Follow Up: An Obsessive Compulsive’s Take On The Coronavirus Crisis (3 Months Later)

These past couple of months during the COVID-19 lockdown have been some of the most mentally challenging months of my life, as I’m sure they were with many other people. As someone with obsessive compulsive disorder, centered around a phobia of germs, this whole experience has been extremely bizarre. I wouldn’t say it was solely a positive experience or a negative experience. It was a combination of both, and in the strangest way possible.

I expressed in March how uneasy I felt as the world just began to descend into germaphobic chaos in the following blog post: https://valerieparente.wordpress.com/2020/03/17/an-obsessive-compulsives-take-on-the-coronavirus-crisis/
I remember when the coronavirus was officially declared a National Emergency many people with anxiety disorders and OCD were expressing surprising feelings of calmness. A lot of these people said that they had been prepared their whole life for some kind of disaster like this, so when push came to shove and it actually happened they were more mentally prepared and stronger. I totally understood that concept on paper, but for me personally I didn’t at all share this feeling. I’m sure it has something to do with my ego and that I don’t like being compared to other people, but I hated that everyone was freaking out about germs and feeling the fears that I’ve felt for the majority of my life. It was totally irrational to feel somewhat threatened by “normal” people experiencing my catastrophe-centered mindset, but to be perfectly honest I think that’s how I felt. It was confusing to understand how I felt because I was absolutely terrified but more than anything else I was depressed by the isolation. I wound up taking the lockdown extremely seriously, cooping up in my home, not seeing a single soul outside of my immediate family, for about a 2 and 1/2 months. Mentally, it was exhausting, as I’m sure everybody else felt. As I said, I didn’t leave the house, but I heard through my family members that did take quick trips to and from essential stores that people were wearing masks, employees at the food store were wiping down and spraying carts, limiting customers that could enter the building, and tape was on the floor to separate people by 6 feet. Officials were recommending we don’t touch our face (something I’ve always avoided because of OCD), no sharing food or drinks, limiting socialization to no more than 5 people. If anything, this should have been a dream come true for someone like me that’s terrified of germs. But I didn’t see it that way, I saw it as the world descending into a madness that I individually had the luxury of entertaining but the world as a whole, as I saw it, couldn’t afford to function like this.

When I finally snapped at said “Screw it, I need to go back in society” I started small, grabbing a coffee at my local grocery store or coffee shop. Gradually I started seeing friends again, but only in outdoor settings where we weren’t breathing right on each other. And I’m shocked to say (and maybe this is my all-or-nothing OCD mindset) that I’m extremely “over” the whole virus situation. Obviously I understand it’s still a danger, but as I take appropriate precautions with face masks and bringing wipes and hand sanitizer in my car, I’ve become completely un-phased by the fear of the virus. After one time finally going back into the real world I at ease again. I felt like everything was going to be okay. I felt like there was nothing to worry about as long as I was doing my part to stay sanitized. I think this is a perfect testament to how well Exposure Therapy works with obsessive compulsive patients. I hated Exposure Therapy as a teenager, but in my adulthood, when these circumstances in the world were dire, I sucked it up, held my breath, and I faced my fears. I can’t tell you how afraid I was in the 2 and 1/2 months; I kept telling myself that the second officials said it was safe to go out again that I would probably wait an extended month after that. And guess what? I didn’t. I didn’t do what my fears wanted me to do.

So, going back to my original statement in this post, I was not comforted by the idea of the world becoming more OCD like me when this all started. Now, 3 months later, I understand what people were saying. I understand why the world’s anxiety lessened those already with anxiety. I get it now. Because when I go out and I touch something or drink my coffee in the park, I’ve instilled in my mind through the exposure of going out that first time that nothing bad is going to happen to me. Is that true? Maybe not. But is it a healthy mindset to have now that the virus is on its way out? Yes, I think so. And when that little OCD voice in the back of my head says “You should be scared to leave the house” I just remind myself this: the world is a safer place today than it was 3 months ago. I went over a decade of my life afraid of germs but still going out in public and taking precautions with hand sanitizer and gloves, and did the germs kill me then? No. And today I’m going out with the exact same OCD rituals in place PLUS the rest of the world now has rituals to keep me safe too. Did people wipe down the carts at the food store before? Not to my knowledge. Did cashiers specifically change gloves at the ice cream shop when they accepted your cash? No. Did people judge you for not touching your face even if there’s a piece of hair in your eye? No. These were little stressful quirks that I had that were now socially acceptable. Those were things I did to stay clean, and now the rest of the world (for the most part) is doing these little things too. Things that I always thought were necessary for survival. So, if anything, the world is cleaner and safer because of the coronavirus. That’s what I keep telling myself every time the OCD voice creeps in. If anything, you are safer now than you were 3 months ago. And its this very thought that made me understand why those with anxiety felt comfort when the world addressed COVID-19. I get it now. It took a couple of months and exposure to a new world, but I get it. And this is much different than the tune I was singing in March when I made my first COVID-19 post from the perspective of someone with OCD.

