About six weeks ago a weird thing happened, my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and the world collided.
My OCD is a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and it sounds a little something like this:
“Did you wash your hands properly? Are you sure? If you’re not sure you probably should wash them again. And everything you touched in-between the last time you washed your hands, now needs to be disinfected. And you dried your hands on the towel and now that’s not clean, you need to wash that. Might as well wash all the towels. What if you haven’t disinfected something you touched while your hands were dirty and one of the kids touches it and then touches their mouth and then they get sick? You’re going to be cleaning up sick for week. It’s going to be awful. You’ll have to cancel work and all your plans and you’re going to be so tired and sad and the kids will be miserable, and this week is going to be hell. What if they get so dehydrated from how sick they are, that they have to go hospital? How are you going to explain this to the doctors? What will they say? Will they have to be admitted? Will you stay with them in the hospital or will you have to go home? What will you need to pack to take with you? What if you’re also sick and can’t take care of them? Will anyone else know what to do? What if they die in hospital and it’s all your fault because you didn’t take them in soon enough? How will you live with that? How will you explain it to your other child?”
And on and on and on….
Before I know it, I have experienced all the trauma of an event that hasn’t even happened.
If that sounds exhausting, that’s because it is. My PTSD taught me that everything can be taken away from you in a moment. You are never safe; the world you think you know is always a hair breadth away from ending.
OCD is anxiety on a constant loop. It’s different for everybody, but one thing is the same, it’s relentless.
And then Corona arrived…
When the Corona virus hit, suddenly I realised that the feelings I have spent years in therapy learning to live with and manage, were being felt by everyone.
Over time, I have learned to deal with OCD as a separate part of my brain. There’s my healthy brain and my OCD brain. The two have to have quite a lot of long conversations in order for me to function.
But when Corona started, suddenly my OCD brain was right. It felt triumphant, overwhelmingly so. I had tried so hard to rationalise it but all that was happening now was that the rest of the world was discovering what it already knew to be true: everything you think you can rely on can be taken away from you in a heartbeat.
People can, and will, get sick and die and there will be nothing you can do about it. Or there could have been something you should have done but didn’t. You can’t trust those in positions of authority to make the right choices and know what is best. The world is categorically unfair. Those most essential to our society are unappreciated, undervalued and underpaid. Poor people will die while rich people thrive.
This is my experience; I know it to be true. How then did the rest of the world go on without this vital information? And now they have it what the hell will happen?
Coping with Coronavirus
I had a bad couple of weeks while the indecision reigned. Intrusive thoughts and obsessive behaviours crept in. But then finally, blessedly, we went into lockdown.
Don’t misunderstand me, I was terrified of lockdown as well. The curbing of my freedom and the change to my routine filled me with dread.
But then something amazing happened. My world got very small. I abandoned Facebook and cut down my consumption of news to ten minutes a day from a trusted source. I no longer needed to concern myself with what was happening beyond my four walls. And what privileged walls they are! For all the therapy and hard work I had done had prepared me for this. This quiet time. And in it I have found some peace from the noise in my head.
Anxiety is fear in the future. If I can stay present, in the moment, all is well. My family and I are safe. If I start to think about the world outside, I cannot cope. This is the next coping mechanism in the trauma toolbox, disassociation.
Thinking about things in small proportions, or in the short term is a great way to manage overwhelming feelings. Focus on what you can control, not what you can’t. It can feel a bit crappy though, almost like pretending that the rest of the world doesn’t matter, when of course it does, but it helps me to manage.
That a pandemic counts as trauma is undeniable, and whichever coping mechanism you’re using you’re entitled to it.
Are you baking all night? Sleeping more than usual? Obsessively exercising? Scrolling the news for hours? Only watching Netflix? There’s no right way to be handling this. But what’s going to count as time passes is how we process the trauma in the long term.
Cope however you need to for now, but recognise your fear, sadness, shock, whatever emotion you experienced, will need to be felt at some point in the future when you feel safe again.
For more information about OCD, please visit OCD-UK, a national charity helping people living with OCD everyday.