When I was 6 years old, if I couldn’t get to sleep by 7:30pm, I would start crying hysterically. I was convinced I was going to die if I couldn’t fall asleep by then.
When I was 7 years old, I was positive our house was going to burn down and I was on the second floor. I forced my parents to buy me an escape ladder and even refused to sleep in my room out of fear.
When I was 8 years old, I learned about a thing called HIV/AIDS. I spent several months unable to play with any other kids on the playground for fear of touching a cut of theirs. I started to wash my hands several hundred times a day until they cracked and bleed. I was petrified of other people.
When I was 10 years old, I became intensely afraid of becoming pregnant (let’s ignore the fact I didn’t start my period until I was 14). I read an article in YM Magazine about a girl who got pregnant from a toilet seat, and I refused to use public bathrooms for years. I wouldn’t let my dad use the bathroom I used in our house. I couldn’t leave the house some days because I refused to sit on chairs in public for fear that there could be sperm on the chair that could somehow impregnate me. I was paralyzed, and I couldn’t go anywhere.
(Yup, I shit you not. That one really happened…ask my poor father).
Shortly thereafter, I was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I went to therapy. They put me on meds. Things slowly got better as I started to face my fears and dispel the fear of the unknown.
Until I became intensely afraid of food when I was 15. And then I entered my 20 year battle with anorexia.
While fighting that, my OCD worries seemed to subside (instead, the fixation turned to food and everything about it). The germaphobia went away. Hell, I became the woman that ran through the mud for 24 hours in people’s pee, snot, puke, and probably feces. And I’d touch my face a LOT during those races.
And yeah, I became that person who never washed my hands. Yes, chastise me all you want. I actually believed that the source of all of our sickness was the fact that we were TOO clean. In the last 10 years (until January), I probably washed my hands properly 1 or 2 times.
I also rarely got sick. I would eat food I dropped on the ground. I’d touch everything public and then blow snot rockets or eat or put gum in my mouth. I’d eat off an unwashed tray table on the plane, or out of communal aid station bowls at races. I wasn’t fearful of getting sick.
Then, January happened. I read about a new virus emerging in China.
And suddenly, all my OCD fears/habits/tendencies started to flood back.
The ritualistic behaviors that I thought I had so long gotten rid of started to return: the obsessive hand washing until they cracked and bled. The fear of touching doorknobs. The hours a day sanitizing EVERYTHING around me. It started to become all-consuming and I started to hate myself. Life got hollow again. All my time and energy was spent on keeping EVERYTHING around me clean and sanitized.
This was early January. No one in the US, other than me, seemed to be worried. I felt sheepish when I admitted my fears to my friends, my partner, my family. I started to buy hand sanitizer. I started to wipe down gym equipment. I suddenly became wary of flying (and if you know me, I’m that weirdo who LOVES flying). I got so upset with myself: I didn’t remember having this reaction to SARS, or the swine flu, or Ebola. So WHY the fuck was it happening now?!
My loved ones started to notice that I was becoming anxious. They all told me I had nothing to worry about. I became frustrated with myself because I KNEW the fear was irrational, yet I kept fixating. I’d wake up every day and check the news: hoping, wishing, PRAYING, that the tide would turn, that this would somehow go away so I could go back to my normal life without the fear and fixation.
Welp, as we all know now, it didn’t.
I thought about writing this piece several weeks ago, as I “hey I’m being irrational can someone calm me down?” kinda blog. It’s funny how much has changed since then. I’ve been panicking and worried since the beginning of January, and now it seems like the rest of the world has caught up to me. (just call me an early-adopter. Or a hipster panicker.)
But in these past two months, I’ve grown weary of being afraid. I’ve grown tired of washing my hands until they bleed. Of panicking at every cough that I hear around me. Of eyeing people with distrust. I started socially isolating pretty early, and my mental health started taking a beating. My sleep, which has never been a problem for me, all of a sudden became crap. I started experiencing panic attacks, which I haven’t had since I was in law school.
After a 15 minute sobbing and panic attack on my apartment floor a few weeks ago, I realized something had to change.
