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Why Winter Months Are Hard for Me as Someone With Contamination OCD

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Ever since I was around the age of 9, I’ve been terrified of and extremely anxious about getting sick. I wish such simple adjectives could adequately describe its hold on me, but words are never able to effectively communicate what goes on in my mind as someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder. As much as I adhere to the idea that words are powerful agent, (after all, I am a writer), words always seem to fall short when trying to articulate my irrational obsessions and compulsions to others, especially while in the midst of an intense anxiety attack. Especially during the winter.

This obsession and fear of getting sick was the first of many obsessions I’ve been unable to fully overcome. I’ve found contamination OCD is perhaps one of the more popular and visible forms of OCD broadcasted in our media today. Many people seem to attribute extreme hand-washing to OCD, which can be true — however, this also stigmatizes this debilitating disorder. Not everyone with OCD, or contamination OCD, washes their hands for hours at a time. For me, I’m most worried about catching the stomach flu and, to a slightly lesser degree, a flu or cold.

Not a day goes by that I don’t obsess, worry and get anxious about getting sick to varying levels, but it’s especially difficult and anxiety-provoking during the winter months. As soon as I see advertisements that flu shots are available, I know I am in for a rough few months. I worry about getting sick even when I don’t personally know anyone around me is sick, but that obsession drastically increases when I come into contact with someone who is sick. Unfortunately, this happens to occur most during the winter.

Don’t even get me started on the hell my OCD puts not only me but my husband through if he happens to get sick, which thankfully is not often. If someone I am around is/was sick, I will bother them with endless questions until I annoy not only the other person, but myself in the process. I am aware I am doing this — that it can seem irrational and extreme, but I cannot stop. I cannot let it go. I cannot just move on and forget it like others may be able to. When I get sick or am around someone who is sick, it infiltrates my brain and makes me unable to think of anything else. The anxiety and fear paralyzes me, rendering me hopeless and distraught.

Unlike some may believe, I can shake hands, hug friends (if they aren’t sick, of course), and I don’t spend endless hours washing my hands and showering. I do, however, ask and plead for reassurance that I am not sick, or that I’m not going to get sick (which is frustrating for not only the recipient, but me as well, since I know no one can know the future). I use a substantial amount of hand sanitizer, avoid crowds and perform a variety of other compulsions to try to ease the debilitating obsessions. It eases the anxiety for a very brief instant, but like clockwork, the anxiety always comes back.

Yesterday, I spent all day in stores and at the mall, shopping for clothes for my new job I start in a few days, and I must have used a whole bottle of hand sanitizer. All the stores were crowded, as it’s near the holidays, and I am almost certain I heard every cough, every sneeze, every conversation between others, discussing how sick they were. I don’t want to have this radar that hears and sees all the potentially sick people around me. Sometimes it’s better to know so I can avoid them, but sometimes, ignorance is less debilitating. I not only left my shopping trip with very few things, which means I have to try to build up the mental and physical strength to brave the crowds full of germs and sick people yet again. I also left feeling mentally exhausted, riddled with anxiety and obsessions, and frustrated with myself that I allowed this seemingly “normal” activity to completely destroy me.

I didn’t just go to bed and forget what happened; I woke up today just as anxious, calculating the expected day these germs would attack my immune system and cause me to get sick. Cause me to miss my first day of my new job. Cause me to get fired. You see, OCD can be similar to playing a game of dominos. Tapping that first domino doesn’t just cause that single domino to fall. That one domino hits the next, which hits the next, until they all lay scattered and astray. That’s how my brain works. One obsession rapidly leads to the next until the end result is drastic and can oftentimes seem absurd. I know it’s not rational, but convincing my brain to believe that and actually listen is another story entirely.

Winter months are wrought with germs and sick people, and for me, they’re wrought with worsened obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. Coincidentally, I never seem to make it through winter without getting sick. I have improved throughout the years, but winter always seems to push me back to periods when it was at its worst during my childhood.

At my worst, I wish I could avoid everyone and everything and live in a bubble, but I also know I’d miss out on all the positive experiences life brings as well. I’ve already missed out on so many opportunities, lost friends, and caused it to completely overwhelm my life, despite 23 years of therapy and medication. I must, despite my tremendous amount of anxiety, push myself to keep fighting, keep challenging my anxiety and obsessions, keep moving forward. I need to not let it rule my life and take my power back. It’s a struggle I will fight the rest of my life, because I know it will never fully go away, but I hold out the hope that one day it won’t have so much control over my life. In the meantime, spring can’t come soon enough.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Originally published: January 1, 2017
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