Image Credit: OCD UK
You are so brave and quiet,
I forget you are suffering.
This year, my obsessive compulsive disorder diagnosis turned old enough to run for Congress. And like a candidate running for congressional office I’m verbose about my OCD. I talk about it, joke about it, and write about it. It is a part of me as much as the thoughts of which I can approve. There are times when my OCD thoughts are large and good and full and then there are times when my OCD thoughts are anxious and annoying and sad. My psychiatrist, Dr. Rasmussen, taught me to believe that those kinds of thoughts, those that trick my mind, are an utterly irrational, despicable quality of thinking. But since the coronavirus pandemic hit my home state of Rhode Island I no longer believe that, and I told him as much. I think that they will turn to poison and sink in if I do. Better to think them through and so lose them, for they just may save me from getting the virus.
I was diagnosed with severe obsessive compulsive disorder by an international OCD expert who is Professor and Chair of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University. I was fortunate to have access to a superb mental health expert. I can’t even fathom where I would be without him. But to see him meant going to his office on the Butler Hospital campus where he was also medical director. If you’re not a Rhode Islander, it was originally an insane asylum, and where locals say the “crazies” go. It’s called a campus, but looked not like any campus I had ever been on. My father, who my mother divorced when I was five years old, took me to see Princeton University’s campus the first time I visited him in New Jersey. It was the first time I had seen him since moved out of the house. I was sixteen. He was the head custodian at Purnell, a private girls’ school. Princeton’s campus was bustling with students and professors carrying books and backpacks and briefcases. There was this vibe on the campus of zests, intelligentsia, comradery, high expectations and success. There was laughter where teenagers were congregated; there was quiet where pupils sat on well-manicured grass under a tree reading. There were squirrels of colors I had never seen before, red, black, brown. These squirrels weren’t afraid of anyone either. They came right up to me for food unlike the ones back in Lil’ Rhody who scurried the minute I moved.
When I pulled into Butler’s parking lot I turned the car off and sat. It took all of my resolve and no small amount of convincing my OCD just to leave the house and go see Dr. Rasmussen. I got out of the car and looked around. The campus was empty, void of life, and not a squirrel in sight. The buildings were brick, bleak, and spread out. Vines grew upon the walls. Sunlight reflected upon the vacant eye-like barred windows. Though the grass was green and all the trees leaves were drawn out like a scene from Robert Frost’s poetry. As I walked to the main entrance, a sinking, sickening feeling unnerved me. I looked around, and wondered where all the people could be, but not too much because I didn’t want anyone to see me. I was scared and so embarrassed. It was humiliating enough to admit to my family and friends I had a problem, but for strangers to see me there, to know I was “crazy” was too much. I cared a great deal about what strangers thought of me back then. My life at that young age was about impressing people I didn’t know, the way celebrities care what their fans, who are strangers, think of them.
I scanned more narrowly around the campus as I quickened my pace to the outpatient door after the receptionist at the main entrance told me I was in the wrong place, hoping, praying no one noticed me. Unbelievable. It was just unbelievable. That was all I kept thinking. The word stuck in the corners of my mind. This was unbelievable. I felt such a fool, such a failure, so sad after having worked so hard to accomplish my dreams. My heart was palpitating, my nerves were on end, my eyes were leaking. The closer I got to the door the more the agony of defeat sank into my pores, and caused water to prickle behind my eyelids. Unable to wipe them for fear of contamination, I closed them briefly to thwart the tardy tears from streaking my cheeks before I stepped inside.
