My OCD: Seeing Red

Hope’s #MadCovidDiaries – 6.5.2020

TW: OCD, sexual abuse, STDs, self-harm, hallucinations, disordered thinking

After the recent discourse surrounding OCD and the pandemic— which, in short, seems to be suggesting it is helpful or desirable— I decided that this week I would write about my experience of OCD and why this discourse is harmful. Many members of the #MadCovid community have recently commented on the damaging implications and effects of this discourse, to which I add this diary.

I used to suffer with extremely severe OCD. Not all OCD is germ-related, but mine was. It began in 2014 when I was abused by a man 17 years my senior, who infected me with a relatively minor, but physically painful, STD. Along with this infection came a lot of shame and stigma, both internalised and reinforced by the degrading treatment I experienced from medical staff, and the self-blame that is familiar to abuse victims. Some time went by before I developed OCD, as trauma responses and the ability to articulate trauma are often delayed by months and years from when the traumatic event(s) happened.

It was 2016, I was in my second year at university. I began hallucinating blood over the walls and floors of public toilets, of the windows in my accomodation, on door handles used by my friends. To this day I am not sure how much was hallucination; every time I saw something pink or red it would morph into blood. I very quickly became frightened of touching things outside my own room which I could police for signs of body fluid. I became frightened of giving my friends a hug, and of sleeping without first having washed all the germs out of my hair.

This was because I was both afraid that I, with my tainted horrible body, would infect my friends, but also that my friends or just people in general would infect me. I imagined that I had been punished too little for my abuse with the minor STD I had back in 2014, and that the world was trying in all its highly improbable and remarkable ways to catch up with me to deliver a worse one. Not only is this completely nonsensical in general— it presupposes some sort of cosmic system governed by trauma-generated irrational fears— but I also knew all through this that my OCD could be indirectly adding to the horrendous societal stigma surrounding bloodborne pathogens, particularly HIV, that I had also internalised. I therefore hated myself even more for my OCD, which added to this vicious cycle of guilt and fear, being horrified of my own body and bodies in general.

I found it difficult to go to the shop. I once saw (whether it was really there or not) a huge bloody handprint on the sliding fridge in the shop down the road, when I tried to open it to get cheese. I abandoned my basket on the floor and ran away. I washed all of my clothes, even my coat. I called the shop the next morning and told them they needed to clean it, and they said, bewildered, that there was nothing there.

The same thing would happen if I saw a spot of menstrual blood in a public toilet— even if my clothes or hair hadn’t touched it— I’d go home immediately no matter what I was doing and put all my clothes in the washing machine and scrub myself raw in the shower. My hair became thin and straggled because I washed it too often. I lost weight because eating required hands or knives and forks which could have germs (blood) on them; when I did eat, I avoided red foods lest they had blood on them that was camouflaged. I hurt people’s feelings. Once I shouted at a close friend when she hugged me and put her hands in my hair, because I noticed she had been picking a scab on her knee beforehand. I refused to see people when I was feeling very ill with this, and I was too humiliated to say why, so they thought I’d stopped caring about them. In one of my final undergraduate exams, there was a smudge of blood on the page. I froze over it, dithering. At the university I went to, you could have a ‘mitigating circumstances’ note in your exam script if you informed the invigilators during the exam. I thought about putting my hand up to tell them and imagined their faces, like everyone else to whom I’d tried in rare candid moments to explain my OCD, sceptical and irritated, asking, ‘What? Why? Where?’ Or, worse, ‘That’s not blood.’ Looking at me with complete alienation from my madness, and a kind of disaffected helplessness too, like ‘What do you want me to do about [your mad delusion]?’ I thought that shutting up and doing the exam as best I could was preferable. I didn’t do very well. I got back to my room and washed all my clothes, my pencil case, exam card, individual pens, and myself.

It was difficult seeing blood everywhere as a threat because, before the OCD developed, I’d been working towards an understanding and tentative acceptance of my long-term recurring self-harm. I have cut myself since the age of eleven; sometimes it would be destructive, but sometimes it felt also like an act of care and love to be in touch with my blood and see it there before me. When I was ill with OCD, the thought that I could have ever intentionally let out my blood and potentially contaminated surfaces with it— even as a child and young teenager— repulsed me, and the self-blame was reinscribed this way too.

It didn’t help that I was in a destructive relationship with another OCD sufferer at the time, and we deepened each other’s very similar worries. They would tell me not to go out, in case I panicked. They would complain that if I went out, to a friend’s room or to dinner, ‘you’ll panic about something and then I’ll have to look after you’. They threatened to leave me if I kept panicking, if I kept trying to be normal via my own hastily thought-out ‘exposure therapy’ and then becoming overwhelmed and asking for support. At least I’m trying, I’d say. I once fell against a toilet door and bashed my mouth on the door handle. They made me put soap on my lips and in my teeth.

OCD quite literally made my life unliveable. It might be true that all the things that were taken for granted before the lockdown— such as going on trains, going to the shop, meeting up with friends— were also things it seemed I couldn’t do. But there are vital differences here. Coronavirus seems, at least in general terms and in media representation, to be free of stigma. We are collectively enduring the loss of these social things and ability to travel; OCD, on the other hand, is extremely emotionally isolating. Thankfully my OCD began to wane in early 2018 and it has so far stayed away; however, I usually shower and wash my clothes after every walk or trip to buy food at the shop, and this is such a grimly familiar routine that I find it easier not to go out, to just long for the sun behind the windows of my flat, if I can help it. Collective vigilance about cleanliness without the emotional trauma and horror of living with OCD is not OCD, and to make claims that they are are one and the same demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what OCD is and what it means. It further marginalises and humiliates OCD sufferers because it risks making us question, even beyond what is usual, whether our damaging thoughts are legitimate. And it negates the fact that OCD is a serious mental illness that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. We should absolutely talk about the grief and trauma of the pandemic, of course— such work is necessary and important— but the way to do this is not through poorly reasoned and damaging ideas that OCD has become helpful.

Picture: some food that would have been impossible to eat when I was ill.

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