“Don’t say it,” I whisper under my breath as Dr. Fauci imparts his sage wisdom to a captive audience. We know the drill: wear your mask, keep your distance, take your temperature, and…
“Handwashing,” he advises.
“Damn it,” I mutter, looking around the room to make sure my oldest daughter isn’t paying attention. I don’t want her to hear about the handwashing again. It isn’t just the act of handwashing that the experts stress, it’s the duration and thoroughness as well.
No, I’m not against hygiene, especially during a pandemic. My teenage daughter has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Among other compulsions, she washes her hands until they crack and bleed, and the pandemic, among its myriad horrors, is hell on those suffering from OCD. OCD isn’t a cute label you slap on a friend’s urge to organize their sock drawer. It is a beast that demands reassurance, ritual, and obedience. Worse, the more reassurance you give, the more it seeks, until your heart is racing and your stomach is aching, and you are unable to cross to the other side of the room without thinking the right thought at the right time. Even if you can hold the right thought in your head, it may morph before you cross the room; then you have to go back, touch a lamp again, or read the same sentence ten times, or, as my daughter has told me, pick up an eyelash off the carpet because you were thinking about the viciousness of Nazis when you dropped it. If you don’t find it, then it means you’re a white supremacist, which is connected to Harm OCD, intrusive thoughts of hurting yourself or someone else.
My daughter’s Harm OCD can spiral until I find her dry heaving over the toilet and telling me between sobs that if the unbidden, murderous images she sees herself committing in her head are true, then she doesn’t deserve to live. I sit on the floor with her. Sometimes presence is all we can give.
Most of us have likely had the experience of a stray thought about harming someone, perhaps even someone we love. We shudder, shrug it off, and move on. But the person with Harm OCD cannot stop the images; the more they try to push the intrusive thoughts away, the more they persist. Their brain interprets these random flashes of nonsense as actual warnings. Dire warnings.
These are not bad people. In fact, studies have shown that those with Harm OCD may be less likely to commit violence, as the empathy and compassion within the sufferer feeds the compulsion: the very act of trying not to think of something causes the person to think about it on a punishing loop.
That’s the insidious nature of OCD. It wants to get your attention—demands it, in fact. It goes for the most vulnerable thing, the thing that would scare you the most. And it works. It works so well that it starts to take over your life. It sucks the joy from moments and crushes them. The sufferer will start to seek confirmation that they are not a horrible, unlovable, unworthy person, or that they aren’t going to accidentally kill someone by spreading COVID-19 because they didn’t wash their hands just one more time.
It can take years of therapy to learn how to stop responding and ritualizing when the thoughts and obsessions occur. I know. I have OCD as well. Now I’m on the other side of this disorder, willing to help share resources with anyone who will listen.
The pandemic has many victims, some you wouldn’t even guess. Somewhere there is an OCD sufferer who almost had their handwashing under control until the pandemic hit. Somewhere there is someone with intrusive thoughts who managed to control them until more than two million people worldwide died of COVID-19. Somewhere there is a person you would never imagine being in distress who is just barely hanging on, waking up every day to fight a beast that is threatening their sanity. Somewhere, someone needs a little more patience, a little more light and love, a little more advocacy.
We can help OCD sufferers deny the beast its power over them, to drive it back into its lair and seal the cave. The process starts by saying that their thoughts do not define them, their actions do. These actions include finding a specialist in cognitive behavior therapy—specifically exposure and response prevention (ERP). And then they must do the work. The reward is nothing less than the reclamation of their life. Just as we can beat the coronavirus with diligence, OCD sufferers can overcome their neurological disease through persistence and courage. Start today.