It’s in the jeans

jeans

At the moment I am sitting in a pair of jeans that I am pretty convinced could give me HIV. It’s a long and boring story but its main protagonists are: me, OCD, jeans, blood.

A few days ago, on my way to work, I happened to walk past some blood on the floor – now, I’m not sure if I actually stepped on it, but I walked pretty damn close anyway. So followed a day of feeling sick and contaminated all over. I kept myself to myself all day, and barely spoke to anyone. When I got home, I took off my jeans and put them by the washing machine (I decided that I didn’t have to throw them away because the jeans did not come into contact with aforementioned floor, of that I am certain as my jeans are not long enough. I did, however, throw away my trainers, trainers that are relatively new, because there is a chance they walked on some blood). I didn’t have to wash the jeans straight away because I have another pair of jeans that I could wear instead the next day – and they say that putting off the compulsion is a good idea or whatever.

I own, in total, two pairs of jeans that can be worn outside. Why only two? Well I just can’t be arsed to buy new clothes when the risk that I will have to throw them away runs so high. So, given that 50% of my denim property was waiting to be washed, yesterday I was left with no option but to wear pair no. 2., teaming with my current favourite jumper (a jumper that also happens to be fairly new). This jumper is nothing special but it is so unbelievably snug, it’s like a hug from myself to myself. I have even taken to wearing it around the house, it’s that cosy. So I was pretty happy yesterday when I left for work, clean jeans, nice jumper. No contamination, win!

After using a public toilet yesterday I went to wash my hands. I was feeling fairly okay, okay enough to not go down the extensive time consuming hand-washing route, but rather the normal, regular-person type of hand-washing. Just as I was rinsing away the soap from my hands, I felt a few droplets of water splash back from the sink basin. No problem, I will just wash them again. Then I spotted a tiny bit of what looked like blood on the side of the sink. It was the tinniest of amounts but it looked very much like blood to me. I tried hard to convince myself that it was make-up, or food or some speck of something else. But I am pretty sure that it was blood. So then starts the tidal wave. Along comes the old friend, hot lead, surging up the body like a sadistic cat, it alerts all of the senses, makes my skin feel like it’s burning. I try to assess where the specks of water actually fell, but the truth is I don’t know, so they might as well be all over my jumper. My jumper is effectively drenched in someone else’s blood. Someone who may, or may not have HIV. But for the sake of risk assessment, let’s just assume that they do. I am covered.

Long story short, I got home, had a shower, put the jumper in a plastic carrier bag to go in the bin. Jeans in the wash, just in case.

This morning, when I got up, I realised that I have no trousers to wear whatsoever. I am screwed. I have to choose between the pair no. 1 which are contaminated in my eyes because I was wearing them on the day that I may or may not have walked on a speck of blood in the street. Or I can wear pair no. 2 which are contaminated in my eyes because I was wearing them on the day that I may or may not have splashed myself with water that may or may not have come into contact with blood on the side of the sink. I decide that the risk is greater if I go with pair 2, so I decide to go with pair 1. In the panic and general self-loathing that ensues, I console myself with the knowledge that, at one point, I would have phoned in sick and not gone to work at all, rather than face the hell of wearing either pair of blood jeans. So at least that’s something. Er, yay….?

So, here I am, several hours into my day, I am wearing blood soaked jeans and everything is itching. Most of all my mind. I have popped one of the pills that I am to take when I am experiencing particularly high levels of anxiety (it’s one of the holy trinity of drugs that I am taking these days, it’s so much fun to be a walking pharmacy, pumping yourself full of drugs in the hope that one will fucking work). It won’t be long before I start to feel dopey and drowsy, before everything starts to feel a bit slow, and I start to edge towards feeling a little bit like a zombie. Which I guess is better than a hyena who can’t stop itching.