Dr. Rasmussen, who spells his middle name the same as my first name, informed me that my type of OCD is called Contamination OCD whereby sufferers are terrified of being contaminated by germs. That diagnosis is the pit in my stomach that I have never been able to fully digest. There was, and still is, no cure, no experimental remedies, or trials. I ached fearfully when he said that. I ached for liberty, for the loss of me. I ached to redress the imbalance. I just wanted everything to go back, to go back to the way it was before this thing laid its hands on me. I was just old enough to drink, to go nightclubbing, and was having a great time being young and free and full of energy. I’ll never forget sitting there, saying aloud with a tremor in my voice, how did this happen, how did I get here? What did I do to get this? It wasn’t anything I had done, said Dr. Rasmussen. My OCD wasn’t new. It had always been inside of me, but for some particular reason it decided to come out the summer of my twenty-fourth birthday.
I had just finished interning at Merrill Lynch, graduated from Rhode Island College with a bachelors degree in accounting, and landed a job as a pricing analyst at what was the world’s largest mutual fund company, Skudder Kemper Investments in Boston. It was a big deal as the first in my family to go to college, to have a career and not just a job making big money in a big city. I often refer to my early twenties as the best years of my life because that’s exactly what they were. Each year my life got better and better in that I had set a path for my future and everything was going accordingly. Never did I imagine my personal life upending my ability to function as a human and swirl me into an unending state of anxiety.
While looking for an apartment in Boston, and waiting to start my dream job, I contracted scabies from someone I met at my surprise birthday party, someone who I spent the night with. It was crushing. Absolutely crushing. A blow like one from Muhammad Ali. A hurt poured over me. Anger filled heart. It was July 1997, and it took me until March 1998 to rid my body of those invisible creepy crawlers. How I knew I had scabies was when they burrowed into my skin. They left these large reddish/brownish bumps. From time to time I could feel them crawling across my stomach, across my buttocks where they liked to burrow in. and it skeeved me out because I couldn’t see them. My dermatologist prescribed me Elimite cream numerous times. I dosed my skin, my hair, and my Springer Spaniel in it. I slept in it, and sometimes wore it for more than twenty-four hours. I put the cream on so many times it numbed my skin, caused patches of red rashes, and left me with an early receding hairline, and a bald spot on top of my head. Every time I put the cream on I had to put my shoes, sneakers, slippers, belts, ties, wallet, watches, electric shaver, books, notebooks, even my Walkman and cassette tapes in tied plastic bags for three days. I had to wash my clothes, towels, blankets, sheets, comforter, and bath rug in hot water. I had to put my pillows in the dryer for an hour. I had to vacuum my mattress, box spring, stairs, carpets, linoleum, couch, living room and kitchen chairs. I had to throw away the toilet seat, toothbrushes, lotions, and all my disposable razors. I had to clean my car and not drive it for three days. But the more I fought those disgusting things the more they refused to leave and the more I feared I would never get rid of them. It was physically exhausting. It was emotionally draining. It was work. I woke up tired every day. Between trying to kill them and trying to prevent recontamination, I felt there was no winning this war. I had no fight left in me, and yet I carried on. No feelings, no emotions, just doing what I had to do because I had to do it in order to get rid of the scabies and never get them again, not knowing the damage being done to my mind, to my brain, to the synapses in my brain, and the chemicals in my brain. Almost it went from an inconvenience to me being incapacitated.
Killing every last scabies is what Dr. Rasmussen believes triggered my OCD. I began washing my hands obsessively. My mind was convinced that I was going to contract them again, so I began washing my hands and forearms every time I touched something, washing them until I felt safe. My OCD two-pillar approach has always been and will forever be: avoiding public settings, and containment and mitigation, which are based on whether my OCD voice or my intellectual voice wins the battle. I have an OCD voice and an intellectual voice. They are constantly battling it out for control. Many times there were when I was bone tired and just wanted to crawl into bed and fall asleep, but the OCD voice would force me to go through the hand washing ritual, the shower ritual, and the tap/rinse ritual my fingers did on the bar of soap ten, twenty, thirty times, stopping only on an even number.
