Mental disorders do not wholly define an individual. And yet, there is a tendency to stigmatise individuals coping with mental illness, to trivialise their experiences, or to define them solely by the disorder they’re coping with.
Our latest interview series – in collaboration with the good folks at CTRL x SHIFT – features honest, nuanced travel stories from individuals living with their states of mind.
In this first story, Amanda Tan shares what it’s like to travel the world while coping with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
STEREOTYPES AND MISCONCEPTIONS
I think one of the biggest misconceptions about OCD is that you’re very neat, and you line things up. Of course some people are like that, and I do have that too. But there are a lot of people whose OCD is not tied to that.
There are times when I tell people I have OCD and they’re like “oh yeah, me too. I’m very neat about everything”. That is not what OCD is. People think it’s a good trait, but it’s not a ‘trait’. It’s something you’re dealing with.
OCD is not really driven by cleanliness or logic; it’s driven by the need to control. For me at least, it’s not just about always switching the lights off. I’ve had this weird thing where I was staring at my teeth for two weeks, trying to see if there are gaps.
I may clean my phone all the time, but certain things could be dirty and I don’t care; I’ll eat dirty food but I won’t touch a dirty table. How is that logical? You can be totally disorganised and have OCD. You can be a totally dirty person who doesn’t care about dirt.
It can be thoughts as well: You thinking about one thing nonstop. I’ve had friends who have OCD about relationships – focusing on a person’s bad attribute. They don’t find it wrong, but they can’t stop thinking about it.
Everybody can be sad sometimes, or uptight. But when it cripples your life? I think that’s when you’ll start to see that there’s a difference.
TRUTH, RITUALS AND PROCESSES
There are good days and bad days. I just went off my medication because I’m good at the moment. But for two years I took Zoloft every day, and I still take Xanax now when I’m stressed out. Zoloft is basically an SSRI; it helps the symptoms and everything.
But I found out that what really helped me was talk therapy. In the beginning, I went every week or every other week. Now I go only when I have something that I wanna talk about.
People think that you go to therapy and you start talking about your life story, but it’s different for everyone. For me it started with mindfulness, and how to deal with OCD in very practical steps. My therapist was like, “let’s not talk about your childhood first.”
It’s not like, “oh I had a terrible childhood, and so now I have OCD!”
Certain things like OCD aren’t explainable like that. It could be chemicals, it could be a million things. In the beginning, it was really about realising that my OCD came from my anxiety.
I do certain things that my therapist asks me to practice, things that I never thought about, but make complete sense. I pay attention to that a lot nowadays, because the body informs the mind. It sounds lame, but dude, I spent one hour learning how to breathe and sit properly.
My therapist was telling me, “you know, when you’re sitting down, you’re sitting on the edge of your chair? You don’t even know you’re doing it.” Which is basically… it’s a safe way for me to like – if I need to run, I can run.
I used to take very short breaths. When you’re breathing deeply, your stomach is supposed to inflate when you breathe in, and deflate when you breathe out, but for me it was the other way around.
There would be stuff that I repeat over and over and she told me: “Give yourself a numerical limit, and try to stop there, even if it’s uncomfortable for the next one hour.”
I realised that when I’m lazy I give in to the impulse, but when I’m working hard I don’t. When I’m lazy and give in I actually want to do it more. It just keeps going. But you stop yourself one time, and you’ll have confidence that the next time will be better.
PREPARING TO EMBARK
I have mental preparations for when I travel. When I was younger, a lot of the trips I did were a lot more comfortable, with hotels and everything. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve wanted to be more adventurous.
There have been holidays that I’ve been on where I wasn’t mentally prepared, and I didn’t have a good time. I suffered from cycling thoughts and urges, y’know? Stuff like that.
I realised there are certain things I can do to be calmer: The way I pack my toiletries, so I’m not shuffling around looking for things; I’ll bring hangers because sometimes I don’t like when certain things touch each other. Or just having a soap that smells familiar makes me feel safer. The smell lingers on me and makes me feel calm.