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It’s about eggs.

eggs

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post and, the truth is, I haven’t been in the right frame of mind to write. As 2014 drew to a close and the prospect of 2015 loomed ever closer, I felt less inclined to write, and more inclined to try and forget. To be frank, I haven’t been in the mood to contemplate this illness, haven’t been remotely interested in sitting at my laptop and trying to explain how I feel. It has sapped so much of my energy in recent months and years that I think I was in need of a break, a break from consciously contemplating it. A break from thinking and reflecting on it. Living with it can be tiring enough. Then, yesterday, when I was making dinner, something happened that made me want to write.

Often, when people think about OCD, they think about cleaning. They imagine people obsessively cleaning their hands, scrubbing their bodies, disinfecting their homes. And there is some truth in that. But that is not everything, not at all.

It’s also about eggs.

Eggs? Yes, eggs. On my way home from work yesterday evening, I made a plan to have a (fairly) square meal, a meal that I would prepare myself (something that I have not been doing much of lately) and enjoy, warm in front of the TV. I had a particular craving for eggs. I really love eggs: little protein bombs, versatile and delicious. I opted for scrambled eggs on toast; quick, easy and nutritious. Having purchased a pack of ten fresh eggs on the way home, I loaded up the toaster and got to work. I cracked the first egg, and into the pan it went. I cracked the second, into the pan it plopped. Before firing up the hob, I nervously scanned the contents of the pan, hoping that I wouldn’t find anything disturbing swilling around with all of the protein and goo. Unfortunately, my eye was caught by a small brownish-red speck floating in the cold, clear, egg-white. I am not sure what the brownish-red substance was, but to me, in that moment, it was blood. Animal blood. And even animals can contract HIV, I’m sure of it. I throw the eggs in the bin, and get a clean pan. I repeat this entire process and, once again, I spy a tiny fleck of something sinister, lurking around the perfect dome of raw yolk. In a depressing moment of déjà vu, it results in my throwing away the eggs. I get another clean pan from the drawer (if this carries on, I’m going to run out of pans) and try again. Fortunately, this third time round I cannot see any brownish-red flecks anywhere in the pan; relieved, I get on with cooking my set of lovely clean eggs. I clear away the offending shells and disinfect the kitchen worktop, washing my hands countless times, just in case. I’m sad, because this entire fiasco has all but ruined a meal that I was so looking forward to, the first meal I have cooked from scratch in ages. I’m irritated because it has tainted what was otherwise going to be a quiet evening in front of the TV, but now I’m tired and on edge. I’m pissed off because I’ve thrown away four perfectly good eggs, because I thought they might give me HIV.

Food can be a minefield if you have contamination OCD. Pre-packaged food brings with it images of strangers in factories handling your food with hands covered in cuts, grazes and loose plasters. Images of blood getting into the food, plasters coming into contact with what I am about to eat. Fresh fruit and vegetables leads you to imagine fruit-pickers with dirty hands, perhaps cutting their hands on shrubbery, branches and fruit-picking tools (whatever they are!) as they work themselves to the bone. And who’s to say that there isn’t blood on my fruit? If I didn’t pick it, how do I know? It’s at times like these, when my mind wanders to blood, that I wish I had the patience to grow my own fruit; at least then I would know for certain – well, almost – that no one else had been able to bleed into my food. For me, the truly ‘safe’ fruits are the ones that have skins on – at least that way you can reduce the risk of contamination by cleaning, and then removing, the contaminated cover.

If I go into Starbucks for a coffee, or even into the local deli for a quick sandwich, I have to fight with myself not to examine the hands of the person behind the counter, scanning her skin for any signs of cuts or splits in the surface. I will also, if I am feeling particularly anxious, search her neck and face for any signs of scratches or particularly sore spots. If I can see any sign of blood or trauma to the skin, I will instantly want to leave. I won’t want them to touch anything that I am about to eat or drink. I will pray that I am served by the employee who has no signs of any wounds or dry blood whatsoever – her skin is so intact she could be made of plastic, yes she will do. I will feel particularly relieved if those employees charged with preparing all of the food are sporting disposable gloves. It might look clinical and – let’s face it – more than a little bit odd to see that the person loading up your sandwich is wearing latex gloves, but it really does take some of the underlying anxiety away, if just for a moment. It’s like the moment when you realise that the public toilets have a no-touch flushing sensor, or that most wonderful of bathroom devices – the hands-free tap system. One less thing to get myself into a state about, thank you universe!

