When obsessions become a reality: Coping with OCD during a global pandemic
Imagine living with a mental illness that constantly tells you that bad things will happen if you don't maintain certain rituals. Meanwhile you're living through a global pandemic where people are being to told to wash their hands to protect their loved ones from becoming seriously ill, or worse, dying.
Meghan Gilleece writes for EMPWR about her experience with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder during COVID-19.
As I am writing this, we are four months into a global pandemic. The past few months have been frightening and uncertain for most people, but for many OCD sufferers, they have been immobilising.
For most of my life, I didn’t know what OCD was. I started having symptoms around the age of four when I would repeatedly confess to thinking of swear words. I was always a worried child, but this was different. I would cry, detach, and feel guilty. I couldn't think of anything else. It got so out of hand that my mum took me to a doctor who assured her that it was just a phase, and that if she ignored it, it would eventually stop. It didn't.
Over the years, my OCD has warped and taken on different forms depending on what’s important to me, skewing my morals and beliefs. I am, and always have been, a professional catastrophiser. As a teen, I worried that I'd grow up to be a criminal, that I wanted to harm people, that I was capable of hurting everyone I loved. I was convinced that I was this dangerous, terrible person and that I didn’t deserve happiness.
I was unkind to myself, carrying around a burden of guilt for years and avoiding otherwise joyous occasions and get-togethers because I was scared and ashamed of what I thought I was capable of. It interfered with every facet of my life.
I feared going out and doing normal, healthy things. When I did go out, I would drink so much that I’d forget what I'd said or done, the next day I would spiral. I have so many regrets. Then, in my early twenties, I stumbled upon Rose Bretécher’s Guardian article about Pure O. She detailed a life tortured by uncontrollable sexual and harm-based thoughts and had discovered the reason behind them; Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
I remember sitting on the floor of my old student house in Belfast, reading it and crying. Up until then, I’d known next to nothing about OCD and had no idea why my life was dictated by intrusive thoughts. It's difficult for me to fully describe the feeling of relief I felt reading through the article. It was like this new wave of consciousness crashed over me.
Suddenly, I wasn't a terrible person. I didn't want to harm my family and friends.
There was a logical explanation behind what had haunted me my entire life. I had OCD. Unfortunately, my relief was short lived. You see, OCD doesn’t care about logic. My new realisation didn't matter to my OCD brain, and it was looking for something else to latch on to. I can't remember exactly when my new obsession started, but around this time I began fixating over death.
I know most people are uncomfortable with the thought of death - it's scary and unknown. But for me it quickly grew into a dangerous obsession. I've spent years ruminating about death and desperately trying to keep it at bay. I would vividly picture loved ones dying, horrific car accidents, 0gruesome murder. I'd picture life without them, wakes and funerals, agonising mourning and unbearable grief. It felt real.
Warm moments with people I loved were destroyed by OCD forcing me to envision their painful death. To counteract the thoughts, I would carry out compulsions - repetitive behaviours that I believed would stop The Bad Thing from happening. I had magic numbers that I would count to in a desperate bid to keep everyone safe. If I had an intrusive thought about a loved one dying I would touch a light switch or a tap four times, or lock and unlock my phone four times.
If it felt wrong (it always felt wrong) I would repeat it, and touch the light switch eight times, then another eight, then another. At one point, every aspect of my life was being counted. I would brush my hair in multiples of four, and take steps in multiples of four, inhale and exhale in multiples of four.
These rituals were exhausting, and they never made me feel any better.
Each intrusive thought I rectified with a compulsion was replaced with a new, scarier thought. Eventually, I broke down. I wasn't sleeping or eating properly, and I had nothing to lose, so in attempt to feel better, I went to my GP who referred me for counselling.
My new therapist began treating my OCD with talking therapy and Exposure Response Prevention, a technique that encourages sufferers to induce intrusive thoughts without neutralising them with compulsions.
ERP is HARD. I’d spent years protecting my loved ones from danger with my rituals, so to have an obsession and sit with the anxiety without counteracting it was torturous at times. I felt like I was willingly allowing my friends and family to be hurt, but I stuck with it. In the coming years I had my ups and downs with OCD, but my new understanding of the illness meant I was better equipped to deal with triggering situations and most of the time, I could rationalise disturbing thoughts without rumination. I was recovering.
Then, in March, the coronavirus pandemic hit.
When lockdown was first announced, I remember feeling oddly calm. I was used to dealing with worry and fear, and I’d spent my life preparing for the worst to happen. My partner and I joked that quarantine suited us because we didn't like going out anyway. But as the horrifying news stories began airing, it became real, and the terror set it. It started with checking. Did I have a cough? How was my sense of smell? Did I have a temperature? My intrusive thoughts were returning, and they felt stronger than ever.
I started imagining my partner on a ventilator. I imagined him dying and life without him. How would I cope? I imagined myself struggling to breathe, alone in a hospital ward isolated from my loved ones and surrounded by doctors in hazmat suits.
The thoughts were traumatising. I felt the grief as if it were happening in that moment. I started having panic attacks and stopped eating. I couldn't focus on anything other than my intrusive thoughts and death, and everything else seemed insignificant. I was constantly asking my partner for reassurance and began doing little rituals to try and stop The Bad Thing from happening.
The counting began again. I was washing my hands until they were raw. I started washing them for forty seconds, then washing them twice and three times. Then I started washing them with bleach. They were bleeding and aching, and I didn't care. The counting was replaced by praying, and the praying took up hours of my day. I would repeat myself over and over again until it felt right. The outside world became frightening, so I didn't go out. I stayed in my flat for over 80 days.
I didn't like things coming into my home either. Anything from outside my little bubble terrified me. Groceries were meticulously bleached and wiped down over and over, and parcels and post would sit in the spare room weeks until I felt it was safe to open them. I was obsessing over the news and the stats and with how many new cases were in my area.
I would spend hours researching COVID-19 and potential risk factors, convincing myself that I had undiagnosed underlying health issues that would put me in danger. My partner and family were worried about me and tried to encourage me to seek help again but getting support for my mental health seemed pointless when everyone I cared about could die at any second from a lung eating respiratory disease. I was the rational one - everyone else was unprepared.
My mental illness was taking a detrimental toll on my physical health. I was feeling weak and tired and sick all the time, and I was constantly breaking down over the phone with my family who finally convinced me to begin medication and speaking with my therapist.
I reluctantly started counselling and ERP again in May, and it's been a struggle work on my mental health when so much is going on in the world. It can all feel meaningless at times, but I'm doing a lot better now.
Recovery began with me opening the door of my flat and looking outside. Then, I went downstairs and collected the post. Then, I went for a short walk armed with gloves and antibacterial wipes and hand sanitiser.
Now, I can go for a walk with my partner without panicking and needing to go home after five minutes, and I'm immensely proud of that. It's hard for me to tackle an OCD flare-up the way I would under normal circumstances. Hand-washing and being aware of potential symptoms are part of government guidelines, and it's struggle to decipher between OCD and standard precaution taking. It's all too easy to undertake compulsions, just in case.
OCD hates uncertainty, and the future is uncertain for everyone right now. We have no idea what the next few months will hold, but I'm thankful that I finally have some quiet moments in the day where my mind isn't tormented by thoughts of death.
They don’t come as often as they did before March, and they are often short-lived, but these little moments of peace keep me going.
If you have been affected by any of the themes in this article, please reach out:
Samaritans - 116 123
Pieta House - 1800 247 247 / Text HELP to 51444
Text About It - Text HELLO to 50808