The Outbreak | Quarantine has made my OCD much, much, much worse

The Outbreak is a new blog describing the different ways the coronavirus pandemic has affected our lives.

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Promiti Debi | Staff Illustrator

Prior to the past few weeks, my obsessive-compulsive disorder was like a leak in the roof — annoying, but something I could live with. 

My compulsions — to arrive everywhere early, to triple-lock doors, to turn gas burners off three times before bed — aggravated me, but did not interrupt my productivity. Not truly, at least. I could still attend classes (even if I lurked in Cathedral doorways for a long time), work both my jobs, write and make time to talk with friends.

After the coronavirus hit, my obsessive-compulsive disorder became more like a torrential rain flooding my home. All I can do now is tread water and bear it.

My OCD revolves around the idea of safety. It developed after I was raped — what were once understandable outbursts of hypervigilance mutated into repeated “house-securing” behaviors, even years later. I often feel the need to do things three times. For the first time in my life, though, my brain is not perceiving my rapist as the greatest potential threat to my safety. Instead, it is the coronavirus which promises to hurt me and my family. 

Therein lies the problem — the irrationality argument so favored by cognitive therapists (“What would relocking the door for the third time do? How would it keep you safer from your rapist than simply locking it once?”) dissolves in the face of coronavirus. Because it would be safer to wash my hands for the 10th time, the 20th time, the 50th time. To make myself at home in front of the bathroom sink is irrational in every world but this one. The universe is giving me tacit consent to complete my compulsions.

A few hours after Pitt cancelled face-to-face learning, even the slightest movement of my hands hurt. I laid in bed that night and held them still in front of my face, examining their cracked, bloody knuckles, washed down to the bone in my fear. They shook ever so slightly, involuntary tremors in protest of their treatment. I woke from a weird half-sleep in agony after rolling on my stomach and brushing a hand on the thin sheets — the minor contact was like fire licking up my wrists.

The next morning, news reports about stockpiling broke. I tried to hold my phone steady as I read, a new compulsion curling into my brain. I asked my mom in tears to please buy as much cat food as possible, because I was certain that there would be no cat food in America in a few hours, and then we would have to watch the cats starve and die and do nothing but look on helplessly. Mom tried to assure me that this would not be the case — that people were not stockpiling cat food, that veterinarians would stay open, that she would never let anything happen to our pets — but rationality was especially futile when my OCD combined with mass media panic. She came home a few hours later, laden with jumbo bags of Meow Mix, enough to last us months and give my brain a moment of respite.

That weekend was my father’s 51st  birthday. For nearly a month, he’d been anticipating our dinner at his favorite pizza place. Restaurants weren’t closed yet in Robinson Township — there was hardly even discussion of it. “Social distancing” was not yet in the common lexicon. The most change Dad expected was an empty booth between families, a “common courtesy” that was probably an overreaction, but better safe than sorry. In the days leading up to March 15, I agonized over whether to go. I filled empty soap bottles with hand sanitizer and hid them in my car, under my bed and behind the bookshelf. I nearly ripped my hair out in the shower from scrubbing so hard, sat on my hands to stop from touching my face and called my grandmother three times a day to make sure she was safe.

I told Dad tearfully that I couldn’t go to a restaurant. The very thought made me sick. Together, we agreed to order takeout from the pizza place. I brought one of my stashed sanitizers in the car, where I sat paralyzed with fear while my father went in to pay and pick up the food. I don’t even know how many times I made him promise not to touch his face until I could watch him rub sanitizer all over his hands and forearms. We ate the pizza in the dark of my grandmother’s dining room, its grease soaked into the cardboard, the wings cold and gummy. We did not sing “Happy Birthday!” Instead, the only tune was Grandma’s, as her Alzheimer’s caused her to say the same thing over and over again: “Well, this is the pits.”

Non-essential businesses soon closed. This move is keeping me relatively soothed — as soothed as someone with OCD can be in this pandemic. I’m still washing my hands, still sanitizing, still crying when my mother goes to the grocery store, still convinced that my grandmother is going to die, but as the government takes steps to prevent the spread, I become less likely to get trapped in a loop. While I do feel compelled to do things more often than the average person — and by compelled, I do mean obsessively so, to the point where ignoring the thought is simply impossible — I haven’t stood at the bathroom sink for hours at a time since the first day Pitt cancelled classes. 

I am learning how to exist in this world — indeed, how to tread water. One of the cornerstones of OCD is identifying wrongness in the world, wrongness that sometimes only you can see and that specific rituals or repeated actions can fix. To have that wrongness confirmed is a moment of extreme cognitive dissonance. For so long, I’ve learned that my practices were irrational. Now, my precautions are finally deemed “right,” but I must adjust the degree to which I perform them.

Tonight, I lay in bed with my hands before my face. They are rougher than ever before. If someone had shown me a picture of these dry, calloused palms even a month ago, I would have never known they were my own. But if I stare very hard, I can see that they are steady. Not shaking. Sometimes, these small victories are all I have to measure growth by. 

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