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)