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Monday, July 23, 2012

How Do You Spell OCD?

You all thought I'd fallen off the face of the planet, didn't you? 'Fraid not. I've just had a lot on my plate, and one of the bigger things is school, specifically how I can take advantage of higher education with OCD, which is what I'm going to be talking about today. For any of you who may be hoping for answers, I'll apologize in advance: I have no answers. Just questions, which I now address to the cosmos at large in no particular order.  
How does one afford to go to school? As a person with OCD, the number and types of jobs I feel evenly remotely capable of performing seem pretty limited. Waitressing? I can just see myself attempting to take your order: “I'm sorry, sir, could you repeat that? I'm getting a little distracted by the buzz of conversation, the clatter of dishes, and the din of our restaurant's 'background' music. . . . Sorry, I still didn't catch it. Maybe you could write it down? Except you'll have to use your own pen, because I don't want you touching mine.
Bussing tables, perhaps. Gimme a break. If you think I'm going to wipe up your greasy fingerprints and pick up your saliva-smeared silverware and used napkins, you've got another thing coming.
Retail? Please. By the time I worked up the courage to say, “Can I help you find anything?” the customer would have finished their shopping and walked out the door.
Work in a grocery store? “Um, ma'am? Did you just touch that apple?” “Yes, but I don't want it, it's bruised.” “I'm sorry, ma'am, if you touch it you take it. That's the rule.”
Does this sound familiar to anybody? I don't want you to get the impression that I've never worked before or that I can't do anything, but I do have trouble fitting in at work, holding down a job for any significant length of time, and finding any kind of satisfaction in my work.
Would I be better off playing the lottery than trying to win a scholarship?
I've applied for about fifty that the deadline is now past for, with no result. I'm beginning to think that prospecting for gold in my backyard might be a better use of my time.
 How does one choose a school? I don't know if decision-making is a problem among most people with OCD, but I struggle to decide whether I want chocolate or vanilla ice cream in my cone; and if, (as I often do to avoid choosing) I decide I want a scoop of each, then which flavor on top and which on bottom? With decisiveness of that level, what am I supposed to do when confronted with a thousand universities?  
How does one survive school? Dorms, for instance. Dorms mean roommates. Roommates mean living with someone else. Living with someone else means that one of us is probably going to end up in a federal prison for trying to murder the other one.
Classrooms. How often do these rooms get scrubbed down with a lethal concoction of cleaning chemicals? Oh, a cleaning crew comes in, do they? Do they submerge the tables and chairs in boiling water and ammonia? I thought not. And you expect me to be able to focus on your lecture in this kind of squalor?
Transportation. 'Bus' is a filthy swear word that we are not going to sully this discussion with. And cars? I'm sorry, but how? It seems that every school poured a parking lot, dutifully reserved spaces for all the faculty, and then realized they only had two dozen spaces left for students.
 These issues may sound ridiculous to other people, but they're genuine concerns for me. I have an Associate's degree that I got online, and I would love to get a Bachelor's and then a Master's degree in linguistics, but at this point I don't see how that's ever going to be a real possibility. Does anyone have any insights as to how I might be able to make this work? Any unorthodox options that have worked for you?
I don't mean to sounds desperate but . . . HELP!!!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ten Percent Smarter than the OCD

One thing I've learned about OCD is that it never takes a break. You have to be constantly on guard against it or it will control you more and more. Even when you think you've got it licked, it tends to crop up in another area you didn't expect. I know. It's rotten. But that's the way it is. One of the important things for me to remember is that I am not my OCD. That's easy to forget when you constantly hear phrases like, “I know I'm a little OCD,” or “I'm not really OCD, I just have a thing about this.” OCD is not you, it's just something you have.
Here's a dialogue I wrote a few years ago just for the heck of it, between myself and my OCD:

