OCD and Vacationing

beach vacationAs the Fourth of July rolls around, many of us are firmly entrenched in our summers and looking forward to upcoming vacations. I know I am! But what about those with OCD? How does going on vacation, planning a vacation, or even thinking about a vacation, affect those with the disorder?

When my son Dan’s OCD was severe, he could barely move, let alone go on a vacation. But when his OCD  improved to a moderate level, he planned a trip to Canada with a friend for his winter break. He was excited about going, and from all accounts had a great time exploring and trying out new activities (like dog sledding). All in all, a real success.

I, on the other hand, was worried the whole time he was gone. I was concerned about the stress of him traveling (he flew), the change in environment and routine, the absence of therapy (and his therapist), and the inevitable trials and tribulations that come along with vacations. Also, what if  he needed help while away? Would he tell us? Where would he turn? Who would he call?

Obviously, Dan’s traveling caused me more anxiety than it did him. He was able to do what I could not: embrace the uncertainty that comes with a vacation; that same uncertainty that comes with all of life.

Those who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder who are able and willing to go on vacation are indeed facing that uncertainty head-on. Will their OCD improve while they’re away? Maybe. Sometimes getting away from old, familiar triggers into a totally new environment will quiet OCD. Or will their OCD spike due to new triggers, or because of any of the other reasons I was worried about? Maybe. It’s certainly possible. Of course, there is no way of knowing until you go. In my opinion, as long as OCD is not preventing sufferers from actually taking their anticipated vacation, the trip, whatever the outcome, should be considered a success.

If you or a loved one have OCD, I’d be interested in hearing what issues you face concerning trips, and how you deal with them. Whether your summer involves vacations from OCD or with OCD, I hope your experiences are positive ones filled with some great surprises.

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37 Responses to OCD and Vacationing

  1. Growing up, I was TERRIBLE with vacations. I had an obsessive attack at my grandma’s house over a Thanksgiving vacation and so I’d be triggered year after year when we’d travel to Missouri for Thanksgiving. It would take me at least two weeks post-Thanksgiving to recover from the trip. In high school, I finally refused to go.

    And then, of course, there was that whole Disney World thing I told you about …

    I am better now, though I prefer to be at home and part of my normal routine! 🙂

    • Oh yes, we shared the Disney World thing! Thanks for sharing, Jackie, I’m sorry vacations were so tough when you were younger. What an ordeal. Glad you are better…….I also enjoy “staycations” sometimes!

  2. Lolly says:

    Very interesting post. I am one who struggles with vacationing. I fear that my OCD will return while I am on vacation and force me into an awkward, anxious state where I am far away from home, far away from my comfort place, etc. I fear irrationally that I will disappoint my family if that happens. I fear that I will leave the vacation because of this and miss out on all the fun and let my family down.

    Funny thing is, over the past almost 5 vacations I’ve gone on, the exact opposite happens. Statistically, my OCD and anxiety takes a vacation too. It’s the anticipation of vacation and the what it’s surrounding it that make it hard. Once I’m there, I’m usually good.

    Also, whenever I am going away I always say to myself, “lolly, you are not a scared little girl anymore. You are an adult and if you have anxiety or an OCD spike, it’s ok because you know how to deal with it.” Works wonders 🙂

    • Just like I did with Dan, Lolly, right? All that worry (before vacationing) about things that don’t end up happening…..So glad you’ve had some great vacations and know how to push yourself forward!

  3. Jim Buchanan says:

    My OCD centers mostly around fear of contamination and fear of accidentally hurting someone. It seems about the same on a vacation as at home.

  4. Tina Barbour says:

    I’ve had mixed experiences with vacations and other trips. I usually worry about the bathroom arrangements wherever I’ll be going–will I have to share a bathroom? That’s a big concern of mine. If I’m going by myself and driving (I used to travel pretty often for a former job), I’d worry about driving and hit and run OCD. But overall, vacations with Larry have been fun and I’ve been able to put OCD on the back burner for the most part. I do have a weekend trip planned for July–it’s a church thing–and I am concerned about rooming. I am trying to get a room by myself. Maybe I should do the ERP and room with two others, but I just can’t make myself do it this time. Thanks for writing another great post that brings up important issues!

