While I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, I’m not a compulsive hand-washer.
In fact, I’ve been quite militant at ensuring people don’t stereotype OCD as the hand-washing, lining-things-up-neatly, perfectionist’s disease.
I do have some slightly heightened fears around germs and contamination but they’re by no means debilitating. My own personal brand of OCD is more concerned with other “risks.” For me, I feel both constantly anxious about something “bad” happening to my family as well as deeply responsible for that. Over the years, this has translated to a variety of compulsions from attempting to travel everywhere my parents did to ritualistic daily prayers or counting under my breath.
That said, as news coverage of the coronavirus began to escalate, within a few days of the media starting to really push the “wash your hands” message, I noticed that while my husband’s hands still resembled those of a normal person, mine were red, raw and cracking. They stung when I applied hand sanitizer and little cuts were appearing all along the knuckles.
It started to occur to me that I was perhaps starting to overdo it a little bit, pushing through from cautious to obsessive.
Right now that might not seem like a bad thing. I think everyone would prefer to be around me than the guy who still thinks a quick wave of his hands under the tap is sufficient after a toilet trip. We’re all getting a bit anxious, right?
But then I began to obsess over the safety of my family. My other rituals such as rubbing out words that don’t “look right” on paper or getting out of bed numerous times to touch the bathroom tap the right number of times started to creep back in. I began staying awake at night trying to ward off disaster and reverted to many of the physical tics like touching the wall and muttering names under my breath that I’d been managing more healthily over the past few years.
I started to police my own thoughts. If I tried to relax, it made me feel selfish or lazy, that if something bad happened to someone it would be my fault.
I’ve spoken to friends who also have OCD and found a similar concern about walking the tightrope between responsible concern and obsession. Lyn told me that all her time was being taken up by mentally challenging her obsessive thoughts and attempting to hold back on compulsions. As a result, she’s becoming extremely fatigued.
Martha said she was absolutely fine until the day COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. After that, she became obsessed with the news, scrolling continuously, panicking about having to take her young son out of the house. She thought she was behaving normally for the situation until she realized she had started acting out physical rituals that she thought she’d long abandoned.
Rebecca nailed something I was trying to articulate. Usually, we use other people as a barometer for whether our reaction to something is abnormal, but right now everyone is freaking out. Where my Mum would normally reassure me, she now calls with fresh concerns about my safety.
For some people, treatment is having to be paused. For those who do have contamination issues, often they are told not to wash their hands for a prolonged period of time in order to challenge their obsessive fears. Right now that’s not an option. And all the fears they had about germs, the thoughts doctors told them were not healthy? Well, now they must appear to be confirmed.
It seems a little bit weird to be drawing attention to OCD when there’s a global pandemic. I’m someone who tries her very best not to be a burden, so I felt guilty and awkward from the moment I looked at my cracked hands and considered whether a problem was brewing. However, like most things in life, if you neglect one issue for something that’s considered a more important one, ultimately that’ll come back to bite you.
In the same way that people with underlying medical conditions are more susceptible to reacting badly if they contract the coronavirus, so too will people with poor mental health struggle to cope and ultimately exert more strain on each other and the health system. OCD doesn’t just go away if you try to ignore it.
The writer, model and advocate Lily Bailey (author of ”Because We Are Bad”) pointed out on Twitter something that I’ve been mulling over myself. It’s only a small segment of my personal experience of OCD that focuses on something bad happening to me. A much larger amount of it pertains to my family.
OCD comes with an inflated sense of responsibility for other people. If I see a bit of water on the floor in a public place I will see a flash-forward montage of what might happen if someone slips in it, cracks their head open and dies. I believe it would be my fault for not doing anything.
In a way this is excellent. OCD can create a tribe of socially conscious and helpful individuals who make the world better. If it stopped at this, a clear action that in all honesty does have some basis in reality, it would be fine, but it doesn’t.
I might clean the water, then I’ll go back again in case I didn’t dry it properly, then I’ll maybe just double-check that again, then I’ll move my foot around to see how slippery it might be. Then I’ll do the same but a specific number of times. Then, before you know it, it mutates from sensible, if over-cautious, actions into something all-consuming and less comprehensible. Soon I’ll be rearranging items, touching walls, counting the number of people in a room, and so on, in order to safeguard the ones I love.
There’s no easy way to deal with this. We’re all going through such a major, genuinely scary time right now and as much as it would be great to be able to reassure each other that everything’s going to be fine, we really just don’t know whether that’s true.
The way I’m coping is to try to dispassionately outline each day what seems to be sensible and appropriately cautious behavior. I check in with friends and family that I trust and try to stick to it each day.
As much as it’s important to stay informed, everyone I’ve spoken to about this has told me that the escalation in their anxiety and compulsive behaviors has aligned pretty much exactly with the escalation of the media coverage. So, difficult as it may be to tear myself away, I’ve limited how much news and social media I consume at the moment. I’ll keep alerts on for breaking news but the day I, and many others I spoke to, sat for hours in front of the rolling news watching all the press conferences and emergency announcements was a clear and dangerous turning point for all of us.
For some people with OCD, this period in time is weirdly powerful. Some say they feel they’ve trained for this. It’s their Olympics. Now everyone else is just as anxious and concerned about germs as they’ve always been. Look at all those people finally washing their hands properly, using tissues to open doors and refusing to shake hands!
It’s clear, though, that a health pandemic is not the ideal situation for us. The best we can do for now is to look after ourselves, focus on what’s real and not hesitate to reach out and ask for help if necessary.
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