OCD: You know, you really ought to take a shower whenever someone touches you.
ME: That's ridiculous.
OCD: No, no, really. I mean, not when somebody shakes your hand or something. You can just go wash your hands then, but like if they touch your hair or your arm or something.
ME: Do you have any idea how many showers I would have to take if I did that?
OCD: Do you have any idea how sick it is to not shower when someone touches you? Think of all the things they could have been touching before they touched you!
ME: You've got a point.
OCD: Of course I've got a point! What, you think I sit around trying to convince you to do pointless things? I'm trying to help you out here, and this is the thanks I get? Anyway, I think you should try it.
ME: I guess maybe I could. I could just—wait a minute, wait a minute, hold it! No way. No way am I going to do that. It's a stupid idea and you know it.
OCD: What's so stupid about it? Come on, it can't hurt to try, can it?
ME: Actually, yeah, it can.
OCD: If you would just—
ME: No! You've got enough of these silly rituals. You don't need any more.
OCD: No, look, it's just an experiment.
ME: I am not—
OCD: I really think this will be good. It'll help you feel better, I promise.
ME: I don't want to.
OCD: Now, now. This will be good for you. You know how uncomfortable it is when people touch you. Don't you?
ME: Well . . . yeah.
OCD: See? This will help you feel more comfortable.
ME: I'm not going to do it.
OCD: Look, just try it for a couple days. If you decide you don't like it, fine. You don't have to do it anymore.
ME: If I try it for a couple days, I'll never stop doing it.
OCD: Don't be silly. I'm just suggesting it for your good. I really think it will help you.
ME: I really think it won't.
OCD: Come on, just—
ME: I won't do it.
OCD: No, just listen to me.
ME: No.
OCD: Wait—
ME: No!
OCD: But—
OCD: Fine then. You'll regret it though.
ME: I don't think so.
OCD: Hmph.
ME: Shut up.

This dialogue is neither witty nor brilliant, which is even more irritating when I realize that I have exhausting arguments like this every day with my OCD. Let me tell you something. The more you win arguments with your OCD, the easier it becomes. It never gets easy, but the more you do it, the more you gain confidence and realize that you really can stand your ground against this thing, and even regain territory you've lost in the past.
Whenever I'm struggling with something (which is a lot of the time), whether it be a doorknob that will not unlock, a computer program that won't work, or shoelaces tangled into a Gordian knot, my Dad tells me, “Ten percent smarter than the shoelaces, Sam.” (Or whatever it is that's giving me a hard time). “Ten percent smarter, that's all you've got to be.” It always makes me laugh and somehow I get it figured out.
It's the same thing with OCD. When it's coming up with new strategies and throwing obstacles in your way that seem insurmountable, just tell yourself: “Ten percent smarter than the OCD, that's all you've got to be. Just ten percent smarter than the OCD.” Who knows? You may surprise yourself.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


You know, it's amazing how much people without OCD take for granted. Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking people who don't have OCD. I'm just saying that they do incredible things every day without even realizing it.
Take doors for instance.
It depends on what type of OCD you're dealing with, of course, but for a germ freak like me doors present a constant and maddening challenge. Doors, as we all know, are made to be opened and shut. The problem with that is that you have to actually touch the door in order to accomplish that. That's right, actual physical contact. Yikes.
The worst are the doors with round knobs. Doors without handles can be kicked open with a foot or shoved with a shoulder. Doors with handles can be opened by covering your hand with your sleeve, or pressing the handle down with your knuckles if you're not wearing long sleeves. But doorknobs?
Maybe it's just my lack of coordination, but I find it extremely difficult to open a door with a knob within the limits of my OCD while maintaining any semblance of being a normal human being. Paper towels (one of my favorite protectors against all things germy found in bathrooms . . . which is everything) are not always available with the advent of air dryers. Even when paper towels can be had, I've noticed a troubling pattern in public restrooms of placing the trash can at least 10 feet from the door; problematic if, like me, you're a bit of a poor shot. Even worse are those models of poor planning where the door is around the corner from the garbage can. I can't even remember how I made it out of those places. Sleeves can be used if they're long enough, but since you have to grip a knob with your whole hand, you really have to stretch the sleeve to get it to cover everything. And then you probably have to stretch out the other sleeve to make it 'even' and go around all day looking like your cuffs got caught in an escalator or something and you only just managed to pull them out. And knuckles—if you ever figure out a way to open a doorknob with your knuckles using only one hand, I want to hear about it. I always have to grip the knob between the knuckles of both hands and try to maintain enough pressure that my knuckles don't slip off while I wrestle the door open. I've not yet had anyone ask if I've heard of opposing thumbs, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time.
To illustrate how amazing you are if you can open and shut doors in the way they were obviously designed to be opened and shut, let me tell you about an experience I had.
Have you seen the 3rd Harry Potter movie? Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? (Stick with me. Believe it or not I'm staying on topic.) You have? Great. You haven't? Don't worry. The part I'm going to reveal isn't exactly a spoiler. In the movie, Harry is staying at some kind of wizardly hotel. In one scene, after what we hope was a refreshing night's sleep, he exits his room and closes the door behind him. But here's the best part: He closes it with his hand.
For some reason, that part made my jaw drop when I first saw it. Yeah, yeah, so some other things happened in the movie too. There were wizards and magic and mysterious happenings, maybe even a werewolf or two. But all of that paled in comparison to the bit where Harry shut the door.
I believe at that point in my life I was still shutting doors with my foot. Sound hard? It is. But it was better than touching them with my hands.
Now, just in case you're wondering, yes, I had seen people opening and shutting doors with their hands before. For some reason, it just didn't hit me the way it did when I saw it on the screen. Maybe it was because Harry was alone in that scene, so he didn't have to act normal by shutting the door with his hand; he could have done it any way he wanted. Anyway, almost as powerful as the urge to grab Harry by his jacket, drag him to the nearest sink, and hand him a bottle of anti-bacterial hand-soap was the thought, He just shut that door with his hand! People open and shut doors with their hands. And then, I wish I could open and shut doors with my hands.
And you know something? I can. Sort of. I still do the paper towel thing, or the sleeve over the hand thing, or the knuckle thing if all else fails. But the point is, I've gotten to the point where I can do something I never thought I could. I'm realizing that I don't have to be normal, I just have to be better than I was. So I'm proud of myself. Look, Mom. Hands!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Three (to) Two (to) One!