    • Thanks for commenting, Tina. I’m glad you are able to have fun vacations with Larry. Even though you might worry on other vacations, you still go away………that says a lot! Hope you enjoy your weekend away in July (with or without roommates:))

  5. skwerl58 says:

    Vacations can be good and bad. Leading up to the trip usually causes my anxiety to spike. I have contamination issues, primarily centered around my home. Packing is stressful, the primary concern is to not bring anything “contaminated” along on the trip. After arrival, my stress levels drop dramatically. Being in a new environment is very liberating, for a while at least. I find I’m also willing to push myself a bit more with regard to resisting compulsive behavior. Getting away seems to be a good motivator to try forget the OCD life for a while.

    • Thanks for commenting, skwerl58. What you describe seems to be common. Lots of worry before, and then the vacation is good! I’m glad you’re able to leave OCD behind for a while…that really must feel like a vacation.

  6. Joleen says:

    We did try a holiday (my suggestion) as it was our ten year wedding anniversary but it went horribly wrong. It was our second holiday – the first being our honeymoon – only this time we had 2 boys to entertain. I chose Butlins but despite calling them and explaining my husbands problems everything seemed to go against his OCD – distance from the car park to our accommodation, problems with the accommodation which meant strangers had to come in etc. I even organised an anniversary surprise but even that was delivered by someone that made his OCD worse. His fears are, in brief, fear of running people over and contamination fears (HIV/aIDS, rabies). The gift was delivered by someone he considered “high risk”.

    I dread family days out and so, for me, another holiday will not be on the cards for quite some time as he can’t walk anywhere (even at home) without checking for needles, blood or spit. Our last family day out was over 2 years ago and these happen very infrequently!

    The one thing that makes me sad and angry about my husband’s OCD is the impact on our boys. It makes me incredibly sad that to my 9 year old a day out is just me and him going on a train to get McFlurry 😦

    I could take the boys myself on holiday but as I have a husband – he should be there! Maybe one day we’ll try again………..(I don’t hold out much hope as he’s had OCD for 45 years)

    • Hi Joleen, Thank you for sharing and I’m so sorry things are so difficult for your family now. Your story is heartbreaking, especially given the fact that OCD is treatable. I’m wondering if your husband has tried Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy at all? Your family deserves to spend good times together. If your husband is unwilling to get help, perhaps you could get some professional advice as to how to best move forward in terms of outings with your sons, etc. I’m thinking of you and wishing you better days ahead.

      • Joleen says:

        Thank you for the reply. He has been in treatment for the past couple of years but, unfortunately, they have confirmed that his OCD is too severe for them to really be of help. He is on 80mg daily Prozac (20mg higher than is usually prescribed by a GP) and they want him to consider 100mg per day! They are referring him for residential treatment in London but as my husband is unwilling to take an anti-psychotic (just one of the many qualifying criteria) we are struggling to get treatment – even though his reasons for not taking them are fully justified and it isn’t just because he doesn’t want to. His current therapist started seeing him as a filler until they could organise “proper” treatment but we are now more than 2 years in and no news on the residential yet. His therapist (who comes to our home every 2 weeks) says that my husband’s OCD needs to be at a significantly reduced level before he can be of any real help and the exposure methods can be used effectively. That said, he is trying to improve but as it effects all areas of his life it will be a long battle. Given the length of time he has suffered (he is now 51) they say that it is extremely ingrained and, to a certain extent, habitual. He is exposing himself on a few of the more minor areas but the checking hasn’t stopped – there’s just a decrease in the time spent checking. We are told this is the best we can hope for just now.

        We don’t feel that there is a cure but just hope that maybe one day he’ll be able to function more effectively as a husband and father – for his sake as well as ours.

    • C says:

      Hey Joleen–
      Just curious if you don’t mind me asking as someone who has dealt with truly severe OCD–what made the therapists say that his OCD is “too severe to treat”? It sounds like the contamination fears (AIDS, needles) are really common…I think most people with contamination fears deal with those. Please don’t give up hope that he can’t be helped–even severe OCD is treatable, but it can be HELL.

