Follow up to the latest trick

A few days ago I posted about the hand washing trap and how hand washing has become a trigger in and of itself.

It continues to evolve.

What I’ve unintentionally done is linked the hand washing to all of my most obsessive, uncomfortable, and anxiety inducing thoughts. The minute I step up to the sink to wash my hands, it’s just a flood of all these things.

It’s getting ridiculous. So, I started breaking the rules. The first thing I did was dismiss the hand drying window where I had to wait after drying my hands with the towel for my hands to be completely air dry before I touched anything. My hope was that this would get rid of that empty space where all the obsessive thoughts kept coming back up. But instead the obsessive thoughts started coming back up while I was actually drying my hands with the towel. So, I started being less thorough with the towel drying, basically drying them as fast as I could in an attempt to shorten the window of time in which obsessive thoughts could come back up. Then the obsessive thoughts started coming back in before I even had my hands out of the sink.

So, the hand washing has become a race against the clock, basically getting them in, getting the soap applied, getting them rinsed, and then dried, all as fast as possible so that a new obsessive thought doesn’t contaminate them before the process is complete. I’ve even started distracting myself by counting to ten repeatedly during the process to keep my mind busy and prevent it from wandering back to an obsessive thought. This works sometimes. But it often doesn’t and still takes three, four, or five times to complete the ritual.

Is this considered progress?

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A little more background

I’ve always been on the obsessive compulsive spectrum. It didn’t become disorderly until a few years ago, and it’s been a downward spiral ever since. The obsessions and compulsive behaviors took up more and more time and got more and more elaborate. The last year in particular has been challenging. Today, OCD probably consumes at least 50% of my life. The good news is, through the luck of the universe, I discovered about a year ago that my next door neighbor (a child psychologist) treats OCD in adolescents. He was able to provide me some resources and put me in touch with another psychologist who he says is the best in Seattle at treating adults with OCD. After nearly 10 months on a waiting list, I was finally able to get in and start therapy with him at the beginning of this year.

My apartment is a minefield

I literally tiptoe around my apartment. Like, on the very tips of my toes. This is because my apartment is a minefield of OCD triggers.

I’m sitting in my living room as I write this on my phone. OCD tells me where I am allowed to sit on the couch (on top of a shirt that is a protective barrier on the leftmost cushion). OCD tells me where I’m allowed to look (not at that spot on the table, or that spot, or my bag in the corner of the room). OCD tells me what objects I’m allowed to touch and in what order I can touch them (I’m touching my phone, so I can’t touch anything else until I wash my hands). When I stand up in a few minutes to go change my clothes to go the the gym, while I walk from this room down the hallway to the next room OCD will tell me where I’m allowed step, where I can look, and where I can put my hands. Though, I’ll likely go straight to the bathroom sink first to wash my hands, because… phone.

The curtains are a trigger. The lamp on the end table is a trigger. The blanket at the base of the table is a trigger. The table itself is a trigger. That cushion on the couch is a trigger. The TV remote is a trigger. The programs on TV are filled with triggers. The iPad is a trigger. That spot on the floor is a trigger. That lump in the carpet is a trigger. The chair in the corner is a trigger. That spot on the table is a trigger. That thing on the shelf is a trigger. The phone I’m holding at this very moment is a trigger.

…and that’s just the living room.

When I get up to wash my hands I will pass at least 7 more potential triggers in the hallway. Every other room in this house has a dozen or more.

I live in a minefield.

The latest trick my OCD is playing on me

The hand washing is a trap!

If you’ve read the “Some background on my OCD” post below, you know that my hands get contaminated with obsessive thoughts. When I have an obsessive thought or I’m exposed to an OCD trigger, I wash my hands because that’s what neutralizes the anxiety from the trigger.

The hand washing is often a lengthy process. There are steps that must be followed for the hand washing to be complete and “correct.” If these steps aren’t followed or completed then the ritual wasn’t done correctly and I haven’t cleared the trigger (maybe I’ll go into more detail on the hand washing steps in a future post… also, can you see now why the compulsive behaviors are often referred to as “rituals?”). It often takes eight minutes or more to complete the hand washing. The final step of the process is after drying my hands. The ritual isn’t complete until my hands are totally dry. Often when one dries his or her hands with a towel they are not completely dry. They are still a little damp. The ritual for me is not complete and I cannot touch anything until they are totally dry. So what I will often do is wave my hands, put them in front of a fan, or just stand and wait until they are air dry. What this does is create an empty space for my mind to do whatever it wants while I wait.

What’s been happening over the last couple weeks is in that empty space while I wait for my hands to dry my mind almost immediately goes on to another obsessive thought or trigger. I then need to clear out the anxiety from that new trigger so I immediately wash my hands again, because that again alleviates the anxiety. Another lengthy process. Then it happens again with another trigger. And again. 15 minutes. Then 20 minutes. Then 25 minutes.

This was getting absurd. Like I said, it’s a trap. The hand washing itself has become triggering for me.

So, what I started doing when I step up to the sink to clear out one anxiety trigger is I run through the list of all the other possible triggers in my head before putting my hands under the water. I think all the horrible thoughts on purpose, all the things that have caused me the greatest anxiety, so I can get them all out at once; so that when I complete the hand washing ritual it’s all cleared and anything that could possibly come up in that hand drying window has already been taken care of. It means a few minutes more up front as I run through the list, but also means I only have to complete the ritual once per episode and saves me time on the back end because I don’t have to do the ritual multiple times.

This worked… for a couple days.

Now, the same thing is happening. In the hand drying window there are new things coming up, and I end up rewashing my hands. My annoyingly creative brain is coming up with more and more anxiety triggers. And the list of things to clear out when I step up to the sink is getting longer and longer and taking more and more time.

