The Banana Conundrum & Updates

It has been quite a few months since I’ve been active on my blog! A lot of things have been happening in my world over the summer, and I’ve made a big decision to go back to school to future my education, with a Graduate degree. After some time away from work, and discovering some new things about myself, I’m hoping to get back into a consistent routine, and start posting more on this blog. I’ve also decided to try out a new name: My OCD.

Now onto my banana conundrum…

If you’ve visited my blog before, you know quite well the problems I’ve had with eating fresh produce. I’ve been getting a lot better over the past 10 months though, using fresh veggies when I’m making various dishes, and I’m absolutely loving how much better my food is tasting.

Two weeks ago, I thought I’d try bananas. The first time in a few years.

Bananas are one of those foods I look at in the store and wonder to myself ‘how many people have touched these?’ and ‘were those who picked them over sick?’ Lets be honest with ourselves…A lot of people still aren’t washing their hands as they should be. We’ve all been in a public washroom and heard or watched someone walk out without doing it. Maybe they went straight to the banana display and wiped their hands all over them! Regardless, the consumption of produce is a relatively low-risk event for human-to-human disease transmission.

To ease my anxiety as I made this attempt, I decided to get bananas which were pre-packaged in bags. My reasoning is that minimal contact would make me more willing to indulge in them, and not be as concerned about contamination.

The Result: I successfully ate the entire ‘hand’ of bananas! And with minimal anxiety during the experience. I will most definitely be buying more, and I’m hoping to make it part of my daily breakfast. Part of successfully mastering OCD is pushing yourself to stop thinking about what you’re avoiding, and just doing it. The best success I’ve ever had with mastering my compulsions has been when I’ve, essentially, forced myself to do something and stop asking questions.

OCD will always keep asking more questions than you have answers. Don’t let it ask questions. Tell it what you’re going to do whether it likes it or not. It will get better.

Next Goal: Apple season is fast approaching! Bring on the harvest.

Progress, not Perfection

I’ve been thinking about how best to write this post for the past several days, when today, I happened to be listening to a podcast about discouragement. The speaker was discussing its impact on our lives, and how when we work to change things, we need to measure progress, not perfection.

Progress, not perfection, can be applied to so many things in our lives, especially recovery from mental illness. When one decides to enter a treatment program to help overcome their mental health concerns, recovery will never be linear. It can be up, down, and flat. Some weeks you’ll be doing really well in that recovery. Other weeks, you might be having a difficult time dealing with the mental illness and triggers that are causing higher than normal symptoms.

It is very easy for us to become discouraged when we have these periods of regression. We can often be left asking ourselves why things aren’t working as they should be. How am I ever going to beat this thing or get it under control if I keep having bad weeks?

It can also be frustrating for those who care about us and may have their own measure of your recovery, failing to understand that it’s not about perfection, but progress over time.

It’s during these ‘bad weeks’ when we lose sight of where we used to be and where we are now. For that reason, it’s important to take note of the things we’ve accomplished during our recovery. Consider keeping a list of the accomplishments you’ve achieved. When you have those bad weeks, look through your list, and remind yourself that progress is happening.

Recovery from a mental illness is not about how far you have to go, it’s about how far you’ve come. This isn’t easy, but you can do it.

The Farmers Market

Well I finally went to the local market. Here in Halifax (Nova Scotia), we’ve a lot of great opportunities to buy local. There’s an abundant source of locally grown produce (much of it organic and spray-free), small animal farms that raise additive free and humane meat, several wine vineyards, a distiller…The list goes on. All this culminates into markets throughout the province, many of which are open on a daily basis. The weekends, however, are prime time, when many more vendors are out and selling their products.

One of the main markets here is the Halifax Seaport Farmers Market. I’ve been there during the evening after I get off work, but they only have a few select vendors during the week. For quite a while, I’ve wanted to experience it on a Saturday, and see all the local products available, especially now that I’m working on using more fresh produce.

One of the main concerns I had about visiting was the amount of people. I’ve heard all about how busy the market gets, especially on Saturday. It provokes anxiety when I’m in large crowds and surrounded by people. I don’t like being unable to move around.

The market was definitely busy. It was a bit overwhelming when I first arrived, especially since it was my first time there. Thankfully, I was relaxed and actually not bothered by the crowds. Navigating through wasn’t too much of a challenge (I’m good at finding holes it seems), and people were very friendly.

The large amounts of food that was in the open (unwrapped) was a little anxiety provoking, but I was quickly able to realize that nobody was forcing me to eat those goods (even though they looked absolutely delicious), and that people who were more comfortable were enjoying them. I even noticed the market has a few hand washing stations throughout. It’s nice to see they promote that level of public health.

While it might not seem like a big deal to most, finally conquering this step was important to me. I’ll definitely be back!

