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The Surprising (but Terrifying) Way My OCD Responded to the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. To find help, visit the International OCD Foundation’s website.

Uncertainty is the “new normal.” Although we have spent our lives avoiding it, it is now a constant, heavy as the summer humidity. Any student of Socrates would know: there are always more questions than answers, and that is where we find ourselves today. How will I provide for my family now that I’m unemployed? Could I be a carrier and not know it? When will my kids go back to school? Can we survive this? Where can I get toilet paper? The only thing that is certain right now is that the future is unclear.

Back in March, as the number of positive coronavirus (COVID-19) cases began to rise at an alarming rate and the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a global pandemic, I held my breath. I was waiting for my own self-destruction. Fears of contamination, rules about 6-foot distancing, avoiding crowds. It was all eerily familiar and stirred something in my past. Like a nightmare come to life, I watched videos on how to properly decontaminate groceries or simulations of germs suspended in midair. It felt as though someone had created models of the inner workings of my mind. Science and society were confirming what I had tried for years to unlearn, which created an eerie sense of déjà vu.

My history of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) suggested that I was headed for a downward spiral; yet, I was surprised by the stillness I felt.

As the world dropped out from under us and millions of people filled their grocery carts with Lysol and deemed worn masks as “contaminated,” I wondered why I too wasn’t spiraling out of control… Maybe it was that my usual routines had now become “normal” and accepted? Or maybe I was cured of what I was told was a chronic disorder. Either way, I felt like a fraud. Throughout life, many of us may experience “imposter syndrome,” a fear that those around us will discover that we are in fact a fraud. Although it is usually a term used in work settings, it resonated with me. “If this pandemic doesn’t unravel me, then who am I to say that I have OCD? Have I been faking it this whole time? Shouldn’t this be the end of my sanity?”

With the label of OCD stamped on my forehead, I figured that I was bound for the re-emergence of old compulsions: hours spent cleaning my body, opening doorknobs with my feet, the domineering control of my living space, and avoidance of places I declared off-limits. And while I’ve definitely engaged in my fair share of cleaning and distancing the last few months, it is mostly on par with others. I haven’t fallen nearly as deep as I had expected. And I could tell that others in my life were surprised as well.

But that pesky imposter syndrome kept rearing its head:

“If people were to find out that I’m not a bundle of obsessions and compulsions right now, then maybe I’m not who I say I am, or believe myself to be. And maybe my lifelong battle with OCD was not what I thought it had been… Did I even have OCD at all? Maybe I made it up…”

Ahhh there it was, the obsessive looping and questioning swooped in quickly. Well, you see where I can get stuck. And maybe I can sort of understand why a long-ago psychiatrist may once have scribbled “poor insight” into a chart note (only sort of).

But once I let these swirling thoughts settle, I took a closer look at what I was experiencing as an identity crisis. My current state of calm and grounding felt so opposite to the way I had defined myself my entire life: someone with OCD. And for some reason, that was terrifying. So, I created an alternative thought, a cognitive reappraisal if you will allow me to get technical. I thought, “maybe spending my childhood and adolescence battling OCD had actually prepared me just for this moment, for this global pandemic.”

Mental health professionals all over the world held their breath, fearing the stability of their patients. My own therapist may have held her breath as well. But I breathed out (behind my mask of course). I allowed a small sigh of relief, knowing that my battle had actually prepared me for COVID-19. It had empowered me to sit with fear, live in the face of uncertainty, and to trust.

Georgia O’Keefe once said, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” That is exactly what I have learned. The fear is not gone, may never be gone. But now it’s different. Despite the fear, I choose to jump in.

So now it feels as if the rest of the world is catching up. And to many, this heavy fear and unknowing is new, and it creates panic. I am grateful for the small voice inside that utters, “you can handle this too.”

We are all looking for answers to reassure ourselves that everything will be fine. But I am all too familiar with the lure of false guarantees. I once believed that if I washed perfectly and avoided exposure, I would be OK. Safe. Always. But unfortunately, I have learned that even following every single rule and ritual will not keep me 100% safe. And I have plenty of practice in tolerating not knowing. Not knowing if I’ve been contaminated. Not knowing if I washed the particles completely off me. Not knowing when or where I will be exposed. And worst of all, not knowing how or when I will die.

We all fear that the world we live in is dangerous. And now that fear has been brought to life. But does that make it worth hiding from? As communities across the globe begin to “reopen,” we find ourselves in the difficult situation of choosing how much life to let in. Do we wait until there is a cure to guarantee safety, or do we listen to Ms. O’Keefe and do the “thing we want to do.” Likely, the answer is both: moving forward with caution. But I find myself asking whether we have ever been truly safe from anything, and to what extent this is different.

I have had years of practice in choosing life over safety, even if it means taking a risk. And no, I don’t like that any more than you do. My mind still floods with looping uncertainties and urges to do everything in and beyond my power to avoid, protect, and remedy. But I am tired. Too tired to engage in the rituals that once plagued me. Too tired to remember everything I touched before this doorknob. I know the bone-deep exhaustion of living a life with the sole purpose of protecting it. I just can’t convince myself that this is worth it anymore. What’s the use in guarding an empty life?

So maybe I’m not a fraud, and maybe I’m not cured. I suspect that the real reason I’ve managed to stay grounded and minimize spirals is simply that I know. I know what it feels like to experience this fear. I know that the world is dangerous and there is nowhere to hide. I know that the very air we breathe may kill us, that we may contaminate the people we love. These thoughts used to rule my life, but now, they’re just noise. Stories that I hear in the background as I decide to move forward with life. And I hope that all of us can practice holding this fear as it presses into us, and lean on each other to stay upright and keep going.

Struggling with anxiety or OCD due to COVID-19? Check out the following articles from our community:


Photo by Claude Piché on Unsplash

Originally published: September 5, 2020
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