When it became clear in mid-March that COVID-19 was spreading throughout the U.S., I was filled with the same mix of fear, confusion, and panic as everyone else.
Okay, that’s not exactly true. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) focused on contamination, so my personal mix of fear, confusion, and panic was probably a lot higher than yours. A global pandemic striking down random victims was like a nightmare come true: a manifestation of my deepest anxieties, confirmation that all the worst-case scenarios I told myself would never happen could actually, in fact, become a reality. They were a reality—one look at social media or the news made that perfectly evident.
The weird thing about having OCD during a pandemic was that I felt simultaneously more and less prepared to cope with a viral threat than most other people. After spending 12 years living with OCD, I knew exactly how to keep myself and my family safe from germs; but after spending 18 months in therapy, I also knew how impossible, how futile, how destructive trying to achieve that safety actually was. I had done just enough work in therapy to poke holes in my false belief system about germs, but not enough work—yet—to confidently handle a pandemic-level threat to those beliefs.
The weird thing about having OCD during a pandemic was that I felt simultaneously more and less prepared to cope with a viral threat than most other people.
A few weeks into our nationwide self-isolation, though, that all became irrelevant.
You know the best way to stop obsessing about germs coming into your house and infecting your family? To never come into contact with any in the first place. My husband and I were working from home. My kids weren’t attending their homeschool programs or having playdates. We couldn’t see grandparents, aunts and uncles, doctors or therapists. We weren’t going out, and no one else was coming in.
For the first time in more than a decade, I didn’t have to worry about germs in my environment. It was just me, my husband, and our three sons. We were nestled inside a little family bubble. Protected, sheltered, safe. And I found something completely unexpected in that: freedom.
There were entire days I didn’t think about germs. I didn’t worry about who had touched a surface with dirty hands and then touched it again, minutes later, with clean ones. I wasn’t internally cringing every time my husband used his cell phone and then went right back to cooking dinner. I buried my face in my kids’ hair and kissed their cheeks without ever once silently wondering what bacteria they might have encountered that day. We created a temporary holding area in our basement for “contaminated” items from the store and package deliveries; everything else in the house was safe in a way it had never been before. I luxuriated in it.
If COVID-19 was my worst nightmare, the freedom I found in lockdown was a dream.
If COVID-19 was my worst nightmare, the freedom I found in lockdown was a dream. This was what I had been missing along. This was what I wanted, more than anything, for my life to look like. This was the secret wish I held in my head and my heart during all those therapy appointments, when I talked shamefully about needing to wash my hands after touching my keys, my prescription bottles, my steering wheel, my kids’ dirty clothes.
But now, after more than 10 weeks in isolation, that freedom is threatened. My state is beginning a slow and steady re-opening process: although we’re encouraged to continue social distancing and mask-wearing procedures, by June 1st we will be allowed to go shopping, eat at an outdoor restaurant, get a haircut, start visiting with select friends and family. Most people call that freedom, and it is; it’s freedom from being homebound and isolated, restricted in where we can go and who with, paralyzed with fear over the prospect of engaging in totally normal encounters.
Could I be grateful for that freedom while mourning the loss of my own personal freedom? Could I want to return to some aspects of our family life but also be terrified—not just of potential sickness, but of having a major relapse in OCD symptoms as I try to cope with all the sources of exposure coming our way?
As medical providers shifted gears to telemedicine during the lockdown, I was able to have several virtual appointments with my therapist. I asked her how I could think rationally about COVID when all of the public messaging had been focused on panic and uncertainty. How I was supposed to embrace family and friends again when I felt trained to regard everyone with suspicion. How I could prevent myself from taking giant steps backward in the recovery process once I was faced with the reality of going to a department store, a supermarket, a church, a restaurant.
Her answer? Remember how you feel right now. Remember this freedom.
The pandemic has been a surreal nightmare, plain and simple—but it also brought me a sense of peace, and a renewed desire to move through all the parts of my world, large and small, without fear.
I don’t know what will happen this summer in my household, in my state, in our country. No one knows if things will get better or worse. No one knows if “normal life” is a thing we can ever have back again and, if so, how long it will take.
What I know is that I’ve tasted a kind of freedom I thought was still many more years (and many more hours of therapy) away and I don’t want to lose it. When my state re-opens, I will ease back into public life gradually instead of staying at home. When I can hug my parents, I will grab onto them and be thankful for that closeness, that comfort.
And when I can go back to my therapist’s office, I will double-down on my efforts to improve my OCD symptoms. The pandemic has been a surreal nightmare, plain and simple—but it also brought me a sense of peace, and a renewed desire to move through all the parts of my world, large and small, without fear.