Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mayonnaise and Acceptance

I'd rather never eat mayonnaise. When I was young one of my teachers warned the class about picnics, mayonnaise, and food poisoning. My OCD was a special force in my life by then. After that comment I did avoid it completely, and even tried not to think about it. If mayonnaise ended up on my plate, the meal was over, sometimes before the first bite.

I've been able to extinguish a lot of my obsessions through intensive cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) / exposure and response prevention (ERP) and the use of medication. Many previously "charged" foods no longer give me pause. However, some linger. Mayo is one of them. I doubt it will ever be a neutral food for me. I do eat it, but I don't like to, and it is always an effort.

While on this trip to visit my family we stopped to pick up groceries. Cole slaw and potato salad were on the list. Somehow, one bag did not make it from the car into the house. It had to be that one! The cole slaw and potato salad stayed in the hot car for 2 hours before their discovery. As part of my recovery, I try not to throw out food because of a "bad feeling". The containers were sweating condensation, but still felt cool to the touch. I dutifully put them in the refrigerator and went about my business. The next day, my mom put some on her plate, only to find the first forkful disgusting. It had gone bad.

Wow! I got so close to food poisoning. I actually put bad food into the fridge. And yet, even without my vigilance, no one got sick. I do consider it a "near miss" because sometimes bad mayo cannot be detected. I know there is an OCD victory here because none of this made me anxious. However, I am also aware that now I am not going to eat cole slaw or potato salad for a while. So it is a step back. In the grand scheme of life, it isn't such a big deal. But I do need to be careful not to let this grow. My avoidance sometimes spreads out like an expanding stain leaving me less to eat that feels safe.

I think the best way to deal with this is to limit my avoidance to just mayo salads in stores and restaurants. I will also remember that this is my OCD and there is nothing actually wrong with these salads. People are eating them everyday with no ill effects. When I am ready I may expose myself and try it again. But for now, I am just going to accept that this is where I am today.


  1. Funny how something that bothers one OCDer can have little or no anxiety-producing effects for another! I love my mayo :).

    Just curious...what is your ultimate fear about eating spoiled food? You mentioned getting food poisoning...are you just averse to the idea of getting sick yourself? Of getting others sick? Or are you worried that the food-poisoning could become more serious than just uncomfortable and unpleasant?

    As with any OCD fear, there is always that slight grain of truth or risk. You can get food poisoning from eating spoiled food, but often food that "may be bad" isn't, and even when it is, we usually realize that it has gone bad before we eat too much of it! And in those instances where we do end up consuming spoiled food, well, we have an immune system which can often take care of it. It may be uncomfortable until we can clear it out of our system, but nothing more. But of course, there are also those instances where food-poisoning can be far more serious. More often than not, though, when normal precautions are taken, we end up just fine.

    As I'm sure you already know, the problem with OCD is that it's hard to know where "normal precautions" end and over-cautious behaviors begin. While I don't have so much of a problem with spoiled food, I have a hard time evaluating when and how long to wash. Society has adopted certain "normal precautions" for washing to prevent the spread of disease, but my fear of possibly failing to observe such precautions leads me to overestimate the necessity of washing to the point where it impairs my life instead of enhancing it. The cost outweighs the benefit!

    I guess what I'm trying to say is, yes, there is a certain amount of risk we take any time we eat foods that could go bad, but sometimes taking that risk is better than sacrificing enjoyment of the life we are trying so hard to protect! Furthermore, even if I do love my mayo, I can most definitely relate in my own way (in terms of washing), and as much as I can rationally sit here and say that the price we pay to avoid risk is not worth it, I still struggle everyday to actually put that belief into practice!!

    I think it's great that you were able to put the cole slaw and potato salad in the fridge. Sure it may have been bad, but like you said...did anyone get sick? Nope. We have often have the natural ability to detect when something has gone bad, so that when spoiled food does somehow end up on our plate, we often detect it before we eat enough of it to cause any harm! That said, there is always the risk of getting food poisoning, I suppose, anytime we put food into our mouths, but personally, I'd rather enjoy my mayo, both literally and metaphorically :), then sacrifice that enjoyment in a vain attempt to eliminate any and all risk of food poisoning!

    All in all, it sounds like you have done great considering the circumstances! Part of what you feared came true (the food really did go bad), but you are still doing your best to limit the avoidance you do as a result of this event. Sometimes, when unexpected things happen, not taking several steps backward is actually like taking a big step forward! Accepting where you are at this point in time is far better than getting frustrated with yourself for not doing more. You had quite the challenge and it seems like you handled it well considering the circumstances! Good for you!

    And now I'm going to be craving mayo for the rest of the day... ;)

  2. Yes, the mayo thing is an irrational fear based on a grain of truth. I do feel the big victory was the lack of suffering through this whole thing.

    I had the handwashing ritual, which started after 9/11. I am a physician, and I was seeing and touching sick kids all day. It is part of my job to protect myself and my patients,so it was hard to discern where to draw the line. I am going to do a post about it. Thanks for inspiring me.

  3. The grain of truth is what my OCD latches onto so fiercely, and uses that to justify a whole cascade of compulsions. It is really hard for me to walk that line of "how much precaution is enough" because I also have the perfectionism saying, "You should know in advance how it's going to turn out," which of course I can't, because I'm not omniscient(no matter how much my OCD thinks I could be if I just tried harder!)

  4. Kinder Brain - I would love to read about your experience with having OCD while working as a physician. I worked in the surgery department of a hospital for a short while, when I was still in college, and the all the mandatory precautions required to maintain the sterile environment were great fodder for my OCD. I really think that if I had worked there longer, such concerns and OC-related behavior could have spiraled into a full-blown OCD episode!