When I pick my daughter up from preschool, I hug her and hold my head against hers, letting my face rub against her loose brown curls. I look like all the other parents greeting their beloved babes — and mostly, I am just like everyone else — except what they don’t see is what’s happening on the inside. I have obsessive compulsive disorder, OCD for short, and when I touch my daughter’s swirly, curly hair that I love, my brain is saying something along the lines of: Oh my GOD, what do you think her hair touched while she was in school? It is likely very contaminated. Do you think you should rush home and have her take a bath? No? Are you sure? ARE YOU LISTENING? LISTEN TO ME, THIS IS DANGEROUS.
I love school. I always loved school and for whatever reason — genetics, environment, chance, fate — I didn’t develop OCD until I was finished with college, in my early 20s, so I have no memory of feeling freaked out by the germs crawling all over classrooms. All I remember of school is the joyfulness of friends, recess, learning. I didn’t notice when a person sneezed or coughed. I didn’t hear someone tell their friend that their son was home with the stomach virus. Or notice that that kid had a puffy ear. What’s a puffy ear? Allergies? Ear infection? Can my newborn get an ear infection?
Where you might just see a door handle, my brain can see that a hundred different people already touched that door and who knows — they could be sick.
The science behind OCD boils down to a brain malfunction: My amygdala, a part of the brain’s limbic system, is not working right. This element of the brain has to do with regulation of emotions and things like fear and anxiety, and people with OCD have an amygdala that’s gone a little haywire. It’s on overdrive. Where you might just see a door handle, my brain can see that a hundred different people already touched that door and — who knows — they could be sick.
How do you know they aren’t sick? They might be? You get the idea. Not everyone with OCD has brains that get stuck on germs, although that’s a common depiction that you often see in the media. Some people might have intrusive thoughts like, if I wear this pair of socks my sister will die. (I have thought that many a time.) If I write this idea down in a story then it most certainly will happen. The gist of OCD is that our brains pump out these thoughts, which creates a surge of anxiety (of course it would), and then we do something (a compulsion) to help us alleviate the anxiety.
When I touch my daughter’s swirly, curly hair, my brain is saying something along the lines of: what do you think her hair touched while she was in school? It is likely very contaminated.
Here’s the kicker, though, and it has good parts and hard parts: (1) I can get through it, all of us with OCD can. (2) I have to keep hugging my daughter. Which is great because hugging her is one of my favorite things to do. Before her nap, we sit together in her bed and I read her two stories. I play with her hair absent-mindedly, and she snuggles into my lap.
My amygdala says: “Ohh, YOU GUYS ARE DEFINITELY GOING TO GET SICK.”
I say back to it: “Yep, that might indeed happen.”
My heart beats fast, and I feel nauseous … but I keep twirling her beautiful hair, I re-focus on the story, I ask her to tell me the details of her day. YOU ARE GOING TO GET SICK, the voice screams in the background, but I let it scream until it becomes white noise. Thank you for the exposure. You are right, we might get sick. I twirl her hair, I kiss her, and I sing her a song. I get up, make myself coffee, and get on with my day.