It’s not a ritual, but it’s a system that works for me.
I was actually scared to travel for a while, until I realised that if I put things into place, I shouldn’t be scared. OCD is not really about dirt. It’s about control. I go for sessions, and I think of things that may bother me, and my therapist and I talk through how I can handle them.
I was on a trip to Bali recently where we had a super nice villa. But I didn’t do well on that trip. I was going through an anxious phase of my life. It was a very nice villa but certain things were not perfect. My brain just went like “nyeh!”.
So it’s not about dirt, but about how I perceive it.
After Bali, I was telling my therapist that I didn’t understand why I was freaking out, even though the place was nice. She was like “It’s a foreign place; you’re a perfectionist. So when you go to a place, and you pay for something nice, you expect it to be perfect. That’s the problem.”
Well, ‘problem’ isn’t a word she would use, but I’m just using it liberally.
What she told me was, “when you go to a new place just think about these words: ‘Is it livable, workable, manageable?’”. Very neutral words, not like ‘it’s not good enough’.
That really helped me, because I would go to a hotel and be like: “Can I deal with this? Is it manageable? Can I live with it?”
A LONG DROP IN KYRGZSTAN
One of the last trips that was tough for me was a three week trip to Kazakstan and Kyrgzstan, in Central Asia. They’re quite intense countries from the usual, not like a weekend in Bali. I thought I was mentally prepared for the conditions there, but I realised that I wasn’t.
I wasn’t used to the toilet. That sounds ‘haha’ kind of funny. but when you’re really haunted by it every moment, and scared about the next time you have to use the bathroom… I realise that really got to me.
In Kyrgzstan , you’re there to trek and do nature stuff. Either there’s no toilet or it’s a long drop. It’s only polite to use the long drop if there is one; you don’t just go anywhere. A long drop is basically a hole that’s been dug up. No flush, they don’t cover it with sand or anything. You just go.
I thought that would be fine for me, but I realised that if it’s like that every time I go to the toilet, it’s going to be really stressful. I’ve been to more exotic countries, but at the end of the day I could go back to my hotel room and chill. In Kyrgzstan there was no moment of time when I felt relief, and I wasn’t expecting that.
To be fair, I was also going through some personal problems. I was on that trip with my boyfriend and we broke up after, so I think that definitely contributed. But who knows, right?
If I had coping mechanisms then it might be different. I’m not saying we would still be together, but how I felt about the trip might have been different. Because the year after that I went to Africa, and I was fine. I mean, I had moments, but I never felt like I couldn’t figure out what I was going to do.
And the toilets in Africa are the same: A long drop. I mean, they cover it with sand and everything… but I think if you gave me that trip to Africa a year back? I probably would not have taken it as well as I did.
A HIPPO IN AFRICA
Africa to me was sort of a triumph; it was my first big trip after Kyrgzstan . When you’re on a safari you’re just absorbed with looking at all the animals, and focusing on stuff instead of worrying about everything. That was good.
We were camping for a week in Zimbabwe. It was a nice camp because my friend organised it, and she organises trips for a living. But the first day when I got to the campsite in the evening, I was like “Hoo my god, am I gonna die here?’ Just because I had a freak out moment. My friends were like, “are you ok?”
I think having friends who were supportive really helped. I think being open with it was very helpful. I told them, “y’know, I’m just afraid of a few things. I don’t want to be a burden and ruin your trip.”
And they were like, “Dude, it’s fine”.
And I was like, yeah… I’ll just see if I can relax, and see what happens.
We were running out of water at some point, and I told the guide, “I have to wash my hands before I eat. If I don’t, I’ll be constantly thinking about it the whole time.”
He was initially telling us not to wash our hands, but he was totally understanding about it. He was like “ok, that’s fine.” When it comes to washing hands, most people can be like, “ah, it’s ok, whatever”.
But this is one thing that I can’t let go of. It’s not like I’m using a lot [of water], but it’s something that I need… need is a strong word, but for psychological reasons, I feel like I need to wash my hands.
