A Short Story about Mental Illness
Don’t Hug Me, I Have OCD
Imagine for a second that everything around you was completely covered in a thin layer of bright red ketchup. Every single person you know is constantly secreting a slimy film of tomato sauce from their hands, caking everything they touch in an evergrowing blanket of sticky, scarlet syrup.
Need to open a door? Now there’s ketchup all over your hands.
Want to sit down? Great, your clothes are covered in ketchup.
Run into an old friend who gives you a hug? Guess it’s time to run home and take a shower to restart the day.
“Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder in which people have recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas or sensations (obsessions) that make them feel driven to do something repetitively (compulsions).”
Not many of my friends are aware that I struggle with severe OCD. When they do ask, I use this “Ketchup World” to try and describe what the feeling is like.
When I walk outside, I see the world covered in a film of some unknown substance and whenever any of it gets on me, I’m flooded with an overwhelming compulsion to get it off me as soon as I can.
The ketchup analogy isn’t perfect, but I think it’s a good way to get the idea across — ketchup won’t kill you but if you get some on your hand, it’s hard to ignore. Forget about it and that ketchup starts to get on your clothes, your phone, and your bed. Before you know it you’ll be spending hours trying to clean ketchup off of everything you own.
It’s this fear of contaminating my other “clean things” and having to go through countless “cleansing rituals” to resanitize it all that is the root of my anxiety. It’s this fear that makes me wash my hands over a hundred times a day until they’re cracked and bleeding from the dryness.
A Brief History
OCD has been a part of me for as long as I can remember.
I’ll never forget the time I was writing an essay in elementary school, getting stuck on a word that just didn’t feel right. I rewrote that same word over and over again, and each time the eraser took with it bits of paper until I finally tore through the sheet and had to start all over again. Something that should’ve been an easy 20-minute assignment took me hours and left me in tears.
Every simple task in my life becomes a hurdle I have to extensively plan for. Just going outside requires me to plan out a time where I’ll run into the fewest number of people, map out the route that minimizes the number of doors I’ll encounter, and stuff enough paper towels into my pockets to open them all, keeping a few extra just in case something goes wrong.
How OCD Destroyed My Life
While these are all irritating symptoms, the worst part of living with OCD goes far beyond bleeding hands and minor inconveniences. What’s invisible to most people is how OCD slowly destroys my relationships with friends and family.
When all it takes is an unexpected tap on the shoulder to ruin your day, it becomes really hard to go out and meet up with friends. How do you tell someone that their touch grosses you out without sounding rude and uptight?
You might think that explaining these things shouldn’t be a big deal and that people would understand, but I’ve tried countless times and there’s really no way to do it without killing the vibe. People never truly get it, and elaborating would just steer the conversation off track.
It’s always better to just stay quiet and find a place to wash up later. But then my friends are left wondering why I have to disappear to the bathroom every 15 minutes, and when I come back I have no idea what anyone is talking about. I end up sitting there smiling and nodding, pretending to understand the inside jokes when the reality is I’ve never felt more like an outsider.
Sooner or later, I started coming up with excuses to stop going out. It’s easier to say I’m busy with work than to spend the night overwhelmed with anxiety, silently mapping out the shortest route to a clean sink. After all, why go and ruin the mood when I can sit in bed alone watching YouTube?
Before I knew it, my friends have moved on. They’ve gotten tired of asking me to come out and having to explain everything that happened when I was gone. I’ve burnt bridges and pushed away the people who care about me most, all because I’m afraid of some imaginary substance getting on my body.
A Family Torn Apart
At my worst, there came a point where I couldn’t even touch my own parents. I’d dodge my dad every time he tried to give me a hug and flinch back in fear whenever my mom got too close.
As much as I wanted to, I didn’t know how to describe to them what was happening. They’d ask what was wrong, but all I could bring myself to say was “I don’t like being touched.” Every conversation we had turned into an argument that ended with us yelling at each other and me running out of the house to escape it all.
Looking back, I can only imagine how painful it is to watch your own son treat you like you’re some kind of disease. I remember watching my mom break down in tears over and over again thinking that I hated her, and I felt so powerless to do anything about it.
It’s incredibly heartbreaking to see your whole life falling apart, knowing it’s all your own fault. I’ve always been fully aware of the fact that people touching me won’t cause me any harm, but it’s this very knowledge that makes it all so frustrating — my problems are literally figments of my own imagination, and the only person who can make them go away is me.
I saw myself slowly transforming into a hateful, bitter person, incessantly angry at the world. I snapped at people over the smallest issues not because they did anything wrong, but because I was so exhausted from having to constantly bear the weight of my own anxiety. When you’re drowning, you lose sense of all rationality and logic — you’re furiously waving your arms and legs around trying to get another breath of air, and sometimes that means kicking away the lifejacket that’s just an arm’s reach away.
My Life Today
It took losing everything I ever cared about for me to finally confront my anxieties head-on and fight back. I’m thankful to say that after years of trying countless different medications and therapies, I’m in a better place than I’ve ever been before. In many ways, it almost feels like I’ve been reborn a completely different person. For the most part, I’m able to live my life normally and aside from the occasional flare-up on especially bad days, I doubt people would even notice I have OCD at all.
I’m excited to finally be fixing the bridges I’ve burnt down and building new ones that will hopefully last a lifetime. So if you ever see me on the street, I’d be more than happy to give you a hug — just be sure to ask.
Disclaimer: I wrote this story to share the invisible struggles of mental illness that most people never see. However, OCD (and mental illness in general) affects everyone differently. I hope this story encourages you to look beyond surface-level symptoms and see the deeper impact seemingly minor problems can have on someone’s life.