Soon the OCD voice was in so much control, I stopped touching things in public, handrails, doorknobs, seats. I stopped going to movie theaters, restaurants, and visiting friends. I stopped using cash, and when I used my credit/debit cards, instead of putting them back into my wallet, I slipped them into my back pocket. The next day after I had cleaned my wallet, I cleaned the cards and slid them back in. I only touched my hair, my face, and my eyes directly after washing my hands. OCD gave me this strict, structured discipline that my mother and friends said the army would be astonished to see. No matter how itchy my nose got, if an eyelash fell on my cheek, or a bug landed on my forehead I wouldn’t touch it. I would blow the eyelash, the bug away, or leave it there and ignore the itchiness. In the beginning it amazed me that I had the ability to do such a thing. But there was a sadness to it, for when I did touch my face it felt like a foreign object, and sometimes made me jump.
I tired with all my might to hide my symptoms from my mother and stepfather, friends and coworkers. Some of my compulsions were easy to cover up. Like at home where I had my own bathroom. When I washed my hands I turned on the fan to block out the water running for long minutes. But it was pretty noticeable when my mother went in to empty my garbage can that was overflowing with tissues I had used to dry my hands on, and see the water around the sink; she used those dirty tissues to wipe it up. The one thing I couldn’t hide was my emotions. The toll it took on my mind, on my soul weighed heavily. All I wanted to do was reject my mind, reject my weakness for always giving into the OCD voice, and reject the people who stared and questioned me. I lamented while driving, while in bed. My heart was drowning in sadness, my head in madness, my spirit in death. Slowly, ever so slowly I felt my sanity edging along the ledge.
This was before antibacterial hand wipes, soaps, lotions, shampoos, hand sanitizers, and sprays. In the 1990s stores weren’t handing out free hand wipes for people to wipe down carriage handles, and there weren’t cashiers, bankers, postal workers sanitizing their hands throughout the day. There wasn’t this public use of antibacterial agents like today. Before the new millennium, there seemed to be a collective consensus that you couldn’t get anything more than the common cold from touching railings, carriage handles, door knobs or other frequently touched public surfaces. So I came up with my own creative ways to avoid contamination. Because I didn’t have any of those new inventions to lean on I would do things like drive to the main Post Office in Providence that was open twenty-four hours because they had automatic doors, and I could slide envelopes right through the slot in the wall instead of having to wrap paper towel around the mailbox handle to open it. I would take paper towels, drench them with Windex (Windex because it has ammonia in it), and bring them with me to the grocery store to wipe down the carriage handle and my hands after touching each product I put in the carriage. I left the bottle in the house because in my mind the outside world was contaminated and I would never be able to use it again. It was a struggle to do these things and not have people look at me and question my sanity. Now, when I reflect back, I’m amazed at how accepting and common the practice is. I wish I had been the one who invented the hand wipes and sanitizers.
By December, two months after starting my dream job, my symptoms were out of my control. Getting to work, sitting on the commuter rail was nerve-wrecking. It reminded me of the first and only time my mother took me to the YMCA to learn how to swim, because she didn’t know how. A swim instructor strapped a Styrofoam flotation device onto my back, and threw me into the deep end of the pool. I screamed. I went straight down. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t stop myself from sinking. Someone jumped in and pulled me out. OCD is like that, terrified of a new environment. And every day I sat on that crowded train amongst germ-infested strangers, in a cubical breathing recirculated air, and sharing a bathroom with the entire twenty-second floor of fund accountants, corporate actions, and other pricing analysts was torture. I’m sure if someone had taken my blood pressure it would have been somewhere up in the stratosphere, and is the reason I’m now on medication. But there’s nothing quite like trial by fire, and after a few weeks of this ordeal, as my body settled into a new routine, my OCD refused to. Transition periods were and still are tough for me. I wash my hands and forearms uncontrollably, scrubbing them the way surgeons do. I never read, watched, or listened to someone explain the best way to wash them. I let that OCD feeling take control, a feeling that I have come to conclude defies words.
