Living with OCD during a pandemic feels like being stuck in an airtight box
One woman shares her experience
When the lockdown was announced people started taking COVID-19 seriously. The first call I got was from my aunt. “You toh must be used to all of this, hain na. No reminders for washing your hands!” she laughed. She wasn’t the only one that thought having OCD in a pandemic was like having a superpower.
OCD is like a nefarious voice in your head that can take over everything you do. You may have seen it in movies as people who wash their hands a lot and are neat and tidy. “I could use some OCD in my life, my room is such a mess,” a friend once told me. But it’s so much more than just perfectly aligning your books and having a clean kitchen.
I am the hand-washing type of OCD. An extreme aversion to and fear of contamination is one of the symptoms that ruled my life for many years. What people don’t understand is that the difference between hygienic and having OCD is that I’d wash my hands raw till they’d turn red and crack.
After years of talk and exposure therapy where you’re made to face your fear in a contained manner, I got my OCD under control. I no longer spent days in thought spirals. My fears weren’t so intrusive that they’d take over every second of the day and I wasn’t able to pay attention to what was happening around me.
What I had spent years trying to get control over became part of everyone’s daily routine once Coronavirus disrupted our lives. Those first few days of lockdown were crippling. My mind raced and eyes darted back and forth through all the objects that could be contaminated. While my family joked about me being “so well prepared to deal with a virus” my husband would see me stay up through the night, scrolling from one article to the next about COVID-19 symptoms and repeatedly disinfecting the house. He needed to make sure I was drinking water and eating at least three meals in the day. The pandemic unravelled the years of self-control I had learned.
What does having OCD in a pandemic look like? In the beginning, my days were spent cleaning and never leaving my room. I even made my husband sleep outside. There was a tightness in my chest that I kept calling up my doctor about (in case I had COVID-19) but it was anxiety ripping through the roof.
I spent more time standing over a sink than I did sleeping. I didn’t leave my room for 11 days. It took two months for me to be able to leave my apartment and just stand outside the building for 10 minutes.
People expected me to be prepared with my arsenal of hand sanitisers and disinfectant wipes — in a way, I was. I was also gasping for air through anxiety attacks and even touching the front door handle felt like I was sticking my hand into an open flame.
One of our bathrooms turned into a quarantine zone for groceries. Only my husband went shopping and we followed a multistep decontaminating routine once he was back.
I Googled every possible way to clean packages and vegetable. Everything went into a bucket of Dettol, even the cans and packages; then came the wipes and another round of rinsing and repeat. I’ve lost track of the amount of money that went into buying cleaning products. Retracing my husband’s route into the house with a mop and Lysol, then Dettol spray. What if he touched something in the store and it got onto the handle, or the kitchen counter and walls?
This was my life for the first few days. Having OCD in a pandemic is exhausting. I felt like every breath taken outside the confines of my home was like sucking on a tailpipe.
It wasn’t just me I was afraid for, but what if I became a carrier and passed it onto some unsuspecting elderly person or immunocompromised neighbour?
The most difficult part was being unable to differentiate between what was an appropriate response to the pandemic and what was an OCD compulsion for me. Even if someone were to explain it to me, my brain wasn’t ready to listen. Once my therapist started conducting our sessions over the phone and online, I slowly felt like things were beginning to make sense.
I still take out every grocery item from its packaging and put it into my boxes, but I no longer feel the need to wash my hands before and after I touch every single item.
If you’re like me and even the word ‘germ’ triggers you, then you need to seek help from a professional. Through this period I had to relearn a lot of coping mechanisms from my therapist.
The things she suggested have helped me be more at ease and live with OCD in a pandemic. The most important has been to limit media consumption. It was difficult at first to put my phone away because my brain needed to know every single update.
I settled on my husband giving me a 5-point breakdown of things I needed to know at the end of each day. Initially, I was allowed to ask only one follow-up question, but then we took it up to three. Disconnecting myself from what seemed like never-ending pandemic doom was a much-needed break for my mental wellbeing.
I removed one of the major stressors that triggered my compulsive behaviours. Then I began to follow a routine — this included bedtimes, meals, work hours and exercise, with separate steps for sanitation and disinfecting.
Even when I’d been removed from disinfecting duty, I would be stressed and think about it over and over again. I needed to find grounding and de-stressing techniques that worked best for me.
I found solace in Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) where you consciously tense up the muscles in one part of your body for a few seconds while deep breathing and then let go. You follow this process for all parts of your body. This engaged my body and mind in the same process.
Above everything else, I am lucky that I have an empathetic partner who is understanding of my mental illness. We need a support system that’s not going to coddle you or undermine your experiences but do their best to understand it and get you the help you need.
Now, excuse me while I wash my hands one last time (for the day).
As told to Sara Hussain