As far as triggers go, some are pretty run-of-the-mill, easily pull-backable situations (no that is absolutely not a word). People sneezing, dogs pooping, loud noises etc etc. These triggers are more of a mild irritant than a day-ruiner. They make me feel weird for mere minutes at a time and then they’re forgotten about (for a while).
A really really really really annoying trigger for me is staying away from home. Not only is it irritating primarily because of the OCD itself, but it’s annoying because of the longevity of these episodes and how much I miss out on.
During phases when the OCD is chilled, I’m able to stay overnight at various locations, but when the OCD is being a difficult bastard, I even struggle to stay overnight at my best friends’ houses. MY VERY OWN BEST FRIENDS, HUH OCD? This can be quite embarrassing for me, although less so now that my friends are all aware of the inner workings of my lil brain. I felt as though it sometime made me come across like a childish hermit who sits in her small, sheltered cave making dinosaurs out of lego at the age of 26. BUT IT’S NOT ACTUALLY LIKE THAT OKAY. Before OCD set up a permanent camp in my brain, I was a normal human that went to lots of parties, slept drunkenly on lots of wooden floors, and was extremely up for virtually all spontaneous trips and plans.
Currently, I skip between that spontaneous version of me, and the version of me that would rather stay in the safety of my own home whilst re-watching Broad City episodes under a blanket with my dog, sheltering from the germs of the outside world. For me, it’s hard to explain mental illness to people (especially to people who don’t want to hear it) without feeling like an attention-seeking killjoy who just wants everyone to feel sorry for me, so I’ve come across various people whom I’ve cared about in the past that just haven’t understood my inability to “just live” as they so simplistically put it. I’ve been told that my affinity for staying in my own bed overnight is really unhealthy (although I have a sneeeaking suspicion that he just really wanted me in his bed instead…) I know that OCD isn’t healthy – that’s exactly the point of mental illness. A little compassion and understanding wouldn’t go amiss. Even if you haven’t experienced a feeling or a situation yourself, perhaps just trust somebody when they voice the fact that they don’t feel comfortable doing something (shouts to my lovely humans who always make me feel comfortable and heard).
So, what situations scare me when it comes to spending the night, you ask? Literally 99.9% of them. Hotel stays, trips abroad, British holidays, camping trips, hospital stays (ESPECIALLY – GERMS AHOY). Literally any night that I spend away from my comfort zone(s) i.e. my home, the homes of family members, the homes of a couple of my exes.
When some of these potential ‘stay away from home’ plans are thrown out into the atmosphere of possibility by the people around me, I just find the idea of going through with it absolutely impossible. Sometimes I challenge these ‘FUCK NO’ feelings, but sometimes I have to just accept defeat in fear of pushing myself too hard, before yodelling the aforementioned “FUCK NOOOOOOO” into the valleys and beyond from my cosy cosy sofa. You know those days where you just feel really overwhelmed and you have to give in and sit on your bed and be kind to yourself and maybe have 15 mojitos (I’m kidding lol OR AM I – I GUESS WE MAY NEVER KNOW)
Other situations feel like less of a challenge beforehand as the fun definitely outweighs the anxiety. I’m currently on a break in Devon and it’s absolutely idyllic. I’m staying in a little apartment right on the beach, overlooking the sea and the sand dunes. I have no work to do, and abolutely nothing with any weight to worry about. But however well-received a holiday may feel, and however grateful I am to be there, the OCD is ever present. The OCD is like a small, wrinkly Rumpelstiltskin that sits in my handbag, spinning straw into wicked, wicked lies that he waits to feed into my mouth when I’m feeling really genuinely happy (lol my similes are getting out of hand).
I go away a few times a year, both on British holidays and abroad holidays. Sometimes, I’m absolutely fine during these holidays and the OCD doesn’t flare up at all. Other times, OCD will have been near-to-nonexistent leading up to the holiday and then BAM KABOOOSH WAPOOOOOOW I’m absolutely not okay, and I have none of my home comforts to give me any kind of relief from the alien environment that I’m now perched in, with my hands in my pockets and a look of unsettled disgust etched across my freckled mug.