A lot of my days can end up like my eggs – seemingly okay at first, on the surface everything is just fine. But then something so small will happen – a speck of something on the pavement; someone at work will get a tiny microscopic paper-cut and then later offer to make me a cup of tea; they’ll go and touch all of the doors and surfaces near me, rendering everything a danger zone; my shoelaces will scrape the floor which means I am making a conscious effort all day not so sit with my leg tucked under (as I normally do), which means I am uncomfortable at work all day; someone will send a well-intentioned e mail to the office talking about how, at this time of year, we need to be more hygienic as an office, and be wary of coughing, sneezing and spreading our bodily fluids (!) everywhere; she’ll then promptly distribute anti-bacterial wipes/sprays/gels – which is just an invitation for me to obsess. So, you see, the egg is tainted; there is always something that can ruin my eggs. I can be working my way through on a run of perfectly good eggs, but somewhere, in that batch, there’ll be a bad one. And it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to know that, to anticipate a fall. I think that’s why sometimes, when I am having a really good day, I can get so excited and hyper – because I just know that I’m on a clock and, before long, I will be ruminating and obsessing about some fleck of nothing in the corner on the carpet. And it’s so draining, and so sad, to spend days hiding in my own mind like that.

I hope that will change soon.

Beauty and disease in autumn

autumn

When I woke up this morning, I felt happy. Happy because I could see straight out of the window and the world outside was just spectacular. The sun, like a gloating puppeteer, was in her place at the sky’s throne, watching over the scene below, flooding the earth with light. The sky was the kind of blue that you will only ever see in autumn – deep, electric and laced with gold. The few clouds I could see were cheerfully bobbing across the sky; fluffy, bouncy and creamy white. The trees outside my window were ablaze with light, heavy branches bouncing majestically on a hearty October breeze. It was one of those perfect, crisp and heavenly autumn days that make you glad to be here to see it.

I spent yesterday evening with one of my closest friends, watching a film (very good – The Pentagon Papers), eating Chinese takeaway and sipping fizz. We chatted, we giggled, we had fun. When I got up this morning we drank tea, chatted some more and had a good chuckle about her eccentric new German teacher. It was brilliant. Normal. When I left at lunchtime, I strolled into town to catch the bus back to my house. I walked through her neighbourhood (incidentally, one of the most beautiful in the city) and felt so happy, so lifted and so grateful to be able to stroll into town of a Sunday, passing all of this wonderful autumn-ness that surrounds me. Yellow, orange, copper, brown, terracotta, red, bronze, maroon, green – all of the colours that make up the most perfect of autumnal palettes. I was so happy that I even stopped to take pictures on my phone. I contemplate a Facebook post in celebration of this most wonderful autumn (proposed status: ‘I may be biased, but an English autumn day is surely among the most perfect and most beautiful things imaginable….’).

In the midst of my happy autumn haze, I decide to take a coffee-shop pit-stop before catching the bus home – just me, my coffee and my new book. But then, of course, the universe shat on the dream. As I stroll across the main square, scanning the floor for HIV, I notice a few small patches of a brownish-red substance that screams at me from the pavement. I try to manoeuvre my way around the mess but am stopped in my tracks by a huge explosion of RED that is about 3 feet wide. It’s blood, I am sure of it. It looks to me like someone has split their face open on this pavement. I take a few steps back to have another look at the patches. I take a photo on my phone. That’s right, a photo. The reason I do this is because, in the midst of an OCD freakout, I cannot trust my own eyes. A photo is as objective as I can get in this situation so, perhaps, when I review the photo from a safe distance, I will see that it is not blood. But no, when I look at the photo again, I am fairly sure, this is blood. I would post a picture of it, but I don’t want to prompt feelings of anxiety in anyone that has similar blood contamination fears*. That it has ruined my day is enough, let it not ruin someone else’s. (*I decided to post one of my Perfect Autumn pictures instead….)