But here’s the problem: the go-to form of therapy for OCD is exposure therapy. When I was 10 and afraid of getting pregnant, my therapist forced me to sit on chairs in public places to see that it wouldn’t happen. I had to touch dirty handles and then eat food to see I wasn’t going to get sick. Slowly, when you realized these things wouldn’t happen, the fears would subside.
The problem in this situation is that the things that I am supposed to challenge to combat the OCD behaviors are EXACTLY the things that experts tell you, repeatedly, you should NOT be doing. They are telling you wash your hands obsessively. They are telling you to avoid public places. They are telling you to be fearful. They are telling you that, in this case, doing exposure therapy, could kill you and everyone around you. So for a person who struggles with OCD, your patterns and behaviors are only reinforced to the point of madness.
So I started to tease out the question: what was it that I was so afraid of? Dying, I suppose. Or permanent incapacitation. Or my loved ones dying. Or maybe it was a loss of a way of life.
But how I was living these past two months didn’t really feel like living. I had to tell myself that there’s a fine line between being careful and mindful and completely making your life devoid of any meaning.
The walls of my small apartment in the Bay Area started to close in on me, so I made a decision to head to Colorado to be with my partner. Yeah, that actually increased some fear of mine because he works in a public facing profession in the medical field, so I realize that increases my risk of exposure. But I also realized that the toll on my mental health of being by myself, alone with my OCD and spinning thoughts, was probably more dangerous.
So, where does that leave me and why am I writing this?
Frankly, I don’t know. I guess the same reason I write anything. Sometimes it helps to admit my full crazy. And if you too have been panicked and afraid and beating yourself up over that, you aren’t alone. The trouble with OCD (like my eating disorder) is that I KNOW it’s irrational. I know it’s not logical. I’m in my mid-30s, with no underlying risk factors, and, after all the dirt I’ve eaten all these years, hope I have a pretty robust immune system. Yet trying to stop the thoughts or berating myself for having them isn’t helping anything, and it’s tough to change those when everyone in the world is telling you that you SHOULD be scared as fuck.
But fear and anxiety and perception of risk is a funny thing. Let me expound:
Example A: I drove to Colorado from California. Logically, I can tell myself that I probably had a greater chance of dying in a car accident on the 2 day drive than I do from contracting this virus.
Example B: I’ve never worn sunscreen. I actually have used tanning beds for a good 10-15 years of my life. Logically, I have a greater chance of dying from skin cancer than this disease, yet I’ve knowingly taken that risk.
Example C: Anorexia is the most deadly mental illness out there. I’ve probably put myself at greater risk all these years by having an eating disorder that I do from this disease.
Example D: I’ve done and continue to do endurance races that involve a LOT of risk. People have died. People have collapsed into sudden cardiac arrest. Yet I continue to race.
The list goes on. I’m sure we all have ones of our own. But because we KNOW those risks, because we’ve been able to test them, because they *FEEL* within our control, they don’t seem scary.
COVID-19 is new. And doesn’t feel within our control. And that’s where our mind kicks in.
So I’m trying to be compassionate with myself. I’ve opened up to my loved ones what this has done to me. I think I’ve been super fearful of judgment from others, of being told to “just stop worrying.”
Hot damn, if only it was that easy.
I’m doing all the responsible things that the experts recommend. I’m doing my part to try and stem the tide of this pandemic. But I’m still doing my day to day as much as possible. In some cases, that involves some risk (travel, contact with loved ones, etc).
And in the meantime, I’m trying to take care of my mental health, which involves limiting my news time, being with loved ones, and trying my best to maintain a semblance of a normal life.
The tricky thing about this pandemic is that the things that are recommended to protect our physical health are in direct contradiction to the things that are vital to our mental health.
So I’m trying to find a balance. And I’m also trying to understand that hell, you can do EVERYTHING right, and you could still end up getting infected (kinda like sports injuries!). On the flip side, you can throw caution to the wind, and maybe come out unscathed (though I DO NOT recommend that, because it’s our collective responsibility to slow this sucker down and protect our more vulnerable populations).
We are all in this together. Best case scenario? In a year or two we can look back and laugh at a panic that wasn’t necessary (and can ban the word “social distancing” from our vocabulary). Or maybe it will get really bad, and that case, we really need to come together as humans because no government is going to save us. That’s our collective responsibility.
This too shall pass. Sooner, if we all do our part.