The noise that escaped her lips reminded me of a bullfrog. Because that response didn’t seem related to the weather, I deduced she was collecting her thoughts. I waited patiently for her to do so.
Somehow, as she stood there not speaking, she began to disappear behind a brown curtain of hair. Once all but a sliver of face was hidden, she mumbled something.
“Pardon? I didn’t catch that.” I leaned in so close to her lips that I was positive her breath would deposit coxsackie microbes on my face. I hoped her hair would provide a sufficient barrier.
“Define appropriate touching,” she managed to say.
I leaned away from her, not understanding her meaning. There was no appropriate touching in my mind. Well, certainly no sanitary touching. Which gave me an idea: “I suppose, if I had given you sufficient warning, and we were both wearing protective gear, we could manage some appropriate touching.”
My mind brought back the image of her on her hands and knees. I shifted my weight, subtly adjusting myself through my pockets.
Her hair moved from her face as she smirked, but she continued to look uncomfortable.
Her eyes darted from me, to the party, to the exit and back. Like me, she seemed to appreciate the importance of having an exit strategy. But we had not yet had our conversation.
“Again, allow me to I apologize. I can see you are uncomfortable. Perhaps you, too, fear further contamination. But before you leave, would you mind assisting me with a something?”
She stared at my chest, or possibly my chin, but did not speak. I took this as encouragement to continue.
I gestured with my elbow to the group of (likely) contagious people behind me, “I must have a conversation with someone at this party. Now, I know that we are no longer actually in the party, but I think this is close enough. I can’t begin to tell you how glad I am to be out of that room!”
Still mute, eyes shifty, her weight shifting, as though she was prepared to dart away any second; I suddenly realized I had neglected her again. “Do you agree?”
“Yes.” She stopped looking at the doors and became focused on my face; but still not looking at my eyes. Her hands twitched nervously, flicking hair away from her face a bit, and I could see she had stopped drooling. I sighed with relief. While whatever ailments that plagued her were still were unknown, I could at least rule out HMFD.
“What is your name?”
“Isabella Marie Swan,” she croaked.
“Well, I’m Edward Masen, IT consultant. I work from home…It’s safer. What do you do for a living?”
“Oh! Is that something you can do from home, too?”
“No.” And then she started dancing from foot to foot, but slowly, as though she didn’t want to seem too enthusiastic. “I…” She took a deep breath and cleared her throat, wiping the sheen of sweat that appeared on her upper lip.
Then she said, without pause for breath, “I work in an office downtown a law office with other file clerks I don’t actually speak to the attorneys they just leave the files on a cart and when no one is up front I go get the cart and replace the files.”
As she spoke, she mimed doing her job so athletically that she was heaving and sweating by the end. She looked relieved when she finished, and started eyeing the exit again.
I finally understood what her problem was…other than being clumsy.
“You have social anxiety disorder!” I yelled.
I often yell epiphanies. It’s so exciting to discover things. But this was even better than a discovery, because her disease was not contagious! Indeed, it wasn’t a disease at all, but a disorder, like mine.
“Oh, god,” she said glancing over my shoulder toward the party. Then she turned to leave. I didn’t stop her this time. She seemed quite upset, and I was in no mood to deal with her issues. I had problems of my own.
For example, would this count as a conversation? It seemed like she did all the talking.
I picked the social function to attend for my exposure outing carefully. I required that I not use public transportation, while Dr. Cullen required that it be a normal social function. He didn’t want me in a “contrived” setting.
Fortunately, my boss, James Anderson, had been trying to get me to go to the local AITP (Association of Information Technology Professionals) monthly social gathering since I started working for him over a year ago.
It was ideal. I could walk there, it was on a Tuesday evening (volume of foot traffic would be low), and my going might keep him from bugging me about “needing to get out there and rub elbows with your colleagues.” Which apart from being nonsensical, was also disgusting!
Once that decision was made, I had three weeks to prepare. Dr. Cullen always says that “preparation is the key to success.” I hadn’t the heart to tell him that Alexander Graham Bell actually said it first. Dr. Cullen had done so much to help me, after all.
