The penny made a slow, careful descent. It almost seemed like it was navigating the gooey orange liquid to avoid the other debris already immersed in my container of Dial Body Wash. The oily piece of torn, crumpled newspaper I had fished out of the trash can on one of my excursions to the city was suspended midway toward the bottom. The penny grazed the newspaper piece’s edge before continuing a measured fall toward the bottom where the other “Artifacts of Fear” rested. I wasn’t sure if these pieces of trash were getting cleaner by being dropped in a container of antibacterial body wash, or if the body wash was being contaminated further with each new dirty item I dropped into it. I was almost certain it was the latter. At least my OCD was certain and that tended to heavily influence my opinion. Perhaps opinion is the wrong word since it didn’t matter what I actually thought or even knew to be true. The OCD influenced my emotions, specifically the emotion of fear, and that trumped everything else.
It kind of started as an experiment and became an anxiety-laced oxymoron. Dial “Antibacterial” Body Wash filled with bacteria-laden objects. Scraps of urban refuse found in the foulest corners in the dirtiest sections of the city. The public bins and gutters where people discarded their garbage were the places I was assigned and supervised to scavenge. What others threw out became my “found” objects to keep. I collected trash. Pieces of trash for suspension in my Dial Soap container of orange body wash gel. A container originally purposed to cleanse was repurposed into a petri dish. Physical washing evolved into metaphysical cleansing. The idea devised by Therapist Jared was every time I showered, I could only use the body wash progressively polluted with an increasing number of garbage scraps. By “washing” but more accurately, contaminating my body with the body wash containing objects collected from dense urban centers of decay, universally deemed as filthy, loaded with bacteria, and potentially harmful to health, I would cleanse my mind. A mind that had decayed from pollution and over-crowding of harmful thoughts. Fight fire with fire, perhaps.
Along with the sticky, blackened penny and crumpled, oily newspaper, the Dial Body Wash container also held a piece of old gum, chewed by some stranger that I picked up from the ground, a semi-unbent paperclip, an old rubber band, and something that had at one time been a gnawed-at pen cap. The items were all souvenirs from dingy areas I visited during ERP excursions. The first item, the pen cap, was the most difficult. It laid in close proximity to a band of stragglers who may have been junkies. Whether or not they actually were junkies was irrelevant. They looked enough the part that my OCD swiftly categorized them as such. In doing so everything associated with junkies – carelessness, syringes, and the disease most associated with sharing them was stamped with a fist on to my brain. The pen cap was chewed. Perhaps by one of the junkies. Its close location to their congregation made that a possibility. Whether or not any of them actually had chewed on it, was irrelevant. My OCD yanked the hint of possibility toward near airtight certainty. Like everything else I would ever touch or worse yet, possibly handle in “danger” areas or situations that yielded very elevated anxiety, the pen cap merited extremely close inspection.
My mind’s eye mustered full human optic ability to hone in on the minutest detail with laser focus in search of any fault that meant imminent danger. The pen cap had teeth marks around the parameter of the upper cone. Deduction according to OCD deemed one or more of the junkies had chewed this pen cap, thereby enveloping it with a residue of saliva thickened from dehydration and polluted with traces of blood and other mouth sore secretions, common to junkies. Even if all this were true (which according to OCD it definitely was), the biological science supporting any assurance that contamination on this pen cap from the junkies’ saliva had been rendered harmless because it was dried up and therefore dead, was, again, irrelevant. OCD trumped biological evidence and any other form of science and reason. According to the OCD, the saliva, which was definitely on the pen cap, which had definitely been chewed by the nearby miscreants, who were all definitely junkies, was very dangerous. So much so, the anxiety alarms in my head were screaming at such high volume, I almost felt people nearby could hear them. These thoughts were now recorded so they wouldn’t be short-lived and contained within a time frame of initial exposure. Sure, that’s when they were most potent but now that they were created, they would stay. To be played repeatedly in my head later, many times again. Repetitive thought. Repeating over and over and over and over.
“Can you pick up the pen cap now?” asked Therapist Jared.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Not yet.”
“Ok, then just keeping looking at it. Let me know when you’re anxiety is at a five,” said Therapist Jared.
“Ok. It’s still at around six or seven,” I said.
Almost twenty minutes later, I picked up the pen cap. I held it with just my pointer finger and thumb at first. Almost thirty minutes after that, Therapist Jared got me to hold it in my palm with my fingers closed around it. This was the normal way to hold objects of similar size. He noticed how I held it with a very loose grip and asked me to tighten my grip around the pen cap. I did so gradually. Eventually I was squeezing it in my palm. I held it in a clenched fist until it was time to release it into my Dial body wash container. I dropped it into the container, along with the junkies and their carelessness – along with their filthy tattered clothing – along with the grimy steps on which they laid, nearly catatonic at times – along with the deteriorating neighborhood in which the steps were located. Everything my OCD had associated and attached to that pen cap was now in my container of body wash. The pen cap was small but the associations attached to it that it pulled into the container of orange liquid soap with its descent should have made the container explode. It didn’t. And even though my mind felt like it would explode after that first trash collecting excursion, it didn’t.
