Dry Hands

Birds perching on their nest atop a pole sticking out of a lake.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is more than just the image of a person wanting a room to look organized. “I can’t stand to see messes” is not a sentence disguised as diagnosis. We tend to belittle OCD and forget the individual components that make it up. An obsession is a worry that, in our minds, must be addressed or some vague (or explicit) doom will befall us. The compulsions are the repeated actions we take to ease the worries. The problem is that the compulsions never take away the obsessions, which allows OCD symptoms to continue.

Is OCD one of my afflictions? All I can do is speculate, but I feel confident that I have at least suffered the symptoms.

Rewind back to my high school days, and you’ll see me with a slew of worries and cares. What didn’t help me in the slightest was my obsession with whether or not I poisoned or potentially murdered someone by spreading invisible and deadly germs or toxins. I don’t know how it happened it to me. I was just always worried that I would hurt someone unintentionally through contamination.

For a time, my hands never could be clean enough. I think I somehow felt that my hands were “tainted.” They needed to be cleaned often. I was so focused on making sure that my hands were germ-free, that I actually overcompensated. The best word to describe my hand-washing would have been “overkill.” I’d do my business in the bathroom like anyone else, but then I’d turn into the most thorough hand-washer you could imagine.

I had certain rules in my head as I washed my hands. I needed to be able to see suds. You know how some liquid soaps bubble up easily and voluminously? I loved those types of hand soaps because I could see the suds on my hands. Seeing was believing. If I could see my hands covered in a thick layer of bubbly soap, then I somehow felt I would end my hand-washing in a “clean” state. But if the soap refused to bubble the way I liked, I wouldn’t be able to feel clean.

So I could lather my hands with soap, but I couldn’t consider myself sufficiently clean until I could see suds on my hands. Some soaps didn’t react the way I wanted. What would I do? I’d just add more and more soap until I could finally see some satisfying suds. Because, again, my mind told me this was the only way I could leave the bathroom with clean hands. Anything less than that, and I could potentially spread germs to the people around me.

I also had a rule about the length of time I washed. When washing hands, I’ve always heard the recommended time is twenty seconds. There was a time in my life where I couldn’t feel truly clean until I’d washed and washed and . . . washed. I couldn’t tell you how long I would wash my hands. The thing is, I never really counted down seconds. I just had to feel that my washing had been done long enough. I feel confident that many of my hand-washing sessions were longer than twenty seconds.

If I felt I hadn’t done a good enough job, well, I could always just wash my hands again. You know, just to be absolutely sure. Because with OCD symptoms, you’re really not sure of anything. Even the compulsions that are supposed to comfort you fall short. Your uncertainty is the only thing that’s certain. And it’s no wonder that causes a lot of anxiety.

The compulsions may seem like they relieve some anxiety, but they only reinforce the intensity of the obsessions. In the end, the compulsions result in a net loss. In my case, I only had to look at my hands to see the result of my worries. I would often have very dry hands because of all the washing. My hands would take on a stark red tone and feel rough to the touch. I hated wearing t-shirts because you could clearly see where my dry skin began.

And of course, another problem with dry skin is cracking skin. My knuckles would get so dry that the skin over them would crack open and bleed. It wasn’t uncommon to see my knuckles covered in dark maroon lines. Because the skin is stretched atop the knuckles, it’s much easier for the cracks to reopen, thus causing more bleeding. My knuckles hosted spots of dried blood and I hated the way they looked. I was harming myself but I couldn’t seem to stop.

As of today, I still have my moments of worrying that I’ve somehow contaminated something that will eventually harm another. It’s more like a background buzz, a mental tinnitus. To be fair, Covid-19 is partly responsible for any excessive sanitations. I think we’re all living a little more carefully these days.

My obsessions have been more than just worries about contamination.

During a very stressful time in my life, my obsessive thoughts directly attacked who I was as a person. These thoughts were painting me as a stranger, someone I wasn’t. But as I gave these thoughts an audience, a bunch of “what ifs” slipped into my mind. This type of attack was much worse than washing my hands excessively. I mean, at the very least, I could claim that obsessive hand-washing was saving me and others from sickness. But obsessive thoughts that put into question my values and character hurt much more than bloody knuckles.

On the one hand, my brain was listing all the reasons I was a horrible person. My obsessive brain found proof in the smallest details of my actions. It scrutinized me during the day and forced me to see how the puzzle pieces were fitting. It found proof of my flawed character in intrusive thoughts, as if I had wanted those thoughts in my mind.

On the other hand, I fought back. When the bad thoughts came, I had to fight them with new thoughts that replaced the accusations. Because if I simply let the bad thoughts pass, then that meant (to me) that the bad thoughts were true. So every bad thought needed a counter in order for me to feel better. And even then, I never really felt peace of mind. I found some relief in holding on tight to what I considered anecdotal “proof” that I wasn’t the degenerate my brain thought I was. Inevitably, my thought shield would fail and another disturbing thought would shake me to the core. Then I would have to find a way to make sure I had another counter to the latest bad thought.

This continual narrative shift I attempted was a losing battle. The truth is, we all suffer from intrusive thoughts. What matters is the weight we give to them. As much as it may confound us, we can’t always control what goes through our heads. I think I still struggle with that. We get into issues when we assign a moral value to a passing thought. What we should do is just let it go. A thought is a thought. And though some thoughts may be scary or disturbing or unlike us, they have no power to redefine us unless we let them.

I have a better grip on this concept now, but I think I still struggle with my thoughts. My brain will still sometimes attack me. Why can’t my brain just be my friend?

During my time as a college student, I suffered from what may be the most pernicious “form” of OCD symptoms. Religious OCD is a very special form of suffering that serves to make a religion seem more like a ball & chain. You may have heard the term “scrupulosity” before. That’s another term for this religious OCD. Even though I don’t want to diagnose myself, I have to come to terms with how I suffered during those days. And the feelings and thoughts seem to match up to what a scrupulous individual may experience.

But I’m going to talk about that later in a new post, simply because it’s going to be a long read.

So do I have OCD? It’s a good question. I think it’s somewhat likely. The point is, I’m not going to be afraid to see the issues of my past and how they may affect my present. I can’t afford to ignore the patterns in my brain that still exist. A lot of these patterns are no good for me. It’s like washing your hands too often. It doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to feel normal. Too many negative thought patterns feel normal. Hopefully, with this blog, I’ll pay attention and question everything that goes through my mind so automatically.

The hunt continues…

Published by cherrynorthern

Hello! My name is Cherry Northern. This is clearly a real name.

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