We first discussed my general fears and responses in social settings, as well as my goals for this specific outing. As I had acute fear of being contaminated by touching and only moderate fear of being breathed on, the goal of this outing was being exposed to airborne contaminants. Dr. Cullen had a different way of explaining it, but I don’t recall what it was. It would be carried out by closing the distance between me and another person to normal conversation space. He refused to acquiesce to my request for a specific measurement of this space.
We started with five feet, gradually diminishing the space to about eighteen inches (I am estimating, of course). As we got closer together, I was compelled to use my tape measure which, as I reminded Dr. Cullen, I had personally calibrated with vernier calipers. But he reasoned that as it was unlikely that I would be able to make accurate measurements at the party, it was better to practice not measuring.
In my last session before the party (Wednesday at 8 p.m.), as I went over my preparations, I told Dr. Cullen that I obtained a digital copy of the blueprint of the building where the party would be held. He asked me why.
“Because I need to know where all of the exits are located in case of an emergency.”
“Well, couldn’t you just take a look when you get there?”
“Yes, but I am anticipating a lot of anxiety, and I don’t want to be overwhelmed. If I know where the exits are, I’ll be able to focus on my assignment better.”
“Are you sure it’s not so that you can prepare to take measurements, Edward?”
He was on to me. Although Dr. Cullen was always sensitive to my issues, he wouldn’t let something go when he noticed a potential problem. And he was a walking polygraph. But while I couldn’t lie to him, I could obfuscate. “I will be leaving my tape measure at home.”
“Well, I think that is a good decision. But how do you plan to deal with your measuring compulsion?”
Busted again.”I plan to measure distances based on the size of my shoe!”
Although I began sweating as I loudly confessed that I planned to continue with my compulsion, Dr. Cullen seemed pleased. He placed his finger tips together and smiled.
“That is a coping mechanism, Edward. And it’s OK. But I want to challenge you to avoid measuring as much as you can. Maybe you can try to estimate, rather using your shoes. I’m not telling you not to measure anything, nor to leave your measuring tape at home.”
“Thank you Dr. Cullen. I was worried that you would say it was a setback.”
“I understand. Just make a note of any avoided compulsions in your victory journal and note your feelings about any compulsions you are unable to avoid in your thought journal. I think you are ready for this, Edward. Are there any other items we need to discuss before next week?”
“Well, I wanted to let you know that I thought about your suggestion to meet before the party. But I agree with you, that I am ready. Sometimes when I imagine it in my head, I see things going really well. I see myself having a conversation: we talk about work and the person smiles and they don’t breathe on me too much, and I say good-bye and I go home and when I get there, I don’t shower more than twice.”
“When it doesn’t go well, what do you imagine happening?”
“Mostly irrational fears of being contaminated by someone touching me. I imagine how it felt the last time someone shook my hand, and I then I can feel the film of germs that I couldn’t wash off for over a year.”
“Do you still perceive that you couldn’t wash it off?”
“Not any more. But that’s how I felt at the time…sometimes, even though I know it’s in my head, when I think of it, I can still feel it. A ‘phantom germ,’ I guess.”
“Well, I won’t make an appointment with you for Tuesday, but I want you to call me if you need to. Remember, I can’t always call you back right away, so don’t call my emergency number unless it’s a valid emergency. Can you tell me what constitutes a valid emergency, Edward?”
“Thoughts of suicide or of harming others!” I yelled that because Dr. Cullen was suddenly leaning in a little to close for comfort.
He thankfully got the message and leaned back away from me. “Exactly. Otherwise, it can wait for a few minutes, OK?”
When I got back to my apartment after the party, I went straight to the special plastic bags I keep next to the door, pulled one out and put my shoes in, tied it up and put them in the waste basket by the door. I stared at it and ran into the bathroom to wash my hands. Just once.
I didn’t measure them again before I threw them away, even though I was compelled to check, in case I got it wrong when I remeasured before I left.