I can’t live without lip balm either. It’s this weird obsession. So I lost my lip balm, and I was freaking out for like an hour. It sounds crazy and stupid but I was freaking out. And my friend said, “just take mine.”
“Don’t you need it?”
“When I need it, I’ll just ask you.”
“Isn’t it going to inconvenience you?”
“If it’s going to make you feel better it isn’t an inconvenience to me.”
The thing about Africa is that it’s super hot. You do the safari in the morning, and then from 12-3pm it’s too hot. So I was in my tent in my underwear –it was so damn hot that I really needed to take off my clothes – and I saw an elephant passing by, close enough to take a picture of. That image really stuck for me because it was so unexpected.
Another thing I remember is peeing in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, because the toilet was too far away. While I was peeing I heard the sound of a hippo, and I was like “Oh my god!” and started running because it was so dark and I couldn’t see. What if it was right there? That was pretty funny.
I really liked trying the game meat in Africa – all the weird meats like spring buck meat and zebra meat. I’ve had horse meat before in Kyrgzstan , which is a bit funky. I tried ostrich steak in Cape Town. I like pig brains and innards; if you give me a suckling pig I’ll just crack open the skull and eat the brains, which is weird to some people but to me it tastes good.
I’ll try animal anything, but the only thing I won’t eat is bugs. Well, I did try fried worms in Africa. I suppose I’d eat it if there were nothing else.
SO IT HAPPENED… SO?
I have a therapist, and then I have a psychologist, who is the medication guy. He was telling me, “don’t judge yourself. If something happens, and you do something twice – when you’re only supposed to do it four times – the worst thing that you can do is punish yourself for it.”
It’s much easier if you forgive yourself. I think that’s one of the best things that someone’s told me. One sentence, and it changed my point of view.
So it happened… So? Then it happened. Let’s find a way to manage it.
I think acceptance and positivity, and having people being unafraid to talk about mental disorders would be the start of something good. It used to be the case that if you said you were in therapy, people would be like, “oh, what’s wrong with you? Why so extreme?”
But there’s nothing wrong with you. What’s wrong is that no one talks about it, and no one gets helps, y’know?
Some people are like “what if it’s on my record, my resume?” But if your employer is not the kind of employer that can see your getting help as a good thing, then maybe they’re not so great either.
Ever since I started writing about it, my friends have started to have conversations with me. Some of them with anxiety, or with issues they’ve never spoken about with anyone. They talk to me about it, and it was something I was very positively influenced by, because it allowed them to share certain things.
I’ve had a friend who I didn’t know that well share that he may have OCD, but “it’s not so bad”.
But it’s not like there’s anything wrong with you for getting help if you think you need to. We all spend money on Macbooks and alcohol; if you want to spend money to help yourself, what’s the big deal?
It’s actually strange how a lot of people go through the same stuff. A lot of people have anxiety, and they have a hard time coping. You can be in a big group of people, and know the people on medication, and who’re getting help. It’s not actually a big deal. We’re not weird; we’re normal.
My friends are great. They’re really supportive, and they can see the difference it makes for me, like “oh , you smile more now, you seem happier now.”
I feel like I’m lucky. Maybe not everyone has friends who are that understanding. When I need alone time, I tell my friends, “sometimes, I’ll need to be really quiet and weird.” And they’re fine with it. I realised that made a big difference.
I’ve had friends who’ve had depression, whose best friends were like “what’s wrong with you? Can you snap out of it?”
But that’s really one of the worse things you can do: Ask someone to snap out of it. We know that people say these kind of things, and it comes from a lack of understanding.
I travelled with my friend Jenny to Croatia, and she completely understood everything. She had a sense of humour about it.
She was like: “Dude, you wash your hands so much!”And she laughed.
I asked her: “Does it bother you when I do this stuff?”
And she was like: “I barely notice.”
Photo credits: Video still from Visual Artist Empyreal