If there’s anything I want anyone to take away from this blog post it’s that the mind is extremely resilient. We are so strong as human beings. And you may feel afraid now of something, but I promise with the proper mental exercises (for me, Exposure Therapy), you will see a day when that anxiety is put at bay. It’s not going to be permanent, and you don’t have to understand how it will feel before you experience that peace, but just know that it is possible even during what seems like the apocalypse.

– Valerie Parente (6-9-2020)

Thoughts While Social Distancing / Quarantine

Thoughts While Social Distancing / Quarantine by Valerie Parente

Society is in probably the weirdest state a lot of us have seen in our entire lifetime. The closest thing I can remember that came close to this culture-change where you can literally feel the collective worry and uncertainty of friends and strangers was 9/11. That was vastly different in so many ways though. This is not a single event on one moring that affected our lives forever, this is an ongoing day to day “I don’t know when this is going to end” crisis that is going to affect our lives forever.

Comparisons aside, I think the social isolation is the hardest part of all of this (for me at least). Having anxiety and depression and a slew of other mental disorders has always been a pain in the butt, but I learned to adapt and get used to it to the point that sometimes I didn’t even realize when I was acting out of anxiety or depression. Now that I’m quarantining and socially distancing myself from literally everybody who isn’t my direct family I’m realizing just how important socializing has been for me through the years in overcoming my eating disorder and OCD.

In the past when I’ve had an irrational thought, usually attributed to OCD, I always had the option to get out and distract myself with friends or even the company of strangers. I didn’t realize just how important it was for me to be able to go for a drive to the local coffee shop and just sit there writing or reading. I didn’t even have to be interacting with anybody else, but the idea that I was around other people was incredibly comforting. Despite my personal problems, the world went on. I could see it, I could feel it, and I could prove it to myself by going out in public. It was a simple freedom that had significant affects on my mood. This is why I think I’ve been more uneasy about the introversion of staying at home than the actual worry about the virus itself. As I sit here in my own head I’m realizing that the most uneasy part of this social distancing and the lockdowns taking place is that notion that the world does not go on. When I’ve been stuck in my own head I was always able to go out into the real world and see that everything proceeded as usual and I could literally see that my anxiety did not mean it was the end of the world in the larger scheme of things. Now there’s an unsettling cloud above everybody’s head that maybe, just maybe, it is the end of the world. Maybe, just maybe, your anxiety is justified. No, you cannot escape your own head by taking a stroll through the mall or grabbing a coffee at your favorite coffee shop or even by stopping by your friend’s house for a quick catch up. None of that is an option right now, and we don’t know when it will be an option again. And that’s incredibly unsettling to say the least.

Very rarely a crisis like this happens where you really do have no choice but to find the strength in yourself and only yourself to stay calm. Distraction outside in public is not an option when it comes to quarantine. Sure you can read, write, use social media to connect with friends, or learn crafts and skills that you never had time to learn before, but you can’t go out in public and distract yourself with a “real world” that carries on despite your personal problems. There are so many simple pleasures that we have taken for granted like the mere freedom to grab a coffee down the street. As lame and cliché as it might sound, I think this coronavirus is going to teach a lot of us to appreciate what we have. For those of us millenials with mental disorders, I think we’re going to start realizing just how important the company of strangers can be. It’s an annoying lesson for any one who has fought any form of hardship in their life because we’ve learned this lesson before, must not on a global scale. A lot of us really do appreciate our blessings because we’ve been to that place of mental turmoil. It’s pretty frustrating that we have to learn this lesson again but SO much more magnified. Nonetheless, there’s always room for improvement. This is a rare opportunity where not just one individual or one individual family is going to have to heal from this trauma, no, this is going to be the whole world healing. And we’re all going to have that commonality with total strangers from now on. Maybe at the end of this there will be more compassion, understanding, and of course appreciation for each other’s company and basically every simple pleasure we have that we never dreamed would be taken away. I’m sure this is the slap in the face a lot of us needed to realize “holy shit that thing I was worried about before was NOTHING compared to a Goddam pandemic”.