My Fresh Food Relationship

I obsess over becoming sick. People spread illnesses, which means that the things they touch have the ability to spread an illness they might have. Fomites (objects that can carry infections) have long been a struggle for me during the course of my obsessive-compulsive disorder. Things like door knobs, buttons, levers, shopping carts, debit machines, self-serve consoles, etc. have been a struggle. How do I know these things aren’t carrying something that could make ill?

The most damaging part of this fomite avoidance has been with fresh produce. When I go into a store with things like celery, broccoli, and apples sitting in the open for people to pick over and put into bags for purchase, it makes me feel nauseous. I look at that celery and wonder to myself how many people have touched it since it grew in the ground. The harvester, the people in the production line to get it to market, the store produce employee, and then anybody who’s shopping. Maybe they touched it to inspect it and decided against it. Maybe their kid touched it. Maybe they sneezed and coughed on it (lets not talk about how many people don’t cover their mouth/nose). Maybe they dropped it on the floor and put it back.

This is the anxiety I face with using fresh produce. Yes, a lot of the things I cook, but it still provokes intense anxiety.

What do I do? For several years, I have only purchased frozen produce. Things that, in my mind, are more safe, as they would have had less human contact. Some of it would have been washed and handled only by machines, although we’ve all seen the stories about factory handled food products contaminated with bacteria due to improper cleaning. Regardless, in my mind, this was safer. OCD and anxiety don’t have to make rational sense.

How have I been trying to recover and welcome more fresh produce into my life? I’ve been starting small, with things like onions, garlic, carrots, and squash (potatoes have always been OK). I even made my first trip to the market a few weeks ago to buy some fresh local produce. Before the holiday in December, I also made a huge pot of vegetable stock and used fresh celery. I picked the one that was packaged at the processing facility, but hey, it’s a start! So far, the results are delicious!

Did I Lock the Door? Checking & OCD

Since checking is a newer symptom of my obsessive-compulsive disorder, I clearly remember when I started worrying about things such as locking doors as I left home, and when I started checking them.

For the majority of our population, door locking upon exit is one of those monotonous activities that we do on autopilot. Can you think back and remember a day where you don’t actually remember locking the door? Now the key questions are: did your anxiety level increase? Did you start analyzing every second of the time you left home and reassuring yourself you did lock it? Did you want to immediately go home and check the door?

There was a day when I was still living with my parents that I had gone off to school after they both left for work. Nothing unusual happened, and I was sure I did everything one does as they leave for the day, especially locking their door on the way out.

However, later that night, my dad informed me I had forgotten to lock the door, and to make sure I did it next time. This was all it took for me to start becoming anxious and obsessing over making sure the door was really locked when I left.

OCD, which includes a checking component, morphs our anxieties into somewhat of a game. Those who suffer from it are convinced that even though they are standing at a door and watching themselves put a key into the lock and turn it, it isn’t actually being locked. Even though we turn the handle and push on the door, we can convince ourselves it still isn’t locked.

Checking often results in sufferers making sure things are ‘just right’. If the action isn’t done in a certain way or a certain number of times, it’s wrong, and you need to start over again. I would check my parents’ door by first testing the mechanism, locking it, opening it and the door, and locking the door again. Then I would push on the door a few times, just to be certain I had actually locked it. If I was forced to only do this action once, without being able to check it by pushing on the door, my anxiety would grow and I would worry someone was going to break in.

Here’s the kicker: checking, as I mentioned above, can also lead to random bouts of anxiety, and the desire to return and make sure something is right. I can clearly remember two cases of forcing myself return home to check the door. One happened when I got a significant distance on the bus with really high anxiety. I got off, got on another bus, and went home to verify.

The good news is that therapy, especially exposure and response prevention, can help you unlearn checking, by dealing with anxiety of ‘what if’. I’ve gotten better with my checking, but I still have improvements to make.

Handwashing Update

Handwashing is the main symptom of my obsessive-compulsive disorder, as it is the way I deal with the anxiety surrounding the possibility of becoming sick. Throughout the past few years, the amount of handwashing I do has varied. The time I will wash my hands the most is upon arriving home. I feel this is the most important time, so that I don’t bring in any potential contaminants that may make me ill. In the past, I’ve washed my hands up to ten times in a row (repetitions). As you can imagine, this would make going out and returning a bit frustrating, since it does take some significant time. I can still remember the early days of my OCD, where I would simply elect to stay at home. The amount of work involved with coming back was frustrating.

More recently, I’ve been washing my hands five times in a row, which still takes a lot of time.

Within the past week, I decided to bring the amount of repetitions down to four, as I feel that it’s time to once again start working on this symptom of my OCD.

