Anne Panciera | Staff Writer
The world is a disgusting place. People pick their nose and cough into their hands. They stick their hands down their pants and don’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom. Diseases and illnesses spread—they find you through air, through touch, through spit. Maybe through the doorknob you just touched, or the desk you just sat in—maybe even the hand you just shook. We are all exposed to germs every single day. In moderation, they are even necessary, and most people accept them as such. For example, you don’t see people avoiding doorknobs because they are covered in germs—most likely, it won’t occur to them that they have millions—even though there is a whole Wikipedia entry dedicated to door handle bacteria. But even though this is the case, most of the population moves past them and gets on with their lives. Then, there are people who are haunted by germs and the possibilities of sickness they hold.
From 6th grade up to my junior year of high school, I lived in a box I had created out of thin air. I couldn’t leave this box, couldn’t break the rules the box made for me. My brain was playing a long practical joke, but it never reached the punch line. I couldn’t touch doorknobs, school desks, hands, remotes, keys, school textbooks, public computers, public anything. I lived in a state of mind that constantly kept track of what I couldn’t touch or could touch or something that might be okay to touch or…
It never stopped.
This way of life was torturous, but after multiple years of ruthlessly avoiding germs, my compulsions began to feel like home. I became so familiar with the monster on my back, I wasn’t sure I could, or even wanted, to let it go. I felt relaxed, confident with what I was doing; no germs could get to me and infect me with all their filth. My compulsions had sunk their claws into my skin, and they had no intention of letting go. To me, they seemed reasonable without question.
To stop tiptoeing around the fact, yes, I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. People often think of OCD as a simple obsession with having a clean desk or room. We’ve all heard people say, “I’m so OCD about that,” or “that is making me so OCD.” It’s a little disconcerting that the population can be so unaware as to what the true meaning of OCD is (and that OCD is not, in fact, an adjective). It’s more than that—way more than that.
During my sophomore year of high school, I reached a peak with my obsessions. If I let even one fingernail graze a school desk, I had to immediately douse my hands in hand sanitizer. I remember gazing with jealousy at my classmates as they casually relaxed their hands on their desks without hesitation. My brain had equivalated that simple action alone to defeating the #1 wrestler in the world. I wrestled my mind every single day, and it never failed to pin me to the mat.
Since I was making no progress in my normal therapy visits I had each week, my parents broke the news one day that they scheduled me to partake in Mayo Clinic’s “Intensive Anxiety Clinic” in Rochester, Minnesota, a weeklong program that focuses on exposure therapy, where kids confront their fears head on.
I pleaded for them to not make me go, but it was pointless. My parents told me they knew what was best for me, that this had gone on long enough. They told me I had no choice (that I was trapped), that it would help me (that I would get sick).
When I walked into the waiting room on that first day, I knew this thing was for real. There was no escape; I was caged in, caught. I was eventually called into the office of the doctor who would lead the program, and he explained how this program was going to work. There would be seven kids in the clinic, each with their own different type of anxiety, and everyone would be accompanied by their parents who would help them through the whole process. Each day we would do “exposures,” where we would face our various anxieties. Fun, right?
The group meeting followed shortly after, and I was introduced to all the kids I would be spending the week with. There was a girl with such bad social anxiety, she couldn’t say one word in front of the group; a girl who cut apart everything she ate or she couldn’t eat it; a girl who couldn’t touch money;a boy and a girl who were too scared to leave home and be independent; and another girl who was a germaphobe like me. I remember it feeling amazing to talk to other people who knew exactly what I was going through. No blank stares and weird smiles after I explain myself to someone. It was the first time I had a glimmer of hope that maybe, just possibly, I could survive this week without having a complete meltdown.
After introductions, we all made lists of the various exposures we would like to take on during the week. They were to start out easy, get gradually harder, and end with a bang on the last day. As I made the list, I tried to put all my cynical thoughts aside about the program not working on me. I needed to do this. I had come all the way here, and I was not going to be that brat that just sat back and crossed her arms. No one liked that person.
