My husband called it the last Friday of January. As he, our 19-year-old and I sat down to relax and watch our nightly episodes of “Brooklyn 99,” my husband started explaining how we were likely seeing the beginning of a bad pandemic in China and that we should get prepared. As we all know now, the coronavirus (COVID-19) is a new-to-humans viral strain in the coronavirus family that affects the lungs and respiratory system, causing symptoms like fever, shortness of breath and dry cough.
My husband is a health care professional and a ninja with data. I didn’t want to hear it and, in a manner more suitable for a woman in her 50s, I basically tried to shush him and when he wouldn’t shush, I left the room. It was too late. Lightning bolts of anxiety had already changed my nervous system and it would take 48 hours for that to calm down. I hoped my husband was being reactive.
You see, I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a mental disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts or feelings (obsessions) that can lead an individual affected to engage in behaviors (compulsions) that alleviate the anxiety that can come with intrusive thoughts. My OCD is mostly obsessive with compulsive behaviors thrown in under high stress.
Since childhood, the focus of my OCD has always been that something catastrophic would happen and that I would die as a result. When I was a kid, I rode my bike around our Berkeley, California neighborhood, obsessing whether to pick me or my mother to die when an intruder broke into our house in the middle of the night and forced me to choose who he would kill.
When I was 9, I had a dream that a title wave hit Berkeley and separated me from my mother and brother. I remained scared and preoccupied with title waves throughout fourth and fifth grades. There were also years as an adult that I was convinced I was HIV positive even after I had tested negative three times and was in a monogamous relationship with my husband. Then, after a young mom friend died of breast cancer, I was convinced I too had breast cancer and would meet the same fate. These obsessions, and others, each lasted years. Years.
For those of us with OCD, the coronavirus pandemic is a perfect storm. The unfortunate reality for many of us with OCD is that when we have a fear, we start scanning for evidence to confirm that fear. When a well-meaning person, or even a professional, says that it is a distorted fear, you feel temporary relief, but then the OCD voice nags at you. But what if my fear is true?
However, with OCD treatment, you learn to challenge the thoughts, to take back your life. I’ve learned many coping skills over the years and worked my butt off to not let OCD control my life. And, for the last couple of decades, I’ve been slowly but surely confronting my fears and got to a point where I felt free to have experiences and play without the constant presence of intense worry. It was hard for me to play as a child because I was preoccupied by fear. I finally got to be the goofball I was meant to be, to laugh and smile freely. Now, my OCD is taunting me saying, See? I told you something like this would happen.
Two weeks after my husband’s predictions, after he had done his first run to Costco to stock up on medicines and emergency food supplies, we had a trip planned to Portland, Oregon to see our daughter and her boyfriend. Since she left for college four and a half years ago, I’ve never gone more than eight weeks without seeing my girl. This was only week seven but I was eager, eager, eager to see her. I came home from work the night before our trip to finish packing so my husband and I could wake up at 4 a.m. to get to the airport. However, as I was throwing things in a suitcase, he told me he didn’t feel comfortable flying to Portland, that he didn’t think it was a good idea for us to go due to the coronavirus. I’ll admit. I was furious. First I cried. I cried a lot. But then I got mad. I felt that my husband was overreacting and, even though he didn’t and couldn’t forbid me from going, I felt that he was preventing me from seeing my daughter.
Now we are in separate rooms. For the first time in 34 years together, my husband and I are existing in separate spaces. This started a week ago when a friend of mine came down with symptoms that are consistent with the coronavirus. We are waiting for her test results, but even after they come back, I’m not sure he will move back into our room. I continued to go to work, to the store, the pharmacy. Hand-washing and using hand sanitizer are making my hands red and raw. But it’s still a threat. The virus. And my outside contact could bring it in our home.
I work with teens. This week, one my patients broke down in my office because her prom this weekend has been cancelled. Others are adapting to online learning. Others have had choir competitions or sporting events cancelled. They tell me it feels like they are living in a movie. My OCD has never affected my work. In fact, my journey and recovery from OCD has informed my understanding of the teens I work with and how to help them live the life they want to live despite the presence of a bully in your head. Overall, I’ve made peace with the bully. He gets to exist but not run the show. I’m in charge. Except that now I’m not. There are no experts to reassure me that I’m distorting because this is uncharted territory. All I can find is validation for my fears. Most people are scared right now. And the OCD bully has been emboldened once more.
When my husband comes out from our son’s room, we stay six feet apart. If I get closer on accident, I see his arms splay open as he backs up a bit. So far, all of his predictions have come true. He is using isolation to stay safe. As I walked home from work a couple of nights ago, I peered in the windows of several full restaurants and saw people sharing meals, drinking wine. Some were laughing, others appeared deep in conversation. They seemed to be at ease, still living life. I won’t be returning to work for a few weeks because the OCD has gotten the best of me and I am taking some time to right the ship.
The OCD was quietest during a time when it felt like my body wasn’t even my own. This happened over the course of several years during which there were the three pregnancies, the babies who hung on for dear life, nursing while they kneaded rolls of my skin, the sweaty heads of sick little ones as they slept against my shoulder, crawling into bed with us when they needed comfort, and on and on. I loved it all. Except that there were times when I just wanted some space.
While my kids were small, bad things did happen in the world. My son was brand new to walking and running, when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred and 19 children in the Federal Building were killed. On my daughter’s first birthday, I learned a woman in our community had been murdered in her kitchen after she dropped her children off at school. Then, on September 11, 2001, I was driving my 4-year-old daughter to preschool and my one year old to her babysitter when my husband called. He had just dropped my son off at his first-grade class, when he told me about the planes and the world trade centers. I was terrified. I know I wasn’t the only one. Life seemed to have all the color drain away.
But the thing about having young children, even older children, is that even when horrific things happen, their needs don’t stop. Not even for a minute. And, they are looking to you to let them know that they are safe. After 9/11, the television didn’t come on until after they were asleep at night or if one of us snuck into our bedroom to turn it on briefly during the day. Of course, I was preoccupied. But I could barely have a full thought without being interrupted by a crying baby, a diaper that needed to be changed, my preschooler making a mess in the mud and wanting to barrel in the house, or my son wanting to play handball against the backyard fence. And the endless feeding, clean up, laundry, repeat. “Mom.” “Mom.” “Mom.” All day long. I was constantly distracted from my worries by the needs of my children, by the need to act as if everything was OK.
There is beauty in the chaos of having little ones at home and part of the beauty lies in the immediacy of children’s lives and how it allows, no forces, you to be there to. In the moment. Right now, I’m longing for that. Nothing is forcing life to go on as usual. In fact, the opposite is true. Hunker down and self-isolate. That’s the message we’ve received and my OCD fears love it and have expanded in the process. There’s room after all. Way too much room. There are no sibling fights or requests for food or babies that need to be soothed. There aren’t even any hugs. There is only me and the bully inside my mind.
Six feet of separation wouldn’t have been possible when our babies were little. They simply wouldn’t have allowed it, nor would we have wanted it. Wishing for those days now, in the face of this COVID-19 nightmare creates an ache, a longing that physically hurts. I remember all the times I fantasized about how wonderful it would be to have some space, a bit of quiet in the house. Occasionally, I even wished that my husband would take a trip so I could be in the house all deliciously alone. But now, I want to go back. Back to my OCD being irrational, back to a sense of safety in the world that I could at least observe in others when I wasn’t able to feel it myself, back to having the comfort and distraction of my children, back to having no space. Oh, and I’d like my husband back in our bed.
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