‘Reopening’ is coming but am I ready? OCD says not so fast.
I woke up from a dream recently where I encountered one maskless face after another while walking through my neighborhood. Why is no one wearing a mask anymore? Is the pandemic over? I remember thinking. In an exchange between my conscious and subconscious, or maybe a message from Dr. Fauci himself, a voice reminded me that those who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks. But that wasn’t enough to ease my worry. Instead, I heard another voice, one I know well as OCD ask, ‘how do I know who’s vaccinated and who’s not?’
This isn’t the first time I’ve had a dream like this. And now, as reopening is beginning to take place in the U.S., this dream has started to become a reality. I wonder if I am ready to return to ‘normal’ life. Do I even remember what ‘normal’ is? Am I capable of socializing in public spaces again without a mask? It seems a lot of us are feeling this way – so much so that Urban Dictionary has yet another new phrase to add to its COVID catalog: ‘re-entry anxiety.’
Since receiving my second dose of the vaccine last week, it feels as though I am one step closer to moving towards post-pandemic life. But as someone with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), my re-entry anxiety not only concerns how to immerse myself back into the world. It also includes questioning how re-entry will impact my OCD. Will I be able to let go of the obsessions and safety-seeking compulsions I’ve developed during the pandemic? Or will I remain attached to these even as those around me move on?
OCD – There’s More to It than What’s Often Shown
OCD is commonly misunderstood. COVID, if anything, may have only made this worse.
Exhibit A: In the early months of the pandemic, The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece titled, We All Need OCD Now, where a Stanford psychiatrist describes OCD as an evolutionary trait “for us to tap into when needed” and suggests we look to those with obsessive compulsive disorder, such as his patient with contamination-based OCD, for “discipline and inspiration.”
As someone who struggles with contamination-based OCD, I find this to be a grossly problematic assertion and a prime example of how OCD is commonly misrepresented and overgeneralized, even by those in the psychiatric community. While I’ve admittedly had somewhat of a ‘Yeah, no shit,’ attitude watching others realize for the first time that everyday objects, like our cell phones, are basically cesspools of germs, I would not wish for anyone to develop OCD. Because the reality of living with OCD is much more difficult and debilitating than is often shown.
Prior to COVID-19, contamination wasn’t even the most prominent theme of my OCD. But it did not take long for this to change. Like many, I took to frequently washing my hands and sanitizing surfaces and household objects at the onset of COVID. The fears that drove these actions, and the behaviors themselves, were not extreme or even unique to OCD. Even now, many of us will likely continue to think and act differently about germs because of this time.
But as someone with OCD, my brain interpreted these actions as more than simply preventative measures, but as essential to mitigating my pandemic anxiety. Thus, they became compulsions – behaviors and rituals that I could not resist because if I did, the OCD part of my brain said I would get sick and then I would get other people sick and then someone would die. And because the number of people dying from COVID was rising each day, this fear was easy to give into. Though the stakes of the situation are less severe now with many Americans becoming vaccinated, this worst-case scenario thinking still exists, propelling the continuation of my compulsions, even if they only provide temporary relief.
Yes, I’ve Washed My Hands Six Times but It’s Still Not Enough
In some ways, my compulsions are like habits, whether they’re good or bad is debatable. I perform most of them every day without much thought. I wash my hands before, during and after preparing food, singing Happy Birthday to myself (usually two or three times). I not only have separate inside and outside clothes, but also distinct bedroom and living room clothes (as to not transmit the germs from the communal living space to where I sleep).
After returning from being outside, I meticulously sanitize my phone, wallet and purse with Lysol wipes. And just in case the Lysol doesn’t do the trick, I also have my very own UV sanitizer (this was either one of the best or worst purchases I’ve ever made). So the phone goes into the UV sanitizer for 20 minutes – 10 minutes on each side. Then for good measure, just to UV away any remaining germs that may be lingering, I run the UV sanitizer again on empty because yes, I feel the need to sanitize the sanitizer.
There are days where I go about these rituals easily. I’ve become so good at managing my anxiety that at times I forget it’s the reason I’m doing these things. Until something new triggers it and then OCD starts spiraling, telling me that I must wash and sanitize again and again because once is not enough. It’s never enough. OCD is never fully satisfied.
Overcoming My Compulsions
Now that I’m vaccinated, the rational part of my brain tells me to worry less. Maybe I don’t need to sanitize my phone every day. Maybe it’s okay to lie on my bed in the same clothes I wore on the couch. But the OCD part of my brain chimes in to remind me that there’s still a possibility I could get sick. Plus, there are other germs I should try to avoid.
While I want to re-immerse myself in the world and be able to do so without the thought of germs constantly being on my mind and without OCD telling me that even if I do my best to protect myself and those around me, something bad could still happen, part of me is also terrified to let my compulsions go. Because the fears that fuel them are still there. And after a year of obsessing over what I cannot see or confirm with certainty, I worry these fears will never go away, even if COVID does.
Recently, I’ve started working to overcome my compulsions using exposure and response prevention (ERP), a form of cognitive behavioral therapy commonly used to treat OCD. It is both more challenging and easier in some ways than I expected (more on that to come). But for now, I’m trying. And while I’ll still be wearing my mask for the time being, even if others aren’t, this feels like a good first step to moving on.