      • 71 & Sunny says:

        I wonder about that too, C. Obviously I’m not a psychologist, but I kind of cringe at the thought that anyone’s OCD is too severe. From what I understand, truly untreatable OCD is kind of rare. You know, Joleen, Dr Michael Jenike, who is one of the world’s most renowned OCD experts may be able to give you some ideas on how to get better help for your husband. His email is jenike@comcast.net

        Believe it or not, he actually answers emails from strangers. He answered a question I had once. He’s very approachable. You could email him with your husband’s symptoms & tell him what your local doctors are saying & I bet he could give you some ideas of which way to turn. Dr Jenike even once talked about how he traveled to, Portugal, I think it was, to help a lady suffering from severe OCD. He’s one of my true heros. Good luck, Joleen.

      • I “second” everything you say, Sunny. We also corresponded with Dr. Jenike when things were really bad for Dan. His book, Life in Rewind, tells of the remarkable recovery of someone with OCD so severe, he could not leave his basement for years. OCD, no matter how severe, is treatable!

  7. Hi Joleen, My son was also on 80 mg of Prozac (medication never really helped him) and was almost completely debilitated by severe OCD. He made a remarkable recovery (using ERP Therapy) and there are many more stories like his out there, including people who have suffered as long as your husband. So I think your hopes for his being able to function better are very realistic……I hope he is able to keep moving forward with treatment. Good luck and please keep in touch……

    • Paul says:

      Hi Joleen. I just came across this post and wanted to comment on the docs wanting to try 100mg of Prosac with your husband. I’m a small man…5′ 7″ and 150lbs. I was on 100mg for a very long time and did fine on that dose (I know everyone is different of course.) I was on Prosac 100mg from about 1991 to roughly 2009…so that’s 18 years +/-. I did get some help from it. Perhaps a 30% improvement in symptoms. Enough to make the attempt worth it! In 2009 I switched to Luvox 150mg because I was going through a rough patch and we couldn’t raise the Prosac any further. That’s a very normal dose of Luvox, and to my surprise it actually was a bit more helpful to me than my high dose of Prosac! Just wanted to share that info for what it’s worth. Best of luck to you. – Paul

      PS: My psychiatrist considers Luvox to be one of the “newer and best” ways to try to treat OCD. However it’s worth noting that he is also a firm believer in “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” He left me on 100mg of Prosac for 4 years before making the switch to Luvox.

      Also I want to share that unlike Janet’s son, medication has helped me more than ERP. I have been in ERP therapy since day 1 (March 1990), but I have very poor luck “preventing the response” when I do exposures. The anxiety usually overwhelms me and I end up “re-checking” (usually locked doors or making sure water faucets are off). However Janet’s firm belief in ERP has motivated me to work harder on ERP. I’ve had some small “victories” when I push my self harder to “prevent the response.” 🙂 Thank you Janet!!

  8. C says:

    Janet,
    This is very central to my life right now! I’m 25 and with that there are many travelling opportunities that I wish I could take right now. One of my really big goals for the summer is to go to the beach, and if I take it even further, get in the pool and ocean. I am a former lifeguard and I love to swim, but I haven’t been in the ocean since 2007 and a pool since 2010, which makes me really sad. I’m in the process of planning a short beach trip with some friends (who don’t know that I have OCD). I’m also concerned that if we do not make it a day trip, how I will cope with staying in a hotel since I don’t really do that (I have a hard time with the thought of who has slept there, if it’s even been cleaned, etc.) I’m hoping either it will be a day trip or I can bring an air mattress to stay in a beach house. Actually going would still be fighting OCD, so I’m hoping I can make all this work.
    Travelling is a HUGE thing for me. I have always traveled frequently and loved it. It’s really hard when my family wants to see me (they live nine hours away) and my sister just moved relatively close (3.5 hours), and especially friends who want me to come visit, when the sole reason I can’t is because I really struggle with being on public transportation and hotels (OCD stuff) and honestly, just the lack of control that comes with that. Also,not being able to tell them that is the reason is another difficulty. It really makes me sad, especially in the summer when my schedule is flexible enough to allow it–I feel like I’m missing out.
    -C

