The hottest stretch of summer in Arizona is upon us and we haven’t seen rain in almost 100 days. I’m sitting in a lawn chair on my front porch around dinner time. This is the first time all day it’s been cool enough to enjoy being outside. I’m a 20-year-old college student who just finished my second year at Arizona State University.
If this were a normal summer, I’d be reporting about events for my school’s online newspaper, doing readings at local libraries from my new book of poetry, driving around town with my friends on hot summer evenings with all the windows down and the music turned up.
I wave back at a few neighbors across the street without really looking at them. I swat at a fly buzzing around my temple. I’m skinny, taller than average, and most people would say I look like I’m doing okay.
But, like so many others, inside my head, I’m struggling to cope.
Living in a global pandemic is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. Everyone has been affected in one way or another, economically, physically, mentally — or all three.
As someone who has dealt with OCD his whole life, I know what it’s like to wake up afraid and fall asleep afraid, which is the new reality for a lot of people right now. The difference today is, with Covid-19 ravaging our communities, there’s actually a tangible reason for me to feel anxious day and night.
In the past, all the fears crippling my ability to live a normal life were completely false and not based on any sort of reasonable evidence at all. These wildly outrageous fears were terrifying enough, but when my OCD has a logical reason on which to base its claims, resisting my compulsions and rituals is unbelievably harder.
My obsessions are uncontrollable and strike out of nowhere. Each feels like a mosquito bite on my brain and the only way to scratch it is to give in to the compulsion. The problem is, like a mosquito bite, the more you scratch, the worse the itch.
One of my recent compulsions has been mental checking. Mental checking for me is going over little moments again and again in my mind to assure myself I didn’t do anything wrong or hurt anyone in the past until I’ve freaked myself out so much, I remember things that didn’t happen and I’m absolutely positive I deserve a spot in hell.
During the pandemic, I’ve found myself mentally obsessing over every little detail of every little moment I’ve been outside my home:
Masks aren’t 100% effective, so what if I gave that grocery store clerk the virus and he’s going to spread it to everyone in the store and his family and they’re all going to die?
What if that jogger got too close to me when I went on a walk earlier and coughed on me and I just don’t remember it and I’m going to catch the virus but feel nothing and bring it back home to my family and they’re going to die?
I know, a lot of fears about death, right?
I’d like to say that I’ve found a fool-proof way to conquer my intrusive thoughts and thrive right now. But if I’m being honest, during my best moments, I’ve really just found myself watching a lot of Seinfeld and The Big Bang Theory and thinking about how uncomfortably close they all are when they talk to each other, and how I miss being able to hug my friends.
It’s hard to be a successful college student, a good friend, or a loving and attentive partner if your every action is chewed up and spit out by the monster in your head.
We’ve been living in this uncertain and scary new world for over 4 months now. It’s Sunday and I’m sitting outside on the front porch again, this time with my family. We’ve just eaten a nice meal that my Dad cooked, and we’re staring at the dark blue and purple sky in silence, listening to the quail and the rustle of the leaves in the wind.
Everything isn’t exactly okay, but I’m alive. I think to myself that you never really notice the moment a mosquito bite stops itching. If you fight against those urges to scratch long enough, one day you’ll look down and notice that your skin is smooth again.
Fighting OCD is about resisting the urge to complete a compulsion, challenging the intrusive thoughts and facing your fears with more realistic thoughts. Maybe you’ll touch the door handle of a gas station bathroom and only wash your hands once. Maybe you’ll ride in the backseat of a car and not put your feet up on the headrest of the passenger seat to keep the car from crashing.
A blemish doesn’t have to become a scar, and that’s why I’m hopeful for our future, my friends.