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Thoughts on COVID-19 From Someone With Lifelong OCD

I have spent the majority of my life tortured by an obsessive fear of germ-related contamination. For years, I avoided shaking hands, touching doorknobs, handles, sinks, toilets, counters, banisters, and, eventually, swore off public places entirely. I would ride elevators up and down until someone came in and pressed the button I needed. I could not sit next to a stranger in a movie theater or on a train. I was wiping down my seat and tray table on planes way before it was “cool.” (And by the way, you people forget to wipe down the window, which could easily become a headrest if you fall asleep.)

At my lowest points, I could not eat or drink anything in the presence of another human out of fear that their breath would contaminate my food. Anything I did eat or drink had to be prepackaged and unopened, so I could be certain it had not been exposed to anyone else’s germs. I exclusively used disposable utensils and plates for the same reason.

My obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a shapeshifter. As soon as I began to make progress with one obsession, another would replace it. For instance, as soon as I started to feel more comfortable with the possibility of getting sick from other peoples’ germs, my OCD instead latched onto the possibility of other people not washing their hands properly and carrying fecal remnants around. Whether motivated by disease or disgust, I couldn’t interact with the world in a “normal” way.

My freshman year of college, while everyone else was socializing via parties or late-night study sessions, or even just encounters in the dining hall, my OCD spiraled so out of control that there were multi-day periods where I could not leave my bed because I was scared of what would happen if my feet touched the floor. I know firsthand how hard social distancing can be.

The summer after my freshman year, I spent nine weeks in a residential treatment center for severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), doing four hours of exposure therapy a day. They confiscated my cleaning supplies. They made me eat communal meals with the other patients. They even banned me from using my sleeve as a barrier for touching doorknobs.

I came out of treatment with the new understanding that my thoughts and feelings were not facts. I learned that my OCD was a broken security system with endless false alarms. The more I resisted my flight response, the quieter the alarms became.

In my sophomore year, I began to understand what life could be like without the constant threat of contamination. My social life was no longer dictated by my OCD‘s assessment of “safe” people and “safe” places. I had more choices. Then, it shifted again. Suddenly, I could think of nothing but the environmental contaminants seeping into my pores. Every night for months I would scrub my body from head to toe with Clorox wipes.

Eventually, I ended up back in residential treatment for a “booster.” After this stay, I finally accepted that, although the alarms got quieter, they would never turn off completely. My new goal was not to work hard enough that the thoughts would disappear, but, instead, to accept my OCD thoughts as white noise that could function in the background of my life.

Several years later, I have a full, healthy life, not at all dictated by my OCD. I have done things I never thought possible, like eat an ant, kiss a stranger and use a public restroom. I still have thoughts about contamination, but I have been able to function really well in spite of them.

Until those alarms started getting louder again. And this time, they were not in my head. They were on CNN. And in the New York Times. And in my Instagram feed. And on the tips of my parents’ tongues.

At first, I tried to treat COVID-19 as background noise. I was finally living a life where I could go for a walk without hand sanitizer in my pocket and I was determined to maintain my progress. My therapists advised me to resist bulk-ordering supplies because I could not be trusted to use them as recommended. We decided I could have limited access to rationed cleaning supplies and use them only as instructed by my treatment team.

“You are in way more danger of an OCD relapse than the coronavirus,” they said.

But what if someone coughs and I don’t have my therapist on the phone and someone next to me offers hand sanitizer? Should I not take it? And what if I trip and my elbow hits a table that has COVID-19 germs living on it and then, later, when I sneeze into my elbow, I inhale the virus through my nostrils?

You see where this is going.

The background noise has become the main event.

Gone are the days of:

“You’re paranoid.”
“You’re a germaphobe.”
“Take a sip of my drink. It won’t hurt you.”

Here are the days of:

“Harvard cancels in-person classes for the rest of the semester.”
“I went to seven Walgreens and they were all sold out of Lysol wipes.”
“I rode the subway today so I’m waiting the 14-day incubation period before seeing my grandparents.”

Part of me wants to scream: “I told you so! I’ve been trying to warn you all for years!”

Part of me is relieved that everyone is now engaging in what I perceive as proper hygienic conduct. Part of me feels like a hipster who is not getting credit for the trend I so clearly predated. Part of me is furious I broke all of these habits only for them to literally become government-mandated behavior. Part of me is triggered watching other people spiral into patterns that I know are destructive. Part of me is worried about getting sick. Part of me is terrified that someone I love will die. Part of me is pissed that my mom won’t let my boyfriend into our quarantine bunker. Part of me is waiting for all of this to end and for everyone else to go back to business as usual while I’m locked in my bathroom showering myself in the last bottle of hand sanitizer on Earth.

And the worst part of me is experiencing schadenfreude that everyone is finally getting a taste of the kinds of thoughts that have tortured me for my entire life.

My dad told me to write an op-ed about how the world can use the COVID-19 pandemic to better understand OCD. I had the strange urge to punch him in the face and it was not until I sat down to write all of this out that I finally understood why.

While I really do have empathy for the extreme anxiety experienced by the general public, I am stuck on one major difference:

You have each other! You are not alone. This is a real threat. Other people feel it, too! You are all having similar thoughts and can share them.

OCD is such a devastating illness because it feels so, so lonely. OCD goes undiagnosed for decades because people are terrified to share their thoughts with anyone else in fear of sounding “crazy.”

So, yes. Social distancing can be lonely. Being trapped in the house can make you “stir-crazy.” I am suffering tremendously from being stuck at home. But what makes this different from OCD is that we do have each other. People all across the world are fighting against a common threat. Let’s let that move us and let’s be our most altruistic selves. We are all in this together.

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash