The running water. The soap and the suds. The porcelain sink and the metal faucet. They all greet you, as you wash your hands, whether that is after using the bathroom or before having a meal. It is ingrained into our minds to wash our hands, in order to prevent spreading germs, which may ultimately lead to an illness. It is nothing out of the ordinary. Now, add unrelenting fear and anxiety to the equation. These factors are not tangible like the aforementioned objects, however they do shift the situation in a certain direction. Those who make grand efforts to escape germs tend to have a fear of contamination, either with contaminating themselves or others. As a result of this fear, individuals with washing obsessive-compulsive disorder wash their hands so often that it goes beyond physical cleanliness.
This very common form of OCD involves obsessions, which are mental processes, as well as compulsions, which are physical processes. It is difficult to detect one’s obsessions unless it is communicated to another person or reflected through the compulsions of the individual. In this case of washing OCD, “obsessions have to do with becoming contaminated or in some way dirty from sources such as bodily fluids or chemicals” (Weg, 2011). This worry can result in ritualistic behavior that relieves the anxiety caused by the obsession. These behaviors can include avoiding someone or something, in addition to compulsive washing. However, this form of OCD can present itself in an alternative way. For example, someone “may be perceived as contaminated, not because of the sweat, urine, or microbes that might be on that person, but because that person is just who they are” (Weg 2011). It is very reminiscent of mothers refusing to allow their children to have certain friends, fearing that their behavior will rub off on their own children, or in other words contaminate them. The idea holds true with OCD, although it is much more extreme, due to the fear that consumes the individual on a daily basis.
Furthermore, those with washing OCD can be categorized into two groups. The first is concerned with harm in addition to contamination, while the second only feels discomfort due to contamination (New England OCD Institute, 2018). The first group is worried about harming themselves and others, as a result of having illnesses and potentially spreading them. It is as though they feel a sense of responsibility for those around them. “Washing rituals are performed in an attempt to prevent this perceived danger” (New England OCD Institute, 2018). These washing rituals can extend beyond the hands and into the entire body with shower rituals and rituals involving brushing one’s teeth; it is not restricted to hands only. The second group however, “tend to have fewer identifiable obsessions and engage in cleaning compulsions merely to relieve the discomfort associated with feeling dirty” (New England OCD Institute, 2018). In both cases, their fear seems to be rooted in their lack of control and their compulsions create a momentary sense of control, although it is not effective most of the time.
Melanie, the participant of an online forum speaks on her experience with OCD. She said, “we decided to fly to London and Gran Canaria instead and it was pure horror for me. I couldn’t enjoy one second of our trip. I was constantly counting or crying and I feared everything and everyone” (Carafa, 2015). Melanie’s mental illness ruined this experience for her. The trip was supposed to be a vacation, however Melanie could not escape her fear and anxiety. After some time though, she found a psychologist that was able to help her reduce her compulsions. Washing OCD, as well as other forms of OCD, can easily be overlooked because their symptoms are not entirely physical. This statement holds true for most, if not all, mental illnesses. The idea behind this however, is invalid because the individual still suffers from these symptoms, regardless of whether others can see it or not. Therefore, it is imperative that awareness be raised in order to reduce stigmas and to ensure that individuals no longer suffer silently with these unseen illnesses.
Carafa, M. (n.d.). OCD and Emetophobia: Gaining My Life Back. Retrieved from https://theocdstories.com/contamination-ocd/ocd-and-emetophobia-gaining-my-life-back/
OCD Types. (2018). About OCD. Retrieved from http://www.ocdtypes.com/washing-ocd.php
Weg, A. H. (2011, July 16 ). The Many Flavors of OCD. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/living-ocd/201107/the-many-flavors-ocd