General

Dealing with OCD in the time of the coronavirus

I’m more likely to earn the democratic nomination for President than to successfully avoid discussion about the coronavirus right now.

You can’t turn on the news without seeing sensationalized headlines about the progression of the virus. Our phones are inundated with notifications about the climbing death tolls or the number of those infected nearby. Governmental officials are declaring states of emergency, shutting down schools and encouraging us to stock pile food and supplies.

It’s like the entire world has suddenly developed an obsession with COVID-19, the formal name for the coronavirus, and it’s causing society to celebrate compulsive behavior.

It’s something very familiar to people who struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, particularly those of us who struggle with health anxiety/contamination OCD. We have always been hyper-vigilant about diseases, constantly checking our bodies for any sign of illness and going over the top with preventive measures to avoid “getting sick.”

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It’s incredibly difficult right now for people with health anxiety and OCD to be able to tell what’s healthy, precautionary action and what’s extreme because it feels like the entire world is encouraging us to be compulsive.

People are buying so much hand sanitizer that stores are selling out, toilet paper is being snatched up like it’s pure gold and every family is developing a “just in case” plan. And they’re right to be worried but, due to this frantic behavior, people with OCD are uniquely struggling.

Suddenly, “Wash your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds” becomes, “I’m going to wash my hands every couple of minutes even if I haven’t touched anything because the CDC told me to wash my hands.” Or, “Sanitize frequently touched surfaces with cleaning products to kill the disease” is now, “I must use a Lysol wipe on everything that comes into my house, including groceries, because I don’t know who handled my food and whether or not they’re sick.”

See the problem? 

I feel encouraged to dive deeper into my compulsions to keep myself safe because they are technically rooted in a fundamental truth: the coronavirus is highly contagious and we have a chance of contracting it. But, instead of allowing myself to lose hours of my life googling coronavirus, scouring online forums and desperately trying to reassure myself, I’m going to direct that energy into writing this blog post.

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How I’m going to work toward handling the coronavirus with my OCD: 

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General

The Compulsive Nature of Holiday Traditions

It was Christmas Eve. The fire crackled peacefully behind me while my favorite Claymation movies played out on my screen. I was perched on the edge of our fireplace, my aunt’s twenty year old onesie, that had I had long since outgrown, was digging into my feet, hips and shoulders. I had to bounce my foot every few moments to try and alleviate the crushing pain between my toes.

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This red and white striped onesie, that my aunt had worn every single Christmas Eve, could no longer accommodate my most recent growth spurt…but taking it off simply was not an option. Since I never had the chance to meet her, my only connection to my aunt rested in wearing this outfit every single Christmas. If I put on any other pajamas, then it meant that I had no respect for her memory.

I balanced my computer on my left knee while I shook my right foot, moving the position of the onesie just enough to push my big toe through one of the holes in the bottom.  I had to get through ten more minutes of Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town before I could watch ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and then finally head upstairs to force myself to fall asleep before midnight. I bit my nails, sick with anxiety, watching the clock more than the movies. I so strongly believed that deviating from this rigid schedule would ruin my entire holiday.

For years, my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder made it nearly impossible for me to separate traditions from compulsions. I got so fixated on how I “had” to experience Christmas that every aspect of the season became torturous for me.

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From the day after Thanksgiving until December 25, every single moment seemed to be filled with tasks that I had no desire to do.

If I didn’t run to the mantel every morning and shift the wisemen statues once inch to the right, then my mom would think I didn’t love her. If I didn’t really feel the spirit of the holiday while listening to A Change at Christmas by the Flaming Lips, then I’d have to play it again or I would be miserable for the entire year. If I didn’t reference photos and videos to lay out my Christmas town exactly the same as the year prior, my skin would feel like it was physically crawling.

When my OCD was at its worst, I remember spending ten minutes properly positioning one single figurine within this town. I would move the town nun half an inch to the right, half an inch to the left and back 12 times before feeling I had finally gotten it right.

While most of my OCD presents non-traditionally, this particular compulsion aligns with  touristic OCD, which involves “counting, symmetry/evening up, arranging, ordering, positioning, touching and tapping.” However, it’s typically not driven by magical thinking (or assuming something bad will happen if you don’t do a specific task properly). It’s an intense form of psychological tension, akin to the feeling of desperately needing to scratch an itch but not being able to reach it.

Since all forms of my OCD went undiagnosed until I was 24, I failed to recognize the severity of my condition and how it became inextricably intertwined with holiday traditions.

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General

Why I’m trying to love my mental disorder

Imagine this.

Your entire body is submerged in water. Ice cold waves are crashing over your head, forcing your torso downwards. The strength of the tide is causing your muscles to ache with exhaustion. You’re barely able to swallow a breath before the next waves comes. You’re absolutely certain you’re minutes from death.

Then someone manages to throw you a rope.

You look up. Your family is waving frantically from the shore, your friends desperately pleading with you to take the rope into your hands. Relief begins to flood your veins. If you just grab it, then you can pull yourself to warm, safe land. You extend your arm, realizing that this is your one chance to escape the torment. But then…

“What if the rope snaps and I end up worse than I am now?” “Can I even make it all the way to shore?” “Are those really my loved ones or are they trying to trick me?” You recoil and drop your outstretched hand. The rope sinks. And you continue to thrash desperately in the water.

For me, living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can feel a lot like choosing to drown. I can see that there is a way to escape the endless onslaught of thoughts, but sometimes I just can’t seem to grab the rope.

Since I wasn’t diagnosed with OCD until I was 24, I really struggle to determine whether my behavior is genuine or the result of an obsession. As a child, I experienced your stereotypical OCD symptoms (repeated actions, methodical behavior, counting) but, as I’ve gotten older, the vast majority of my symptoms have shifted internally.  Now, I present as a perfectly well adjusted person who can laugh, smile and work a room all while secretly engaging in my compulsions. 

Most of my friends are shocked when I tell them about my OCD. While they knew I had a tendency to fixate and had difficult dealing with change, my messiness seemed to preclude the possibility of actually having a disorder.  [Fun fact, not every person with OCD cleans compulsively or fears germs…we’re not all Emma from Glee]

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While some of my OCD does present in a visible manner (like having to walk in a specific way or laying out my clothes at night in the order that I put them on in the morning), I predominately deal with something called “Pure O.” It’s essentially OCD without the noticeable behavioral modifications. For instance, in high school I had a phobia of throwing up and all of my compulsions were centered around abating this fear.

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