I've had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of my pre-diagnosis struggles with OCD: my hands, cracked and bleeding from washing them 50 times per day; having full-on meltdowns on planes when I realized my parents didn't pack disinfecting wipes; forcing my parents to repeat bedtime rituals until everything felt "just right." Though I'll probably never be without symptoms of OCD, thankfully, I’ve come a long way since the peak of my disorder. Through the help of a solid support system, therapy, and psychiatric medication, I've been able to develop strategies for managing my OCD — partly out of necessity, and admittedly, partly out of embarrassment.
Like most mental illnesses, OCD can be difficult to explain to people who do not suffer from it — and I get it — really, I do! I know it doesn’t make sense that I can’t sit on my bed until I change into clean clothes, but have no issue sharing a drink with virtually anyone. Because I'm good at hiding it, most of my friends probably don't fully understand the ways having OCD affects me on a day-to-day basis.
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I think it's important for me to try to explain — and the best way I can convey what it feels to have OCD is to put it into photos. Whereas most people just see a backpack or a pair of shoes, I see my disorder. But the fact that I can recognize and admit to these parts of my OCD — without stigma or shame — is more than a step in the right direction. It's part of my recovery.
1. My Plane Backpack
Planes are a major trigger for me. I worry about the germs circulating on them, which is where the plane backpack comes in.
Essentially, it's exactly what it sounds like: a backpack that I only use for the plane. It stays in a plastic bag in my apartment, and must be tucked into a corner of my hotel room only to be excavated come time to fly home. I have had many different plane backpacks over the years (RIP blue Jansport), but this one's been with me for about two years now. Unlike many bags, backpacks are good because they can also be washed — so if I absolutely need to use this backpack for a different purpose, I can throw it in the washing machine beforehand to make it acceptable to use outside of a plane/airport setting.
2. My Plane Shoes
These are my plane shoes. Similar to my backpack, I put them on before I get on a plane, and take them off immediately afterwards, in an effort to avoid what bringing the plane germs into my home space. In the past few years, I’ve been able to fly quite a few times without them — but only in sandals or rain boots, which I can immediately wipe down with Clorox wipes.
3. Disinfecting Wipes
Disinfecting wipes are pretty much my best friend. If you sit next to me on a plane, be prepared to see my wipe down the seatbelt, armrests, tray tablets, and headrests (because, ew, other people’s hair). I also use them to wipe down things like my purse (especially after being on a bus), my phone, or really anything that I feel has been contaminated by a space I view as dirty.
For me, disinfecting wipes offer a safety net and a "start fresh" feeling in a space that is out of my control.
4. My Hands
Since my OCD is concentrated in germophobia, I wash my hands a lot. My raw hands are a very physical representation of the ways my OCD affects every aspect of my life.
Since middle and high school, I've been able to cut back on using hand sanitizer as often, but I'm still a serial hand washer, and don't see that slowing down anytime soon. Anything from touching the pole on the bus to exchanging money to door handles can trigger a need to wash for me. Vaseline is key for keeping my hands intact.
5. Antibacterial Hand Sanitizer
I said I cut back on hand sanitizer — not that I completely stopped using it. I try to keep at least one bottle in each of my bags, often more to provide a sense security than for actual use. A full hand wash is always preferable, but when it is not immediately accessible (on a plane, in a car, on a bus) hand sanitizer is at least a temporary fix.
6. The Bottom Of My Shoes
Besides planes and public bathrooms, the bottoms of shoes are probably my third main trigger. There is nothing that can make me feel quite as physically sick (at least as quickly) as someone accidentally touching my leg with the bottom of their shoe. It's connected to the worry of tracking germs from streets or bathroom floors into my home — and it makes going to college lectures, movie theaters, and other situations where people might cross their legs particularly tough.
7. Paper Towels
Disclaimer: I know how terrible this habit is for the environment, but I will never be the person who prefers kitchen towels or hand air dryers to paper towels. After washing my hands, I want to feel fresh — and using something like a shared kitchen towel makes me immediately feel the need to re-wash. Paper towels are always key.
8. Public Restrooms
Okay, so this one is kind of a given. Public bathrooms are, without a doubt, one of the grossest things we encounter on a daily basis. But for me, public bathrooms mean quite a bit of maneuvering: toilet paper to close the stall door lock, and paper towels to close the faucet spout and open the bathroom door.
Bathroom air dryers require a specific precision in their use (god-forbid my hands touch the sides, a breeding hole for other people's leftover germs) and don't offer the same door-handle solution that paper towels do (using the paper towel as a barrier to open the door).
9. Shaking Hands
Will I refuse to shake your hand or immediately wipe it off on my pants afterwards? No. But will I shake your hand and then secretly sneak off to wash up? Definitely.
I don't know where your hands have been, nor do I know your level of cleanliness — but I do know it's likely (and understandably) not at the same obsessive level that mine is. It's a level of contamination that feels both out of my control and in need of a swift fix. It's a major trigger for me.
10. My Medication
The bottle on the left is my everyday Zoloft prescription. My psychiatrist manages my OCD through a particular dosage of the medication Zoloft. I know meds are not for everyone, but they are definitely for me. Since going on Zoloft my senior year of college, I have been able to do things I honestly didn't know would ever be possible for me, like moving to a city where I take public transit, and flying without immediately changing clothes and showering.
The prescription on the right is for Xanax, my emergency helper for when I am having a particularly stressful day, or one when I just can't seem to shut my brain off. This is, of course, not the solution for everyone — and medication alone is not the solution for me, either.
But this photo represents a period of admission, acceptance, and rehabilitation for me. Most of all, it represents freedom. And for that, I am thankful.
Images: Nile Cappello