explanation:

The underwear is because I never use a pair of socks twice. Every single sock I wear is a new one. This dates back to when I had verrucas and was so paranoid about them spreading and giving me warts all over my body that I decided the only safe option was to use each pair once and bin them, rather than contaminate the washing machine with them. My verrucas are gone these days, but still i can not bring myself to wash used socks. This is perhaps one of the first things I could challenge myself with to start undoing my OCD.

The hair clippers were replacements for the ones that got contaminated when I shaved off my contaminated hair after the insect attack in August.

The food consisted of chocolate bars, bags of crisps and so on – foods that I could stash in my room and survive off on days when I thought I had a chance to get through the day without contamination, but wouldn’t get the kitchen to myself for long enough to be able to eat properly without getting contaminated.

The sandwich bags were mostly for wrapping contaminated items (usually my keys) to be carried in my pockets, also for keeping items separate from each other and the environment in case of differing levels of contamination, and sometimes as emergency gloves.

So there you go. In the first 3 weeks of September, I wasted an average of 21.5 hours and £49 a week. Incredible. This is why OCD is said to be one of the most debilitating mental conditions a person can have.

Fuck you OCD (freedom, for now)

Well, the pressure had been building and building, and I finally snapped. I got on a plane and I flew to another country on a one way ticket to look for a job and to be in an untainted environment. The contamination of absolutely everything, everyone and everywhere in my daily life back home was making my life practically impossible – I’d been keeping track of how much time I’d been losing every week to OCD and it was worse than I’d realised, as much as 28 hours in a single week. I’d also started keeping track of the money I was wasting, and these two exercises made me feel that I just had to get out of there. Clearly it was a bit extreme to fly to another country – I could have just gone to a new city in my own country – but the fact is I do also like going to live in a new country. On the face of it, my going abroad to ‘have a great experience and learn a new language’ seems totally normal and in-character. I don’t think anyone would ever guess I was really doing it to escape my OCD.

Of course, I haven’t really fixed the problem. My morbid fear of warts is still there, and the fact is that in my new environment, if I see someone with warts (which I will), I’ll still have the same response – avoid touching them or any money or other things they’ve handled, and never go that shop, subway station or other location again, and be compelled to go through a full routine of hand-washing if a contamination were to occur – but for now, it really is absolute bliss to be able to interact with the people and the environment around me in the normal way that most people do. It’s amazing how much more can be done in a day when you’re not spending an hour or two washing your hands, and a couple more hours going to the shops to buy disposable gloves, or dealing with contaminated laundry. I have literally exchanged my compulsive behaviours for learning a new language and exploring a vibrant new city and culture. So that’s a very big fuck you to OCD.

The interesting thing now will be to see how long it takes for this new city to become unbearably contaminated. I’m bound to encounter people with warts (or possible warts) as I go about my life here, and eventually the list of places to be avoided will become too great to keep track of, and that’s the point when I’ll start to feel I have to assume it’s just everywhere – and then it will be time to bail again. I guess that probably one year from now, the situation will be reaching that stage. But by then I think it would make sense for my cover story to be moving on in any case.

As for keeping track of time and money wasted, it was an interesting and enlightening exercise but I obviously won’t be doing it now that I’m where I am. I’m not sure how often I’ll be posting on this blog in the coming months – there were a few things I’d intended to write up but had never found the time, and I will probably still do so. I will also post about any problems I start running into in my new environment and any more general musings on OCD that I feel like writing about, so please do check in from time to time. But for now, thanks for reading and know that although the obsessions are still there, I’m presently enjoying a daily life free from my compulsions.