One of the things I couldn't do on my trip was my nightly routine of door, window, and closet checking. My own family is accustomed to hearing me wander around before bed, shaking doorknobs and peeking into closets to make sure there are no intruders hiding among the brooms. But to do this in a house where I was a guest seemed a little . . . forward.
Somewhat to my surprise however, I found that I was able to sleep okay, despite the fact that I had not triple-checked every possible place of entry or concealment, and so had not been able to ascertain that the house was really as safe as it could be. I had to trust that it had been properly taken care of by the people whose home I was in. Not always easy, especially with rioters creating havoc in all the major cities. Necessity is the mother of a can-do attitude however, and I managed to refrain from getting up in the middle of the night and tiptoeing through the house to make sure all was well.
I hadn't really thought about the implications of this while I was on my trip. At first, checking was something I just couldn't, or shouldn't do, but after several days, it became something that I didn't think about a whole lot. Brilliant! I'm cured, right?
Wrong. Environment has a lot more to do with OCD than I ever gave it credit for. As soon as I got back home, all of the old compulsions that had been temporarily swept under the bed resurfaced. The difference was that I realized that was what they were doing. Stealth is one of the many tools OCD uses to get me to go along with whatever it says. Some of the time I simply don't realize that it's happening. I don't see an action as a compulsion until I think about stopping it, and then it becomes apparent that what I perceived as a harmless habit has turned into something much more serious without my being consciously aware of it.
Not this time. This time, having been forced to live for a while without giving in to all of my compulsions, I recognized them when they greeted me on my arrival home. And I decided that if I'd been able to live without checking doors and windows for seven weeks, it shouldn't be too hard to just keep on living without checking doors and windows. Of course, it's not quite that easy. OCD is not just an idea or a collection of habits. It's a disorder, and it exerts a very strong grip on the mind. Being back in a familiar environment where I could start back up with my checking routine made it well nigh impossible not to do so.
So, I have to admit, I did.
I could feel bad about that, but I refuse to do so, because I have improved. I do go around at night and make sure the house is locked up, but I only do it once. That's a vast improvement over the three-plus times I used to do it before I went on my trip. And I know I'm making progress because I still want to do the rounds again after I've done it once, just to make sure. But I don't do it. I won't do it. Checking once is surely enough for any sane person (and I am sane, no matter how nuts I act sometimes!) Despite wanting to double-check, the anxiety of not doing it only lasts for a little while. Maybe someday the anxiety won't be there at all, and I'll be able to lock up and then not give it another thought. Maybe. Even if I never get to that point though, I can still be proud of myself for getting to this point. Any step forward is just that: a step forward, and it is something to be proud of.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Breakthrough in Britain