    • Thanks for sharing, C. I think the fact that you are planning a beach trip is great, and I hope you end up going. Both my daughters are big swimmers/lifeguards, and we all love the water, so I can imagine how sad it must make you feel to not be able to do what you’ve always enjoyed. The fact that it upsets you that you are missing out on swimming, traveling, etc.,will hopefully help motivate you to continue to fight your OCD head on so that you can get back to the business of enjoying your life! Good luck as you move forward.

  9. Krystal Lynn says:

    Normally I love, love, love vacations. My OCD is much better away from my home. For one thing if I do contaminate myself, I won’t be contaminating my own home so it is less frightening. And I do very little checking, because it is not my stuff and I don’t check other peoples or a hotel’s stuff. It is a huge anxiety reliever for me to be on vacation. Too bad I can’t be a professional vacation-goer. LOL
    So this year was an exception. My husband and I were in a very remote cabin in the wilderness (I actually ran into a bear on a hike)and all was well until a huge storm came through. Large trees fell and we could not leave the cabin as our roadways all had to be cleared. Plus we lost power for 2 days! I could have dealt with no power except the well water came in via electricity so we had NO running water. No shower, no washing hands after the bathroom, no flushing the toilet and no leaving because the storm was dangerous and of course trees blocked the road. I was a wreck. A complete nightmare. When the roads were cleared and we could leave I did not even want to pack up my stuff cause I didn’t want to touch anything. I think most people would be grossed out if they had no water for hygiene for 2 days, but my husband took it a thousand times better than I did. I was a mess. Ahead of that fiasco was 5 days of pure bliss, lovely hikes and cycling…I try to keep that in mind when I think of that vacation.

    • Wow, that’s some vacation story, Krystal Lynn! I’m sorry you had such a tough time, but you got through it! Thanks for sharing. The rest of that vacation sounds wonderful.

  10. Nancy says:

    I am staying with my adult daughter in an extended stay hotel while she gets treatment out of town. Not a vacation! But it has let me see up close how her OCD is affecting her (she lives in her own place so we normally are not in close proximity). One thing that is difficult is sharing a bathroom as she has washing issues. Fortunately, there are two sinks. I’ve also used the lobby bathroom a couple of times. Having the cleaning people in is fraught with concerns, so I find myself running interference ( and I suspect that’s some sort of accommodation…). Once her stuff is in place in the room she liksd it left alone so she has a “safe” spot. So our time away from home is full of ups and down. I hope we will get to do some fun stuff. She seems open to that.

    • I hope you get to do some fun stuff, too, Nancy. You both deserve it! I’m wondering if the treatment program she is attending has any classes or meetings for loved ones? Maybe her program could be a good resource in helping you learn how to best address issues relating to her OCD? I know my whole family could have used that when Dan’s OCD was severe. It truly is a family affair. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Deb says:

    My 19 year old son Matt enjoys vacations, but hesitates to go on them. We had to beg him to join us on a trip to Washington DC this winter not realizing that he simply didn’t want to go on a long car ride due to the fact that we might eat food in the car. The irrational journey that followed is summed up below.
    1. Enjoyed the trip; sight seeing and running in a new place. 🙂
    2. Bought new running shoes while on the trip.
    3. Dad spilled a small bag of pretzels. Several grains of salt fell on the outside of the plastic bag containing the shoe box that held the new running shoes.
    4. All running stopped for the rest of the vacation. (We didn’t know why)
    5. Shoes were brought home and put on a chair in his room.
    6. He bought another pair of new shoes and threw away the pretzel contaminated shoes. (We didn’t know he did this)
    7. Brand new running pants were placed on the chair. He threw them away.
    8 As the months went by I noticed clothing and more shoes were going missing.
    9. Finally last week I found out that anything that touched the chair in his room over the past 6 months had been contaminated with “pretzel salt” and was thrown out or replaced. The total of loss from the pretzel incident was over $500 that I now know about.

