Max's shop of horrors

Warning: imagination testing site. Enter at own risk

Month: March, 2014

The DIY guide to Ghostbusting

OCD can often feel like the universe hired a bunch of poltergeists to mess with you. To plant syringes and dog poo along whatever path you take to get to work, or to ensure every person who hands you something that day will have a scab on their hand or cough into it. Hello, operator? Please connect me to the Ghostbusters. I’m sorry, what do you mean they’re not real? Next you’ll be telling me my toys don’t come to life when I leave the room.

toys

It’s okay guys, I know you’re really alive.

Perhaps the most crucial and difficult step is recognizing that the problem is internal rather than external. That it’s not the world that’s dangerous, but my brain that’s overreacting. Sounds easy doesn’t it? Well so does eating a sugar-coated jam donut without licking your lips, but try it sometime; it’s like doing rocket surgery while drunk, wearing oven mitts, and busting for a piss.

Because OCD doesn’t just flip the panic switch; it’s sneakier than that. It infiltrates your senses and warps them to fit its agenda.

Spatial awareness is one of its favourites. For example, when I’m scared of touching things, like the wall of a toilet cubicle, or a person who just sneezed onto their sleeve, it seems as though they’re closer to me than they really are. My depth perception and sense of touch play tricks on me; my eyes seem to go into x2 magnification, and the movement of air against my skin makes me think I brushed something. My hair is especially troublesome; it feels as though it extends out twice as far as it really does, and when it shifts, my OCD tries to convince me I brushed a bus handrail, low hanging leaves with bird poo on them, or the toilet door. Maybe I should get a tattoo printed on my cornea; “objects are not as close as they appear”.

Sometimes it gets to the point where my perception becomes totally out of  sync with reality; I’ll ask if I touched something, and people will look at me in confusion and tell me, “Max, you were like a meter away from it.” Once, back when OCD’s hold over me was at its strongest, I was walking down a hillside, wearing shorts, and I asked my Mum if the ground could touch the back of my shorts because of the slope.

poo

This looked a LOT closer when I was taking the photo…

All this can make it tricky to figure out where the OCD ends and reality begins. It’s kinda like those movies where you’re not sure if the filmmakers were aware of the stupidity of it all and are taking the piss out of themselves, or if they weren’t and it’s just plain bad. (Think Starship Troopers, the 1980 Flash Gordon movie, or Azumi)

I’m constantly asking myself; is this an OCD overreaction, or is it just reasonable hygiene? Do people without OCD feel the need to wash their hands after handling money, or holding onto a handrail on the train? It is rational or excessive to move seats if the person across from me seems to have a cold? At this point, I’ve long since lost track of what constitutes “rational”, so I look at what other people do for guidance. Problem is, this doesn’t always help, cos sometimes I spot someone picking their nose before turning a public doorknob or leaving the toilets without washing their hands, and it scares the hell outta me.

After years of caging these sensory poltergeists and running all manner of experiments on them, (most of which were ethically dubious and inspired by the work of scientists from Japanese Godzilla movies) I finally hit on their Achilles Heel. They lack stamina. The fifteen minutes following a run-in with one is incredibly unpleasant, but if I can keep a lid on the discomfort for longer than that, then they start to feel a lot less real, and I can usually brush them off.

It’s like how you know a dream wasn’t real when you wake up from it. Because once the adrenaline wears off and the frontal lobe of my brain sobers up, I can look back at it without panic goggles, and see it for the cheap trick it was. Sure, I may be left with a bit of a fight-or-flight hangover, (adrenaline’s up there with absinthe and tequila in the aftereffects hall of fame) but provided I wait it out instead of throwing all my clothes in the wash and taking a shower right away, they’re beatable.

The song was right about one thing: busting makes ya feel good. (Ghostbusting that is, not busting for a leak while drunk, wearing oven mitts, and doing rocket surgery)

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Inoculating against OCD

When I was about four, I was attacked by a suicidal fundamentalist with a poisoned needle. We caught each other off guard while I was playing in my backyard, and his go-to response was to plunge his weapon into my foot and take his own life. To be fair though, I was 20,000 times his size, and there’s not much else a honey bee can do when they’re about to be crushed by rampaging mammal the size of Godzilla.

Shortly afterwards, I swelled up like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and had trouble breathing. I don’t remember much after that, except that I was taken to the hospital. Still, you shoulda seen the other guy.

