Return across the pond and the OCD fantasy

UK Return Part 6: London to Kansas City

Annie Windholz
A Cheap Trip


Photo by author

When I was in the United Kingdom I missed home and the groundedness that I have built over the past 12 years here in finding myself as an adult. Now that I’m back in Kansas City I find myself in awe of the unmooredness of being abroad, of feeling like things could surprise you still and how just existing in a new space was an achievement.

On the flight home from our United Kingdom trip I practiced ERP for my OCD again. I was a little more nervous on the flight back just because I felt like I was on the homestretch and also wasn’t flying toward new excitement, but flying back to everyday life. I had accomplished, and I wanted to hold on to it tightly now, when on the flight over I had not accomplished yet and had to let go to allow this to happen.

The first week of being back home in Kansas City though felt magic. I was waking up at 4 am everyday and reading, blogging, jogging, walking and then heading to work with a smile and excitement for the day. I realize that some of the ERP skills I used on the plane ride and while traveling abroad I had fine tuned while working on the Bookmobile over the past year and a half.

When we’re at Bookmobile stops anything can happen, and anyone can walk onboard on talk to you about anything. It’s a job environment that is not made for the faint of heart, this job is as heartwarming as it is mind blowing and at times mind numbing.

Fires, smoke, smells, sewage, bed bugs, socks and slippers as people walk onto the bus, injuries, mental illness, poverty, connections, laughs, broadening of worldview, and routines.

Something that I learned the past few years on the Bookmobile is what I conceptualize of as the “scab” technique. Basically, it’s allowing an upsetting thought to exist in my OCD head (i.e. there’s sewage leaking all over the sidewalk and people are stepping through it to get onto Bookmobile, or there’s a fire somewhere and the smoke is in the air that I think might have long term health impacts) and then to either do something about it (i.e. move the Bookmobile, put on a N95 mask) and then once I do something or don’t if there’s nothing to do, I have to let it go. I have to move on because people continue to talk to me, ask questions, I have to do my job, and I can’t let my OCD brain marinate on the fresh hell that I think I’ve been exposed to. I have to move on. And a lot of times my social anxiety to be present with people overrides my OCD flavor of the moment. And then an hour or two later, we have to drive to our next Bookmobile stop so I’m in a completely different environment, and I’ve been amazed at the way that my OCD brain simply cannot hold onto the obsessions for that long with that much happening, and the compulsions fade too.

And I say “it’s not my business” and almost lean into the fear and challenge myself more in celebration. For example, the day people step through sewage and then onto the bus I was worry about everything, but my coffee in the front seat especially (even though no one goes in the front seat or was there any way for possible sewage on their feet to get in my coffee). Old me might have just said, this coffee’s not for me today. But seasoned Bookmobile librarian me says let’s drink that just to push ourselves a little further to the other side (the well side). And I do, and I knowingly invite some discomfort this time instead of having it sprung upon me, and that is how I’ve gotten well. And I feel like Bookmobile pushes me a little further in that direction daily. While traveling abroad I realize the skills I’ve gained on the Bookmobile are very similar to the skill of travel. It’s also why as an anxious person I am drawn to travel, change and movement. Because if everything changes then I’m not the only one anxious. If I’m going to be anxious in life regardless, let’s keep a faster pace so my brain can’t latch onto things.

When I first started as a Bookmobile Librarian, it was hit or miss in my mind if this was going to help me get better with contamination OCD, or if it would just torture me daily and I’d eventually get worse. It did torture me daily for a long time, and then things just started to fade away more. I was so nervous going into the winter season last year, and this year I’m feeling like my immune system is probably better from a year of doing this work, and actual knowledge about how it’s not as easy as I always imagine it is to spread germs. There are a lot of germs on the Bookmobile, and no one is getting sick regularly from it, so, there’s that.

