OCD: What happens when simple handwashing becomes an obsession

Coronavirus has us all washing our hands, which is brilliant because time and time again it’s being proven as the best way to safe safe. I sing God Save the Queen while doing it because I can whizz through Happy Birthday in no time and there’s no way you can jazz up the national anthem. I think you go to the Tower if you do.

However, it doesn’t only monitor how long I wash, it also gives me a time to stop and that’s very important.

Let me take you back a few years to explain…

My biggest secret

It’s 1am on a Friday in the early 1990s – around 1994-5 – and I’m in my kitchen. I’ve been out with friends, but this isn’t a late-night drunken run on toast. Instead, I’m washing my hands. I can’t remember why, but it’ll have been something like I’d touched a dirty glass in the pub, a glass with something as simple as a mark on it, or stepped on something that looked like a blood stain or someone’s spit. It could have been that my leg had brushed the side of the pub loo as I hovered over it to pee, or perhaps I touched the sanitary towel bin. So many reasons.

In the living room, spread out on plastic bags, is my handbag and all its contents, soaking wet because I’ve washed them – yes, even my purse and the money and cards – before putting my clothes straight into the washing machine to contain any “contamination” and having a bath myself.

Normally, that ritual is enough. I go to bed, but after a few seconds my brain starts.

“What if you’d touched the oven without realising it?”

If that had happened, then the oven was dirty and what if I’d touched it again going in and out of the kitchen. My bath was in vain.

A little voice popped up. “You didn’t touch the oven.”

“But what if you did?”

“I didn’t.”

“Are you sure? Are you 100% sure?”

I replay going in and out of the kitchen, knowing – knowing – I haven’t touched the oven. That this is all in my mind. But it isn’t enough. The doubt is there, niggling and crawling and growing.

Monster looming up on someone from the shadows, like OCD looms up in someone's mind
OCD can feel like a monster in the back of your mind, constantly stalking your thoughts

Washing away the fear

Eventually, after trying to ignore the voice for 30 minutes, I get up to examine the space between the wall and the oven. I walk past it, trying to see if there is any way I can have touched the oven. It’s practically impossible without knowing it.

But what if…?

There’s no way my body has touched the oven now – I know that – but I’m no longer sure about before my bath and I start to wonder if my hand has brushed against it when I was checking the gap a few minutes ago.

I wash my hands and tell myself to go to bed.

Leaving, I pass the oven and the whole voice starts again and within minutes, I’m back in the kitchen washing my hands.

And again.

And again.

I clean the oven and wash my hands once more. I’m tired and mentally exhausted from arguing with the fear. Drying my hands, my befuddled brain wonders about the towel and how many times I’ve used it tonight. How can I be sure I’m not dirtying my hands again?

My mind leaps to the one conclusion that seems logical at 1am: put a little bleach in the water, wash my hands and then let them drip-dry, all of which I do – after putting the towel in the washing machine with my dirty clothes, arching my body away from the door to prevent any touching.

Hands dry, I go to bed, crying myself to sleep because I know what I’ve just done is the most stupid thing in the world.

Why was I like this?

OCD – obsessive compulsive disorder – crept up on me. I have no idea when or how it started. Growing up in the 1980s was a scary time: if it wasn’t the threat of nuclear war looming, we had the Aids epidemic, together with the constant worry about money and jobs (there were surprisingly few Yuppies in the north-east).

Conversely enough, it came at a time when life was actually getting better, I’d gradually become obsessed with dirt and germs and contamination.

mental health OCD
OCD is a serious mental health issue and far more than wanting things to be perfect or clean

When I look back on my mid-20s, OCD is the one thing that sticks out. It feels as if it dominated my every moment and stopped me enjoying life. Everything was viewed through a prism of fear and danger.

You will, no doubt, have seen the “jokes” on social media with perfectly aligned objects and one slightly out of place and a comment about OCD. I’m that person who pops up and spoils the joke with statistics: that people with OCD are ten times more likely to die by suicide than the general population.

It is no laughing matter. I know.

What is OCD?

OCD is not a desire for perfectionism, for wanting everything neat and tidy. It is a mental health condition where you get obsessive thoughts and the only way to stop them is by repeatedly doing something or carrying out a ritual.

