OCD Made Me Terrified of Germs. Now the World Is Acting Like Me

The outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus disease is putting many people on high germ alert in a way they never thought about before. For many people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), this is their reality every day. Or, as Erik, who was diagnosed 20 years ago, puts it, “welcome to my brain, all the time.” Here, his strategies for coping with constant virus worry.

You know that clip from Scrubs that recently went viral, which shows how easily germs can spread? Someone shakes someone else’s hand and that hand starts glowing green; that person touches another’s shoulder and that starts glowing, too; and so on.

Yeah, that’s what I see all the time, global pandemic or not.

I was in college when I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and it wasn’t a total shocker. When I was a kid, I developed little routines to help me feel like I was in control. I remember being about 10 years old, trying to fall asleep and thinking I had to turn the light off perfectly and make my mind go blank as I listened to a song. If a thought popped up, I’d force myself to start the song from the beginning. Little rituals like this were a part of my life. I didn’t think much of them.

As I got older and learned about OCD, I realized my underlying need for perfection and control made me a textbook case. And now that the whole world feels out of control, I’ve got a unique POV into what so many of us are dealing with—and how to cope.

I suffer from a subset of OCD called contamination OCD, which means I have a tendency to focus on how I might become contaminated by germs. Luckily for me right now, my biggest triggers are viruses you’re stuck with forever, like HIV, hepatitis, and herpes. But for all of the people in their heads all the damn time right now about how many germs might’ve been on that doorknob or box of pasta at the grocery store—and whether or not any of them transferred with that mindless eye-rub—welcome to my brain, 100% of the time.

What it’s like to have contamination OCD

I’ve had periods in my life where I’ve holed up like Howard Hughes. One time, I got to a point where everything in the world looked so contaminated to me that I’d come home, strip off all of my clothes, put newspaper down by my front door, and sit on it until I calmed down. I’d flash back to the park bench I’d sat on earlier that day and worry that someone had bled on it, which contaminated my jeans, which could then contaminate my whole house. So, I’d sit on that newspaper that I told myself only machines had touched until I felt OK enough to throw my clothes in the wash, get in a shower, and start disinfecting my house.

Logical? Nope. But it was my reality.

I have a lot of sympathy for everyone whose new reality looks like some version of this. Friends have told me that they’re wiping their food down with disinfectant before putting it in the pantry. Been there. Nobody will go anywhere without a travel-size antibacterial gel in their pocket. Yup, I’ve always done this.

Nobody feels 100% safe. But what I know is that there are some tactics I’ve learned over the years to find some semblance of control when things feel batshit crazy, so I can live a normal life amid a near-constant fear of contamination.

How to manage all this

For starters, I get really introverted and don’t want to be around people. We’re all forced to be this way right now, with social distancing suggestions and government directives to limit interaction with others. Rather than focus on all of the inconveniences of everything being cancelled, maybe look at it as a way to do something to feel a bit more in control in the effort to keep you and your family safe.

I also learned how to meditate. I know—eyeroll—it’s a panacea for everything. But I’ve found that learning how to take a step back and clear my mind can help me get back to the land of the rational. It’s also helped me train myself to be OK with scary thoughts overwhelming my brain, because now I know they’ll fade away. I’ve learned that it’s futile to either lock onto those thoughts or try to push them out. Now, irrational thoughts and fears aren’t as all-consuming.

Right now, it’s also important for all of us to cut ourselves some slack. If you’re afraid, your body is pumping adrenaline through your system for a reason—and it’s something you might not be able to control. For me, the fears I have around contamination elicit the same kind of response I get when I’m rock climbing and fall. It’s visceral. Which means finding some relief can take a little time. Think of it like putting your legs in an ice bath after a tough workout. It’s agony at first, but once they start going numb you forget how painful it is. The same goes for the stress response. It might feel scary as shit for 30 or 40 minutes, but then your brain will start to go a little numb to whatever it is that’s triggering you, and you’ll be able to just deal with it.

As the news about how the coronavirus is spreading in this country continues to come out, the kind of fear I deal with regularly is overcoming so many others, too. I can see it so clearly. And I wonder if it’s a chance for all of us to show each other a little more compassion and understanding. Right now, everyone is looking through the same lens that those of us with contamination OCD look through every day.

I don’t know if it’ll do anything to lessen the stigma around OCD. But hell, maybe these crazy times are ushering in a new era where I won’t look like such a freak pulling out my antibacterial bottle at the bar. Maybe I won’t be so special anymore. And I’m OK with that.

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