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Contamination OCD during COVID-19 panic

Annie Windholz
5 min readMar 16, 2020
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*This is not the way that everyone who struggles with contamination OCD are feeling right now, but it is the way that I feel with contamination OCD.

I know the way that I should be feeling during COVID-19, but I want to level with you all and tell you how I’m really feeling. At least how I’m really feeling today, while there are 7 confirmed cases in my city and gatherings of over 50 people have all been cancelled.

  1. As someone who was unable to go to bars and restaurants, unable to hold down jobs because of contamination OCD, this pandemic oddly comes at a time when I am really at peace with germs, and have made great strides in exposure therapy. Staying home feels more scary to me than going outside, because I have trained myself to face “the germs” over the past few years/ over my life, and staying inside is eerily close to when I am at my worst. Even though we are now staying inside for the health of society at large, it still feels too close to failure for me, and I am constantly wanting to go out and eat food and drink in public. But I’ll also be okay if I can’t.
  2. People who know I have contamination OCD have been reaching out to me, asking how I am doing. I feel like they expect me to be doing poorly, and I think they want camaraderie because they are freaking out a bit. I feel conflicted in not being able to give them what I know they probably want. I am fine, and they are not. And honestly, it’s good practice for people in society who don’t live with any mental health issues to see what it is like for the rest of us on a day to day basis.
  3. People with anxiety disorders seem to be faring much better than the general population. Years and years of imagining worst case scenarios on a day to day basis has many of us on the anxiety/ OCD spectrum prepped and ready for this. We finally don’t feel like “the crazy ones”. Most of us have spent our lifetime curating tools to help us in times of crisis, which we experience at far greater frequencies than the general population. We are no stranger to panic, and because of that, we are prepared for it.
  4. All of that being said, I get it. I still “see” germs on every surface, I have my whole life. It’s just that now that everyone else is seeing it, I’m feeling validated instead of more scared. And let me tell you, seeing germs everywhere is a hell hole that is hard to return from for someone with an obsessive compulsive brain. I am a little bit worried that all of this panic will trigger me into my obsessions and compulsions that I have been managing quite well (and that’s also the OCD worry talking, because I don’t think I am really in danger of being swayed by the public unless I let fear of being swayed by the public take center stage. i.e., life with obsessions and compulsions).

Pro tips from a person with OCD, who sees germs every minute of her life, more or less:

  • Drink orange juice, wash your hands and try not to focus too much on it.

That’s the advice I’m giving my friends who are panicking, who are reaching out to me because they know I have contamination OCD and deal with this fear daily. From experience though, thinking too much into the COVID-19 thing is a rabbit hole that will be hard to get out of if people let it control their lives completely. Shit’s going to happen as it will, and we have to do as much as we can, but we can’t worry about the what ifs. At least that’s what therapists have told me my whole life.

Yesterday I was at brunch with a friend. All of the condiments that usually sit on the table had been taken to the back, and single servings of condiments were handed out by request. Single napkins were wrapped in plastic bags like slices of American cheese, and disposable paper cups had replaced ceramic mugs. My friend was panicking a bit about COVID19, and offered me germ-x before we ate. In that moment I felt that I should live up to my OCD reputation by taking the germ-x, but I also didn’t feel like I needed the germ-x at that time. I was eating with a fork, not my fingers. I have tried really hard to not give into my compulsions (which include using germ-x), so I want to respect the progress I have made with OCD and not be pushed into freaking out about all of this with the public.

The thing is I have done my fair share of just surviving due to contamination OCD. It was really bad for the past four years… and I feel like my head is finally above water. It gets bad on and off during life, and this is a lifetime disease. Right now I can finally go out in public, or even enjoy my own home without worrying that germs are lurking and ready to ruin me. But I know that will probably change again in the future. And I am not trying to hurry it along. I’m not going to feed into my compulsions by a society that won’t actually struggle with contamination OCD issues once this is all over. When all of this is over, I will be alone in worrying about contamination again. And I will go through my own personal hells as my brain sees fit. Now is not my time.

A few closing thoughts on week #1 of working from home due to quaratine:

  1. It’s an introvert paradise- time to drink coffee, write essays, read books, catch up with friends and family virtually
  2. It’s an extrovert’s hell — and I live with an extrovert
  3. Let’s support each other. X