I have struggled with contamination OCD since I was a kid. But it really started to get bad about 10 years ago, when I was a senior in high school. A mix of too many activities, more difficult classes, figuring out that whole college business, a new boyfriend, and my grandfather losing his battle with prostate cancer led me to start washing my hands multiple times. Over the next few years, it got worse and worse. I still remember a picture of my best friend Amy and me, all dressed up, about to attend our sorority social. If you look at the picture, you see my hands are angry red. It’s as though I wore gloves with an intense irritant inside. That was one of the first times I realized this was becoming a big problem.
In the past year, I’ve made a lot of progress. I rarely, if ever, use sanitizer. But I still struggle with washing my hands too much.
Example 1: I’ve just finished using the restroom. I call for my husband to come “monitor” me, which means he helps me keep track of the number of times I wash and reminds I did wash when I leave the room. (I actually started that with the intention of him telling me to stop when I didn’t want to so I’d have to sit with the anxiety.) I wash my hands for 15 seconds. I wash my left arm almost to my elbow for 15 seconds. I wash my right arm to almost my elbow for 15 seconds. Sometimes the seconds extend to 20, and/or I repeat the counting of seconds. Rinse. Repeat. Rinse. Repeat whole process if still unsure. Otherwise, wash just hands for 15 seconds or more. Rinse. Carefully turn off water. Dry. Pat towel 3-5 times. Clasp hands. Walk out of bathroom. Ask repeatedly if I actually washed and didn’t’ touch anything dirty.
Example 2: A typical morning routine. Change out of PJs. Wash hands. Take shower. Shower lasts 15-30 minutes. Everything is washed 2-3 times, or until it feels right. Leave shower. Dry. Wash hands. Get dressed. Wash hands. Fix hair and put on jewelry. Wash hands. Brush teeth. Wash hands. Do anything else. Wash hands.
The day I headed to Atlanta for the IOCDF conference, I was still doing all of these things. Even on the first day of the conference, I was still doing these things. Until the virtual camping trip.
The virtual camping trip is led by Dr. Jonathan Grayson. If you’re interested to learn more about him and his techniques, you can Google him. He appeared on Oprah and in an article in People magazine. I’d never heard of Dr. Grayson before. I had no idea what to expect on the camping trip. I just got the sense that we would go around the city and do some exposure therapy.
As I was sitting in the conference room waiting for the session to start, I overheard people saying things like, “He makes us touch toilets and then use our hands to eat.” What? Every horrible exposure thing I’d ever heard of popped to mind. I was petrified. It took everything in me to not get up and leave.
When Dr. Grayson started speaking, though, I was captivated. He’s this incredible mix of frank, encouraging, tough, and caring. He knows just what to say to get right inside the heart of you. Well, at least for me. He described the origin of the camping trip. He talked about how our goal with treatment is to accept uncertainty. There is no such thing as certainty. Nothing is ever certain. Certain is a feeling, not a fact.
We all headed outside to start exposure therapy. One of the first things he asked for was our Purell. I had my “emergency” bottle in my purse. I didn’t want to give it up. It’s like a safety blanket. Never mind that several months ago I got rid of it and stopped using it. I was back on it part time, and I didn’t want to stop. I wasn’t going to give it up. But then no one was. And I felt this conviction, like we’re all out here doing this, and I should really participate. So I gave it up, and people clapped for me. I almost cried. I can’t even describe how wonderful it felt to know that everyone there knew how hard that was for me, even though they didn’t know me, and they were proud of me for that step.
When Dr. Grayson asked if anyone had violent thoughts, I hesitated. Most people don’t know this, as it’s not a part of my OCD I like to talk about, but I’ve always struggled with violent thoughts. They come out of nowhere. I can be standing next to someone and suddenly thinking about some horribly violent way to kill them. I have no actual desire to kill anyone, but my mind creates this scary, vivid picture that causes me to question who I really am. I can’t watch scary movies because the images replay in my head, like there’s a broken VCR that will only show me the most horrific images. I remember watching Ghost Ship with my boyfriend’s family in high school. I was there when it was picked out. I wanted to scream, “No! Please let’s watch anything else. I can’t deal with scary.” But I didn’t feel I had that option because I didn’t want to be “that person.” You know, “that person” that always needs things a certain way and ruins everyone’s fun. But I should have said something. To this day, images from the opening scene haunt me. All I have to do is see the title, and the images start replaying over and over in my head. I start to feel nauseated.
I’ve tried to hide it. I just say, “My family always watched family movies.” And truthfully, we did. But I started seeing scary movies at an early age too, and I’ve never been able to handle it. I still see a nightmare I had of my parents killing me after I watched It as vividly as the night I first dreamed it; I was five years old.
So I have violent thoughts. I don’t like to touch sharp things, or be near anything that can harm someone, because my mind will conjure up these images of me doing something terrible. I’m like a mouse; I could never actually hurt anyone. But my mind does its best to convince I can and will.
So Dr. Grayson asked, and I came forward. I had to carry a knife through a gauntlet of people screaming and moaning as though I were killing them. It’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. When people are screaming at me, I panic. My heart was racing as I went through the gauntlet. But I made it out. I made it. And after a bit, the intense anxiety I had felt began to subside. I think everything became easier after that.
We shook hands with homeless people. And most significant for me, for our final activity of the night, we went into the bathrooms. Our task was to touch the toilet seat then eat a Tic Tac. Now, I’ve cleaned my toilet at home before, but while wearing gloves, and washing my hands a billion times after. I knew this was coming and I was still terrified. I asked the helper several times, “What part of the toilet do I have to touch?” She told me anywhere on the seat. I faced the toilet. I looked at the seat. It was relatively clean, but there were some splashes of liquid on it. Who knows what they actually were. I put my left hand down on the seat. I don’t know how I managed it, but I did. And then I took my Tic Tac with my left hand, popped it in my mouth, and forced myself to eat it.
I realize to most of you, this sounds like the grossest thing you’ve ever heard of. You might think I’m insane, or the doc is insane, or all of us are insane. But for OCD people, this is critical to getting better. We think in extremes, so acting in extremes helps up to recognize that no bad will actually come like we thought it would. For me, this was the start of a breakthrough.
I made myself wait until I got back to my hotel room before I washed my hands, and I only did it then because I had to use the restroom. After that, it became easier to tell myself to only wash one time. I could tell myself, “Hey, you touched a toilet and ate. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t wash your hands that second, third, fourth, fifth time. you’re pretty good with one.” It was the start of a revolution in me, that became even stronger when I attended Dr. Grayson’s contamination session the following day.
Watch for that story in my next post!