I feel that I should apologize profusely for not keeping up with my blog for the last couple of months. In my defense, I have been awfully busy. Guess where I've been? ENGLAND!
That's right! I had the opportunity to go visit family in England for several weeks this summer, and I've only recently gotten back. I had a great time seeing the sites and getting to know my family better, but another interesting aspect of my trip was the effect it had on my OCD.
I found that some of my symptoms were very much suppressed, probably because I was in someone else's home all the time. It simply isn't possible to maintain the same level of contamination control in another person's house that I can in my own. Even if I could, it would be insufferably rude. And while that was sometimes difficult for me to handle (okay, actually it was always difficult for me to handle), I think it was also very good for me.
There were plenty of germ-related things I had to do on my trip, such as sleeping on other people's bedding; using public toilets; taking buses, trains, and tubes to get where I wanted to go; eating off of other people's dishes; doing laundry in someone else's washing machine; need I say more?
Aside from germs, there was the problem of organization. Living out of a suitcase is simply not conducive to sanity. If anyone has managed to keep the contents of their suitcase in any semblance of acceptable order for two months, I want to know how you did it!
And then there was the anxiety aspect of it. In my own home, I make the rounds every night, checking to make sure we're shipshape. But in a house where I was staying as a guest I couldn't bring myself to prowl around every evening, wiggling doorknobs to make sure they were locked, washing and drying any stray knives that may have been overlooked and placing them in a drawer, checking closets for intruders, and drawing blinds and curtains.
The longer I was over there though, the easier it became to deal with all of it. Despite the challenges and initial homesickness that accompanied them, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay. To me, that seemed to indicate that at least some of my symptoms, evidently going into shock at some of the things I was doing, were temporarily incapacitated. Either that or they realized that I wasn't as much in their control as usual, simply because I didn't have the option of carrying out their demands to the same extent that I usually did.
So, aside from a great vacation, I think my trip also gave me a little more insight into my OCD and how I can control it more than it controls me. Now that I'm home I've been trying to apply some of those things so that it's not just a temporary change, but something that can continue and help me to keep figuring out ways to keep my compulsions in the background no matter where I am.
I'm really excited about this little breakthrough, and I'm looking forward to posting about my successes. And my failures, of course. :) After all, the failures are what make the eventual success so sweet, right?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Germs on the Bus Go Round and Round

Okay, let's talk public transportation. Germs and contamination are an enormous part of my OCD, and public transportation seems to me to be a breeding ground for bacterial nastiness.
One of the hardest things I've ever done, OCD-wise, was taking a class at my local community college and having to take the bus to and from school twice a week. I called it the 'Torture Chamber on Wheels.' Not the catchiest nickname in the world perhaps, but it accurately described my feelings about the dreaded bus. I hated every millisecond of those bi-weekly trips.
I always used my coat sleeve to grab onto the bars, and inwardly cursed the bus driver whenever he started the bus up again before I had gotten into my seat, causing me to lose my balance and find myself grabbing onto something to steady myself . . . without having time to pull my sleeve over my hand. Gross!
If possible, I would find a set of empty seats, sit in the aisle seat, and place my backpack on the window seat. There was a double discouragement that way to anyone who might consider sitting next to me. My backpack made the seat next to me look semi-reserved-ish, and the fact that I was in the aisle seat would make it so that anyone wanting to sit next to me would have to scoot past my legs (most unpleasant on the one or two occasions it happened, but it was rare enough that the potential risk was outweighed by the benefits of sitting alone). This strategy usually worked on the first leg of the bus ride. On the second leg it was impossible to get a seat by myself. I just had to locate the cleanest looking individual with an empty seat next to them.
The smell, the warmth, the people, and the general dirtiness were unbearable. I had to take a shower and throw my clothes in the washer as soon as I got off the bus, and I always took my shoes off before I came inside. I wore the same shoes on the bus every time, and at the end of the term I threw them away.
Everything I took on the bus was thereafter contaminated. My notebook and textbook were things I couldn't bring myself to touch at home. I read my assignments and notes on the bus, and I must have written my papers from my memories of the lectures and text, since I can't imagine referring to them at home. My backpack was a thing of indescribable filthiness that had to be put in one precise place so that the contamination was somewhat contained. I remember one time a member of my family set my backpack on a chair for some reason. I begged them to take it off, with such panicky insistence that I was very nearly yelling. Alarmed, they took it off immediately, but even so I almost burst into tears on the spot, and I wouldn't sit in that chair for weeks.
I survived that term somehow, but I think that's a prime example of making sure you don't bite off more than you can chew when tackling your OCD. It's been a few years since I took that class. Since then I have discovered the miracle of online classes, and I've only been on a bus once since that time, when I had no other choice. Most people would probably laugh if I called my bus experience traumatizing, but it was for me. The other day as I was walking with my family through the bus station to get to another destination, all my feelings of revulsion resurfaced. It was outdoors, nobody was near me, and I knew I didn't have to get on the bus, but I couldn't wait to get out of there.
I guess the point is: If you're going to tackle your OCD, yeah, you have to make yourself do hard things, but take it easy. As the old saying goes, if you set out to eat an elephant (which I always found kind of disgusting), do it one bite at a time. Don't try to swallow the elephant whole. As I can testify, you're more likely to choke yourself than get rid of the elephant, and you won't want to try it again.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