“So what actually HAPPENS on these holidays when the OCD flares up” I hear you cry from yonder. Well, my dear curious readers – mild examples include very sweaty palms (for it is I, sexy mim), nausea, light-headedness and sometimes an urge to cry publicly (anyone who knows me knows that I’d rather eat my own spleen – or maybe even 12 other people’s spleens for that matter – than cry in public). I feel a frequent need to wash my hands, but no amount of washing is enough, which results in me running my hands under the taps for a ridiculous amount of time. I moisturise my hands repeatedly, before removing the moisturiser straight away. More extreme examples include the fact that I begin subconsciously yet meticulously checking my food before I eat it, and I usually end up eating far less. Sleep evades me unless I take sleep medication, and sand and dirt are enough to induce panic attacks. The infamous intrusive images and sounds then begin (think nails dragging on blackboards and cutlery scratching across plates), which is closely followed by repeated finger-licking and rubbing to try and reduce the intrusive thoughts. I always feel like my fingers are made of chalk, and it gives me an unbearable feeling that I literally can’t explain. All-in-all, it’s enough to add a little distraction to a serene beach holiday.
Some people would probably read this and retort with “Why not just refuse to act out the compulsions, and use logic to tell yourself that everything is fine? Why not block out the OCD for a week whilst you’re away?” I would absolutely love love looove to do this, but more often than not, it feels impossible. The feelings and sensations involved are very real and can feel very physical. CBT advises me to face them head-on for exposure work, so whenever I feel able to, I absolutely do. Believe me, I want to get better even more than anyone else wants me to. However, there is a tenderness that I have slowly learned when it comes to challenging myself. I need to tow the line between recovery and a full mental breakdown, and I feel that (despite the little OCD voice in my head) I’m getting closer and closer to understanding this balance.
One thing outside of exposure work that I find helps me a lot is thinking about WHY the OCD is triggered at specific times such as holidays. The whole time that I’ve been away this week, I’ve been wrestling with my compulsions and obsessions in order to see the lovely view over the top of them. This morning however, I sat down and finally faced writing this post and this made me sit in my head for an hour and question WHY the OCD has been triggered in such a huge way. The most obvious causes (especially when it comes to just overnight stays with friends) are unfamiliar surroundings and a whole new germ-pool. This makes complete sense and I always knew this was a trigger. A lack of my usual ‘safe place’ i.e. my front room is another obvious factor. The final factor however, and one that is exclusive to holidays, is one that I hadn’t realised until I sat down to write, and that’s pressure.
Any situation that involves expectations from me usually results in pressure and for some reason, pressure seems to kick the OCD up the arse in a huge way, making it fire like a dodgy cannon. I just paused without typing for a good ten minutes, trying to surmise WHY I think pressure might have such a notable effect on my mental health. Perhaps it runs parallel to the common idea that, commonly, if one (mentally well or not) stacks up pressure on an event being fun or enjoyable, it will usually end up being a disappointment to some extent. Multiply ‘disappointment’ by OCD and you get obsessive thoughts, secret crying fits and red-raw hands… Perhaps I’m setting myself up for a loss by failing to factor in OCD to my plans. Perhaps I need to become less optimistic. I’m not sure at all, but please feel free to comment if you have any personal experience with this pressure factor.
Anyway, I feel as though I’ve lost my way slightly throughout this post and gone off on a slight tangent, although I quite like doing this as it feels as though I’m writing more of a raw account of the thought processes involved in OCD, rather than a planned essay about it. Writing this post has primarily conformed to my primary goal of helping non-OCDers to understand, and to help OCDers feel less alone, however it’s also been quite cathartic for me. Perhaps now that I’ve realised that pressure plays a huge role in my holiday OCD flare-ups, I’ll be able to find a way of overcoming it on my beach breaks and overnight stays. Perhaps it’ll do f**k all, but at least it’s stopped me from repeatedly licking my fingers like an absolute weirdo for an hour.