Every workday morning began with me taking a thirty minute shower, washing each individual body part separately, sometimes twice, sometimes three times before moving on to the next body part. Getting dressed was just as much of a production. I washed my hands in between each piece of clothing I put on. So for example, I put on my socks, then washed my hands, put on my pants, then washed my hands, and so on until I was fully dressed. Next I went outside to my car and with Windex cleaned my keys, steering wheel, seatbelt, seat, and car door handle. Then I ran upstairs to my bathroom and washed my hands until my OCD voice said I could go. Sometimes while rushing, I would make a mistake and have to redo the whole process, which made me run late and have to do ninety miles an hour down the highway. Frustration, fatigue consumed my pores by the time I was able to leave. I used the same ritual I used for showering for cooking my meals, but instead of washing individual body parts, I washed my hands after opening every package or container of food. After I turned on the broiler, I put the cooking pans on the stove, took out a package of boneless chicken breast from the refrigerator, a can of vegetables from the cabinet, and a box of instant white rice, then went upstairs to the bathroom and washed my hands. I went back downstairs to the kitchen, opened a can of vegetables, and poured its contents into the sauce pan, opened the box of white rice, took out a package, and put it in the other pan, then I again went upstairs and washed my hands. Came back down, took a knife from the silverware draw, opened up the package of chicken, rinsed the knife in the kitchen sink, and placed the chicken breast onto the tray. Went upstairs, washed my hands, came back down, and turned the pilot on low for the vegetables and white rice. I ate the same thing every night. The night ended the same way the day began, with a shower, though my nightly shower was longer than the morning because being in the public dirtied me with germs.
I wore a long black trench coat that enveloped me like a security blanket while sitting on the commuter rail. I kept my hands in my pockets for the hour long ride, and took short breaths in the direction of the window. I always sat next to the window being the first stop. As the train got closer to my stop in downtown Boston, the last stop, South Station, people packed the train, and I alternated breathing between the window and inside of my coat. When someone sneezed, coughed, or sniffled, my heart fluttered, and my nose dove inside of my coat and didn’t move for a full fifteen minutes, as that’s what I learned was the time that the aerosols stay alive in the air. It wasn’t easy but it was easier than getting infected with something that took six months to get rid of the way the scabies did. Or worse. When coworkers cast a curious glance my way or asked me why I exhibited such strange behavior, I wasn’t able to explain my symptoms. How could I? I was nervous, shy, and knew nothing about an OCD diagnosis. I didn’t know what OCD was. Not a clue. And I was scared of people knowing. I felt like I was the only person in the world suffering from such strange thoughts—washing my hands several hundred times a day, and tapping the bar of soap in the soap dish until it “feels right.”
One month after the 1999 New Year had come and gone, I had been at my dream job for almost six months, but it felt like years, because sitting down in public, more specifically, sitting down on the commuter rail, my desk at work, and using the bathroom were impossible tasks to perform day in and day out. I had to sit on a magazine and stoop. My fear got so high that to do the rituals I needed to do before going to work caused me to get there an hour late. I knew it was upsetting my bosses, but I couldn’t stop myself, and so when I found out through a colleague that the new guy they had brought in for me to train was actually the guy who was going to replace me when I got fired, I quit. Telling my bosses that their pricing analyst was an OCD macadamia nut would surely have gotten me fired anyway.
I stayed in my room for days feeling like a satellite forever orbiting in space, wishing no longer to endure this imprisonment, this encasement called the human body. To set my soul free from my body’s immobility. Free from the chain of hours, from the teacher in my soul, from the circles that swallowed me whole, from the midnight hour, the hour in which an invalid who has finally fallen asleep awakens in a moment of infection and realizes that being inside of a human is no joyous celebration. OCD had destroyed my sociability, career, goals, and dreams. It separated me from my friends, and took away my chance of having a spouse, children, and a family. I resigned myself to the reality that I would never live on my own. I would live forever with my mother and stepfather in their two bedroom townhouse. I understood some of what my African and Indian slave ancestors went through. Trapped behind a skin color not of their choosing, living in a place they had no wish to live in, living a life they had no wish to live. Singing spirituals like, “And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my God, and be free.” I too pondered leaving this earthly plane. With decades of life ahead of me, the road as an emotionally crippled black man looked dreadful and dreary. So much time would be spent fighting and struggling just to be. That thought alone crippled me. I just wanted to go, to be done with the troubles of the world. And on top of that my mother and stepfather were going to be angry. I had been talking about moving to Boston for years.
