There Is Never a Good Time to Have OCD. Not Even During a Pandemic.
The media must stop underestimating the severity of this illness
I can still remember the incredulous expression on my mother’s face as I tried to walk her through all the different precautions I knew she would have to take to protect herself from the coronavirus.
“Don’t go anywhere you don’t need to go,” I told her. “And when you do go out, bring a box of latex gloves with you everywhere. Wear them when you open doors, take money out of ATM machines, and pick up your prescriptions. When you’re done, throw them away in a trash can and use hand sanitizer on your hands before you touch anything else.”
The CDC and WHO said that masks weren’t necessary. I was unconvinced and told my mother as much. She reluctantly agreed to wear one, and my father followed suit. Many weeks later, the experts changed their minds.
“When you receive an Amazon package, set it in the corner of the living room for 48 hours,” I insisted. “Do the same thing with your groceries, too. And stock up on supplies in case of shortages. Gloves, masks, bleach, disinfectant wipes — make sure you have enough of everything you need to last you at least a full month.”
Nearly one year later, both of my parents remain coronavirus-free. So far, so good.
When the pandemic struck, I knew precisely what to do because I had done it all before. About a decade earlier, my obsessive-compulsive disorder manifested itself in the form of what is known as “contamination OCD,” a common subtype of OCD that causes sufferers to obsess over viruses, germs, and bacteria. In response to those obsessions, the sufferers often engage in compulsive behaviors meant to protect them from “contaminated” sources, such as doorknobs and toilets.
In my case, however, my primary concern wasn’t with my own well-being, but rather the well-being of my family and friends. In 2009, something happened to me that led me to believe I might have been infected with a dangerous virus. That fear turned out to be almost entirely unjustified, but it didn’t much matter. The damage was done. As soon as I started to entertain the possibility that I might pose a health risk to the people I loved, my OCD seized control of the situation and refused to release its hold over my mind.
It was at that point that I began living the same life that billions of people across the globe have been living since the start of this pandemic. I cut myself off from the outside world as much as possible to reduce the odds that I might inadvertently contaminate other people with a virus I did not have. Handshakes were off the table. So were hugs. For more than a year, I had zero physical contact with any other human being.
At night and on the weekends, I dedicated nearly every waking moment to disinfecting every square inch of my apartment. Sinks, counters, toilets, tile floors, doorknobs — I scrubbed and rinsed them all no fewer than four or five times per day.
I wore gloves as often as possible so that I wouldn’t contaminate any surfaces or objects that weren’t already contaminated. When I couldn’t wear gloves, I’d wash my hands so frequently and fiercely that they would crack open and bleed, which in turn made the simplest of tasks, like typing on a keyboard or turning a steering wheel, an unusually painful experience.
If you’re surprised to hear how severe my OCD once was, I don’t blame you. OCD is a widely misunderstood disorder. Many people believe that it’s limited to excessive handwashing, checking door locks one too many times, and being obsessively neat and organized. Those misconceptions are, I believe, due in part to the media’s historical mishandling of mental health issues. Take, for instance, this mind-blowing headline from a Wall Street Journal op-ed published in March of last year: “We All Need OCD Now.”
The content of the piece itself is, quite unfortunately, not much better than the headline. The author, Elias Aboujaoude, tries to make the case that Americans ought to imitate the behaviors of OCD sufferers, arguing that “a little OCD, right now, wouldn’t be so bad.”
Except it would be because OCD is always very bad. There is no such thing as good OCD. It simply doesn’t exist.
That Aboujaoude is himself a clinical professor of psychiatry makes the piece even more difficult to digest than it otherwise would be. How could someone in his position be so sloppy with his words? How could any educated healthcare professional be so reckless as to suggest that OCD is anything less than an absolute nightmare that no human being should ever have to endure?
When I first came across it, I wanted to be angry about this piece and the absurd headline attached to it. I really, truly did. But I couldn’t get angry about it because I knew that neither the op-ed nor the headline was written with sinister intent. Provocative headlines may be the norm in this day and age, but rarely are they written for the deliberate purpose of causing offense. The more likely explanation was that the WSJ headline reflected the ignorance of the person who wrote it.
As for the piece itself, my hunch is that Aboujaoude just doesn’t grasp the gravity of the problem that OCD presents. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence within the mental health system. Many OCD patients have horror stories to share about therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and other medical professionals who fail to comprehend the true nature of OCD because they haven’t experienced it firsthand.
Did my contamination OCD make it easier for me to adapt to the conditions of this pandemic? In the beginning, yes, it did. The first few months were a cakewalk for me, if only because I knew what was coming down the pike. I was prepared, both emotionally and mentally. Many others were not.
But by the time the fall season rolled around, the script began to flip. Fears and obsessions that I had laid to rest long ago began bubbling back up to the surface. With each passing week, I found it increasingly more difficult to resist the compulsions that had taken me several years to overcome. I was regressing, and I knew it. And what could I do about it? Not very much.
I wasn’t alone. On social media, I reached out to dozens of people through private messages, people who I had seen venting into the void about their OCD and how much they too had regressed over the course of the pandemic. The seclusion was wearing them down.
Most of them were in much worse shape than I was. They were alone, frustrated, and terrified of what would happen to them if the lockdowns carried on for more than another month or two. One person with whom I spoke deleted their account shortly after thanking me for offering them a sympathetic ear. That was just a couple of weeks ago. I have not heard from that person since, and I’m not sure I ever will. Their account is still deactivated.
Ignorance about OCD and the degree to which it disrupts the lives of its victims is a widespread problem. The principal reason for this is simple and straightforward; like many other types of mental illness, OCD is a wholly unique and complex disorder that isn’t easily understood by those who have never dealt with it.
That being said, the medical community has come a long way towards understanding how OCD works, how severe it can be, and how painful and destructive it is for both the people who have it and the friends and relatives of OCD sufferers. Ignorance can no longer be deployed as an acceptable excuse for irresponsible op-eds like the one from the WSJ.
The media has a moral duty to stop perpetuating the false notion that OCD is more of an inconvenient nuisance than it is a potentially catastrophic hardship that has ruined the lives of countless innocent people. OCD is an unrelenting disease that, in its most severe forms, can even be lethal. There is no scenario whatsoever in which having it could be characterized as anything other than a wretched curse, and it is high time for the media’s coverage of this disorder to start reflecting that fact.