There’s no feeling quite like running clean water on ya hands – can I get a HELL YEEAAAH. When I’m more in control of OCD, hand washing becomes a more pleasant experience. I wash them just the once, then I run my hands under the cold tap for a while (makes my bellybutton tingle all nice like), then I dry them, and if I’m feeling really spicy, I slap some moisturiser on ‘em. The aftermath is a little more challenging, due to the having to touch door handles/anything at all in the world that might tarnish my fresh fresh end-of-arm-grabbers. All in all, it’s a normal, automatic process during my day. I do it before I eat, I do it when I’ve eaten, I do it when I’ve been to the bathroom, and I do it when I get home from being outside of the house (okay I don’t actually think that last one is normal but I’m working on it).

When the OCD is being a bastard, however, my hand washing routine becomes a military operation, complete with sweat upon my brow, and the temptation of a biopsy to determine whether any pathogens remain on/in my hands after washing. For example, I’ll clean the house and then once I’m finished, my old pal OCD will pipe up with “now all the germs you cleaned are on your hands”, to which I reply by stampeding to the nearest sink – arms outstretched – a vision of soap flickering before my eyes with iridescent sparkles and flying babies. I wash them once, I flick the excess water off my hands. I wash them twice, before thinking “that’s probably enough”, and flicking the water off them. I pause near the hand towel. “What if”, the OCD breathes into my ear, “what if you didn’t wash them well enough?” The cycle repeats itself and I’m stuck, like a robot, washing my hands repeatedly until my breathing becomes laboured and my hands become pink.

Sometimes, if I think about my hands or about germs, my hands literally feel different. It’s very hard to explain in words. My hands feel warm, and I can ‘feel’ the pathogens growing and multiplying on my skin. Everything I touch then becomes highlighted in my brain as having germs on it, and I end up feeling like a huge contagious swamp monster. It’s very hard not to give in and wash my hands sometimes, as I’m scared of causing harm to the people around me by spreading germs.

This particularly intense compulsion to wash my hands usually requires a trigger, and it happens less now due to my (hesitant) refusal to give into it. Things I still struggle to do without triggering this frenzied marathon of soap suds include touching books or magazines, touching food that’s been in the fridge, cleaning and tidying (two of my favourite hobbies…I wish I was kidding) and using public transport. OCD permits me to touch my dogs without worrying about germs though. Poppy eats bird shit, and Louis wipes his face in anything that smells strange, but the OCD absolutely permits these germs… Classic ol’ OCD being logical again.

The thing I find most distressing about this compulsion is the lack of control. I’m stuck in a cycle, unable to break it, feeling like I’m being bandersnatched by a really boring clean-freak. The thing I find second-most distressing is the fact that it’s time-consuming. I’ll have an appointment, or an important event, or a friend to meet, and I know I’ll be late if I get stuck in the hand-washing matrix but I LITERALLY. CAN’T. STOP. The sore hands that result from all this washing is collateral damage. One winter, my hands became so dry that the skin became sort of scaly on my knuckles, and they hurt and itched (sometimes I forget how sexy I am until I write a blog post). This then triggered comments and questions from acquaintances as to why my hands were so sore, which might’ve made me feel a little self-conscious had I given a single shit what anyone thought. Luckily, I don’t. Once OCD was diagnosed, I was usually honest and friendly in my replies. People are curious, and they won’t understand OCD unless we tell them about it frankly. Another annoying side-effect from all this hand washing is the fact that I can’t grow my nails. Before 2016, I had very long natural nails that I kept in pristine condition. Hand-washing seems to have weakened them and I can’t grow them. I always felt like they were a part of my identity, and now I’ve lost that to OCD. Now I’m washing my hands less, I’m hoping they’ll grow back as healthy and strong as before.

During my worst phase of OCD a couple of years ago, hand-washing alone became obsolete in the battle against germs, and soon I was showering twice a day. I washed my face once when I woke up, once when I got home in the evening, and once before bed. Sometimes I’d wash it after eating too. My hair became dry and limp, and my skin became inflamed and angry. At the time, this didn’t even strike me as too much washing. I assumed everyone washed this much – or perhaps I didn’t even think about it? I’m not entirely sure. But I do remember my therapist wincing affectionately when I declared how much of my day I spent washing myself, before telling me that we were gonna work together to lessen the washing. I didn’t realise how much I ‘needed’ to wash myself until this moment. When I got home, I cried privately at the thought of letting germs dwell on my skin.

This compulsion was treated almost completely by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy alone. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, we did a lot of exposure work to normalise things that scared and therefore triggered me. I was encouraged to wash only when (actually) necessary, and to avoid repetitive washing. This was a process that lasted a little over three months before my washing habits became more manageable. As with any of the other symptoms, I still have the odd moment here and there where something triggers me and I’ll relapse. I’ve learned not to see this as a failure, because mental health recovery is absolutely NOT linear, and if I assumed OCD might leave me alone entirely one day, I’d probably be fooling myself. I’m trying really hard to see OCD as a part of me, and to work alongside it, rather than to see it as the enemy and punish it, because I always end up punishing myself.

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