I no longer remember the exact date in august when I started itching and seeing read bumps on me, but I remember what it was like to live without OCD. I have what I call a before OCD life and an after OCD life. A time when I took the train to New York City to visit friends, took the subway to get around town, and danced all night on a packed Roxy dance floor. When I tasted a friend’s alcoholic beverage to decide if it was something I wanted to drink too. When I didn’t need to use twenty-four bars of soap in a week. When I could sleep in my bed without showering first. I could have very easily become a shut-in, but I had to use the bathroom. So when my mother and stepfather went to bed I snuck out, which was when my mother cornered me, convincing me not to let the OCD destroy me. I’m grateful to have a mother who was a medical secretary for a psychiatrist, and recognized that her son was washing his hands to the point of blood and ruining the bathroom sink in the process.
I can vividly recall grocery shopping with my mother a few months before I was diagnosed—my mother pushed the carriage that was packed with boxes of Dove soap, Puffs tissues, and Bounty paper towel. As the woman at the cash register scanned the items, she looked at us, and then glanced over to the policeman who was standing at the door. The woman must’ve thought we were doing something illegal with it all. That would not have been funny for my mother to have to explain: “No officer, I’m not a criminal; my son’s just a fruit loop.” There would be no excuse I could come up with to cover that up. I broke down in tears when we got home, and admitted to myself while I was lying on my bed and to my mother who was standing in my bedroom doorway that “I had a problem and I needed help.” Surrendering to that truth was agonizing. I felt defeated, weak. I felt I was a failure. But there was this letting go of the fight to be normal, to prove to everyone I was normal.
That day my psychiatrist diagnosed me, he put me on Luvox, which worked beautifully, but I began losing my hair. I have been on, at various points in my life, Paxil, Luvox, Lexapro, and clonazepam. Paxil has proven to work best. For almost an hour he explained my OCD. His gentle presence and calm, caring voice cut through my sullen thoughts like a sunbeam through rain and hope shone. The relief his words administered were liberating. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t crazy. My hyperconsciousness of germs was okay. I was going to be okay. I sat back in the chair, took a deep breath, and this wave of pressure released from my body. I had forgotten how it felt to relax, to not feel ashamed, to not have to contest the OCD voice every day, to battle every minute, every second I was awake. It was a freedom I cannot explain. Shortly after that, I started cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which entailed exposing myself to anxiety-inducing discomfort and to resist doing the things that calm my anxiety. I haven’t been overly successful because my mind knows I’ll be washing my hands shortly after the exposure. I did learn how to control some of my rituals by acknowledging and accepting them: “If I wash my leg only once, the worst case scenario is that my leg is ninety-nine percent clean and not one hundred.” Instead of going through twenty-four bars of soap in a week, I now go through eight. I’m able to sit down in public again. I don’t wash every individual body part anymore, but I still wash my hands after opening every food container, and worry about contracting diseases. And you know what? I’m okay with that. Because what I have learned from the experts about COVID-19 is that it will always seem that the best way to address a disease is to do something that looks like it might be an overreaction, but it isn’t an overreaction. It’s a reaction commiserate to what’s going on in reality. And you know what? As long as my OCD keeps on protecting me, a little bit of eccentricity isn’t such a bad thing.