I’m not saying this is the end of the world. It’s not. I really do believe it’s going to be okay. We have great luxury to be able to sit at home, and not only that, but to also be able to have a say in how this crisis plays out. We can all help the human race by doing the right thing and staying home. We will, no doubt, be forced to confront our mental health in the eerie moments where all you can hear is that inner voice, but let’s make that experience constructive. Let’s learn about ourselves. Let’s learn that we have great blessings. I know it’s hard to see now but I really think this is going to have major positive effects on a lot of us if we allow it to. It’s either think positively, or let all the suffering and havoc wreaked by COVID-19 be in vain. I vote we think positively.

– Valerie Parente (3-23-2020)

An Obsessive Compulsive’s Take on the Coronavirus Crisis

An Obsessive Compulsive’s Take on the Coronavirus Crisis by Valerie Parente

Day Five in quarantine, and I am full of so many uncomfortable thoughts. How odd it is to live during a time when everybody else is performing the compulsions you’ve been told were “irrational” for over a decade.

I have been wildly afraid of germs since I was 13 years old (I’m 25 now). I don’t touch my face unless it’s right after washing my hands. I deem my clothes “dirty” as soon as I exit my home. I keep bottles of hand sanitizer in my car and every bag I have. And in the past few years I have gotten really good about challenging these germaphobic thoughts and compulsions by going out more, touching my face, not taking a shower immediately upon coming home from being out in public, and doing so many more little acts. Now with the COVID-19 crisis it feels like everything I’ve been told was “irrational” is becoming the norm. Yes, this is an unprecedented situation and the rules of what is “cleanly” and “germy” have now changed, but that doesn’t make it any less bizarre for someone who has been told for the past decade that constant hand washing and not touching your face is unreasonable and compulsions of the mentally ill. Now we’re desperate not to fall ill in the name of doing these manic compulsions. The acts that were was once deemed over-the-top are now being drilled into our brains.

I can’t speak for everyone with OCD, but for me, there was always a sense of “I’m being ridiculous, but I’m going to do it anways” when I performed a compulsion to get rid of germs. I always kind of knew I was overreacting. I knew it. Did I believe it? No. Knowing and believing are two very different things. I very much believed I would get sick if I didn’t shower before going in my bed, but I knew deep down that this was not a normal thought process and that I was being crazy. This coronavirus crisis really is an OCD sufferer’s worst case scenario played out. It’s everything we’ve ever been told was an overreaction now being categorized as a necessary course of action.

People always told me it wasn’t the end of the world if I let a germ touch my skin. Now the world is in this freak situation where it might be the end of the world. We’re in a realm of danger where it actually can be a matter of life or death if you don’t wash your skin. That’s absolutely mind boggling for me. I’m not necessarily upset, and I’m not even complaining, I’m just uncomfortable. Perplexed. Shocked. I never thought I’d see the day where all of the obsessions I was told were unnecessary to entertain have now been given credibility on a global scale. I guess the best word I can use to describe all of this is wild. It’s just wild.

Social distancing. Hand washing. “Don’t touch your face”. I’m equally curious as I am concerned with how society is going to behave once we move past this traumatic chapter. My gut tells me a lot of people are going to develop obsessive compulsive disorder after this. We’re fostering that obsessive compulsive mindset and placing it on a pedestal of “life or death” importance (and rightfully so), so how can you go from that drastic and dire mindset back to “oh you’re being ridiculous for wiping down your seat every time you go to sit in it”? I really don’t have the answer. I guess we’ll all find out, together.

– Valerie Parente (3-17-2020)