OCD in a Time of COVID-19


For most of my life, I have suffered from moderate to severe contamination-OCD.

Since I was a small child, I’ve washed my hands until they are raw and bleeding. I’ll use hand sanitizer over and over again, even when I haven’t touched anything new. I never, ever touch my face in public places. I never, ever share food or drinks with other people. And the fastest way to send me into an excruciating panic spiral is to show up to an event/playdate/really anywhere in my presence sick.

I come by it honestly. My dad, (a truly great guy), also has contamination OCD. When my brothers and I were growing up, we weren’t lectured about the usual things. If we were going out to see friends or to go on a date, we weren’t reminded to be home by curfew or to “make good choices.” We were emphatically reminded to wash our hands, don’t touch our faces, and not to hug or kiss anybody. (I once walked in on my dad microwaving money in an attempt to sanitize it, so that’s the place I’m coming from.)

Since COVID-19 first hit the scene, friends who are intimately familiar with my mental illness have been checking in to make sure I’m not completely catatonic with terror. This scenario should be my worst nightmare.

So how am I holding up deep in the mire of a global pandemic? 

Actually, surprisingly well. 

I can’t speak for anyone else with contamination OCD, but my own experience has been far more peaceful and less anxiety-riddled than I ever thought possible. In a strange and twisted way, this is the moment I’ve been preparing for my whole life. 

I feel I should clarify that I’m writing from a very privileged place. My husband and I are both able to work from home while caring for our four-year-old. We have the resources fro grocery delivery and other essentials right to our door. We have safe and working vehicles and don’t have to rely on public transportation. We are all in good health with no major underlying risk factors, and we are able to carefully social-distance.

Because of all of these privileges, we are (at least to some degree) able to control our potential exposure and keep our general anxiety down. 

But since social distancing began, I haven’t had to change any of my long-held habits. Everything the CDC recommends to stay healthy? I’ve been doing all of those things for decades. Finally, I feel like the rest of the world has been elevated to my baseline standard of cleanliness and sanitation, which is oddly satisfying.

Especially when it comes to protecting my child. If they were giving out gold medals for vigilance, show me the podium. There is something comforting about complying with all the guidelines and knowing that I can (to a point) keep my family safe. This, this I know how to do.

Now, when I want to wear gloves to pump gas or hit the ATM, I’m not being irrational. Wearing a mask to pick up takeout curbside? Perfectly reasonable. Sanitizing everything that enters my home? Strongly recommended by very smart people!

Is it twisted and wrong to feel strangely vindicated by a global pandemic? Yes, it probably is. But honestly? There is no right or wrong way to feel right now. We are all in the midst of processing an unprecedented global event. No matter what the state of your mental health right now, this is tough. Whether or not my feelings are “reasonable,” I’m really grateful to not be sick with spiraling fear on top of everything else during this already challenging time.

And I know that we will get through this, together, one thorough hand-washing at a time.


  1. I have a similar experience. And at first I felt this way. But now I feel like I’m in a weird limbo where I am trying to backpedal all the mind protections I put in place years ago.

    Since I was a teenager and did exposure therapy on myself (a truly torturous experience), I have mantras I tell myself to avoid outward compulsions. Like reminding myself that a “normal” person wouldn’t worry about this. Or I’ll ask my family if they would be worried so I know if I’m being crazy or not.

    But now I have to remind myself NOT to do that. That I am NOT being crazy when I sanitize the groceries. That I am NOT going too far when I accidently touch my pants with an unsanitized object and have to change clothes. And trying to break down those protections has been really, really weird for me.


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