You’ve probably heard “OCD” tossed around in conversation recently. You may have even used the term yourself. Colloquially, it’s become synonymous with wanting things to be neat, tidy and orderly but, really, it’s so much more than that.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, is an actual anxiety disorder affecting 2.2 million adults in America and varies in severity. The biggest sign of this condition is obsessing over something, usually “contamination, cleanliness, aggressive impulses, or the need for symmetry,” and then being compelled to perform an act to relieve the anxiety.
As a result, many develop rituals that must be done in certain situations in order to feel “safe.” The symptoms can be mild or debilitating. I like to think I fall somewhere in the middle but, if I’m honest, I’m probably closer to the more extreme end of the spectrum.
I have spent most of my 40 years trying to hide it. Whenever I’ve opened up, I usually have regretted it. I’ve been mocked and publicly shamed which is why dedicating an entire post to my experience is so scary, but we need to stop letting the “monsters in our closets” win. We have to start talking about mental illness.
A Bit of Background
I was very young, 7 years old, I believe, when I realized that something wasn’t quite right. While sitting in the back of a car for a long road trip, I noticed a piece of gum stuck to the carpet. I couldn’t stop looking at it. My whole body was tense. It didn’t belong there. It was gross. I’d try to focus on the scenery outside my window but for the next ten hours, the gum in the carpet was all I could think about.
As I got older, it was clear that I had medical problems. My immune system wasn’t great, and I missed a lot of school. Years later, it was discovered that I had a heart condition and a degenerative condition that paralyzed areas of my digestive tract. For four years, I basically lived in the hospital. Every time I caught a cold, which happened often with two small children, I was back in the hospital. I realized that, if my body was going to recover, I’d have to stop getting sick so often.
I started carrying a bottle of rubbing alcohol with me everywhere, sprayed my body with bleach in the shower and asked people who were sick to stay away. Pretty soon, my trips to the hospital became less frequent. This sudden improvement in my health provided validation that the rituals I was performing were necessary. Unfortunately, this fed right into the obsessions I had been trying to suppress ever since that car ride in my childhood. My OCD was official.
With my paranoia at its peak and my health at risk, I started paying more attention to what was going into my body. I’d look around and see someone sneezing straight onto the bin of apples or coughing directly into their hand before reaching for a box of cereal. Suddenly, I was seeing things I had never paid attention to before.
I started noticing articles about mice droppings in grocery warehouses and how they could spread the deadly Hantavirus. I saw a dog peeing onto a crate of soda that had been placed on a sidewalk while being loaded into the store. I began to wonder how I could possibly survive these perceived threats to my health.
For several long months, I tried to ignore these things while feeling utterly powerless — and then disinfectant wipes became a thing. I read a CDC report that suggested wiping down groceries after purchase and started doing just that.
Every time we buy groceries, we dutifully wipe everything down before putting it in our pantry. If we don’t, my OCD tells me that I’ve basically doomed myself to death. It’s a daily challenge.
Going to the Movies
I’m a huge nerd and love everything about nerd culture. When they announced a Star Trek movie reboot, I was incredibly excited, especially because it was going to be right around my birthday. Unfortunately, that was the year H1N1 exploded and, instead of heading to the theater, I stayed safely within my home, unwilling to be surrounded by crowds.
While that year was particularly terrifying, I still tend to avoid going to the movies during cold and flu season. I spend a lot of time weighing whether the film is worth the risk and, if I choose to go, when the safest times would be.
As a result, I see a lot of matinees, heading all the way in the back so that no one can sit behind and breathe on me. If someone nearby seems sick, I move to a different seat silently fuming if I can’t hear the dialogue because someone decided to come out with a cough (seriously, though, stay home — it’s selfish on so many levels). I’ve even left before the end of a movie because my OCD was telling me that I wasn’t safe.
Oh, and there’s zero chance of me snacking on popcorn. It isn’t the healthiest choice, it doesn’t seem sanitary, and I’ve gotten sick every time I’ve given into the craving.
Eating at a restaurant with OCD is a huge, major deal. Typically, I scope out a place and watch from afar before I even consider placing an order. This can including watching for how food is being prepared and whether someone is touching money and then handling orders without cleaning their hands.
Once I trust a place, I work on developing a rapport with the workers in hopes that this means they will treat my food with more respect. Another benefit of being a regular is that I feel more comfortable asking them to do things that make me feel more comfortable. I also don’t hide the fact that I travel with a pump of sanitizer so that I can clean the utensils, appetizer plates and my hands after touching things like a bottle of ketchup.
