Traveling with OCD

Everybody has issues, especially when the stresses of being on the road can put you at your worst. Some people get lonely, some get bad culture shock, others don’t deal well with discomfort. Me? I have obsessive compulsive disorder, colloquially known as OCD.

I’ve been in therapy on and off for about 18 years, for both OCD and other issues. While my OCD is a problem at home as well as abroad, I have found that the stresses of the road tend to magnify everything, which exacerbates my OCD. Everything is amplified. A mildly annoying tapping noise becomes a jackhammer going off in my skull. A dirty bathroom becomes a germ-ridden outhouse. The fact that my hostel room looks nothing like the advertised photo is not just annoying, but potentially panic attack-inducing. While my OCD is nowhere near the levels of stereotypical OCD (seen on screen in Monk and The Aviator), it does have the potential to make a day, week, or even an entire vacation crash and burn (and it does. on a regular basis). Over the years, I’ve developed some ways of coping with my OCD while on the road, and since I know I’m not the only one out there, I thought it might be useful to some folks to see how I get along on the road. Here’s what I do to keep my OCD at bay while traveling:

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Carry hand sanitizer.

This one should be obvious, but I forget about this all the time. If your OCD skews toward the germophobic side, you probably already carry hand sanitizer, but if you don’t, definitely pick some up before you travel abroad. It’s not as readily available outside the USA as you might think, so I suggest bringing some with you. Even if your OCD doesn’t get triggered by germs or dirty things, hand sanitizer can also be useful for cleaning wounds and getting sticky substances off your hands. I once got spilled shampoo all over my hands and was without access to water or anything to clean them for the next 4 hours. My hands were utterly disgusting and gross and it wouldn’t have been a problem if I had been carrying hand sanitizer.

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Keep your stuff organized.

In the OCD world, I’m a “checker”. I double, triple, quadruple check things. I’ve been known to get up out of bed at 2am because I’m only 99% sure I locked up my bag. After I pack my bag, I will actually unpack it again, to make sure I have everything. Sometimes I do this multiple times. In an effort to minimize the number of times I have to check everything, I try to keep things as organized as possible. It keeps me from needing to check, and if I do check, it makes it easier to do so.

Research the culture where you’re going ahead of time.

I would have been a lot more grossed out by the Korean habit of throwing used toilet paper into an open bin had I not been aware of it before my arrival. I would have been a lot more bothered by the open sewers on Jindo Island had I not been warned about them ahead of time. I would have been a lot more frustrated by the last minute planning so common in Korean culture if I hadn’t been informed of it before I took a job there. The more you know about where you’re going, the more time you have to mentally steel yourself to it, and to prepare for it. The more prepared you are, the less it’s likely to aggravate your OCD. I’m convinced that this is why eating food out of a filthy cookpot at a reenactment doesn’t bother me, but a tiny fleck of food on a fork at home will send me into a dishwashing frenzy. One is expected and prepared for, the other is an unpleasant surprise.

Remember to breathe.

When all else fails, remember to breathe and try to calm down. Whenever something is bothering me, the first thing I do is make a conscious effort to calm down. I take a big, deep breath and relax my entire body. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I highly suggest learning some self-calming techniques before you get on the road. The ability to return to inner calmness will help you more than anything else I list here.

If you are on medication, take it!

Travel is not the time to go off your meds. Nor is it the time to try new ones, new dosages, or new techniques. Make sure your doctor is aware of any upcoming travel and discuss it with them thoroughly. Make sure you have enough medication to make it through your trip, or find out about getting a regional equivalent if you’re going to be on the road for a long time. Some doctors will write you a prescription for double the dosage, which you can then split in half, in order to increase the amount of medication you can carry with you. A doubled-up 90-day supply can last you six months or more.
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Interestingly enough, I have found that while travel may sometimes worsen my OCD in the short term, it has generally helped it in the long run. The unpredictable nature of travel means that some things are just going to happen no matter how prepared you are, and this acts almost as a form of exposure therapy. By being repeatedly forced into situations I can’t control, I have learned to let go. My OCD is most definitely aggravated more often and with greater intensity when I’m traveling (which can often make me rather bitchy, which is one of the reasons I travel solo by choice most of the time), but in the greater scheme of things, I have found that it has lessened the overall frequency of episodes, and has alleviated some of the more “everyday” issues that I used to have. Thanks to travel, when I see a disgusting gas station bathroom, I can now gain calm by thinking “I made it through squat toilets in Asia. This is nothing. I’ll be fine.” Thanks to travel, when Marc makes sudden and unexpected changes to our schedule, I can breathe and take solace in the knowledge that I made it through the insanity of having a non-communicative Korean employer who changed my schedule every.single.day. So, while my OCD can definitely make travel more difficult, travel, ultimately, makes my OCD less difficult and that is quite priceless.

If you have OCD (or any other kind of mental un-fun-ness) and travel, I would love it if you would leave a comment with your own tips and tricks for staying sane while on the road, or let me know how it effects the way you travel.
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  1. Dave and Deb says:

    Wow, I can’t imagine traveling with OCD. Good for you for facing your fears and working through it. These tips will be helpful for others that want to get out there, but have a fear, issue or disorder holding them back. Inspiring.

