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Bin juice and the art of inappropriate licking

May 8, 2011

One week, slightly further along the 12-week therapy course I was on last year for OCD, we were working on our individual plans to treat and challenge our OCD assumptions.

Not entirely unlike getting arachnophobes to gradually increase their exposure to spiders, we were being encouraged to work out what it was specifically that caused us problems, and then make a plan to face it head on without performing any of the compulsions that we were used to associating with it.

A lot of the things I had issues with fell into the ‘contamination’ category of obsessions – not entirely uncommon to many people, whether they have OCD or not. I didn’t like using cashpoint buttons or those on paedestrian crossings; I’d cover my hand with my sleeve or use my elbow rather than have to touch communal handrails on Tube trains or buses; I washed my hands frequently when cooking and would hold my breath if someone near me coughed or sneezed, or when I walked past the entrance to the hospital I passed every day en route to work.

Having identified some of the triggers and responses, I then had to work out ways I could deliberately force myself to confront these disgusting things. We had to make sure that these experiments were genuinely ‘difficult’ and that we didn’t find sneaky ways to neutralise our actions straight after exposure – it wasn’t on, for example, to press the road-crossing button normally and then immediately use alcohol gel to clean my hands. We with OCD had to push ourselves further, to do things beyond what non-OCD people would find ‘normal’, we were told. Each of us in turn went round the circle naming some specific things we were going to, ahem, expose ourselves to in the coming week.

One of my aims was that if I had to put something in the bin whilst cooking, I wouldn’t wash my hands afterwards, unless I’d been handling raw chicken. (Although we were all about going beyond the normal level of grimness, no one was advocating Salmonella infection as a part of cognitive-behavioural therapy.) In fact, if I felt like it, the therapist said, maybe I could then rub my bin-contaminated hands on my face and not wash it for at least an hour? Well, maybe I could. Then again, ugh.

I began to wonder if they were trying to ‘cure’ our OCD by making us act even madder than we were already. Visions of a OCD-free but tramp version of me fluttered through my consciousness – carrier-bags for shoes, string belt, drinking the dregs from secondhand cans of coke swiped from park bins.

We had finished presenting our ideas and there was an uncomfortable shuffling of papers as we all retreated into our heads, foreseeing the uncomfortable and difficult things that lay before us in the coming week. Before I could stop it, some of the internal monologue escaped.

“I understand that we need to make sure we’re pushing ourselves enough to challenge the obsessions and compulsions,” I said to the therapists, “But I really don’t think I’m going to be able to rub my face all over the rubbish and drink a pint of bin juice.”

“People with OCD are different to those without it,” the therapist said, repeating one the mantras slowly being burnt into each of our brains. “You have to go above and beyond what other people would find disgusting.”

“But… I…” mumbled to myself, recognising that there was no way I was going to negotiate anything less gross to do. The therapist reached down and slipped off her stacked sandal, lifted it to her mouth and ran her tongue slowly along the bottom of the sole.

“Just like that,” she said.

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