It isn’t without anxiety, and it varies on a day-to-day basis. The first day I did it, I didn’t have any problem only doing four repetitions. However, a few days later, it was much harder, as I self-perceived that my hands were dirtier that day.

Anxiety does just that. Your brain begins to believe that five repetitions is the way to safety. To make sure you don’t get sick. Even though I’ve already washed my hands four times (the World Health Organization recommends only a single washing of the hands to prevent illness), the hardwired anxiety wants you to believe that extra fifth time is an absolute necessity. If I was in a situation where I was only able to wash my hands a single time upon arriving home, I would still consider them as dirty as when I first walked in the door.

As I continue to work on this, I will adjust the way my brain handles the anxiety around only washing them four times. Four will become the new safe amount of repetitions, and I will be OK with that amount. I will have days where I struggle to only do four, such as yesterday, but that’s OK! When we miss a day or two, we can’t beat ourselves up. It is what it is. You can always try again (and succeed) tomorrow.

Holiday Survival Guide – Part 3: Holidays and my Eating Disorder (Guest Post)

This is the third post in my Holiday Survival Guide, which aims to raise awareness about the impact of the holidays on those with mental health concerns. This post has been written by Kelsey Wallour, who has been willing to share her holiday experiences with an eating disorder. You can connect with Kelsey via Twitter (@Krunr21) or on her blog, ‘en route to R.D. land’

I have a hard time during the holidays – so much so that I dread any, and all, holidays.  The longer the holiday time period (like Labor Day versus Christmas) the more anticipatory anxiety I feel because it’s more likely that I will have to be with my family for an extended period of time.  Being at someone else’s home means being completely out of my comfort zone – away from my kitties, my safe food, my bed, my nice quiet space where no one is trying to make me do something I don’t what to do.  Also, my track record with holidays over the past 8+ years has not been too hot, and so I have a history of “failure” behind me, and very few “successes” to cling to.  So I go to my parents’ at the last possible moment – even volunteering to work extra so that I have an excuse to not arrive there until later, and then also an excuse to dash away several days later to get back to work.

My family is slightly more dysfunctional than the average person’s dysfunctional family.  I don’t go to my parents’ house very frequently because there is always underlying tension that courses through every conversation and encounter.  I don’t know if it’s real tension, but I perceive it to be true, and so my baseline anxiety level is raised and I feel constantly on the verge of exploding.  I work with my therapist to – on a daily basis – communicate better, be more assertive, cope without restricting my food, and brainstorm ways to incorporate self-care into my regime.  But, being placed back in my original environment seems to strip away all my progress that I’ve made over the past three years in my recovery from anorexia.  I snap back to those maladaptive coping mechanisms – restricting, isolating, becoming more brusque with everyone, and my anxiety and depression simultaneously skyrocket.  As if it’s not hard enough for me to deal with my immediate family, there’s always the extended family to throw into the mix.  Everyone wants to make sure I’m okay – that I look okay, act functional, socialize appropriately, don’t have too many fresh scars, and eat well.

They mean well, but it’s overbearing and brings an incredible degree of expectation with it that I MUST be okay or else there might be an intervention. Or, even more humiliating, they might track down my therapist’s number to give her a call so they can let her know that there seems to be something “wrong” with me.  For some reason, my family seems to think that since I went into inpatient in the summer of 2011 I must be, for the most part, better and not struggle as much.  I have repeatedly caved to that pressure because when I admit that I’m not fine, my family tends to freak out. My mom might cry, my sister calls me to forcefully talk about things, my dad tells me to keep eating and turn off my emotions… and you get the picture.  So I say I’m FINE and strive to keep conversations on a very superficial level, all the while counting down the days until I can flee back to my safe space.  Needless to say, my relationship with my family is rather strained, even without the food component thrown in.

Food is a huge part of any holiday, and I loathe it. As a result, I usually start restricting as soon as I arrive at the location – just as a preventative measure, in case the unavoidable main meals are laden with calories I can’t avoid. I can’t measure the foods, or plug each dish’s components into an excel sheet so that I can figure out how many calories and fat grams are in each serving of that dish.  I basically eat the same thing every day when I’m at my home, and that is thrown to the wind when I’m out of it which makes my fun anxiety and depression all the worse because my paranoia that I am constantly gaining weight might actually be coming true!  The entire experience is tainted by the food and weight stress, and it’s not like I can avoid it either.

You might be reading all of this and wondering why I don’t brainstorm with my therapist and dietitian ways to more healthfully cope with these times.  The problem is, that I do! Every single holiday that comes my way we discuss it weeks in advance because my anxiety surrounding it starts that early.  It has gotten slightly better, but not by much because I can’t change the way my family responds to me. But I can change how I respond to it, and so I cling to my internal locus of control and cope the best I can.