I hate washing my hands. I do it, of course. I’m not a monster. Hunching over the sink, lathering up, entwining my fingers, rotating my palms. Let’s do it again, just to be sure. And again. And again. And again.
My OCD should have prepared me for the COVID-19 pandemic, but it didn’t. A lifetime of fearing contamination should have turned me into a robot soldier ready for battle. But now that some of my (mostly) squelched OCD behaviors — like compulsive cleanliness — are literal mandates from epidemiologists, I’m furious.
Refusing to wash my hands every time my brain tells me to, touching things like benches, fences, and door handles without paralyzing fear, eating food at restaurants — these are simple behaviors I fought for with years of therapy. Whenever I turn on the faucet and lather up, I think of all the time I wasted as a hostage to my mental illness, all the painstaking work I’ve done to find balance, and how here I am — a hostage again.
“Having OCD is like living with a dark secret.”
Since puberty, I have been convinced I was sick, dirty, and dangerous. A walking vector with any and every disease — you name it. I didn’t just wash my hands. I scrubbed my genitals raw. I stood in the shower crying and wishing I could get out and dry off. Then I’d get out and dry off only to get back in. Back and forth, like a metronome, one foot out then back again.
No, now is not the right time, my brain would tell me authoritatively. If you don’t wash again and get out of the tub at the right time, you’re going to get genital warts or rabies or HIV.
Having OCD is like living with a dark secret. You imagine absurd, grotesque, disturbing scenarios on a regular basis. Sometimes, in order to “cancel” those thoughts or prevent something catastrophic from happening, you default to compulsions. I have obsessions about food contamination, being raped, injuring someone and forgetting about it, being stabbed with a needle and not realizing it, and disease — especially viruses.
“I’m so OCD,” people joke when they organize their refrigerator.
That’s not OCD. That’s order. Do you know what OCD is?
“I think this carton of milk is poisoned. I’m not really sure, but I’m going to dump it down the sink anyway.” These are the thoughts I deal with every day.
Over the years, my OCD has mutated, just like viruses sometimes do. If you were watching me walk down the street, it’s likely you would not know that I’m constantly scanning the pavement for injurious materials. When I look over my shoulder to see who might have stabbed me despite not feeling pain, I do it with a jaunty flip of my hair. My brain might be spinning a broken record, but the average passerby would have no clue.
“Fifteen years of therapy helped me break the compulsion to wash myself to a frenzy. And now I’m being told to wash my hands. All of the time.”
So here I am, face to face with the sink, my old enemy. Fifteen years of therapy helped me break the compulsion to wash myself to a frenzy. And now I’m being told to wash my hands. All of the time.
I seethe every time I pull out the hand sanitizer or disinfect my cell phone. I feel myself fighting the World Health Organization and the CDC in my head. Suddenly, the language I’ve used to help myself function with OCD is no longer legitimate.
I know you think the doorknob you just touched is contaminated, but it’s not.
You don’t need to wash your hands. People touch doorknobs all the time. You have to touch doorknobs to get through life, the wise brain I cultivated used to assure me. And most of the time, the wise brain would win. I could continue my day without spending an hour at the sink.
But that’s not the case anymore.
On a recent quarantine walk with my toddler, a teenager coughed very close to us. I froze. I went home and washed my hands. I washed my son’s hands. I texted my friends and told them someone coughed nearby, from less than six feet away.
“Take off your clothes now! And get in the shower,” they insisted.
I took off my clothes and threw them in the washing machine. I climbed into the shower and scrubbed myself. It felt so wrong, my OCD brain screaming at me to wash, wash, wash while this rational brain I had worked so hard to cultivate calmly said, you don’t need to wash anything. You’re going to be okay.
But for once, my OCD brain was right. I might not be okay.
I have followed all of the CDC and local government recommendations thus far. When the mandates started coming down, I listened. I stopped going to restaurants. I stopped morning chats and lattes at the coffee shop. Browsing the shelves at the bookstore? Nope. It was hard to pull my kid off the playground, but those slides are slathered in germs. Playdates were canceled. I already work from home, and my husband has now joined me. Our small apartment became a simultaneous business center and romper room.
Then nearly everything in the outside world closed.
But I have to go outside sometimes — even though I don’t want to. My dogs need walking. My toddler needs exercise. Milk and eggs need replenishing. I need drugs from the pharmacy to help keep me sane. But the longer this crisis goes on, I find myself coming up with excuses to avoid doing those things. The other day I started screaming that I didn’t want to leave the house ever again.
But I did.
And when I got home? Washing my hands. Flirting with the mental illness that almost destroyed my life is now protocol.