ST. CATHARINES –
She thinks I look awkward, like I don’t know what to do at her door. She gets that a lot. People wondering, “Should I shake her hand? Should I not?”
She’s used to it. She extends her hand towards me first. A firm, warm shake with a smile to match.
I step into her house, remove my shoes and walk into her living room. I have socks on. She notices all this. Acutely, uncontrollably, compulsively aware. She makes me a cup of coffee. Hands me a mug. We start talking.
Ashley Berry, 27, has lived with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder since she was about nine years old. She’s been hospitalized twice.
She wants people to understand it. To understand her.
“It’s not just a germ thing,” she offers straight up, smiling.
We talk more. She is candid, eager to explain. She started therapy four years ago and is doing better.
Yet, she is still at its mercy.
“My house is my safe zone,” she tells me.
If I would have walked on her floor with shoes on, or bare feet, she would have panicked. Footprints are like wet paint, she explains. They get smeared by other people walking over them, and contaminate the entire house. Bare feet, mean warts, mean disinfecting her floors with vinegar.
The coffee mug I use is not hers. She has her own that no one else touches.
I leave it on the living room floor and she has a hard time picking it up after I’m gone. There is coffee inside. And it’s lukewarm — prime breeding ground for bacteria.
She manages to pick it up. “I already felt contaminated,” she says. She had prepared herself to have a “dirty day” anyway. She doesn’t know me, or the state of my own house, and I am in her space.
She throws out the coffee and puts the cup in the dishwasher. She hasn’t touched it since.
“I won’t use it again until it feels right,” she says. Maybe in a couple of months.
She washes her hands. Since shaking my hand, she’s been careful not to touch her hands to her face. Then, awhile later, she showers with hot water.
She’s allowed one shower a day. She planned for my visit by having a shower the night before. She knew she couldn’t have one in the morning, because she’d need one after I left.
People often say things to her like: “Oh, I have OCD too. I love it when my house is clean.”
There is no comparison. None.
“You may like a clean house,” she says.
“I can’t get it out of my mind that my house isn’t clean.”
Ashley’s List of Fears:
• Only shower once a day (20 anxiety)
• Only wash body parts once while in the shower (20 anxiety)
• Only clean washroom once a week (20 anxiety)
• Not showering for a full day (30 anxiety)
• No showering for 30 minutes after going to the gym (40 anxiety)
• Walk with socks down the hallway at the hospital (50 anxiety)
• Walk down the same hallway without socks (60 anxiety)
• Be around someone who has been in contact with a wart (70 anxiety)
• Be around someone with a wart (80 anxiety)
• Touch a wart and wash hands (90 anxiety)
• Touch a wart without washing hands (100 anxiety)
• Swim in a public pool without swim shoes (100)
Ashley’s recovery began in 2008 when she started seeing a psychiatrist at the Anxiety Treatment and Research Centre, at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton.
Part of her healing involved facing her worst fears. In her words, “a calculated form of torture.” Planned exposures to events that make her live in fear until her anxiety drops by half.
She is writing a book about her experiences. It’s full of raw, honest anecdotes. Warts are her biggest fear. She’d rather have cancer than warts.
She writes about her first appointment with her psychiatrist, a woman she calls Dr. X.
She took me into her office and told me to take a seat. There were two chairs in her tiny office; it took me a minute to decide on which chair I would sit in, and which chair would occupy my ‘clean’ purse. I hated putting my purse on the ground, as the bottom would get contaminated and eventually end up in my room. The contamination would spread from my purse to my floor to my socks to my bed sheets to my raw skin. Purse on floor now meant panic attack later. So I often kept it above my waist. When I try and explain contamination fears to people I often tell them to think of it like never-ending wet paint. Watch it’ tracks and you’ll see what I see.
Therapy began by developing a list of her worst fears, rating them out of 100. Showering was the first to be tackled.
At this point in my life I was showering 2-4 times per day. I had shower rituals that would take up to 45 minutes each time. I cleaned the washroom every other day with a bucket of pure bleach, with a new clean pair of latex gloves every day. I would use a different towel every time I showered, and was careful not to touch my feet to the tiled floor when exiting. We had two rugs in the washroom that I allowed myself to step on with bare feet. I changed my socks 5 times a day, depending on if I was out in public it would be more. I kept an extra pair in my purse just in case of emergency. Most people keep money for an emergency, I choose socks.
She kept her showers to 10 minutes, once a day, with lukewarm water. She whittled them down to seven minutes.
She felt confident. Empowered. Enthused to tackle more fears.
Then came her third session. When Dr. X announced she had to be “completely honest,” Ashley’s thoughts exploded.
“Oh no, do you have a wart?” My heart was racing. If she had a wart that means that her whole office would be contaminated. I would have to burn my clothes, and all of the other clothes that I’ve worn here, I need to make a list and burn them all. I can buy new clothes, but I can’t come back here. I can’t believe she has a wart. How did I get stuck with a psychiatrist who happens to have a wart. Only 10% of people have a wart at this moment in time, how am I with someone who is in that percentile? She interrupted me with her confession.
Dr. X confessed that her daughter had a wart on her foot.
Ashely had a wart, once. It took her a year to get rid of it. A year that consumed 2-4 hours of her life every night. Exhaustive, self-imposed rituals involving multiple latex gloves and handwashing in red-hot water. If she didn’t execute it precisely, she’d start again.
“It’s not about the pain,” she says. “It’s about the ritual, the exhaustion.”
Immediately after her doctor’s confession, Ashley was engulfed in a full-blown panic attack. She felt like she was going to die. Racing heart. Watery eyes. Red hot. Burning up inside. Short, gulps of breath. Drenched in sweat. The room was spinning.
No one can touch her. During an attack, a hug is abrasive and painful. She is not ashamed; she just needs time.
Dr. X helped her breathe and relax. Ashley felt like she’d run a marathon and was driven home, exhausted.
I was contaminated. I took an hour shower when I arrived home. Scalding hot, including all my rituals. Hair washed first, then face, scrubbed from shoulders to toes, repeat twice. When I got out of the shower, my body was red, burned, and hot to the touch. I was finally clean. A stage that would last for only seconds, but I cherished these tiny moments, as they were few and far between.
Over many weeks, Ashley completed exposure therapy. She walked in her socks, then in her bare feet, down the hospital hallway. She walked barefoot on the deck of an indoor pool. Swam without water shoes, bare feet touching the shiny, wet ladder on the way down.
The air was warm and humid, and it smelled blissfully like ‘clean’ chlorine. There were other swimmers, just two in the far right corner of the pool. I stood on one tile, feet together and belly breathing. I wasn’t sure if I was ready. The girl in the corner got out of the pool and was trying to dive back in. I noticed that she was handicapped, and her father was teaching her how to swim. Her illness was so clear to the world. Mine was hiding. I sometime wish that I could wear a bracelet or some sort of insignia that people knew I had a mental disorder. It would free me from all of the worrying about what people actually thought of me when I was freaking out in the middle of a panic attack. The girl dove in as her father caught her just in time. We were a lot alike, me and this girl. She also needed her father to help her as much as I needed my mother there to encourage me. I smiled as she came out of the pool to attempt another dive. If she could do that, I could certainly do this. I took another step onto another tile and waited for my anxiety to drop. There were metal steps leading into the pool that I was instructed from Dr. X to go down. Silver, shiny and wet, the three words that I could certainly do without.