Read: The coronavirus is a special mental-health disaster
OCD can feel utterly enormous, so I found it comforting to talk with others who have it for this story. Jeff Whitmire, who is 44 years old and lives in Lititz, Pennsylvania, has had OCD since he was a child. For him, it often manifests as overanalysis of events and interactions. Years ago, when Whitmire hit a stick on the road while driving his car, he couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that he hadn’t actually seen the stick. Which meant, he thought, that there was a chance that stick could have been a person. Whitmire drove 30 miles in distress before deciding to turn the car back around to check.
Whitmire’s compulsions calmed significantly when he entered his 40s: He was able to go off his medication and stop attending therapy. But when the pandemic hit, his anxiety shot up, and the compulsions came flooding back. “It was like going back to square one,” he told me. For a while, he was too anxious to call his best friend on the phone, because he didn’t want to spend the rest of the day overthinking their conversation.
For some people with contamination OCD, the pandemic has complicated their fears about germs and viruses—and many of them have become overwhelmed, Pittenger said. Chelsea Ridener, a 24-year-old pediatric nurse in Tulsa, Oklahoma, had mild contamination OCD before the pandemic. When the world grew fixated on a highly contagious virus, her compulsions became almost debilitating. Ridener now wipes down her grocery cart for 10 or 15 minutes before shopping and scrubs her hands with sanitizer after touching anything in a public space. (Scientists have concluded that the coronavirus is much more likely to be transmitted through the air than on surfaces.) At Walmart recently, Ridener’s 2-year-old son touched something in the bathroom and then immediately grabbed her hand. Picturing the germs spreading from his body to hers sent Ridener into a panic attack. She sat in a back hallway of the store, shaking and crying for nearly an hour.
Surprisingly, although the past year has been terrible for some people with contamination OCD, others have not experienced an increase in contamination-related thoughts and behaviors, Pittenger and Szymanski told me. People like me, who don’t have compulsions related to health, have been more likely to report exacerbated OCD symptoms, at least according to preliminary research, they said. This could be because people with contamination OCD actually found a strange relief in the pandemic: They were exceptionally well prepared to live through a global health crisis.
“My therapist said, ‘You’ve been prepping for this your whole life,’” says Dotty Dart, a 30-year-old who lives in Detroit and who has rituals associated with germs and a fear of vomiting. “It was weirdly comforting,” she told me, to know that other people finally understood the daily panic she’d always felt. Seeing people take public health seriously, wear masks, and wash their hands more often made her feel less anxious. But when Dart thinks about the world opening up again—people crowding restaurants and bars and stores, coughing and sneezing and touching things—that relief disappears. “It makes me a little nervous, thinking about people just going back to being gross adults.”