The other morning I got to church a few minutes early because I had to put back some washed tablecloths in the closet in the Relief Society room. I had to move some chairs to get to the closet and was putting them back up to get the room ready for Sunday’s classes when I felt something on my hand.
Since my hand was under the seat of the chair, I instantly knew. Gum. Dried gum, of course, but still. Gum on the bottom of the seat. Classic. Of course, we would hope that people would respect church chairs enough to not put their old gum under the seats, but alas.
Exposure Response Prevention (or fighting the compulsion)
I had a choice to make.
My OCD wanted me to go and wash my hands immediately. The thoughts came: What if you transmit illness from that gum to the Sacrament tray? Or hymn books? Or Relief Society binders, etc.? What if you get some random stranger’s saliva on your clothes, your belongings, etc.? You don’t know what was on that gum. What germs could be on that piece of gum?
I let these thoughts play out, but I didn’t wash my hands. I went into the chapel and prepared for Sacrament Meeting. Yes, I did avoid using that hand more than I normally would. I was highly conscious of my fingers, what they touched, and where they rested. But gradually I become less and less aware. Or I decided that it was worth the risk—or maybe that the risk wasn’t as great as I immediately had decided it was.
OCD and the “What if’s” (which would be a great band name…)
My doctor said something at my last appointment to the effect that, as soon as your thoughts start bringing up “What if” statements, you know it’s the OCD trying to win a battle. “What if this happens” or “What if this horrible situation occurs or preceded your current situation” (in the gum scenario, “What if the person whose gum this was had been sick or had AIDS or whatever”) are key phrases to watch out for and guard against.
As soon as the “What if’s” begin, get ready for a battle with OCD. You can decide who wins. Let me repeat that. You can decide who wins each battle with OCD. OCD does not have to win. You can be stronger than the mental illness.
Calling OCD’s Bluff
I went through church without washing my hands. I also had a cold, so I was really battling my contamination and other fears of getting people sick. I got home and washed my hands, but this isn’t unusual. I usually wash my hands after getting home from church and before preparing lunch.
And you know what? The world didn’t end because I touched gum on the bottom of a chair and didn’t immediately wash my hands. I didn’t get any more ill because of it. As far as I know, no one from church has gotten violently ill as a result. OCD lies. OCD thrives on making us believe that the worse can and will probably happen. Luckily, that’s not usually true. Taking the risk to test OCD’s assertions is the way to get better and beat it. It’s uncomfortable, yes. But like my doctor told recently, “exposures will always feel hard if done correctly.”
So do the hard thing. Get better. It’s worth it, I promise.