1 December 2014

Wash and go

Idly skimming through my OCD self-help book one day, a phrase jumped out at me that prompted me to think 'Oh no, not another compulsion I didn't know I had!'

It was in a section of Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder called 'Goals for Contamination Fears' - specifically 'Goals for Showering or Bathing' - and read: 'As with washing your hands, don't count up to a particular number or wash in a specific order: just allow yourself to be on automatic pilot.'

What concerned me was that I always wash in a specific order - ensuring I soap my entire body - and have done so for as long as I can remember. The way I bathe is almost certainly a result of my obsessive need for completeness, but I wondered whether I was actually engaging in washing compulsions, as I don't wash until I feel 'comfortable' or 'just right'. 

On the other hand, if I were to miss out soaping, say, my left arm - which is unlikely to be particularly dirty - I would feel discomfort, and as if I were then contaminating my towel and clothes. My low level contamination issues undoubtedly influence my approach to washing to some degree.

The book advised that you should aim to finish within ten minutes if you were shampooing your hair, five minutes, if not. I decided to time myself to get a better idea of whether the situation was out of hand.

I was obliged to take a bath - generally a slower process - as I don't have a shower at home, and also stopped to towel dry my hair, so was surprised to finish in 10m 58s. Over the next few evenings, I did this again, finishing in 10m 59s and 10m 56s. 

Being less than a minute off the target time was reassuring, and I had already achieved the goal of being on automatic pilot, through the very way I wash: doing it in a specific order may be something to avoid, but allows me to switch off and think about something else.

Could I do better, though? I timed my next four baths, now going as fast as I could, and managed to finish in under nine minutes on each occasion.

Image courtesy of winnond/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
During those tests I realised what was actually slowing me down: lack of concentration. Because bath time is reflection time, I tend to slip into a trance and soap the same bit over and over again: I am simply not mindful of what I'm doing.

Since then, I have tried harder to maintain focus - good mental practice for the mindfulness course I plan to start in the New Year - and my 'personal best' is now 8m 7s; nearly a three minute improvement on the first test and well within the goal time.

This experience shows that diagnosing OCD behaviours is no simple matter. Yes, the condition does play a part in how I wash, but only a bit part. Things are not always quite what they seem and it's important to avoid leaping to conclusions. If in doubt, always seek expert advice.

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How long do you take showering or bathing? And do you wash in a particular order?

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