For so long I felt out of place and uncomfortable publicly doing my disease prevention techniques that I came to accept that, but the deadly coronavirus has made me thankful I have OCD. Because all the OCD behaviors I have been doing for twenty-five years that doctors, scientists, and experts told me to stop doing, doctors, scientists, and experts are now telling me, you, the whole world to do to prevent getting the coronavirus. Wash your hands constantly, use hand sanitizer, open your food containers then wash your hands before touching the food, stay six feet away from people, don’t shake hands, or fist bump…. These are the things my OCD has been telling me to do. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, told the world when he was speaking about the return to normal life, “You don’t jump into it with both feet. You say what are the things you could still do and still approach normal. One of them is absolute compulsive hand washing. The other is you don’t ever shake anybody’s hands. I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you. Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease; it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country.” To hear the “nation’s leading infectious disease expert” tell the world to wash hands with absolute compulsiveness, and humans should end the hand shaking makes me vindicated in an odd, but satisfying way.
I was told by so many people that my hand washing, my refusal to shake hands, my germaphobic neuroses, all of my OCD was irrational. And I believed it. I believed something was wrong with me. But I don’t feel crazy anymore. I feel that this is the reason I have OCD. I like my OCD; I like having OCD in my body. It has made me realize that I’m not this strange creature. I’m in my mid-forties, and I’m now able to verbally express that, to see it, to think it, to wrap my mind around it. I breathe easier. I move slower. I feel stronger, and braver, braver than I have ever been. I don’t want to change anymore. I believe my OCD has a purpose, had a purpose, the reason I was born with OCD, I was born into a world rife with disease. For all the pain, suffering, and hopelessness it brought me, not once did it dawn on me that my OCD was helping to stay alive. “Generations and generations of evolution have given us the stress response, and that is the natural physiological and psychological response to threats,” said Angela Duckworth who is the Christophe H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “And if you’re not feeling stressed right now, something’s wrong with you. I think people need to hear that, when you’re having trouble sleeping, when everything is disrupting, you’re not yourself, you’re irritable, that’s a stress response, and I can explain why. It’s actually part of survival. It’s actually, if you manage it the right way, adaptive. The stress response is normal.”
The world I was birthed in would enter into a global pandemic and I, and those of us diagnosed with OCD, were given these skills to fight and survive the pandemic and post-pandemic planet. The earth is riddled with diseases. And they don’t stop. They keep coming. And the species I am a part of doesn’t seem to take it as seriously as me and the millions of people like me with OCD. The world is getting more globalized, and the more movement, the more migration, the more diseases will take over the breaths we all take. The more diseases come out from hidden places the less we seem capable of ridding them. And maybe that’s the point, I don’t know. Maybe we aren’t supposed to be moving and migrating and taking over every air, every ground space on the planet. I fear human consumption, consumerism, the greed for more, the belief to settle for more, the lack of contentment will continue to bring out new diseases. If that doesn’t change I also fear more and more people will be born with extreme and severe OCD like me. It’s not the greatest way to live, but it’s a great survival mechanism. And eventually the human species will cease to exist even in drawings if it stays on its current trajectory. For the next pandemic is very likely just over the horizon. We are shaking the earth so much with our movement and migration Mother Nature is crying, trying to tell to us something. Whether we choose to listen to that something and save ourselves from annihilation is our choice. The warning signs are flashing red.
Allen M. Price is a writer from Rhode Island. Excerpts of the book he is writing appear in River Teeth, The Fourth River (chosen by guest editor Ira Sukrungruang), and Jellyfish Review. He has an MA in journalism from Emerson College. His fiction and nonfiction work appears or is forthcoming in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Juked, Bayou, Sou’wester, Cosmonauts Avenue, Gertrude Press, The Adirondack Review, Columbia Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, Muscle & Fitness, and other places. An excerpt of his screenplay ‘Dark Ocean Night’ appears in The Louisville Review and The Coachella Review. His chapbook ‘The Unintended Consequences of Haitian Reparation’ appears in Hawai’i Review.