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When Compulsive Showering Is a Coping Strategy for Trauma

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

I have often heard people discuss the struggle of showering when they are depressed. Basic self-care and hygiene can be truly exhausting when you are just trying to stay alive. However, I’m not sure I’ve personally ever heard of anyone else who has the opposite issue, namely compulsive showering. I am one of those people. If I do not shower first thing in the morning I literally cannot function. It doesn’t just put me in a bad mood; it completely deregulates me emotionally. At best, it causes me severe anxiety and panic attacks and at worst… complete dissociation from my body.

• What is PTSD?

Some days, I shower multiple times a day depending upon what I’m doing and how “dirty” I feel. This might sound like some forms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), but in my case it’s a powerful coping strategy for dealing with my two strongest trauma triggers — feeling sticky and the smell of certain body odors. Both stem from childhood sexual abuse, but the smell of one, in particular, can also be attributed to my mother’s obsession with my appearance. She constantly harped on me to present myself in a particular way that she perceived would be appealing to men. It was as though that was the only thing in life that mattered. One of the targets of that obsession was fixating on what I smelled like. She’d constantly comment on my breath, sweat after working out and anything else she deemed “undesirable.” The fact that she wore so much perfume that it could kill a small animal may be indicative of some kind of trauma in her own life. But for me, this morphed into disgust with my own body and any “odor” I perceived as “offensive.”

I need to shower so badly when I feel “yucky” that I will literally do anything to get clean. I’ve showered in cold water during power outages, with cup after cup of water I boiled during a boil order, crouched in a mop sink using the faucet before we had a shower in our bathroom and using bottled water intended for drinking while on a camel trek in the Sahara desert. I chose dehydration in favor of feeling clean and I’m pretty sure the Tuareg nomads were slightly horrified at the sight of it. In the complete absence of any water, I’ve even resorted to pouring pure ethyl alcohol on my hair, face and body just to feel clean. 

My compulsion to feel clean is so strong that I literally adjust my plans in life accordingly so that I know I can take a shower if I need to. I rarely take a nap during the day because when I wake up, I’ll need a shower. I purposely avoid a lot of outdoor activities because sunscreen sends me into flashbacks of my sexual abuse and I don’t like to sweat, which limits the things I can do, especially in the summer seeing as I have to wear clothing from head to toe so as not to get sunburned. The beach? No. At one point, I was a bridesmaid for my cousin and one of the activities we did the day before the wedding was to go to the beach. There were five bikini-clad, tanned young women and myself, dressed from head to toe with an umbrella over my head. It must have looked ridiculous but it was the only way I could participate. 

If I want to work out, I have to make sure I’m either not going to sweat or that I build in enough time for a shower before I return to doing anything else. Even if I’m planning to work out first thing in the morning after waking up and I know I’m going to get sweaty, I have to shower to put on clean workout clothes, exercise and then shower again. Massages? I love them but I won’t get them unless they do the massage without any oil or there’s a shower on premises that I can use immediately afterward.

And don’t even attempt to offer me any kind of cream or lotion for dry skin, an injury or pain. I won’t use it even if it means I’m going to suffer far longer with whatever ails me. The only time I agree to anything remotely gooey is during an ultrasound, and even then I will need several towels to clean myself off before I can get dressed again and go home to, you guessed it, shower. Also, I don’t even comprehend how you see characters on TV have passionate sex, put their clothes on and just move on with their day. There is no way I could do that without showering first. Not very romantic, I suppose, but that’s my reality. 

I know it may sound exhausting and frankly not very environmentally friendly, but my need to shower helps keep my triggers at bay and allows me to stay grounded, which is something that is critical for trauma survivors with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). The shower to me is as necessary an element of my self-care routine as taking my medication, exercise, eating well and attending therapy regularly.

I have experienced some pushback from friends and family who simply don’t understand why I can’t just wake up, put some clothes on and be ready to go, or why I can’t just put on the sunscreen and enjoy the outdoors. They try to tell me I’m being irrational and that I just need to just “let it go.” I’ve tried and I can’t. I’ve done tons of trauma therapy, including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and focused desensitization to lotions, but this is the one hurdle that I cannot seem to overcome. And you know what, maybe I don’t need to. I’m not hurting anyone by showering. It soothes me and provides me a sense of security that is necessary for my well-being. You might not get it, but it’s an integral part of how I function in my daily life and that makes it vital to my mental health.

Photo by Leonardo Menegazzo on Unsplash

Originally published: August 17, 2021
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