For me, washing my hands or checking something such as the gap between the door and the oven was about reassurance. Sometimes I’d ask people for that reassurance: “Do you think you can shag someone without realising it?” (yes, I asked that) and their reply would bring the relief I needed, like a warm shower washing over me as my body relaxed.

It never lasted, though, and something else would come and taint my thoughts and I’d look for that relief again.

How does OCD feel?

It isn’t always about contamination and germs. For some, it’s about checking the door seven times to reassure themselves it’s locked. If not, burglars can get in and steal all your things, destroy your house and kill your pet, slicing it open or hanging it up with wire.

No, that’s not a nice image. OCD doesn’t do nice images. It takes a simple idea and blows it up into a true Wes Craven horror flick. It leaves you doubting reality. The only limit is your imagination and dreams show us how wild that can be.

More often than not, sufferers know this is ridiculous, but logic and reasoning plays no part in this. Indeed, they add to the anguish. I’d sit in meetings at work, telling myself I was being irrational, but a speckle of spit from a colleague had landed on my notebook and that was it.

OCD for me was a tingling in whatever part of my body that was “dirty”, as if a swarm of ants was running all over it, and my head would fill with white noise until all I could hear were the negative thoughts.

If it was my hand that was the focus, I’d clench it tight so as not to contaminate any other part of my body or anyone else. If it was an object, 99% of my attention would be focussed on that and I would notice where it was, what it touched, what needed cleaned, my mind consumed with how I could limit the damage.

woman mental health ocd
OCD is characterised by unwanted thoughts that can only be stopped by rituals or repetitive behaviours

I thought I’d hidden it. I learnt years later that my friends had nicknamed me Lady Macbeth and joked about my constant bleaching the toilet. I don’t blame them – OCD is little understood, that’s why even Stephen Fry makes jokes about it.

How do you treat OCD?

It isn’t easy, but one of the best ways of treating OCD is through exposure response prevention (ERP). To borrow from the suffragettes, it’s about deeds, not words, taking action to overcome negative thoughts and beat the cycle of despair.

I said it wasn’t easy because it involves confronting the situation that raises your anxiety level. Your therapist will only take it to a level that’s bearable, however. This then shows your mind that you can deal with the anxiety without needing the ritual, so next time you’re faced with that situation, your anxiety doesn’t spike as high.

You move on to more difficult situations, building on the confidence you’ve gained. It’s not always a linear movement and there can be hiccups, but small stepping stones will lead you to the summit.

You can also overcome OCD through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is what most GPs in the UK will recommend.

Working with a therapist, you break down a big problem into smaller pieces and then look at whether your doubts and fears are realistic or not, as well as how responsible you are (I was always petrified that I would be the cause of damage to my loved ones).

Facing your fears can seem overwhelming, but your therapist knows and understands this and will help every step of the way.

What happened to me?

I’m afraid I was too full of shame and embarrassment to go and see the doctor. I mean, how perverted was my mind to think those thoughts? And washing my hands with bleach? What a bloody nutter…

Of course, I was neither perverted nor a “nutter”. I was ill.

woman in despair ocd
OCD can cause some people to lose hope and to contemplate or even attempt suicide

So instead, I read about OCD and did my own form of ERP – cold turkey, basically. There had always been that little voice in my head telling me how irrational I was, so I forced myself to listen to it more and started small (not looking at the ground as I walked so I couldn’t see the dirt). I’d also moved to a new city and felt as if I could start afresh.

It took a long time to overcome everything, but I can now go to a public loo and sit down without fear – even on the train.

Menopause has been a little bugger throwing a spanner in the works, it’s true. Instead of Aunty Flo, I now have Regina George sneakily pummelling away at emotions and fears and my thoughts sometimes drift to dark places. But forewarned is forearmed and I have added CBT to my arsenal of weapons. They’re just as powerful as a bus, Regina…

But of course, I’m only human. It is scary sharing my story – Mr 50Sense is the only one who has heard it all – but I hope it helps others in a similar situation.

Finally, if coronavirus has triggered any similar thoughts, or you think you might have OCD, these websites can help:

Also, I highly recommend Overcoming Anxiety by Helen Kennerley as a general self-help guide. It has highly relatable examples and a clear guide to CBT and how to use it in your everyday life. (There’s no affiliation link so feel free to click away.)

If this has touched you in any way, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

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