When the world became untouchable…

February 1st 2017

..My journey with Contamination OCD

My OCD has been around since the age of 10, and over the years, has taken on several different forms. A particularly dark period for me was at the age of 16, when my OCD revolved around keeping my little sister safe. This fear was not altogether irrational, as some OCD thoughts can be – she was very ill and had been for the past few years. I felt a major amount of guilt and responsibility for her illness from the start, even though I had nothing to do with causing it. There were very specific reasons that I felt this way, one of them bring that I never alerted people soon enough and so got her the help she needed so much. As a result, she was close to dying. As I felt an enormous amount of responsibility for her illness, I felt as if it was my duty to protect her and keep her safe.

Suddenly, I became overly cautious about germs. I was convinced that she would get ill and die if I passed on ANY germs to her whatsoever. Then it would be my fault for killing her. So, I began to take what I thought were necessary precautions. It started out with washing my hands 6 times, every time I used the bathroom. Then using hand sanitiser every time that I touched something that I thought was ‘contaminated’ or which I thought had lots of germs on it. Then, suddenly, in my mind, pretty much everything became ‘contaminated’, and I began to wear disposable plastic gloves everywhere: to my friends’ houses, to school, to the shops and even in the house.  I was really paranoid about them, even if I got the tiniest hole in them, I would have to douse my hands in sanitiser and change them so that I didn’t pick up any germs. I didn’t enjoy these compulsions at all, they were time consuming and my hands got red, sore and dry from the constant washing.

That was really difficult in school because people looked at me weirdly and asked me about them and I didn’t know how to explain without sounding like a total nutcase.  I would never answer and because of that, rumours circulated as to why I was wearing them. Some people thought that I might have a skin condition but most just thought that I was plain weird. I remember being in the school library one day doing homework, and I heard two people in my year talking about me and how strange I’d become, wearing the gloves. I just broke down there and then, and knew that something had to change as soon as possible. I doubt I’ve ever been more embarrassed in my life than during the period where my OCD was so prevalent.

It was so tough that people at school didn’t understand, although to be honest, I barely understood it myself, and never explained it to them. I would have a panic attack if I even got a tiny hole in one, which was so embarrassing in school, as I sometimes would have them multiple times a day and would have to leave class to calm down, causing my peers to speculate about my weirdness even more. Being too scared to touch things but being scared of what people thought of me put me in an awkward position. In Chemistry and Biology, I refused to participate in experiments, because I couldn’t quite muster up the courage to wear the compulsory safety goggles, which of course had been on other people’s faces, so were contaminated. In history, I used a laptop, but to do so I had to wear 2 layers of gloves as other people had touched the keys previously. French and English didn’t pose too much of a problem for me contamination-wise, but I always used to freak out if anyone leaned over me, coughed or breathed too close to me. I felt so frustrated with myself and felt like such a freak.

I used to go home from school and cry in bed because I couldn’t cope with all the attention I was getting due to my compulsions. I was far too anxious to take the gloves off, as I didn’t want to pick up germs. I was so angry at myself for not being able to take them off, but the fear of harming my sister was overpowering and hijacked the rational part of my brain. Finally, I couldn’t cope with the humiliation of people staring and whispering, and painfully ditched the gloves – which still remains as one of the toughest things that I’ve ever done. The panic of the obsessive thoughts was too great to allow me to just go cold turkey. I replaced the gloves with another compulsion: washing my hands with toilet bleach several times a day. Even using it in the shower, mixed with shower gel of course as I didn’t want my skin to peel off! I figured that was the most effective way to kill off any lingering germs. However, that wasn’t enough to quell the anxiety and so, shamefully, I reverted back to the gloves.

It got to the stage where I was constantly wearing the gloves and washing my hands with bleach at least three times a day. I refused to drink out of cups, eat off of other people’s plates or use other people’s cutlery under any circumstance. This meant that if I went out, I couldn’t really eat and I definitely couldn’t touch anything. I had to drink everything out of my cups in the house (except from the plastic orange ones, which for some reason were contaminated) or use a straw when I was out and about. I would have the shower on the highest possible temperature causing my skin to become red and sore, trying to sterilise myself. At school I used to hide in the library at breaks and lunches, or sit in the corner of the common room or the toilets and cry, because I just hated being the weird person in my year so much. All of this caused conflict and worry amongst my family, and I lost a few friends as they thought I was going crazy and becoming too high maintenance.

One day, during a particularly bad panic attack in school, I broke down and spilled my guts to a pupil support worker. I had had enough and was ready to admit that I had a problem, that something wasn’t right in my head. I remember that I told her that I just wanted to spend the rest of my life in a sterile room with no human contact. My confession prompted my diagnosis. After interrogating me, she suggested that I talk about this with my psychiatrist, as it sounded like it could be OCD, but I was too worked up to listen to her properly. I was already in the CAMHS system, being treated for an existing mental health condition, so I began to open up about my intrusive thoughts and obsessions, cautiously though in case she thought I was crazy. But amazingly, she completely understood and didn’t think I was weird at all!! After asking my parents and I a few questions and talking to me for a few sessions she diagnosed me with OCD. When she said ‘with all that going on inside your head you must be so exhausted’ – finally I knew I’d met someone who truly understood. I was so thankful. It was the biggest relief ever. My strange behaviour had a name, I wasn’t going crazy after all!

My school and teachers were made aware, and they made special arrangements for my exams. I felt too anxious to sit in the main hall with others, terrified I would need to do compulsions and would disturb everyone. So I sat my Highers on diazepam, in a separate room, with a stop clock/ rest breaks and extra time. All of this helped me so much – my school was very accommodating. They gave me out of class passes for when I had panic attacks and let me sit in the room at the back of the pupil support base when I felt stressed, anxious and utterly exhausted with obsessions and compulsions. They also helped me by making me write down my obsessive thoughts and then put the paper in the shredder to help me realise that my obsessions were just thoughts at the end of the day, and that I had the strength to cope with them them, I just needed to unleash it. It wasn’t quite as easy as that though!

Although in and outside of school, I knew lots of people who had experienced anxiety, depression and panic attacks, I didn’t know anyone who had OCD. So, although there was immense relief after my diagnosis, I also felt really lonely. My parents, teachers and friends tried their best to understand, reading about it online and talking to me about it, but they just never quite got it. I never found anyone, except from my psych, who understood until, on OCD Action’s website, I noticed that there was an OCD support group in Edinburgh. I went along, desperate yet excited to meet others with OCD. And what I found was a group of amazing people all at different stages in their journey, all different ages, but brought together by OCD. Everyone there was so welcoming and friendly, it felt amazing to meet people who understood other than my psychiatrist. I’m lucky to have met them, they are the silver lining to the dark cloud that is OCD. I still go to the group, and have made friends through it, who are a complete blessing. What I’ve found is, there’s nothing better than having people who really understand what you’re going through and are there to offer support and coping tips. OCD is tough, but with the right support, we can be tougher.

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