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Surviving with OCD after COVID

Personal perspective: Rising to the challenges of post-pandemic life with OCD.

Key points

  • OCD sufferers have enduring experience managing anxieties and uncertainties such as those presented by COVID and quarantine.
  • Practicing coping skills learned through ERP therapy will help managing the uncertainties of next steps as COVID wanes.
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Where do we go from here?

If you suffer from OCD, then you were likely familiar with the stressors of quarantine long before 2020. The anxiety of recognizing constant danger in everyday situations. The manic need to seek reassurance in a crisis. The helplessness of looking at your front door, recognizing that it is unlocked, and yet feeling that you are powerless to walk through it.

The pandemic was perversely copacetic with the pathologies of OCD—especially cleanliness and avoidance rituals. You get home, you take off the mask, and then go to the sink to wash your hands. This does not produce any immediate or tangible benefit, aside from your hands being a little wet. Cases are still rising. People are still dying. The world is still in lockdown.

And so—willing to try anything that might make the state of the world a little more bearable—you wash your hands a second time. It takes no time and it doesn’t hurt, and maybe you feel a little better, because at least you did something, even if it was silly and pointless. And if washing your hands again helped (maybe, you aren’t really sure, but maybe just a little) and it certainly didn’t make things worse (because how could things be any worse?): You wash your hands one more time.

But the relief isn’t there; the anxiety persists. So what else can you do but go back and wash them again?

Uncertainty, confinement, futility—everyone has lived with these burdens for the past two years. But if you suffer from OCD, then you’ve lived with them for much, much longer.

And with COVID, at least there was a clear explanation for why restricted living was necessary. OCD does not announce or explain itself—and prior to diagnosis, most sufferers endure a period of pure confusion and horror, tormented by disturbing thoughts and irrational compulsions for no logical reason. You survived that.

And then you survived the shock of diagnosis, of intense relief tainted by the dawning realization you have given name and form and substance to a burden you will bear for the rest of your life. You survived the intense discomfort and the sometimes embarrassing absurdities of ERP (Exposure and Response Prevention) therapy. You survived the knife-in-the-gut disappointment of every relapse, the fresh horror of every new emergent symptom, and the constant, quiet ordeal of maintaining a façade of normalcy as irrational compulsions threatened to consume you.

You've lived with the knowledge that any moment could bring a sudden, all-consuming personal crisis that no one around you will notice or understand; and you’ve probably had days when every moment spent alone with your thoughts has felt like an interminable imprisonment.

You carry quarantine inside you. You are your own pandemic. And you’ve fought through it, countless times, every day of your life—the fact that you are sitting here today and reading this is a testament to your resolve. You survive. It’s what you do.

Returning to normal life after COVID will be challenging—but every day with OCD is challenging. Every day brings some new permutation or perversion of your symptoms, a new threat to trigger paralysis, a new loop to ensnare you. But in some ways, as we transition out of the pandemic, those experiences with OCD represent a major advantage.

You’ve spent every day of your life practicing and mastering all of the skills you need to survive this. You know what to do. You’ve got this.

Copyright Fletcher Wortmann, 2022. Please credit the original author, Fletcher Wortmann, and Psychology Today.