8 February 2016

Invisible wounds

Image courtesy of aopsan/
Ordering compulsions have always been the mainstay of my OCD, with contamination issues playing only a minor part. However, a couple of years ago, I realised that this latter element was having an increasing impact on my behaviour. 

My main difficulty had always been travelling on public transport - or, to be precise, using the seats - but then I became aware that I was trying to avoid physical contact with strangers. If my coat sleeve so much as brushed somebody else's, I found myself cringing. 

While this escalation hasn't stopped me going out, I do sometimes navigate the pavement as if I were dodging criss-crossing laser beams - swerving left and right and swivelling sideways to manoeuvre between people. Shopping trip turned Mission Impossible assignment.

And sometimes I find myself 'under threat' quite unexpectedly.

Last month, I went into my local job centre to sign on for the first time. A customer services' assistant directed me to the bank of seats closest to the advisor I was due to see and I settled down next to a man already waiting there. 

'Busy, isn't it?' he said. As we exchanged small talk, I became aware of an 'unwashed' smell. Not the throat-constricting, toe-curling kind, but sufficiently strong to indicate an abnormal level of dirtiness somewhere nearby.

Up until then, I hadn't looked closely at the man beside me, but now I registered the ingrained dirt on his coat cuffs and the stained patches on his jeans. His clothes were filthy, even if he wasn't.

It immediately struck me that somebody in a similar predicament might, at some point, have sat where I was. The thought made my skin crawl and I resigned myself to washing all of my outer clothes when I got home - a job usually reserved for when I've had to sit on a bus or train. 

We continued talking and it became apparent that, while he was possibly neither homeless nor jobless - he had accompanied a friend to the centre - he did have some significant problems. Not least that his ex-wife didn't allow him to see his children. 'She says I'm an alcoholic,' he told me. His too-bright eyes and unkempt appearance made me think she might be right.

Several minutes into what was becoming a friendly chat, I realised he was leaning in closer. I became convinced his sleeve was going to graze mine, or, worse, that he might touch my arm in some kind of gesture of solidarity. I went rigid in anticipation, bracing myself not to flinch.

In the midst of my rising anxiety, the thought popped into my head 'How strange that he has no idea what's going on in my mind. That, in my own way, I'm as tormented as he is.'

Just then, his friend reappeared and called him away. I tensed, fearing he might pat me on the arm or offer his hand in farewell.

He did neither, instead simply urging 'Take care of yourself', as he stood up. 'You, too,' I replied, suddenly feeling unaccountably sad for both of us.

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