I let my hands rest on the table.
I shocked myself every day that week. Each day, I did something I had been avoiding for a good six years. It wasn’t easy. My brain entered the wrestling ring and faced me down every day, but this week, I wasn’t going to let it slam me to the floor. I felt filthy; I thought I might as well have been a piece of trash in a dump. But I did my exposures. I did them until they weren’t as painful—until I couldn’t feel the germs crawling over my skin. I touched the public furniture I sat in. I ran my hands over the magazines in the waiting room. I touched a TV remote without using a paper towel. I touched elevator buttons. I touched sink handles. I touched doorknobs! Again. And again. And again.
I loved hearing about everyone’s progress in the group meetings. The girl with severe social anxiety finally made her voice heard. It was quiet, but filled with bundles of life that she had learned to keep hidden. The girl who was wary of food forced herself to eat a burger without taking it apart first. We were all scared. We didn’t want to do any of this. We did it anyway.
On the last day, I had to carry out the last thing on my list. Everyone was supposed to do something that would “overexpose” themselves, do something a little extreme. On my list during the first day, I wrote down I was going to roll around on a public bathroom floor. A public. Bathroom. Floor. It might be shocking, but after everything I did that week, I was ready for that bathroom floor. I hadn’t died yet; I hadn’t even coughed. I knew I could do it, just like I had done everything else.
When I entered the bathroom, I gave a quick once over of the room. Three stalls, one sink, white tiled floor. For a moment, I stopped to think—why me? Why was I the way that I was? The answer was, and still is to this day, I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with being germ-free. I have no idea why my compulsions started in the first place, and I can’t even pinpoint exactly when or how they started. They just were. One day I woke up, and my brain simply decided it wanted everything to be germ-free, and that was that. I felt I had no choice but to obey.
Now, I think of all the hand washing lessons I had received as a kid, all the commercials I had seen on TV promoting cleaners and disinfectants, and all the hand sanitizing stations that were around every corner. I had given into all of them so easily. But I realize now, it wasn’t just me; our society is obsessed with cleanliness. If someone doesn’t shower regularly, it’s considered gross and unsanitary. If someone coughs without covering their mouth, it’s considered repulsive. If someone forgets to wash their hands after going to the bathroom—god forbid. It is hard to forget all of these deeply ingrained ideas about cleanliness.
But then there I was, staring at a dirty bathroom floor. I made the decision, and I quickly laid down. As I was there, I thought of all the dirty shoes that have walked across it; all the possibilities of the germs crawling over it flooded my mind. I felt every piece of contact my body made with that floor. Every thought in my head screamed I would contract all kinds of deadly diseases—ones that haven’t even been invented. That’s not true, I told the voice. I was going to be fine…most likely.
When I walked out of the bathroom, I was giddy. I had done something that most people would consider absolutely disgusting. Since I was successful with the bathroom, one of the other girls said she wanted to do it too, but only if I did it with her. Misery loves company, I guess. So, in no time at all, I found myself back on the floor. We giggled and scrunched up our faces at each other, making a potentially horrific experience a funny thing to be laughed at. That time as I faced down my fears, my brain didn’t even enter the wrestling ring. There was no ring to begin with.
When I tell people of this experience, of when I rolled around on a bathroom floor, every single person furls their eyebrows and exclaims, “Even I wouldn’t do that!” I then realize that today, right now, I wouldn’t be able to do it either. It would take a ton of work for me to be able to do that again. That week was forced exposure after forced exposure, a rare experience that I will never go through again. Today, I am more lenient with the various small anxieties I still have. I’m not in the routine of fighting them endlessly; I don’t have a doctor breathing down my neck every minute.
But I’m content. My compulsions and obsessions aren’t nearly as bad as they once were. And I’m one of the few who know the secrets of the bathroom floor—and that is priceless.