    10. The worst part is that my star athlete whose number one priority was running quit the track team the spring of his senior year due to OCD. I don’t think he quit because of pretzel salt or our vacation, but it was to the overwhelming anxiety that surrounds him all day.

    • Thank you so much for sharing, Deb. Your comment shows how heartbreaking OCD can be, for the sufferer and his/her family. It’s also a good description of how OCD steals what’s most important to the sufferer; in Matt’s case, his running. I hope he’s willing to get treatment.

      • Deb says:

        Thank you, yes luckily he is getting treatment 2 times a week for an hour about 50 minutes away from here. He has improved in a lot of ways, but as another post said the recovery is definitely not linear. Thanks so much for your blog. I think I commented on quite a few old posts. It helped me just to see we are not alone.

    • That’s exactly why I started this blog, Deb, so people wouldn’t feel alone. I also commented on your other comments. I enjoy hearing from you………hope you’ll keep coming back!

  12. The Hook says:

    Perfect timing and as usual, a perfect post.
    Well done – again.

  13. cathy says:

    Wow, what an interesting post. I am on a vacation with a good friend. In general, I have lots of trouble making decisions around vacations from choosing the vacation, to where we are going, where we are staying, who we are going with, etc. Many times the options go away as I analyze them and we either end up not going, paying more, etc. today my friend told me that in the past she has decided not to ask us to go on vacation as its painful to go thru the decision-making process with me. My decision-making process is misread by others as they think I don’t want to go etc. I sense that there is fear behind the commitments of a vacation: is it going to be the right vacation, the right flight, the right price, the right accommodations, etc.
    Many times I feel regret when I finally end up making the decisions. So while I should be excited about a trip, I carry feelings of regret over whether I made the right decision. I am now out of the country with my friend. I notice that my indecisiveness adds to me not having the fun I could have. I also notice that many choices are very overwhelming to the point of not doing anything. So, while I am happy that I came on the vacation, I am beating myself up for missing opportunities while I look at all the opportunities that I have. I also regret the decisions that I make on tours for example, wondering if there is a better tour out there. So, I am sitting here at dinner and thought that I wonder if there could be a connection between OCD and these issues. I have some other OCD issues re collecting and buying magazines. My mother has a collecting type of OCD and is bipolar, and my 12 yr old son has difficulty making decisions. I have not ever thought about this as an OCD issue but when I read your article, it felt like a great fit. Thank you.

  14. 71 & Sunny says:

    I’m ashamed to admit that there were several trips really affected by my OCD, and one in particular that I practically ruined for my family (after spending a LOT of money to get there). Trips are very hard for me because of the change in location, routine, etc. Yet, I love visiting new places, so it’s like I’m at war within myself. I often get anxiety attacks on trips (even now that I’m so much better) but because overall the OCD is so improved, trips are much more enjoyable now. In fact, hubbie & I had the best vacation of our lives last year when we celebrated our 25th at Disney. We only had 1/2 bad day out of 10 days total. My psychologist said afterwards, “Oh, so you mean you had a normal type of vacation like the rest of the world!” Meaning lots of non-OCD people might have a bad 1/2 day on a standard vaca too. I can’t expect a perfect trip from start to finish-now that would be OCD-like wouldn’t it?!

    • Congratulations, Sunny! Not only on your 25th wedding anniversary, but your “normal” vacation! You are right, we shouldn’t expect perfection….so glad things are better for you. We all deserve enjoyable vacations!

  15. Kristina says:

    I have trouble dealing with anything that is outside of my routine. I much prefer a quiet vacation, but any vacation at all throws a wrench in my routine and I have trouble coping. I don’t like to do anything where I am not in control. I always go anyway because I find there is more value in the travel than there is in the security of keeping my routine.

    • Thanks for sharing Kristina and I’m happy to hear you always go on vacations even though it isn’t easy for you. I hope sometimes they’re even enjoyable :)! Wishing you all the best.

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