What it's like to live with OCD during a pandemic

It started with a pain in my chest three weeks ago. An infection – I told myself – and after three calls to 111, I’d been told to go to hospital.

The tense atmosphere and deserted car park as I arrived sparked fear in me. Had I contracted coronavirus?

My concern wasn’t for me. It was for the people I could have infected with deadly disease despite living alone and having minimal contact with others for weeks. My other worry was – if this was it for me, had I been a good person? My obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) told me I hadn’t.

OCD puts thoughts into sufferers’ minds about the worst kind of crimes – everything from abusing your own child to murder. Contrary to what’s depicted in the media, it rarely has anything to do with germs.

The possibility of having the virus didn’t make me wash my hands incessantly or clean to excess – I worried about harm, like I always do.

I actually saw the pandemic as a chance to prove my OCD fears wrong. If I had done something bad and forgot about it, I could do so much good that it wouldn’t matter anymore. 

I told a fellow sufferer that I had signed up to volunteer for the London Ambulance Service in an administrative capacity and as an NHS phone volunteer, without considering the reality of these roles.

Not only would it require me to take on extra work at a moment’s notice, but it was a reflection of me taking my desire to do good to the extreme.

‘That’s a compulsion,’ my friend said, and she was right.

I’m fortunate enough to still have a job. As a journalist, I’m covering the devastation that’s taking place in order to keep people informed. Volunteering isn’t realistically an option no matter how good my intentions are. 

Because I had a suspected case of COVID-19, I entered the hospital through a side door. A nurse in PPE handed me a mask. My vitals were checked. 

I told the doctor who assessed me next that I’d had chest pain for weeks, but had recently developed a cough, which made breathing painful. She assessed my lungs and told me I didn’t have a chest infection. I was told that the pain I was experiencing was likely because of a virus, however, because my oxygen levels were good, there was no need to test for coronavirus.

Dr Steven Phillipson, a New York-based psychologist, compared the effects of coronavirus on sufferers of OCD to what he saw in his patients after 9/11. 

‘Four patients actually came in after the attack,’ Phillipson said. ‘Of the patients I saw, three of them didn’t actually mention the attack even though they knew it had occurred. They were still focusing on whether they were a paedophile, whether they believe in God or not [etc].” 

OCD sufferers are so consumed by their primary obsessions that when real world problems surface, no matter how horrifying, these are overshadowed by the imaginary battles sufferers are fighting in their heads. 

There have been essays written about the benefits of OCD during a pandemic, praising the potential benefits of excessive hand-washing and promoting the dangerous and reductive narrative that OCD is a personality quirk, or nothing more than an obsession with germs

Two days after seeing a doctor, my chest and stomach were painful, and I’d developed a headache. I fell asleep and dreamt of one of my obsessions – harming an animal. 

In the dream, I’d uploaded a picture to Instagram which showed abuse I can’t bring myself to write about. Relief overwhelmed me on waking.  

The next day, I developed a fever.

I struggled to fall asleep that night. Intrusive thoughts tried to make their way into my mind. I forced them out. I didn’t want to think about being a bad person, because I’d feel the need to find proof that I’m not, even if it’s just in my head. 

But it didn’t stop my OCD obsessions. I dreamt of an acquaintance avoiding me because I’d done something really awful to hurt them. 

To teach my brain that my OCD fears are irrational, I need to consciously think about harm for exposure and response therapy. In theory, my brain will get bored, and I’ll be able to move on from my obsessions.

But I can’t right now, and I fear it will convince me that I deserve the pain I’m experiencing. 

There have been essays written about the benefits of OCD during a pandemic, praising the potential benefits of excessive hand-washing and promoting the dangerous and reductive narrative that OCD is a personality quirk, or nothing more than an obsession with germs.

But I would say OCD is never a good thing, even during a pandemic. 

‘Adjusting behaviours based on recommendations has nothing to do with what sufferers of OCD experience in regards to intrusive thoughts with the response of compulsions to ease the fear and anxiety,’ Chrissie Hodges, an OCD expert and peer support specialist, said.

‘If the community does not take the opportunity to make a unified stand together in correcting language used about being “so OCD” or “the benefit of OCD behaviours” during this pandemic, we will be left with facing more trivialisation of this disorder than we did before.’

Until the pandemic, I took comfort in the knowledge that while I’ve caused harm in my life (we all do), albeit not to the extent my OCD fears, I’ve never indirectly killed, but that’s now a possibility thanks to coronavirus.

It’s a heavy cross to bear, but thanks to a solid support network within the OCD community, I know it’s not an impossible one to carry. 

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