Traveling with OCD
Everybody has issues, especially when the stresses of being on the road can put you at your worst. Some people get lonely, some get bad culture shock, others don’t deal well with discomfort. Me? I have obsessive compulsive disorder, colloquially known as OCD.
I’ve been in therapy on and off for about 18 years, for both OCD and other issues. While my OCD is a problem at home as well as abroad, I have found that the stresses of the road tend to magnify everything, which exacerbates my OCD. Everything is amplified. A mildly annoying tapping noise becomes a jackhammer going off in my skull. A dirty bathroom becomes a germ-ridden outhouse. The fact that my hostel room looks nothing like the advertised photo is not just annoying, but potentially panic attack-inducing. While my OCD is nowhere near the levels of stereotypical OCD (seen on screen in Monk and The Aviator), it does have the potential to make a day, week, or even an entire vacation crash and burn (and it does. on a regular basis). Over the years, I’ve developed some ways of coping with my OCD while on the road, and since I know I’m not the only one out there, I thought it might be useful to some folks to see how I get along on the road. Here’s what I do to keep my OCD at bay while traveling:
Carry hand sanitizer.
This one should be obvious, but I forget about this all the time. If your OCD skews toward the germophobic side, you probably already carry hand sanitizer, but if you don’t, definitely pick some up before you travel abroad. It’s not as readily available outside the USA as you might think, so I suggest bringing some with you. Even if your OCD doesn’t get triggered by germs or dirty things, hand sanitizer can also be useful for cleaning wounds and getting sticky substances off your hands. I once got spilled shampoo all over my hands and was without access to water or anything to clean them for the next 4 hours. My hands were utterly disgusting and gross and it wouldn’t have been a problem if I had been carrying hand sanitizer.
In the OCD world, I’m a “checker”. I double, triple, quadruple check things. I’ve been known to get up out of bed at 2am because I’m only 99% sure I locked up my bag. After I pack my bag, I will actually unpack it again, to make sure I have everything. Sometimes I do this multiple times. In an effort to minimize the number of times I have to check everything, I try to keep things as organized as possible. It keeps me from needing to check, and if I do check, it makes it easier to do so.
Research the culture where you’re going ahead of time.
I would have been a lot more grossed out by the Korean habit of throwing used toilet paper into an open bin had I not been aware of it before my arrival. I would have been a lot more bothered by the open sewers on Jindo Island had I not been warned about them ahead of time. I would have been a lot more frustrated by the last minute planning so common in Korean culture if I hadn’t been informed of it before I took a job there. The more you know about where you’re going, the more time you have to mentally steel yourself to it, and to prepare for it. The more prepared you are, the less it’s likely to aggravate your OCD. I’m convinced that this is why eating food out of a filthy cookpot at a reenactment doesn’t bother me, but a tiny fleck of food on a fork at home will send me into a dishwashing frenzy. One is expected and prepared for, the other is an unpleasant surprise.
Remember to breathe.
When all else fails, remember to breathe and try to calm down. Whenever something is bothering me, the first thing I do is make a conscious effort to calm down. I take a big, deep breath and relax my entire body. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I highly suggest learning some self-calming techniques before you get on the road. The ability to return to inner calmness will help you more than anything else I list here.
If you are on medication, take it!
Travel is not the time to go off your meds. Nor is it the time to try new ones, new dosages, or new techniques. Make sure your doctor is aware of any upcoming travel and discuss it with them thoroughly. Make sure you have enough medication to make it through your trip, or find out about getting a regional equivalent if you’re going to be on the road for a long time. Some doctors will write you a prescription for double the dosage, which you can then split in half, in order to increase the amount of medication you can carry with you. A doubled-up 90-day supply can last you six months or more.
Interestingly enough, I have found that while travel may sometimes worsen my OCD in the short term, it has generally helped it in the long run. The unpredictable nature of travel means that some things are just going to happen no matter how prepared you are, and this acts almost as a form of exposure therapy. By being repeatedly forced into situations I can’t control, I have learned to let go. My OCD is most definitely aggravated more often and with greater intensity when I’m traveling (which can often make me rather bitchy, which is one of the reasons I travel solo by choice most of the time), but in the greater scheme of things, I have found that it has lessened the overall frequency of episodes, and has alleviated some of the more “everyday” issues that I used to have. Thanks to travel, when I see a disgusting gas station bathroom, I can now gain calm by thinking “I made it through squat toilets in Asia. This is nothing. I’ll be fine.” Thanks to travel, when Marc makes sudden and unexpected changes to our schedule, I can breathe and take solace in the knowledge that I made it through the insanity of having a non-communicative Korean employer who changed my schedule every.single.day. So, while my OCD can definitely make travel more difficult, travel, ultimately, makes my OCD less difficult and that is quite priceless.