A Glimpse Into My Contamination Obsessions

Editor’s note: If you struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. To find help visit International OCD Foundation’s website.

It started when I was trying hard not to think about the fact that worms were going to be a part of my then boyfriend Charlie’s gardening project. But of course, the harder you try not to think of something, the more you do.

He says, “I’m going to get worms from some guy in San Leandro.”

What kind of guy? What kind of guy sells worms out of his house. Does he have children? A wife? What does he do for a living? Why does he sell worms? Is he a worm breeder? Does he look ‘normal’? Does he have any diseases? Particularly ones brought on my worm breeding? How many worms does he sell? How big are they? What color are they? What type of container do they come in. How long can they live in there. Without suffocating. Suffocating.

I ask none of this out loud. I just say, “You know worms are an OCD issue for me, so they won’t be in the house at all, right?” He sighs and doesn’t say anything. I hope this means he’s going to forget all about the worms. And maybe use Miracle Grow instead. But the panic rises up in me as I start to think about the worms and it’s harder and harder and harder to breathe.

As you can probably tell, this is not a love story. It’s a story about what my brain tells me to do when things don’t feel right and I desperately want them to.

My obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) didn’t manifest until my late 20s, and it’s always been a struggle to explain it. And hard as I might try, people don’t get that it’s not a matter of willpower. My OCD symptoms focus on contamination obsessions. These obsessions occur in the form of an intrusive thought. Most people think this means I wash my hands compulsively, but most of my OCD compulsions go unnoticed by others, I have a wide assortment of hidden behaviors I engage in to neutralize the obsessive thoughts. Most of my OCD is image-based. Most of my compulsions are hidden.

When I have a “stuck thought,” it’s an image that I can’t get out of my head. This image takes on a life of its own. So now the worms are really sticking and all I want to do is rid my mind of them. I don’t see or feel the worms as separate from me. My mind is coated with them. I don’t distinguish the image from the feeling. Imagine trying to see through a windshield in the pouring rain when your wipers are broken, you keep turning them on, trying to get them to work, but they don’t work. The rain is building up and you can’t see and you’re in a state of intense anxiety.

The image of the worms gets lodged, stuck in my head and plays over and over. This constant intrusion of the worms keeps me anxious. As the image ruminates, the panic evens out into a state of anxiety that I’m always looking for ways to quell. This is biological. Willpower doesn’t play a part here.

But Charlie assures me the worms aren’t alive. He says they’re worm castings, not worms. Okay. Okay. I shouldn’t ask. I shouldn’t. But I have to. And he tells me. He tells me it’s their poop. The poop of the worm. Worm poop. And so the cycle begins. The cycle of trying to put it out of my head. And the transition from the fear of the worms to the fear of their poop. Which feels worse, which must be worse.

With OCD, it is the fear of the thought more than the fear of the object. So it’s the thought I’m running from: I can’t stand the thought of the worm poop, not really the fear of the worm poop itself. This is called cognitive fusion — being stuck to your thoughts, not being able to distinguish the thought from the actual event. Having the thought of the worms feels the same for me as having them right here. I know, it doesn’t make sense. Believe me I know it doesn’t.

Later, I look it up on the cold and unforgiving internet:

Worm Castings, also known as worm casts, worm humus, black gold or simply worm poop, is the byproduct of the breakdown, further decomposition, of organic matter by certain species of earthworms. Worm castings can be harvested and used in a number of gardening applications.

Oh, Lord.

I continue looking up worm castings, I squint to blur my eyes as the pictures of the worm casting boxes and gardening systems pop up on the computer screen. They look like mounds of, well, worm poop.

I have no idea what I’m looking for or what I hope to find. Compulsions don’t make sense. I just feel I have to look up everything I can about worm castings. I just feel I have to. Reassurance-seeking — a compulsive behavior often used by people with OCD in their quest for certainty. People with OCD may repeatedly search for information on the internet or ask questions of family members, friends and professionals about the likelihood of events such as being contaminated, the door being locked, or mistakenly harming someone.

Uncertainty about worm poop. This is my brain. This is my brain on worm poop.