You Talkin' To Me?

I don't know if this is common to people with OCD, but I have a really hard time with verbal communication. I've gotten better, but it used to be that even basic greetings and conversation starters caused difficulties. For example, I could handle “Hi,” and “How are you doing?” separately, but if someone stuck them together and greeted me with, “Hi, how are you doing?” I was stymied. Should I respond to the first part of the greeting, or the second? Was I supposed to respond to both? In what order? By the time my tangled tongue and baffled brain had recovered enough to form a semi-coherent response, the greeter was generally fifty feet away from me already, and my sentence usually stumbled into empty air.
To combat this challenge, I made a sort of mental list of common greetings in every conceivable variation, then devised and memorized an appropriate response for each one. That has definitely helped and I am now somewhat more comfortable speaking to people, but I still find that when anyone throws anything unusual or unexpected into the mix it throws me for a total loop.
Verbal humor, sarcasm, and innuendos are hard for me to pick up on too, unless I'm pretty familiar with the person speaking, in which case I rely on mannerisms and visual cues to tell me what kind of response is expected.
Probably the thing that's helped me the most with my communication block is writing. It sounds kind of counterintuitive, that working on nonverbal communication could help with verbal communication, but it has been beneficial to me. I think the key to it though, was that I had to be communicating with another person in writing.
It started as a brainchild of my mom's. There was some tension in our relationship because of my inability to communicate. She would sit down and try to talk with me, wanting to know how I was doing, if there was anything she could help me with, what I thought of this or that. Understandably, when her attempts were met with shrugs and mumbles, she got frustrated. It wasn't that I didn't want to talk to my mom: I did. I just couldn't figure out how, and it was a strain on both of us.
I had had a penchant for writing ever since I was a little girl, so one day, in a flash of inspiration, my mom suggested that we try to communicate through the written word rather than the spoken. So we bought a blank notebook and began writing to each other. It may seem strange, two people living in the same house writing letters to each other instead of talking, but it helped enormously. It's been several years since we started doing it, and recently we've found that we really don't need it anymore. We can talk to each other now. It's still harder for me than writing, but I am able to do it now, so I do. I guess that's what progress is all about, right?
Again, I don't know if verbal communication is a challenge for people with OCD in general, but if it's something you struggle with I would suggest trying to communicate with people in whatever way is easiest for you.
Another thing I've tried, which is very hard but it pays off, is to really make an effort to communicate with people verbally. You don't have to talk with them for hours (unless you want to go nuts), but introducing yourself to someone doesn't take much time, and can go a long way in convincing you that most people are not going to start laughing in your face as soon as you open your mouth.
When I know I'll be in a situation where I'll probably be expected to say something (a date, a meeting, a get-together, any kind of social function) I like to take some time to think about topics or questions that might come up and figure out some responses. I tend to rehearse mine in bed or in the shower. I might forget them otherwise. Though no one else may particularly notice or care that I was able to comment on the weather at the appropriate time, or that I could answer a question about my work in a complete and coherent sentence, it has been a confidence booster for me. And who knows? Maybe it can be for you, too.
Well, it's been nice talking to you!