OCD During a Pandemic, and Other Things I Hate
In 2014, I started a new job teaching ninth grade Literature at a school for advanced STEM students. It was (And still is, for the record) an absolute dream. Kids who wanted to learn, who laughed at my jokes and understood my cheesy references? At least one fan of '90s music in every class? Literal heaven.
Until that first winter.
With a small population, students often travel in cohorts and spend long periods of time with one another.
Which means germs.
That December, a horrific flu went around. It was the kind that took kids out for days, and my inboxes were full of emails from parents about how their kids had been up all night puking. (parents, please don't do this. Just say "he's sick," and leave it at that. I don't need or want a list of symptoms.) Then, there were the kids who came to school while knowingly sick, the kids who'd thrown up that morning but whose parents deemed them "well enough," for any number of reasons. (This isn't the blog post on how our infrastructure doesn't provide support for working parents with sick kids, but just know that I recognize this very serious issue)
Walking the halls of my paradise had turned into Season 3 of The Walking Dead, when the gang was living in a (mostly zombie-free) prison, and a horrible virus broke out, taking down over half their population as blood poured from every orifice. I just grossed myself out.
That year, I left school at exactly 3:00pm (or as early as I was allowed, depending on the day). I graded tests with an aerosol can of Lysol next to me, and I held onto known sick students' papers with only the tips of my fingers. Before immediately applying hand sanitizer, of course.
That was also the year I started therapy for my OCD. It came on the heels of a lot of other stressful things from the previous year--planning a wedding, living in a house that wasn't my own, driving an hour commute one-way, looking for a new house, looking for a new job--and I guess at some point my brain reached its capacity and just. Freaking. Shut down.
So it was time to get help, anyway. I didn't realize I had OCD for a long time, since, as previously mentioned, it doesn't "look" like your typical presentation. But it's there, I assure you. It's there when I'm visiting my brother's family and everyone comes down with the norovirus, and my husband and I have to balance quality family time with staying the hell away from plague zombies. It's there when there's still a part of me that believes (no matter how illogically) that if I just do everything right, if I mentally type my thoughts and count my syllables and throw in additional filler sounds to make it even number--that I won't get sick. It's there when well-meaning friends and coworkers respond to my emetophobia with "lol don't have kids" (seriously, please stop doing this??).
And it's there, right now, in the midst of a global pandemic.
Oh good Lord is it there.
This isn't a post about whether or not Covid-19 is a legitimate threat, whether masks work, or how much alcohol should be in your hand sanitizer. This is a post about how anxiety destroys your brain when the world goes up in flames.
I like answers. I like for there to be a fix to something. If I can't remember something, I look it up. I regularly test myself to see if I remember the names of all my teachers from kindergarten through high school, or what I wore for Halloween every year, or who sat where in my third period class in 2016. Knowing things is important to me. It gives me comfort when not much else can, and I never realized how deeply I crave that certainty.
Now, I don't have the answers. Now, it's not even clear who to go to for answers, when not even the experts can agree on what we should be doing, when fringe scientists slither out of the woodwork to whisper doubt in the ears of the anxiety-ridden public.
I've done a lot to try to avoid getting sick in my life. For an entire summer, I quit eating dinner because I'd convinced myself if I don't eat after dark, I won't be able to throw up in the middle of the night (anxiety logic at its finest). One summer, all the Nebraska cousins (except me! And Sam!) came down with this horrible bug that turned them into half-human monster creatures I literally wouldn't let myself breathe around. I started covering my mouth to breathe, only taking in air through a small opening like I was creating some sort of filter, and just avoiding everyone altogether.
It was stupid, it was insensitive and cost me a summer with my cousins, and there was no logical reason to believe any of it would work. But I needed a rule to follow. And so I made one up.
Now, we do have rules to follow. We're told to wear masks. We're told to stay inside. We're told to wash our hands. We're told (for the most part, by most people) that it works. It's a rule, and I follow it.
But the thing about the world is, nothing is ever 100% certain. Scientists disagree about what causes cancer. The reason a "second opinion" exists is so you can find someone who will tell you something different. And this is good! We need doubt and uncertainty in science--it's the only way to ensure we keep researching, keep discovering.
But it's hell on anxiety-brain.
There's a line at the end of the movie Memento that says (I'm paraphrasing) "when you close your eyes, you have to believe the world is still there." Can you prove it's still there? Not with your eyes closed. Can you reach out and touch something and reasonably be sure it's your blanket? Maybe, but until you open your eyes, you can't know for sure.
I know, I'll stop with the Schroedinger's cat business. But the point is, it's hard not knowing things. It's hard when not everyone follows the rules because not everyone believes the rules. It's hard when the virus mutates, when the symptom list grows, when the death toll skyrockets--and the best you have to go on is "probably."
I believe the science that masks work, that the virus is real, that this isn't overexaggerated. But I wonder if that's partially because I need something to believe. I need a rope to hang onto, and that one comes with rules.
If it turns out this was (somehow) all a (global) hoax (with a death toll that surpasses any other singular event in history), then I guess I'll look stupid. There are worse fates (like dying from a global pandemic).
There's a reason they never say "prove" in science. Nothing is ever "proven," only supported. We have to leave room for the possibility that everything could change tomorrow. We're pretty sure the sun won't explode in the next twenty-four hours. But it could.
Most of the time, I think it's beautiful--the idea that nothing is impossible, that perception is our only concept of reality, that uncertainty drives discovery, But not right now. Not when people are dying by the thousands every day. Not when America's political climate is so volatile we had a literal insurrection a week ago, and poisonous conspiracy theories have everyone questioning what's True or False. Not when I'm not sure I can trust the air I'm breathing, the food I'm eating, or the people I'm talking to. Not when the only part of my day that isn't insurmountably stressful is cuddling my dog.
Right now, that uncertainty isn't beautiful. It's treacherous, looming, toxic, and wrong. It's in my nightmares, lurking behind corners and under beds, ready to jump out and wrap slimy tentacles around me. I have coping scripts. I've done the exposure therapy. I have medication. But right now, I want a blanket made of feathers and hugs, and a stuffed animal that doesn't roll away when I move around too much.
I'll be okay. This, like everything else, will pass. But to Friends and Family of the Anxious and Obsessive: Right now, we are not okay. When we reach out and squeeze your hand, please squeeze back. Please show us the world is still there when we close our eyes.