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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!