OCD in a pandemic

I’ve had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) since I was a child, and I like to think I’ve got a pretty good handle on it after years of careful management.

Many people think that OCD is just a lot of handwashing and being pedantic about how you arrange the pens on your desk.

These can certainly be factors, but for me it boils down to something more simple – wanting to make sure bad things don’t happen, and feeling responsible for stopping them.

Mental health is a sliding scale, everyone wants to prevent negative impacts on their lives – it’s human nature. But how far are you willing to go to do this? For someone with OCD, it can result in doing things that they believe will lessen this perceived threat – be it washing their hands until they crack and bleed, or switching a light switch on and off 30 times. It might make sense to you or it might seem like a rationale they’ve plucked from thin air.

As a child, I would worry about leaving taps on. There was no reason for this, our family home had never flooded, nor can I remember us ever even having a leaky faucet – but I would get up countless times in the night to make sure it was off, doubting I had done it right in the previous checks.

These worries changed and adapted as I grew up, and I’m generally quite good at knowing when something is making me irrationally anxious and dealing with it. In fact, in some ways it’s made me a more thorough, if irritatingly pedantic, reporter – although sometimes lying awake at night worrying about a small detail in a story can be painful (to be absolutely clear, I am still more than capable of making many, many mistakes).

Then along came COVID-19, and suddenly everyone was thinking in a similar way to me. Contamination fears were rife, the public were washing down their groceries in the bath – it felt strange to have people on my wavelength.

But this situation was effectively my kryptonite. I’m 24 and healthy, I’m not even vaguely worried about becoming seriously ill with covid; I know my chances are good. But suddenly the life of everyone’s granny and grandad seemed to be in my hands – get the guidance wrong while being an asymptomatic carrier, and it felt like it’d be my fault they became very sick, or even died.

Now, rationally, I know that you can do your best – you can follow the rules as far as possible, but the chances are that at some point in the past few months you’ve looked up and realised someone has edged (accidentally) too close to you in the supermarket. That is life, we have to accept that these strange processes will not always work perfectly.

But I think we’ve all seen a shift in doubting ourselves. You can see a dart of panic cross the face of the person on the bus who just sneezed. Friends ask: “How do I know if I have a fever or if I’m just hot from scrubbing the house down?”

So many people I’ve spoken to have commented on how bad their hay fever is this year. Is it actually that much worse, or is it partly down to just noticing every slight change within our bodies?

On the Isle of Man, we’re now officially without social distancing – which is truly wonderful news. Earlier this month, I travelled to meet my friends for lunch, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous that I could be an asymptomatic spreader. A few nights later, I went to a heaving bar for a few (okay, many) drinks – again, the similar pang of fear.

We have seen a huge shift on our island and largely returned to normal last week, but for a lot of people – in particular, those still shielding or struggling with their mental health – the worries and angst aren’t over yet, and won’t be for quite a while to come. Make sure you don’t forget about them.

If you’re struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder you can visit OCD Action here [https://www.ocdaction.org.uk/] or for confidential support call the Samaritans on 116 123 or click here [https://www.samaritans.org/]

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