In order to feel safe, I never want a server to put the straw in my drink since I don’t know where their hands have been and, suddenly, whatever they’ve touched is living in my water. I also don’t want someone putting their dirty hands into a bag before putting my croissant or fresh chips into it — either open the bag in a more sanitary way or clean your hands.
Sometimes, it rubs people the wrong way and I leave with my tail between my legs, embarrassed that my requests were considered ridiculous. Other times, I hit the drive-thru to avoid scanning for problems in an attempt to rely on the “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” mentality. It still makes me nervous, but at least I get to eat.
Cold and Flu Season
As previously mentioned, I avoid going to movie theaters from late October to May but, really, the same applies to restaurants, traveling and anything involving large crowds. That means that, even though I still feel stressed in the summer months, I only really feel some level of freedom from June to September. It’s kind of sad, when you think about it.
Once the sniffling season rolls around, I get the flu shot and buy even more sanitizer than I normally do. Unless I know it won’t be crowded, I skip the mall or the grocery store and if I come in contact with someone who has been coughing or sneezing, I worry about having been contaminated for a full day.
It’s especially difficult to go to the gym, of course. All of the equipment is shared with other people and it’s hard to tell if someone is coughing due to illness or overexertion. Traditionally, I’ve chosen to forego working out but I’ve fallen in love with Orangetheory Fitness. Fortunately, they have members wipe everything down between rotations so that it’s fresh for the next person (I still wipe it down myself, though).
Health Issues Complicate Things
As I explained, back when I suffered a major health crisis, I’d end up in the hospital almost every time I caught a cold. While things aren’t quite as dire, I still don’t recover from even minor illnesses as quickly as most people. The common cold can sideline me for weeks and, unfortunately, one of my six children has inherited some of my medical problems.
On top of this, there are two other things that are frustrating. All the time, I encounter people who tell me I need to do this or that to strengthen my body. Some will argue that getting sick will build my system back up to optimal levels. While this may be true for many people, and I definitely believe in the benefit of a holistic lifestyle, even health gurus get sick — not everything can be cured.
Meanwhile, the fact that my rituals seem to have drastically reduce how often I’m sick reinforces my OCD. This mental illness is already difficult to treat because sufferers believe that giving up the safeguards could cost them their lives. It’s not true for most people but, in my situation, it just might be.
The Future for Me
When I think back to 20 years ago when I’d scrub my body raw with bleach, I’m able to see how far I’ve come. At that time, I couldn’t see how things would ever improve. I spent hours cleaning my fridge with a Q-Tip, mopped my kitchen floor nightly and prayed that I’d never get sick again.
Over time, I’ve developed better coping strategies for getting through my day-to-day struggles. I still think about my OCD a lot but I’ve made progress and that’s all I can ask for. I’m comfortable with where I’m at right now, even though it adds a few extra steps to my day.
My goal is to continue to work toward living a freer, less anxious life without giving in to the feeling that I need to be something that I’m not. I have to love myself exactly as I am in this moment and continue focusing on improving every single day.
How You Can Help
While OCD, as a term, gets thrown around a lot in conversation, it’s really important to understand what it means and how it truly affects people’s lives. I’m not saying you have to stop calling your need for orderly kitchen cabinets “a little obsessive compulsive” but be sensitive about what you’re saying. For a long time, I kept my struggle a secret and people had no idea what I was going through.
Always be compassionate to the person who seems worried about hand-washing or catching the flu. Nothing feels more like a punch in the face than someone laughing and labeling me a “germaphobe.” We all have triggers, so don’t mock someone just because yours are different. This perpetuates a culture where a harmful, unnecessary stigma surrounds mental illness.
Instead of trying to convince someone that they are wrong or worrying over nothing, show them love and support. Respect their boundaries and also try to live a life that’s mindful of other people’s health issues. If you are healthy, be grateful.
Remember that, in addition to OCD, there are plenty of people living with compromised immune systems and other medical problems. Alternately, someone could be preparing for their wedding day or a vacation they’ve saved ten years to take. They don’t need to catch whatever virus you’re fighting just because you can’t be bothered to cover your cough.
At the end of the day, compassion and consideration for others helps us all, no matter what battle we are fighting. If we all spent just a little more time thinking about the needs of those around us, our world would be a better place.
For more information, visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Get informed, get inspired and get in the trenches with your fellow human beings. We need you.