As I walk away, I check the hem of my trousers – is it touching the floor? Yes. Fuck. I can’t stay in town any more; I go and get the bus back to my end of the city. I know in my mind that I am going to have to throw my shoes and trousers away when I get home so, when I get off the bus, I dive into a coffee shop to sit for a while, just to put it off a bit longer. I order a croissant and coffee but, by the time it arrives, I am crying and I can’t even taste the croissant as I wolf it down. I find myself resenting the woman in the corner who is in the process of analysing her relationship to her companion. Everything about her is pissing me off – and that’s not because she’s done anything wrong. It’s because she’s enjoying the normality of going to a coffee shop and just hanging out. She’s got her feet casually resting on a chair, then she’s got them tucked under her – she is not in the least bit concerned that she has HIV on her shoes (or, maybe she is? After all, there are no better masters of disguise than those who live with anxiety….). I hate that I can’t be her. I wonder if the photo I took could somehow contaminate my phone. This fucking disease. My mind disease.

I cannot stop crying and it’s embarrassing. I walk home. I plan ahead to go in via the back door: if I have to take off my shoes and trousers before I get in the house, it’s better that I do it at the back door, and not in full view of the street. As it turns out, it’s not much better going in via the back door as my garden faces a row of houses on the adjacent street. It’s pretty humiliating to think that some unfortunate observer may look out of their bedroom window just in time to see a 31 year old woman undressing herself on the doorstep. I take off my shoes, my trousers and my pop-socks, leaving them in a pile outside my backdoor, I’ll deal with them later. I walk into the house, grateful for the sanctity of a relatively clean floor.

I lock the cat-flap behind me – I can’t risk the cats coming in at this point. The reason for this is the Trail of Contamination: the cats would have walked on the same pavement that I have just walked on with my blood shoes, which means that they will have blood on their paws, which they will tread all over the carpet and all over the furniture. Blood everywhere. They are such sweet cats, and have been my little companions these past few months while I have been signed off work. They sometimes like to climb on my lap and sit, their little paws just draped over my knees – it’s a welcome comfort. But there will be no sitting on my lap, no blood paws today. I have to keep this space as clean as possible for as long as possible. I will let the cats in soon – I have to – because it’s not their fault I’m crazy. But, for now, I just need a few moments in a clean space, before it all becomes contaminated.

Dettol and Media Terror – an OCD perspective

dettol

As someone with contamination-type OCD, it doesn’t take much for something small to sew a seed of doubt which, with the passing of time and obsessive rumination, becomes an instrument of fear, rendering me genuinely frightened and afraid. As such, at times of high anxiety, I tend to avoid any kind of exposure to media (TV, film, news articles) that might exasperate my fears. For example, despite the fact that it is one of my favourite films, I have not been able to bring myself to watch Philadelphia (the 1993 film starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington) since long before my diagnosis, simply because there is a scene that acts as a trigger for my own anxieties. The distress it causes means it is just not worth it. Similarly, I can’t watch anything relating to HIV/AIDS and I find myself switching channels during any kind of cleaning type show that seeks to glorify obsessive cleaning behaviour: How Clean Is Your House? Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, Your Hotel Room Will Kill You etc. Okay, I made that last one up, but you get the idea.

It is because I am perhaps overly sensitive to themes relating to germs and various illnesses, that I can get very annoyed (read angry) when I come across some spectacularly irresponsible (read stupid) marketing campaigns. Step forward Dettol and its ‘No Touch Hand System’, a soap dispenser that senses hand movement and dispenses the soap, without any need for the user to touch the dispenser itself. Let me be clear, I have contamination-type OCD – I once convinced myself that the red sauce on a pizza could potentially be contaminated with blood; several months ago I threw away an actual bike because I thought it was contaminated and could, therefore, kill me – and yet I can see through the bullshit of this.