In order to treat my allergy to bee stings, the doctors proposed a course of injections with bee venom, starting with a minute amount, and gradually upping the dose. The idea was that my body would become  accustomed to it, kind of like vaccines use a weakened or dead virus to train the immune system to fight it.

And it worked; my final injection was equal to two bee stings, and I had no allergic reaction. The only problem is, they recommended that I get stung by a bee every few years to keep my immunity up, and it’s been 12 years since my last one. If I copped one today, I have no idea what would happen.

Nearly two decades after my brush with the Stay Puft life, all this got the Mad Scientist lobe of my brain ticking. Because for me, a lot of the symptoms of my autism and OCD were almost like an allergic reaction, in that my body wildly overreacts to an outside stimulus, to the point of doing me harm.

So I thought; if a bunch of gradually escalating bee stings can make me immune to the real thing, maybe I can desensitize myself to my panic triggers in a similar way.

Just like the injections; I had to start small, instead of just running out, finding a member of the kamikaze honey bee cult, and picking a rematch. One of my first targets was cigarette butts; I used to be petrified of standing on them because they’d been in a stranger’s mouth. So I forced myself to stand on one every time I was out walking and encountered them; not every one I saw, just one for that walk. Over time, the fear lost its bite; now they don’t bother me at all.

Next, (TMI warning for the rest of the paragraph) I tried not stripping to go to the toilet and showering directly afterwards. Now this was a tough one; to this day, I keep conquering it, then relapsing. It was easy at my house in Orbost, where there was room to sit without touching the walls. At the house I live in now, with a toilet the size of a kitchen fridge, it’s a lot more stressful, because if I so much as brush the walls or door I feel like my clothes have been contaminated.

I had more success with rubbish bins; when I was 18 I would walk three meters around them; in my first year of Uni, I’d learned to walk passed them unaffected, and even get close enough to throw rubbish in.

Physical contact was another hurdle. At 18 or 19, I honestly didn’t know if I would ever be able to kiss someone. At age 20, I did so. Now, admittedly, my first was pretty scary; I was talking to a guy at the University bar, we were both drunk, and I mentioned I’d never been kissed. He immediately took it upon himself to relieve me of this awful burden, and kissed before I could react. It wasn’t as bad as I’d expected, but thoughts of Meningococcal and Herpes still swirled in my head, compelling me to rush away to wash my mouth out.

My second kiss, however, was much better, mostly because it wasn’t an out-of-the-blue surprise, it was no longer a terrifying new experience, and this time it was an attractive girl. (In addition to the fact that I’m heterosexual, I had observed that girls tend to have stricter hygiene than guys and as a result they scared me less)

And so, one by one, I immunized myself to individual triggers. Granted, it’s a slow and painful process, but the results have been worth it. It might take years more for me to get rid of them all, but in the mean time, they get fewer and weaker every day.

Thank you, kamikaze honey bee; your death was not in vain!

A Knight is not a disabled Rook

First a disclaimer: The thing about autism is that it’s an incredibly diverse condition. We’re like fish. A goldfish is a fish. But so is Jaws.

Autism can range from people who seem completely normal (Key word “seem”. Normality, like perfection, is an impossibly unreachable ideal, which is lucky, because like perfection it would be incredibly boring) to adults with the functionality of a two year old child.

I can’t speak for others on the autism spectrum, so this post is purely my own perspective.

See, I wasn’t diagnosed with  autism until I was 19, so I didn’t grow up thinking of myself as autistic. Instead, from a young age, I was given the label of “gifted”. Now, as a 6-18 year old kid, you can imagine how freaking awesome this made me feel about myself. I felt like I had superpowers, like a mutant off X-Men; I could be called “Pen-tacost” or “The ObLiterary”. (Stan Lee, I beg thy forgiveness for such lame names. Three hail Marvels)

Of course, I was aware that some things came harder to me than they did to everyone else, but I figured that they were just things I wasn’t good at, like how my teachers had an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject they taught, yet the classroom’s TV and DVD player were like a Klingon Rubik’s Cube to them.

While some of my autistic symptoms went untreated as a result, this was overall a very positive approach.

Now, I’m not saying I’d rather I hadn’t been diagnosed; on the contrary, my diagnosis helped me to understand my condition and get effective treatment. But the legacy of my upbringing was that instead of seeing it as a disease to be managed, I was just as aware of its positive side as its negatives.

