I have washed my hands 13 times but I have to wash twice more — once because my hand bumped the faucet and once more because I have to end on an odd number. I’ve washed my hands so many times my hands are cracked and red. The skin is irritated…and so am I.
From the age of two years old, I have met the basic criteria for obsessive-compulsive disorder (with my insight into the behaviors obviously increasing with age) — or OCD. I am a hand-washer, a checker, a compulsive disinfector (thank heavens for Clorox Anywhere), and ruminator. I am also exhausted.
The severity of my OCD ebbs and flows depending on the circumstances surrounding me, my stress level, any hormonal fluctuations, if I have a cold (which adds to the depression as well), and my general anxiety level (of which I have plenty). Even excitement increases my OCD behaviors and thoughts, as excitement feels so similar to anxiety and nerves. I was diagnosed with the disorder when I was 15, four years after it had escalated to the point of my not eating, vomiting from the anxiety, and being unable to go to school due to the irrational thought that it was “contaminated” (I’ll explain in a bit). Medication and therapy saved me and understanding my triggers and accepting the neurotransmitter imbalance in my head helped too. I also started writing.
The writing from that period of time is hard to read. I had settled into a depression as well and may have thought I could rival Sylvia Plath in my odes to the illness. Interestingly, however, is not the writing itself but the scribbles and carefully crossed out sections — always symmetrical and perfectly covered. I remember those days — it trickled into homework assignments and the move from handwriting to typing everything was a relief (computers just delete things!).
At my worst, I washed my hands over 100 times per day. These were the unnecessary times, not the times that were actually warranted. Each hand-washing “event” involved washing more than once with steaming water to ensure ultimate cleanliness. I would wake up in the middle of the night with a full-blown panic attack and saunter into the bathroom to wash my hands in order to calm my nerves.
You see, my OCD serves as a weird kind of security blanket. It (very) temporarily calms my anxiety, makes me feel like I have control over the things I clearly cannot control, and is a physical act of washing away stressful thoughts. School was “contaminated” because I had bad experiences there, washing helped create a barrier between it and my home life. It didn’t make sense then, it doesn’t make sense now — and that’s the worst part of OCD.
I know with each hand-washing, each time I check that the door is locked, each time I feel the urge to wash my hands because I have a stressful thought, that what I am doing doesn’t make sense. I know that I have already done all I can do. I know that I’m being unreasonable but there’s a little itch that says, “…but what if you didn’t?” I’m sometimes helpless against this itch — even with medication and therapy.
The ruminating thoughts are the worst to explain to people because it seems like something I should be able to stop — to most people, it all seems like something I can stop and yet, it’s not that simple. I have trouble following conversations sometimes because my mind drifts to whatever I’m ruminating on and it steals my focus. It seems like I’m not listening sometimes, and I can get forgetful, but I promise I’m trying my hardest to follow through (and it’s okay to tell me it seems like I’ve zoned out for a minute — nicely, of course).
The OCD trickles into my relationships — it would be impossible for it not to, as intrusive as it is. It’s embarrassing to explain to certain people and I’ve become used to the questions and the people who think they can make me stop by withholding access to the sink or taking away my hand sanitizer. I understand their intentions but that’s not how it works. Plus, I always have extra hand sanitizer.
Beyond the hand sanitizer, however, lies another part of my OCD that involves looking to others for reassurance that I’m clean or okay. My parents have taken the bulk of this but I know I’ve done it to others as well. I also know that this is a lot to ask of another person, to ask them to make you feel okay — especially when you know you should be able to do it yourself.
I work hard to constantly make myself feel okay. My inner monologue is a constant pep talk, a running mantra of “I’m okay!” (part of why I disappear in conversations sometimes). I’m working to be okay on my own; to reassure myself on my own, but it’s hard and sometimes overwhelming. I still slip sometimes but I’m getting better all the time. My previous work as a student therapist has been integral in helping me practice this.
OCD is a part of me that is more or less active depending on what life is up to at the moment. It’s going to be a part of my relationships. It’s going to be something I have to explain. It’s there every second, but it doesn’t define or dictate who I am or what I do. OCD doesn’t get that.
Even though I’m exhausted, that’s mine.