As the world rushes to buy hospital masks and latex gloves, my OCD has made me feel like I am in on some kind of secret: the true cost of fear and panic.
TW/CW: this article mentions suicidal ideation
By Gloria Oladipo
These past few weeks have been surreal for me. As someone who has a serious (once debilitating) case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), I can only describe watching the world panic over the Coronavirus as…strange.
I watch people who I swear have never used a bar of soap lecture us via social media about hygiene. My non-immunocompromised peers are stockpiling masks—taking vital equipment away from doctors and nurses. And every time I think about my own proximity to contamination and anxiety, I just… can’t do it. I can’t give in to fear and panic. I can’t convince myself to wear a mask, sew latex gloves onto my skin, or engage in other “preventative” tactics. I know the price of panic and fear, given what my OCD has taken from me; and while I still can, I refuse to completely cave in.
My OCD is a complex beast. Compared to the one-dimensional depictions of OCD in media—someone obsessively washing their hands or reorganizing their desk—my OCD latches onto multiple intrusive thoughts manifesting in a wide variety of compulsions. I struggle with “magical thinking” (the belief that if I think something bad, it will come true), intrusive thoughts about harm being done to me and my loved ones, and other behaviors. However, one of the most terrorizing parts of my OCD is my uncontrollable fear around contamination.
The panic and helplessness that many feel in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic are feelings I felt every day. Of course, at the time, I didn’t have much insight into what was happening. I knew I felt ominous anxiety about encountering things that could be “contaminated.” However, after many rounds of therapy, I have a new understanding of my OCD. I was terrified of germs. Not so much the idea of getting an illness, but having to go through the stages of sickness. I wanted to do everything in my power to avoid a sore throat or feeling queasy, physical sensations that felt unbearable and made me feel out of control. I was willing to make my life smaller to have some certainty that I would remain “healthy.”
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It started out small (as many illnesses do). One day, I decided to purchase hand sanitizer. It made me feel so much better about touching doors, shaking hands, and other daily activities that were fraught with disease. When hand sanitizer wasn’t enough, I started wearing my thick winter gloves everywhere—a protective barrier between me and the world. I started obsessively cleaning my room: spraying down surfaces, vacuuming the floors, decluttering my space at least once a week. Unfortunately, like most mental illnesses, the more time and space I gave to try and calm my OCD, the more it took. My OCD approached me with a ferocious greed, piling on intrusive thoughts to ramp up my compulsions. I went from gloves, hand sanitizer, and cleaning to not touching doorknobs to then throwing away copious amounts of foods that felt “off”, avoiding breathing on public transportation, and numerous misinformed coping mechanisms.
My OCD has often been referred to as “cute” or “quirky”, almost like a personality trait that makes for an interesting story at a cocktail party (“Oop. I can’t use your glassware because I’m afraid of catching a debilitating illness. Tee hee!”). But the real fears I felt—fears of dying, going “crazy”—were so horrific. I can’t put into words how it feels to be afraid of everything: of the world, of your home, of your friends, of yourself. The nights spent starving because I was scared my dinner would give me food poisoning. The days I skipped class because I kept having intrusive thoughts about a school shooter and feared they would come true. That is the cost of panic and fear, the price of unhinged anxiety and the insatiable desire for self-protection. The only thing I would plan more vividly than my cleaning routine was my suicide.
I thought I would feel more triggered during this pandemic, but I don’t. I feel a strange sense of serenity. As the world panic-buys hospital masks and latex gloves, I feel like I am in on some kind of secret: the true cost of fear and panic. COVID-19 has pushed so many people to crass individualism (panic-buying, with some even fighting others at the grocery store over toilet paper). Others have reacted differently, ignoring warnings to stay at home and pretending as if nothing has changed. While it is incredibly strange to watch the same people who mocked my anxiety succumbing to the same fears and rituals now, I also have no respect for people who callously ignore orders to stay at home and continue risking the health and lives of others.
Everything that has happened in the past two weeks has gone against my OCD treatment. In exposure therapy, the main treatment for OCD, we are supposed to put ourselves in harm’s way in the spirit of embracing uncertainty. Exposure therapy would instruct me to take no extraordinary precautions (don’t stay at home, wash your hands a minimal amount, etc.) and cope with the anxiety of getting sick. However, that teaching doesn’t work during this time—for any of us. Working through my fears in that way would only raise my chances of getting sick and passing it on to someone more vulnerable. Trying to call the “bluff” of Coronavirus would be extremely selfish and dangerous to others.
Alternatively, I embrace the uncertainty while also practicing community care. I can’t live in constant fear anymore. I know how draining that can be but I can still practice living in these uncertain times while also doing what I can to protect others. To truly beat the anxiety gripping our world (and the virus), we must channel the fear we have into supporting our most vulnerable—staying at home, buying appropriate quantities, donating to charities supporting marginalized people—and coming together as a community. Isolating within our anxiety and around individual needs will only make us feel more alone and afraid.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman who is a sophomore at Cornell University and a permanent resident of Chicago, IL. She enjoys reading and writing on all things race, gender, mental health, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @glorels.