A few months ago, our world turned upside down. Suddenly we faced “a new normal” — we started fearing everyday germs that we’ve never worried about before. Suddenly we were all washing our hands all day long, we were fearful of touching subway poles, and we were avoiding touching the bottoms of our shoes when coming in from outside. And perhaps most distressing of all, we were left with the constant lingering thoughts of “have I done enough to protect myself and my loved ones?”
For a segment of society, though, was this really the new normal? For people like me who suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, suddenly it felt like the whole world was experiencing what I had already known as my normal.
Of course, I wasn’t used to staying indoors and working from home, but in terms of the compulsive handwashing, the lingering fears of contamination, and the constant worry of whether I had been careful enough were already part of my everyday life.
This novel coronavirus brought a reality that most had never experienced. For some of us, though, there was an aspect of normalcy that others experienced as novel. As I discussed with my therapist, it felt like the world was finally experiencing a day-in-the-life of an OCD sufferer.
As I think about the hardest parts of this for me, though, I believe that it is the notion that so much depends on each individual’s willingness to stop the spread of the virus. We were told on a daily basis that our individual actions could be the difference between spreading or containing this deadly virus. We listened to doctors and politicians tell us that wearing masks, washing our hands, and not going outside when sick could be the difference between life and death — not just for me, but for you.
I’ve been spending time thinking about the responsibility aspect of COVID-19. And I’ve realized that for most, this message of being responsible for one another’s safety is highly effective. I understand the importance of educating the public on what it means to be a good neighbor and what it means to make decisions that are selfless, even when inconvenient. Indeed, the very notion of wearing a mask is to protect others, not to protect yourself. And I think for 99% of the population, this message is not only effective, but crucial.
For the percentage of the population with OCD, though, this message is desperately difficult to absorb. One of the lesser known sides of OCD is the fear of accidentally being the cause of harm to others. What we often see as germaphobia for people with OCD is actually the fear that being careless with germs is scary not because it’s harmful to me, but because it will be harmful to my loved ones. When we see people with OCD checking that they haven’t left the stove on, they aren’t checking just because they worry about their own safety but because they fear that their carelessness will cause a building to burn and injure their family members, apartment neighbors, or others. The idea of being responsible for someone else’s safety is painfully difficult to manage because the mind can run frantic with doubt of whether one has been careful enough and whether they have done everything perfectly in order to protect those whom they love.
And so, herein lies the painfully difficult part of COVID-19 for people with OCD. Our usual feelings of hyper-responsibility are now heightened with warnings from public leaders that, indeed, our actions can be the difference between life and death. That, indeed, my decision to wash my hands for at least 20 seconds can be the difference between whether COVID-19 does or doesn’t spread. People with OCD, though, often have a difficult time ever feeling comfortable that they have done enough.
So, while you absorb the message from leaders and wear a mask for others, we wear our mask and still worry that maybe the mask isn’t secure enough to keep others safe. While you wash your hands once before serving food to your kids, we wash our hands more often and longer because we can’t shake the feeling that we aren’t being careful enough. For you, you feel proud of yourself for taking care of your fellow Americans. For us, we feel scared that our care isn’t careful enough. And for you, when COVID-19 is over, you’ll return to your old normal, while we’ll remain in the zone of this new normal that most are excited to hopefully never experience again.