Made in Japan
When I was 17, I won a scholarship to study in Japan for three months. When I found out I was going, I’d never been so excited. The thought was exhilarating.
And terrifying. See, I had never been away from home for more than a week before. I got homesick on 5-day school camps. But I told myself that I could do this; that it would be amazing and life-changing. I wasn’t wrong, but I was completely unaware of just how much it would change me.
I wasn’t always as I am now. When I was a child, I loved playing in the dirt and the mud. I certainly didn’t worry about germs and contamination. And it hindsight that was probably very good for me; at 25 I now have the immune system of a vegetarian Xenomorph on a Vitamin C drip.
But earlier that year, I’d started picking up rubbish in the school yard after hours to earn some pocket money. I ended up paying for almost my entire collection of all 29 Godzilla movies this way. But the gloves were too small for me; they broke a lot, and I’d end up touching rubbish with my bare hands. At first I’d just wash them afterwards. Then the frequency of my hand washing began to gradually increase.
By November 2006, as I was gearing up for the Land of the Rising Sun, the seeds of my crippling OCD were already germinating.
At first, Japan was incredible. My host family were kind, enthusiastic, and understanding, and my two host brothers, aged 3 and 8, thought having a real life Caucasian in the house was the best thing since Ultraman. Being in a foreign country for the first time was fascinating. The mixture of the almost futuristically slick and orderly city and exquisite forests and temples was unforgettable. I could go on and on about all the good stuff.
A photo I took on Mt Rokko; (which serves as this blog’s banner) just one of the many highlights of my ultimately fateful trip.
But in the background, those seeds of OCD were beginning to coil their malignant creepers around my brain. I had to take public transport to go to school, and the packed carriage full of people became more and more uncomfortable. Door handles and bird poo became steadily more frightening. Keep in mind, this was at the time when Bird Flu was being talked up as the next big pandemic.
Isolated from my family except for emails, I was without parental support for the first time in my life, and I wasn’t coping.
After Christmas 2006, I changed to another host family. A much less understanding one. They took my blossoming OCD as an insult to the cleanliness of their home. Keep in mind, this is before I knew I had autism, or OCD, so I had no idea what was happening to me. I didn’t even realize that I was, by this point, quite mentally unwell and fast approaching clinical depression.
When my original host family visited a few weeks later, my first host mother actually emailed my parents telling them how concerned she was for me. She saw what I could not; that I was unraveling. My sponsor at the school saw the same thing, and recommended that I go home early, but I tried stubbornly to soldier on.
By this point I was so out of touch with reality that when someone startled me by standing behind me at a train station, I got caught up in an absurdly paranoid delusion that maybe they’d been flicking HIV-positive blood into my hair.
The last straw was when I read on the news that Bird Flu had reached Japan, showing up at a farm near my city. I cracked and asked to come home, but I would have to wait almost a week to do so. Those intervening days were the hardest of my life. Every moment was a waking nightmare. I actually pissed my pants in class because I was too scared to go into the toilets.
On my 18th birthday, I left Japan, and ended up having to be almost carried off the plane at Tullamarine airport in Melbourne.
When we got home that night, the simple task of walking up a street in my home town that I’d walked a million times before to pick up fish and chips left me a quivering lump. I got a nose bleed in the summer heat, and seconds after wiping my own nose, had to ask if the blood on the tissue was mine.
According to my Mum, my Dad said to her that night once I’d gone to bed. “That’s not our Max.” And he was right. The Max that went to Japan in November 2006 never really returned, and life was never the same.
In the end, I survived. I learned to manage my OCD. I was eventually able to move away from home to study at University.
I can never know how different my life might have been had I never made that trip to Japan. The OCD was already there, but it might never have gained such a death grip on me without the perfect growth conditions that my time there provided.
Up until now, I’ve only shared this story with a small number of people.
After nearly 8 years, it’s a relief to finally get it off my chest.