I hope the subject of worm castings will never come up again. But I worry about it daily. Charlie must have known how distressing it was for me when he told me about it. Didn’t he? There are a million other types of fertilizer. Why worm castings? Why? Why? Why? And on and on it goes in my mind. But I avoid the subject of the worms with Charlie because I’m ashamed I feel this way.

It’s a week before Christmas and I’m wrapping presents over at Charlie’s. I notice two white boxes sealed with packing tape on the butcher block table near his kitchen counter.

“What are those? Can I use one for wrapping?”

Charlie was silent and just looked at me. And I knew. I knew by the look on his face what was in those two white boxes. They looked so harmless, so neatly packed and sturdy. So fucking unassuming, unmarked… and Here… It…Comes…. Panic. Panic and anger. I start screaming, “You promised, you promised! You promised you wouldn’t bring them in the house. You don’t understand. You don’t understand!” I ran out of the house sobbing, still screaming, “You promised,” and sobbing. I drove back home, sobbing.

Emotional contamination: a subtype of contamination OCD where the person fears a place or person that is linked to a negative experience or thought. Emotional contamination generalizes in the same way as regular contamination; meaning the person is unable to come in contact with objects that may have been associated with the person or place.

I imagined the worm castings salesman in San Leandro. His daughter waving goodbye in the front yard to the people who came by to pick up their worm casting supply. She was OK. Wasn’t she?

I get home and I know what I should do. I should sit down on my couch and do the deep breathing my cognitive behavioral therapist taught me. But that would contaminate my couch since I was so near the worms. I should practice my CBT and sit with the thought of the worm poop boxes, holding them in my mind as long as possible which will release their hold on me. But I don’t.

I take off all my clothes and throw them in the washer. I shower extra long and wash my hair. I am trying to wash off the thought. But of course the worm thoughts don’t dissipate. I think about the worms and feel worse by the second. Charlie is texting me and furious that I’ve run out and gone home and can’t explain to him what’s happening to me.

I start the reassurance seeking cycle after the cleaning cycle. I call Janice. She has the kind of OCD where she can’t throw stuff away. Or return it if you lend it to her, apparently. I tell her the story to see what she thinks of the worm castings. Emotional contamination is a funny thing, sometimes if I tell someone else and get their opinion on whatever is spiking my OCD, it makes me feel I’m spreading it around a bit, hoping to “get it on someone else” so to speak, then get some of it off of me. Janice replies that stuff like that doesn’t bother her, “Worms, worm poop, nah — doesn’t bother me. Now if he was re-reading letters from old girlfriends that he keeps under his bed in a box like that asshole Mark, now that would be cause, but I don’t have that germ thing you do,” she says. It’s not a germ thing, it’s just the thought of the worms. The thought of that box of all that poop, the castings, just sitting there on his fucking kitchen counter. How could he be so cruel?

I’m riding in Charlie’s truck and we’re on the Bay Bridge. I’m feeling ashamed of my worm yell fest but the anxiety is building as he near his house. I ask him, “Have you taken them outside yet?” He is silent. I want to jump out. I start getting mad, “You are going straight inside and putting those boxes out in the backyard.” I can feel how annoyed he is. I wish I could explain it to him. The endless fear and anxiety in my head about the worm poop boxes.

I wish he would understand how far I’ve come. How much better I’m doing now than 10 years ago. I once broke up with someone when I found out he has been an exterminator. Jay. Jay and I were standing at the ATM on Cortland. There was a big dead bug in the corner on the floor of the opening to the ATM and noticing it I said, “Oh gross” and he goes, “That’s nothing, I’ve seen stuff 100 times worse.” What do you mean? You have? When? I ask him. And he explained that he had worked as an exterminator a few summers back. For Orkin. He. Had. Seen. Things… And that was it. I told him I wasn’t feeling well and walked home. I took all my sheets and threw them away. I called him and told him I couldn’t’ see him anymore. I thought for days about Jay wearing a brown and orange Orkin uniform, standing in infested rooms with millions of bugs, spraying pesticides, and was relieved to be done with him.

As I said, I’ve come pretty far. I practice cognitive defusion and have a lot of tools to cope. And I now wash things instead of throwing them away. I try to work things out with boyfriends. I will never use worm castings as fertilizer, but I’ve still come a long way.

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