    • Yeah, it can definitely be a challenge. When I went over to South Korea for a year, I was seriously concerned about the effects that both my OCD and my bipolar disorder would have on my ability to cope with living in a foreign country. It did cause problems sometimes, but all in all I was really surprised at the fact that in many ways, it actually improved my ability to deal with both disorders. When faced with the choice between having a breakdown and just sucking it up, after awhile I realized that having a breakdown wasn’t helping anyone, least of all myself. I have talked with a few other “mentally interesting” travelers, and have heard similar sentiments from them as well.

  2. Akila says:

    Kelsey, Wow. I am so impressed with you that you’ve pushed aside your OCD to travel. I think most people would shut themselves off from the world and it’s amazing that you’re fighting past it. I don’t have OCD but I am a generally very neat and organized person and I, too, have found that traveling has helped me relax and take things more as they come. We’ve met other travelers who have said the same thing: people who got panic attacks in large crowds at home eased up while traveling, depressed people began to enjoy life a bit more, and so on.

    • I’m definitely not the type to shy away from a challenge, and this has most certainly been a challenge. And yes, travel is often a good way to overcome personal issues. Not always, but often.

  3. Amazing, Kelsey (and some stunning photos). While to a lesser degree, I get a twinge of OCD before a big trip (I start cleaning everything in my home. God forbid someone break in and find it messy while we’re gone). I’m truly impressed with your bravery and determination. Keep traveling!

    • Yay! I’m glad to see that you’re following my new blogs over here! You were always one of my favourite commenters.

      I too can’t stand leaving my house messy before I leave. I know that when I come back I’m not going to want to do anything but sleep and generally veg out, so I want my space to be clean to come home to.

  4. Jenna says:

    I used to be very anxious that I would forget something I would need while away from home, so I would pack an ENORMOUS suitcase (with everything and anything I could possibly need), even if it was just for an overnight trip. Over the years, I began to take notice of the things I brought with me which never got used and merely took up space. One by one, those items got left at home, and I found out that I was (for the most part) okay, because I usually went to places that would have the things I needed, and if not, there would probably be a Walmart nearby.
    I can now go just about anywhere for any length of time with only carry-on luggage. It’s less to keep track of and easier to maneuver through airports and pack into vehicles. I still make my lists, though, and I do check them twice. (A check next to the item means I packed it, I line through it means I double-checked that it’s there.) Having a list to work from decreases anxiety for me, and lessens the odds that I will forget something important, like my passport. Laying everything out the night before helps, too. :)

  5. Hedy says:

    I am a person who has depression, OCD, and anxiety issues. Hand sanitizer and spreadsheet/google docspost it flags keep things in check in the us. I carry on my medications on flights (seems obvious, but I have seen people skip it), and carry more than I need for the duration of my trip.
    When I lived in Mexico, my OCD wasvat the point it was embarrassing. As such, I only traveled in the USA-going to Naussau was the first time I’d left the USA in years. I am practicing serious preparation and self-care for my trip to London.

  6. Rease says:

    I am really impressed that you don´t let your OCD own you and ruin your travels.

    • I’ve had a few close calls, but in the end, I’m better off for facing it down.

      By the way, I just saw the site that you work on! It looks awesome and if possible, I’d love to write for you guys sometime.

  7. AB says:

    I really appreciated this post (I was directed here from the everywhereist. thank you, haha). I’m a checker like yourself, and I’m about to embark on two seperate trips. My first will be to another province for a week, so not a big deal, the other is over to Europe for three weeks, which I’m already planning for. The first trip will be my primer.

    My travel … rituals are as follow. Plan, plan, plan. I have a 5 day time table written out for what I need to get done. This avoids any last minute freak outs over forgetting to buy gum for the plane’s descent.

    Before I leave for the airport, I make a list of what needs to be ‘checked’. This is a coping strategy I developed when I was much younger with the help of my mother. Once I check something, I tick it off. It’s locked. The oven’s off. Your cat has food. There’s no reason to keep checking it. For me, this strategy only helps when I have a time constraint, for example I only have 10 minutes before the cab comes to pick me up. And when I’m sitting in the cab, I can look at the list and their associated ticks and I know that it’s been checked.

    When at the airport, I keep the things I ABSOLUTELY cannot forget with me on a ‘stylish’ fanny pack. My boarding pass, passport(s), cell phone, keys, ipod, etc. Are kept here. When I feel that frenzied compulsion to check (and the one you can’t ignore and tell yourself ‘you know you have it with you’), I can just reach down and rummage through it as necesarry. This prevents a) panic attacks and b) me from plonking down in the middle of the airport to tear apart my backpack.

    I’m also like you in that I need to know exactly what to expect when I get there. I need to know what the hotel will be like, I even like to know where to find the check in desk. I like everything to be prepaid. This ranges from the need to know what is around the hotel, where to find breakfast, where to find a grocery store or pharmacy, etc… to how to order a cup of coffee, if milk/cream isn’t a given (an unfortunate discovery in Germany – putting milk in your coffee is generally scorned, and if you do have the gall to ask for it they’ll steam it first.)

    So thank you for this. It was nice to read.

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