I’ve had the opportunity to communicate with people who speak multiple different languages on the Bookmobile, including sign language. Sign language is a hard one for my OCD, because to sign “thank you,” you touch your face, which is an OCD trigger for me unless I’ve just washed my hands recently. So I try to do sign language without touching my face, just getting close to it, and I wonder what kind of “Spanglish” ASL I’m doing. I visit a lot of people post incarceration, and some during incarceration. I hear lots of stories about how society discriminates against them for jobs and opportunities for success. I think about how hard it is to keep a job with OCD, and then what a prison sentence due to poverty would do to me and my life prospects.

Bookmobile made me better prepped me for trip. Over the past year and I’ve intentionally triggered myself to heal myself (Exposure and Response Precention). It’s a fine line to walk because too many triggers and I don’t grow because I will either quit or regress. But just the right amount of triggers and I slowly build a tougher skin to my worst fears, and build muscle memory daily that I am living through my worries and what I worry is not happening. I’m also seeing the people around me (namely my Bookmobile partner) not taking the germaphob precautions that I am, and he’s not getting sick. This reminds me of my time in AmeriCorps NCCC, where I was constantly observing my team around me taking less precautions, but surviving and thriving. It helps me to have others around me to show that I can try to be unworried like them, and if I can’t I can I:

watch to see if there are consequences for them, and most times there are not, and that gives me new data to file away to combat the old OCD data that keeps circulating through my head that the world is terrifying and dangerous.

Also, there’s nothing like some good uncoerced peer pressue and social anxiety for some wins. Everyone is eating potluck at work and I’m terrified of where all the germs come from with all our differnet jobs, but I care more about what they think of me than I do my own fears for a moment. And that pushes me to live in my values, not my fears, and push contamination OCD in the corner (doing this many times by giving in to my people pleasing OCD tendencies, but that can be tackled at a later time. If I can use one lesser compulsion to combat another more entrenched compulsion, why not?)


The UK trip made me realize I need to connect with young, 20 year old Annie more regularly. How? By doing things new and scary that are in my values that I want to do but are a heavy lift initially. Since I’ve been back I already feel myself retreating back to the fear closet per se, and I am trying to get comfy and lock everything down. The concept of another flight, while I was empowered to schedule them initially after returning home, is beginning to feel out of reach again. And I’m asking myself, why? It’s the comfort of my 30s that I need to combat when getting in touch with 20 year old Annie. 20 year old Annie had less to lose, and it was much easier to take the chances of upending everything. In fact, I was running toward that at times. Now it’s harder, I like the way my life is, but I need to be able to tap into that 20 year old empowerment and exhilaration for finding myself doing things I never thought myself capable of. But now in my 30s, I also know how to utilize that exhilarating feeling a bit more, and lend it toward long term goals, not just living purely for the spontaneous moment. This long term stability and goal planning is a beautiful skill to learn, but I don’t want to lose the ability to tap into the carefree recklessness of my 20s either. It’s a balance.

And now cut to the panic attack cycle trap that I find myself slipping back into, and now full on in a panic attack spiraling about wifi, grates, vents. I’m trying to minimize risks in all directions, running my brain at all times in these directions and deciding that travel is far, far too risky.

I think what pains me most with OCD is the fantasy that if only this was different (i.e. no grate with basement air coming up by my couch), things would be perfect. And thats’ not true. The problem is my OCD flavor of the day/ week/ month/ year and when that problem is gone, or lightened, then I focus on a new one. It’s just how it is. And the way to build resilience to OCD is to not try to fix the problem, but to work on exposure and response prevention to the problem (ERP). And so the rennovation happening in the house next door, instead of seeing this as an “unfortunate circmstance” and myself the victim, see it as a gift to practice ERP. And maybe they’ll have this house ready someone soon, and maybe I’ll meet my new best friend next door. That would be nice.

I need to remember to deal with the OCD through ERP, not continue a fantasy that if I make this “one thing better or safer” than all will be good. OCD subtypes and specific obsessions don’t really matter, it’s the looping and doubting and creative brain spirals that matter. And I’m tired of putting out little fires everywhere. To look at the OCD and not the “problem” is philosophically and emotionally freeing. And can probably can be transposed to many people with anxiety and depression and other mental illnesses, not just OCD.