Like I said, a trap.

Some background on my OCD

I realize that this blog at the moment has an audience of two: me and my boyfriend. But for any future viewers who may stumble across this blog, I feel I need to explain a little bit about how my OCD functions.

OCD is all about obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted recurring intrusive thoughts, words, memories, or images that cause anxiety. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that attempt to neutralize the anxiety caused by the obsessions (often called “rituals” in clinical circles because of their repetitive and rigid nature). Obsessions and compulsions can literally each take infinite forms and the compulsive behavior doesn’t necessarily have to be directly linked to the obsession. What’s important for the OCD sufferer is that the compulsive behavior relieves the anxiety of the obsession. The trap is that the compulsive behavior only provides temporary relief and sooner or later (often sooner) the obsessions come right back and the anxiety picks up where it left off. When the anxiety comes back, the OCD sufferer once again engages in the compulsive behavior in an attempt to alleviate. Thus you will often hear OCD described as a loop.

If you read any book on OCD, you will learn that the clinical world has attempted to categorize types of OCD. One of the most common types of OCD is “Contamination OCD.” For the typical sufferer of Contamination OCD the obsessions are about germs, contracting a disease, and the feared outcome. The compulsions are commonly excessive hand washing or cleaning household objects to remove harmful germs. Often the sufferer will avoid locations or situations that could expose that person to germs or disease. They will open doors with their elbow so they don’t touch the door handle which could be contaminated. They avoid hospitals because of the potential exposure to disease.

My OCD manifests like the typical Contamination OCD, but it has very little (if anything) to do with germs or disease. I wash my hands… a lot. I’m constantly cleaning things with sanitizing wipes. I avoid touching door handles. But my obsessions have nothing to do with germs or disease. My obsessions in the past have generally fallen into four categories. I won’t list them all now because at the moment writing or talking about them causes me great anxiety. But somehow and at some point in the past few years I learned that my obsessive thoughts could get attached to physical objects including my hands, and this thought in and of itself has become a fifth category of obsession for me (and is perhaps now my primary obsession). If an obsessive thought from categories one through four crosses my mind, my hands are now contaminated with that obsessive thought and the next thing I touch is going to be contaminated with that thought. The thought process goes like this: I’m about to pick up object “A” and I just had horrible thought “B” randomly and unrelatedly come to mind; what if every time I touch, see, hear, or think object “A” I now also think horrible thought “B”; I don’t want that to happen, that would be awful; how do I prevent myself from always associating horrible thought “B” with object “A”? This thought process has caused me great anxiety and I learned that I could obtain relief by washing my hands and cleaning objects. So, when I’m washing my hands or cleaning things with sanitizing wipes what I’m doing is trying to clean other obsessive thoughts from categories one through four off my hands and things.

These hand washing and cleaning behaviors are not my only compulsive behaviors, but they are currently the most prevalent and most disruptive.

What does OCD mean for me?

Dear world, I have OCD… and it f$#king sucks! (Sorry-not-sorry, mom, for the implied expletive!)

Here’s what OCD meant for me a year ago…

  • It meant washing my hands 40+ times a day.
  • It meant sanitizing wipes! Sanitizing wipes everywhere!
  • It meant constantly cleaning my phone and other objects with said sanitizing wipes.
  • It meant a trip home from the gym (a ten block walk) took 45+ minutes.
  • It meant checking my mailbox took ten minutes.
  • It meant a house that had to be tidy and clean and everything perfectly in it’s place: dishes perfectly stacked, clothes and bags all had their place.
  • It meant 20 minutes spent picking up the tiniest scraps of litter in the gutter in front of my apartment building.
  • It meant constantly interrupting my work day to wash my hands.
  • It meant riding my elevator up to my fourth floor apartment five… six… or seven times in a row just to get the elevator ride to feel “right.”
  • It meant reading, and rereading, and rereading, and rereading, and rereading the same thing over and over again to make sure I hadn’t missed an important detail. Or watching, and rewatching, and rewatching, and rewatching the same scene in a movie or tv show for the same reason.
  • It meant stopping in front of an interesting house, piece of architecture, or landscape for minutes at a time unable to move, not because I was enjoying the beauty of the thing but because there was a fearful voice that said you MUST take this in and absorb every detail.
  • While sightseeing, it meant taking 20 or 30 photos of the same thing again and again, trying to get the object of the photo perfectly framed or captured from every angle.

Here’s what OCD means for me today…

  • It means it takes me eight+ minutes to wash my hands. Sometimes 15. Sometimes 30.
  • It means packing for a trip to visit my boyfriend in London takes 18 hours. It means that even though I’ve been home from said trip for four months now (almost five), I still haven’t completely unpacked.
  • It means I haven’t taken out the trash in two weeks.
  • It means I haven’t put away laundry in two months.
  • It means I haven’t used anything but plastic utensils and paper plates for over three months.
  • It means I haven’t vacuumed in two months.
  • It means I no longer cook meals or prepare food with my bare hands.
  • It means all my shoes live on the doorstep outside my front door and aren’t allowed in my apartment.
  • It means routine trips to the grocery store and on the bus to work are riddled with anxiety.
  • It means I don’t buy new or replacement items, even if they’re badly needed.
  • It means I often choose to work from home (luckily my job allows me to do this right now) because getting ready and getting out the front door of my apartment takes too much time and is too mentally exhausting.
  • It means typical everyday tasks take me two, three, four times longer than they used to.
  • It means often giving up on productive tasks because I get overwhelmed and decide watching tv is easier.

…like I said, it f$#king sucks.