As the number of souvenirs placed into the orange liquid soap grew, so too did its infamy. At first, other patients would do a double take of the container as I walked into the showers with it each morning. My container of body wash liquid soap was an anomaly. Because it contained trash. Initially, other patients would ask and I would explain. This soap wasn’t kept in my room, so I didn’t have to explain its presence or my reluctant use of it any time other than mornings. The soap was kept at the counselors’ station. Much like when an inmate checks into prison and has to give up his or her personal items for safe-keeping, any sanitation items such as soap, Purell, and anti-bacterial wipes, had to be relinquished to the counselors. When we needed soap in the mornings for showering, we would have to request our own soap dishes from the counselors and then return them to the counselor station after our showers. Eventually, one brave counselor asked me why there was trash in my soap container and I explained. She grimaced. Soon the other counselors learned why I had the unsightly trash-soap and despite being professionals in an OCD clinic accustomed to oddities and purposeful griminess, the counselors couldn’t hide their disgust every time they handed the trash-soap to me, nor did they try to.
I was actually appreciative of that. Gross is gross, OCD or not, and the counselors openly owning up to my trash-soap being gross made me feel less “finicky” and weird. I thought having to use soap with trash from the streets in it was disgusting and my feelings were validated by non-OCD, “normal” people who had a high tolerance for odd and gross. Yeah, my trash-soap became universally hated at the OCD clinic.
The weird thing is that eventually we, patients, therapists, counselors, all of us, collectively grew desensitized to it. The simple habituation technique was working. Regular exposure to the horrible trash-soap was making it less horrible. I mean it was still hated, most of all by me, but it became less feared over time. It’s that simple. Regular exposure to something feared makes it less fearful. Of course with OCD, a key component to gradually diminishing irrational fears are the “R” and “P” parts of ERP therapy – Exposure and Response Prevention. If one responds by “ritualizing” in some manner, like hand-washing after the exposure, the benefit is lost. By ritualizing after exposure, you just validate that the irrational fear merits response. And while you receive some immediate relief by responding to the blasting anxiety alarms through some form of ritualization, it’s a very fleeting respite, and in effect, you’ve actually made the irrational fear more potent in the long run. In responding to the anxiety alarm, you’ve legitimized it. OCD wins and increases in potency. Still, even just seeing, recurrently, something so feared, so hated, made me grow used to it. It started losing its shock-value. Seeing the fear regularly in some physical form day-in and day-out was destroying its metaphysical omnipresence in my daily life.
In retrospect, it seems the practice of fear-exposure to something real and tangible is akin to having a vision-board. And like seeing a vision-board, regular visual exposure to my container-of-horrors was a means to actualization of goals. The goal of my Dial Soap fear-container was to not be obsessively terrified by irrational fears. And it worked. I became less fearful. This in turn enabled actualization of goals more commonly associated with actual vision-boards; mainly happiness. The inordinate amount of emotional, mental, and psychological time and energy spent consumed by irrational fears could now be allocated to good things. Even my vision of myself changed. I could see myself as possibly happy again. I could see it was now feasible. I could see physical evidence in my features. And that’s because I could stand to start looking at myself again. When I went to the sink to wash my hands and insert my contact lenses, I wouldn’t look away as quickly. I would pause and look. Very briefly at first, but longer as time passed. I wanted to believe what I was seeing. Less furrowing of my brow. Less pursing of my lips. Less darkening and swelling under my eyes. My eyes. The windows. I could see a semblance of what I used to be was resurfacing. Because I could see these physical signs, I could feel the things I couldn’t see. A lightness on my shoulders. An expansion in my lungs. A slowing of my heart. It was occurring, gradually but actually. Actualization.
While my mutant Dial Soap was a therapy devised in a somewhat extreme environment, perhaps the notion of a “vision board of fears” or “fear board” could carry into everyday “normal” life. After all a vision board is just an amalgamation of visual reminders of goals. They’re visual aspiration inspirations. See yourself in the future you want to have. I wanted to see myself in a future where I wouldn’t be rendered debilitated by irrational fears. Fears that severely limited my access to normalcy, let alone happiness. Yet by seeing the fears every day, they became less a part of my future. In essence, a reverse vision board, a visual reminder of fears, enabled the good things I actually wanted to see on a vision board and in my life. So don’t be afraid to tack on what scares you to that vision board. Look at it. Every day. See and feel it gradually lose its power over you. Stare at it often until the only emotion it elicits is boredom. Once you see it can’t scare you anymore, take it down. Then start looking at the reminders you actually want on that vision board that make you happy. And now that you’re not scared anymore, go get that life.
Easier said than done? Absolutely. But please just try.