I know that there is a 99.99~% chance that exact size of the shoe is the same, at least on the sole of the shoe. I logically understand that this is so. But sometimes the compulsion is so strong to check. I mean, what if it has changed and I miss it! I would miss important data that could throw the entire statistic off by a small, but measurable, amount. Fuck, it was upsetting! I had to sit on the floor with my head between my knees breathing deeply. After five minutes I felt a little better. The shoes were still at the bottom of the trash can. I refused to look at them again.
Then, I showered twice and I washed my face five times, as it seemed to be the most likely to have been contaminated. Then I flossed (Once! Victory!) and brushed my teeth twice (there was a small rough spot on my front tooth, and it occurred to me there could be other rough spots I missed, so I brushed them all again just to be safe). I wanted to floss again. I stared at the small plastic container, but remembered what my dentist told me: “once a day is sufficient.” I’m not a chanter or a counter, but I repeated it like a mantra ten times to calm my breathing.
Finally clean and comfortable, I sat down to type an email to Dr. Cullen:
I wanted to let you know that I think my exposure assignment is complete. I even spoke to three people, but only one counts as a conversation.
I must confess that the conversation did not occur within the confines of the party itself, but rather approximately fifteen feet outside the door and approximately two feet from the main entrance. I did not try to measure either distance, although I was moderately compelled to do so.
I met, or rather “bumped into” a nice lady inside the party and spoke to her briefly before she ran away. I ran after her to continue our conversation.
It is my opinion that this lovely woman, Isabella Marie Swan, has social anxiety disorder. I won’t burden you with a list, but I am confident that she has a sufficient number (possibly all) of the DSM-IV-TR symptoms to be diagnosed with the disorder.
I will give you a more thorough accounting of the evening and her symptoms when we meet at our regularly scheduled weekly appointment on Thursday (day-after-tomorrow) at 8 p.m. in your office.
I would appreciate it if you would confirm this, as I misplaced the card from the receptionist.
I hit send and sat back in my chair.
I lied about losing the card. But as I typed my appointment information, I had an acute fear that the appointment had been canceled or changed and no one had notified me.
It had happened only once before.
I showed up at his office for our 16th visit and Mrs. Cope, the receptionist, told me Dr. Cullen had to cancel, and apologized saying she forgot to email me to reschedule. I was in such a panic; yelling at her and advising her that I had concealed handgun in my coat pocket (which I am no longer allowed to carry to Dr. Cullen’s office, per my patient contract). Dr. Cullen was called out of his meeting, along with the police. Although he talked Ms. Cope into not filing any charges, and had the police leave, he advised me to immediately check myself in to in-patient care.
However, my fear of being confined in a psychiatric ward was greater than my fear that something terrible would happen if my schedule was disturbed and so I ended up having my first breakthrough.
I realized that I could chose the lesser of two “evils.” Even if I was still uncomfortable, the lesser was always more manageable than the alternative.
From that day, Dr. Cullen was often able to reason with me by presenting me with two (or more) options to consider when I came up against a potential setback.
I decided that needing to have confirmation of my appointment wasn’t a setback. People double-check things all the time. The real problem was that I felt shame about it, which lead me to be dishonest with Dr. Cullen. I pulled out my thought journal and added an entry about the card.
I sat back, going through the evening’s victories and compulsions, adding entries to both journals. I errantly considered measuring my journals, but I promised Dr. Cullen that I wouldn’t measure anything more than once a day. I took a deep breath and put them on the shelf, lining them exactly to make sure they were the same size. My eyes focused on the brown leather covers until all I could see was brown.
Suddenly, the brown eyes of Ms. Swan swam in my mind. I closed my eyes to focus the memory. Ms. Swan. She didn’t say whether to call her “Miss” or “Ms.” or “Mrs.” Was she married? I couldn’t remember anything but her face, eyes and that…that skirt. Blue and ass and naked…
My fantasy was interrupted by logic: Why was she at that party? She’s a filing clerk. This mystery needed to be solved right away. I could never masturbate while preoccupied with intrusive thoughts.
I initiated a Google search for Isabella Marie Swan.