I’m parked on the side of the road just off the interstate late at night. To my left is a Big Western, and there’s a semi parked for the night in front of me. I’m in my car, audibly sobbing. It’s been perhaps ten years since I’ve cried this hard—and I don’t know why.
A few weeks ago, I applied for a job as an educator at an aquarium. I’ve been volunteering at this aquarium for a few months and fell in love with the position. As an education volunteer, I interacted with patrons and helped ensure both animal and guest safety. The spark of joy in someone’s eye when they connect with an animal, that newfound excitement, drove me to seek employment. The employed educators, unlike the volunteers, handle ambassador animals and give talks about them to the guests. These education animals come in “levels” based how easy the animal is to handle and present. For the interview, I was required me to interact with a level one animal: a Giant Cave Cockroach.
While cockroaches repulse many people, I have a disgust-based fear of exoskeletons. OCD generates contamination fears—germophobia being the most notorious example—by amplifying a sufferer’s disgust reaction. Disgust is a healthy emotion that helps us avoid objects we’ve associated with diseases or unpleasantness, e.g., bodily fluids, corpses, etc. However, OCD can drive disgust from a self-preserving reaction to anxiety and fear-inducing obsessions about obtaining infections.
Disgust based fears can be quite vague or oddly specific. For example, if anyone touches a television or monitor screen, it becomes dirty to me, and I need to wipe the screen immediately. Touchscreens, like tablets and phones, have become normalized and don’t bother me nearly as much (they do a little bit), but touchscreen computer monitors are filthy to me. The specific place the screen was touched becomes dark, and I can feel the contamination emanating from that area. I cannot focus, hold a conversation, or continue working until I’ve cleaned the spot. When I was young, I’d even run to the TV and wipe it with my hand as, even though I too am contaminated, rubbing the spot would at least thin out the danger. Then I’d wring my hands for several minutes to dilute the contaminant across my hands. Dilution has become a mainstay of my disgust compulsions: if I can spread out the danger, my OCD believes it has minimized the perceived threat.
Handling the Giant Cave Cockroach triggered the most powerful disgust reaction of my life. The interviewer picked up the cockroach and placed it into my palm. My hand immediately felt filthy and coated in a film of “wrong.” The sensation I received is so alien and impossible to describe properly that the word “wrong” becomes oddly fitting. My skin tingled and concentrated at the periphery of my hands. The tingling almost burned at the edge below my little finger, but maybe it’s better described as an intense, unignorable writhing sensation. Every time the roach took a step, the contact of its leg printed a new spot on my palm. The cockroach always crawls forward, so I used my hands like a conveyor belt to keep it off of my arm. As I switched hands, the critter’s leg got caught between my hands. Before I consciously recognized what happened, I threw my hands apart and dropped the poor creature. The line where the leg was trapped against my right hand burned, writhed, crawled, tingled, and blackened. Even a full day later as I write this paragraph, that line burns just as strongly, and I want scrub my hands until there’s no skin left.
I began to spiral. Returning to my seat, I bowed my head and stared at my…wrong…hands:
I dropped the cockroach. They won’t give me the job. I harmed that small animal. That poor critter was just walking around, and I harmed it. They won’t give me the job. I need to wash my hands. My hands. I need to clean them. More rubbing alcohol. I have to get it. I’m dirty. They won’t give me the job. I am awful. What is wrong with me? Why did I do that? They’re going to remove it from the ambassador program. Why am I not stronger? My hands. They won’t give me the job. My hands…
A few seconds passed, then a few minutes. Innumerous thoughts kept edging me towards a panic attack. The fear felt insurmountable, but after 306 hours of OCD treatment, I knew how to break the spiral:
You know what you have to do.
It’s too hard right now.
Okay, where’s that Fitbit Relax app?
Two minutes of guided breathing. In. Out. In. Out.
My heart rate went up?! Why can’t you even-NO!
Don’t judge yourself for that. You didn’t “fail” the meditation.
It’s okay to be scared.
Be mindful. You know your thoughts, you know what you need to do.
Deep breath and say it: I need to handle the cockroach again.
Alright, deep breath again. Let’s go.
“I want to handle the cockroach again.”
It’s in my hand again. It burns.
Don’t let your thoughts wander, focus!
Notice the feet crawl over you. Pay attention to the touch and watch it crawl. No distractions. Focus on the sensations and let them exist.
Hey! My breathing is slowing.
My hands still burn, but I can focus.
The sense of pride and accomplishment was amazing. My intrusive thoughts the second time around mirrored the first in both content and power; paying close attention to the giant cave cockroach increased the burning and writhing sensations. However, this time I chose to hold the animal instead of having to interact with the insect. More importantly, I gathered my emotions, allowed them to exist, and directly opposed my intrusive thoughts. This process is a lot harder than an article can ever capture, and it took an enormous amount of therapy and coaching to learn these skills. However, successfully applying my skills to a career-oriented fear felt like summiting a mountain and taking in the breathtaking beauty of the valley below.
Two weeks later, I got the job! I’m truly ecstatic. As part of our orientation, they brought out another animal with an exoskeleton: a Chilean Rose Tarantula. They had the tarantula crawl on the back of our hands, and I had the same tingling sensations wherever it stepped. This feeling wasn’t due to the hair on the arachnid’s legs; it was the same lingering, pulsing sensation as with the cockroach. My disgust obsession wasn’t nearly as strong, though: I still wanted to wash my hands excessively, but I didn’t feel blackened and burned. My brain likely labeled cockroaches as being far more hazardous than our eight-legged friends. Regardless, the contact felt wrong, and it’s now my job to handle these animals with care and teach the public about them with confidence. Yet all the same skills helped me with the cockroach apply here. While the tarantula didn’t cause me to spiral, paying attention to the exoskeleton-to-skin contact and watching the animal move helped me to approach my threat and handle the incoming obsessive thoughts.
On the side of that road, I cried until I had no tears to offer. I still don’t fully know why. I wasn’t worried about the job as I had gone back and corrected my mistake. I had conquered my fear and beat the intrusive thoughts. My sobs weren’t out of fear, happiness, sadness, or any identifiable emotion. The tears simply were. Perhaps I was overwhelmed or maybe I had a subconscious concern. But I’ve stopped trying to figure it out: not everything needs an answer. Exoskeletons will probably always trigger my OCD, and I’ll still be required to touch them for my job. Every time I teach a guest about a cockroach, I expect my skin will writhe and burn. Yet I’m no longer afraid. The burn will come, and I will challenge my thoughts. This cycle may never cease, but seeing a child’s nervousness turn to joy as my eight-legged Chilean friend greets them will make it all worthwhile. I may never know why I cried or if my skin will ever quiet, but I’m going to leave the future uncertain and let those tears soothe my burns.
Have a great day and always practice self-compassion!A Fantastic Friend of Mine