Aside from the contradiction of its own campaign (our product kills 99.9% of bacteria, but we’re not quite sure about what’s lurking on your hands, so we’d better not let you touch it), marketing of this kind is just fucking dangerous. Yes, I get that you are trying to sell something. Yes, I know that there is a marketing premise that dictates that you must create a problem to then provide a product-based solution. But with this campaign, Dettol has gone too far, and Dettol is not alone. How many times have I seen adverts for germ-assassinating sprays/wipes/soaps that paint a picture of their product as the only thing that stands between you and the annihilation (via household germs) of your entire family?

Everything in these adverts, from the chilling horror-movie music and its accompanying sinister lighting, to the personification of evil germ-creatures (contrasted nicely with the innocence of children playing in the background), suggests that an Armageddon is lurking just round the corner if you fail to buy this product. As a marketing tool, it’s an absolute coup: the underlying message here (which is, interestingly, nearly always targeted at women/mothers) is that you alone are responsible for protecting your family against impending doom, and that only by buying our product will you be able to safeguard against the (always) 99.9% of all germs ever. Talk about pressure.

 So, onto the underlying argument or ‘logic’ of the Dettol campaign in question, the ‘No Touch Hand System’: you must wash your hands using our product (interestingly labelled a ‘system’, in order to perpetuate its own underlying myth of logic and science), because our product will keep you safe. Our product will prevent the aforementioned annihilation of your family. Use it, bathe in it, but be sure not to come into contact with the bottle that sources it, because that right there is a hotbed of disease and viruses. Hold on, Dettol, just hold on. You just told me that your product is basically a super-product that will save the world, and yet you cannot guarantee that it will kill the germs lurking on its dispensing spout? Would you care to rethink the claims that you make about the apparent superpowers of your own product, this apparent ‘system’ of protection?

Of course, I am exaggerating for effect (just like you, Dettol), and that’s because irresponsible marketing pisses me off. It’s because irresponsible marketing like this goes beyond the trickery of everyday advertising, relying as it does on the creation of a genuine fear in the mind of the viewer. Worse still, it relies upon the explicit manipulation of the public’s perception of danger. I can see through the absolute hokum of this, but not everyone will be able to. And that’s not because I am smarter, more intelligent or more resistant to media terror (I am not either of these things, and I freely admit that I have been at the mercy of the terror on many occasions), but because I am lucky to see it for what it is. Perhaps I was just having a good OCD day when I saw the advert for the first time. But that will not always be the case.

The danger is that someone somewhere will see this advert and – make no mistake – it will plant a seed of genuine fear in their mind. Speak to people with anxiety based disorders and so often will they tell you that the trigger of their anxieties was something that, to most people, seemed harmless and small. Too often, it only takes something that is so seemingly insignificant to tip that balance, to awaken an otherwise dormant volcano. Once that damage is done, you will have a hard task trying to reverse it before the fear engraves itself upon the thought processes of that person’s mind.

I am in no way suggesting that Dettol is triggering anxiety disorders across the population of Britain. No. Anxieties of all kinds sit within a complex spectrum of illness, with many causes and many manifestations. I am no expert – I am no psychiatrist, psychologist nor scientist. But I sit within the spectrum, and it infuriates me beyond words to see large well-known companies like Dettol acting in a way that is so careless and devoid of consideration for the public, a public comprised of human beings like you and me. I am also not blaming Dettol for seeking to maximise its profit margins with new and elaborate campaigns such as this – its business is profit and profit alone, its goal is to make money, first and foremost (despite the well-chiselled image as gatekeeper of our home and health).

What I am doing is asking the likes of Dettol et al to think. Just think before you make the claims that you make, think before you market your product, think before you choose to sew a seed of fear that is not only unnecessary but is also illogical and potentially dangerous. The question is: for however many units that Dettol sells as a result of marketing campaigns like the ‘No Hands Touch System’, how many of those are being sold as a result of little else but a commercially constructed fear? And is this right?