There’s a certain kind of irony to having germ-related OCD during this pandemic, and despite the many articles written on this, they haven’t quite gotten at what I’m feeling and have been struggling to articulate, so I’m going to try here in case anybody else needs to hear this sentiment.
There are two main parts to what I’m feeling. First of all, some of the behaviors that were pathologized in me are now the bare minimum for “safety.” Secondly, I can’t get the supplies I once relied upon to stay calm, effectively putting me into forced exposure therapy.
I have OCD, I’m on medication and in therapy for it, and I’ve dealt with compulsions for a long time. Some of my OCD is related to germs, some isn’t. Some of my compulsions include, yes, excessive handwashing. But there are more germ-avoidant behaviors that have crept into my life. A non-exhaustive list follows (but believe me, it’s exhausting to follow these behaviors all the time!)
I won’t eat food that isn’t individually wrapped. I loathe finger food, and try to find ways to hold it using a wrapper. I won’t touch doorknobs — I’ll use my sleeve or a glove or another bit of clothing (while carefully looking around to make sure nobody is watching). I won’t eat food that’s cooked outside of a restaurant or that other people have touched. I use gloves to handle cash, and avoid cash altogether whenever possible. I don’t touch ATM buttons (I use the corner of my credit card). I use liberal amounts of hand sanitizer. I wear gloves and masks for household chores like cleaning litter boxes and taking out the trash — disposable PPE, because I don’t want to cross-contaminate. I refuse to hold on to surfaces in the MBTA and other public transit with my bare hands, which can lead to some comical and unfortunate episodes. I avoid the MBTA, buses and flying as much as I can due to the proximity of germs. I’ve even for a number of years been contemplating how to get a fashionable pair of gloves for the summer that would be effective at deterring germs without putting me in harm’s way from people who don’t understand.
All of those behaviors are ones that I’ve struggled to hide for years, if not my entire life. And suddenly? Suddenly they’re not only normal, but encouraged. Which is a bizarrely difficult experience. An HBR article suggests individually wrapping foods in company cafeterias. There is a market for “non-contact door opener tools” (which, by the way, I maintain need to be washed as often as washing hands, or else they’re going to cause the same problems). The CDC recommends cloth masks. Businesses are capitalizing on this. Public transit is feared and work and study from home is the new normal.
Myself and others with germ-related OCD have been living in this world for years, trying our best to hide it, and suddenly need to be very public about the precautions we’re taking, or else we run the risk of getting in trouble, both socially and legally. Everyone has to re-learn the appropriate social etiquette right now, but there’s something incredibly frustrating when it’s not predicated on learning new behaviors, it’s uncovering the ones we’ve been conditioned to hide and unlearn. Social distancing and cloth masks are blessings for my OCD, but they’re not blessings for my recovery.
And when it comes to supplies, I’m not about to take gloves and masks away from healthcare workers and at-risk folks. I know that my household fears are largely irrational, and my wearing gloves and masks and using hand sanitizer has been largely a form of harm reduction to keep my stress levels under control and keep me out of a hospital with consistent panic attacks. But now I can’t get those supplies, which means that as the world is learning to be safer, I have to learn how to be more vulnerable.
To be clear, I’m not writing this to pass judgement on any of the precautions being taken. They are all necessary, and lots has been written on how the world was in no way prepared for a pandemic. I do want to acknowledge, however, that lots of these behaviors and similar precautions have been the basis of pathologizing, stigmatizing, and dismissing folx in the past. Naturally, this also leaves a question open as for what the future will look like. Will we continue wearing masks indefinitely (especially as printed cloth masks can now be fashionable)? Will new handwashing songs be written every day? Or will we forget it all and go back to ridiculing those who don’t like to touch shared public surfaces?
I don’t have much of an action to this; I just wanted to write it to get this out in the world and see if anyone else was feeling the same way. If you are, feel free to leave a comment if you’re comfortable. And if you’re not comfortable doing so, I hope you are brought some comfort by knowing you have someone who gets it.