Despite my many difficulties, I have never thought of myself as disabled, but rather just differently abled. I may find it a terrifying ordeal to go to the toilet, but on the other hand, I’ve been writing novels since I was 12 years old. I may struggle with social situations, but I could tell you the year and location of the final case of each strain of smallpox, or explain the inner workings of the Wii’s graphics chip. (Though I imagine that to most of you, this would be about as appealing as a lemon juice bath after an acupuncture appointment)

Here’s how I see it; in Chess, a Knight is not a disabled Rook. Sure, it’s harder for the Knight to cover long distances , but on the other hand, a Rook can’t jump over other pieces.

If there was a cure that could eliminate my autism overnight, I wouldn’t take it. Think about it; would you take a pill that would erase your fears and difficulties, but also your passions and skills? Of course, I’m not saying non-autistic people don’t have passions, skills, fears, and difficulties, but my specific ones are an intrinsic part of my autism, and my autism is an intrinsic part of me.

This is who I am. I am not a victim, and I am not disabled. I can learn social skills; it might be harder for me than for others, but I refuse to accept it as something that I just can’t do because I’m autistic. And it’s working; friends often point out to me the progress I’ve made on that front over the years. The same is true of my fears; seven years ago I could barely leave the house, now I can travel on public transport without much trouble.

Of course there’s times when it’s tough, but it’s a lot like those video games that are difficult, and sometimes frustrating, but on the whole great fun. (Ever play Donkey Kong Country Returns, or just recently, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze? Yeah, it’s like that)

I may spend a lot of my time and energy (and a lot of my entries to this blog) tackling the hardships of living with autism, but I make a point of never forgetting how blessed I am to enjoy its benefits. I consider myself an incredibly lucky person; besides having a roof over my head, enough food to eat, and clean water to drink, I have a functioning brain with just a few treatable glitches and some pretty fun perks.

The glass is half full, and it’s a hell of a cocktail.

If you’re happy and you know it, flap your hands

Pain and pleasure.

Some say they’re twins, or two sides of the same coin. I prefer to think of them as two overexcited three-year olds sitting on either end of a seesaw. The harder child A comes slamming down like a sledgehammer swung by King Kong, the harder child B slams back.

For instance, I’ve talked about how fear affects me; how it’s like having ice water shot into my veins. Funny thing is, excitement has a similarly excessive effect, just in a positive direction.

I’ll be walking down the street or sitting at my computer, when suddenly a wild random thought appears. It might be a mental image of a giant monster soaring through the skies, weaving between missiles to the theme of one of my favourite songs. It might be coming up with a new idea for whatever story I’m working on.

Then, instead of ice water, its like I’ve been shot full of liquid electricity. I feel like I’m about to explode from all the energy surging through me. An almost uncontrollable urge comes over me to release some of this energy through physical movement. Before I know it, my hands are flapping, I’m jumping up and down, or I’ve just sprinted twenty meters. Sometimes all  three at the same time. And it feels amazing.

This has happened to me for as long as I can remember,  and while it was generally tolerated when I was a small child, it began to present a problem as I grew older and such displays of spontaneous hyperactivity became less socially acceptable. From late primary school and throughout high school I was frequently harassed about it, and as a result  spent years trying to repress it, a least in public. In private, I would shut myself in my room and thrash about madly to my favourite music, or just to exhilarating thoughts.

Then, when I moved away to University, I hit on an idea; I incorporated my compulsive hyperactivity attacks into a dance routine. I use the word “dance routine” lightly, like when I say my bedroom is “organized” or my addiction to green tea is “under control”. All it really is is me letting out the energy that’s pouring into me as music in the form of uncoordinated physical movements. There’s no moves, no pattern. Most of the time I’m not even thinking about what I’m doing, I just let go and do what feels good.

The end result is this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dufNX4peGko (Note: I wasn’t even drunk, much less on drugs. And I didn’t know I was being filmed)

What I was completely unprepared for was how positively people responded to my “dancing”. I expected to be laughed at, but instead total strangers would approach me afterwards and tell me how much they liked it. I became well known for it, and even won an award. A habit I had once been bullied for became something I was respected for and could take pride in.

Those of you who know me will know that sometimes I still do a little hyperactive dance in mid conversation sometimes. Now you know why.

Moral of the story? Don’t censor your quirks; embrace them, because the right people will appreciate them.