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What it’s like to have OCD during a pandemic

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt like my body was wrong.

It isn’t a feeling that I should be inhabiting a body of a different gender or size or shape — not exactly. It’s more of a feeling that my skin is a cage trapping me inside of it, and I wish nothing more than that I could just tear it off or scorch every inch of it. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to live in a body at all. It’s not that I don’t want to go on living in some fashion; it’s that I wish I could just exist as a brain in a jar, thinking my thoughts and reading my books and writing my writings without any body to confine me.

Joel Swanson | artist: Noah Lubin

Joel Swanson | artist: Noah Lubin

When I wake up in the morning, in the hazy moment before I quite realize where I am and what day it is, I find myself desperately hoping I might wake up in a different body, or without a body at all. Then the crushing weight of my own physical anatomy crashes down on me, and I feel deeply conscious of every inch of my skin, as if I can feel every individual molecule pressing down against the bedsheets. I shut my eyes and hold my breath and wish I might disappear. But the weight of my skin always comes crashing back, a heaviness that feels like it’s coming from outside of me, like my flesh is not my own.

So, I wash. Obsessively. I wash my hands practically every hour; sometimes I take three showers a day. I’ve had to get up from lectures and events to go to the bathroom to wash, not because I actually had to use the bathroom, but just because I couldn’t bear to keep feeling my skin without cleaning it. I carry hand sanitizer in my bag, and I apply it ceaselessly, until my skin is so dry that it feels like it could crack open with a hammer. If I so much as eat a single piece of candy, I have to wash my face three times to make sure I’ve gotten all the residue off. I rub and rub until it feels like my skin could burst open.

And, for just the briefest of moments, I feel some relief. For a minute after washing, I feel as though I am in control of my skin. I feel like my body belongs to me, and is not some alien being into which my mind has been transplanted.

The fleeting feeling of relief always goes away, of course, and then I need to wash again, and again, and again.

Over the years, like any good New York Jew, I’ve gotten lots of therapy, and I’ve connected this feeling of bodily dysmorphia to instances of sexual abuse and sexual trauma I suffered when I was younger, and to the feeling that my body had betrayed me during those moments, that it had been taken from me. Obsessively washing became a way of stealing some control back over my body, making me feel for just a moment like it isn’t toxic and polluted and loathsome.

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It’s the same trauma that has imparted to me my obsessive watchfulness and heightened awareness of my surroundings, my tendency to jump when someone comes into the room unexpectedly, my sense of always impending doom.

There’s something uniquely Jewish and diasporic about it, too — the feeling of imminent catastrophe, that even in moments of safety, we’re always one tragedy away from having to get up and flee to somewhere safe. No home can ever be permanent. There’s a reason scholars have suggested that Jews might carry the weight of epigenetic trauma in our genes. I’m a Jew in exile. I wish I could exile myself from my own skin.

There’s also a long history of Christians focusing their anti-Semitism upon the body of the Jew, which was seen as marking us as other, no matter how much we might try to assimilate and fit in. One Christian writer claimed that you could always tell a Jew by their “disgusting skin diseases.”

Between epigenetic and personal trauma, that’s a lot that is wrong with my body. No wonder I obsess about it all day long.

With therapy, I’ve learned to control my obsessive washing tendencies. I now no longer take three showers most days — generally only two or even one. On rare occasions, I even manage to go a whole day without showering, something that would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago.

So what do you do when you face a plague that means that many of our bodies are in fact marked by disease, and are in fact betraying us? What do you do when every public health official is telling you that you should be washing your hands all day long? When there isn’t enough hand sanitizer for everyone?

How do you stop feeling constantly anxious and obsessive about your body when, for once in your life, the news has caught up to your own anxiety? When everyone is feeling as anxious about their bodies becoming polluted and contaminated as you’ve felt for years?

What do you do when the acts you’re being told to perform for your physical health are the same acts that will set back your mental health, that will send you careening down a path that you know you can’t get off from? When the needs of your body and your mind seem to be at war with each other?

I wish I had a tidy answer to that question to offer. But the truth is, I’m still figuring it all out, just like everyone else is. This is all so new, so unexpected. We’re facing a lot that we haven’t had to deal with before.

And yet, there’s some comfort in knowing that for once in my life, everyone’s level of anxiety matches my own. Everyone is worrying that their body has been polluted. Everyone is more self-conscious about the feeling of their own skin.

And there’s comfort in knowing that my people have lived through worse, and we’re still here. I’ve lived through worse, and I’m still here. There will still be sunrises and dinners and paintings and songs. People will still fall in love and kiss and get their hearts broken.

I’ve often wondered why diaspora Jews still say “Next year, in Jerusalem” at the end of Passover Seder, even after the establishment of the state of Israel. After all, that phrase means something very different when you could end your exile just by getting on a plane and flying to Ben Gurion. But I’ve come to realize that it isn’t about the physical city, at least not entirely. It’s about learning to accept and find beauty in the incompletion, in the exile. It’s about knowing that you’re always going to be working to build something that is never finished, yearning to inhabit that heavenly Jerusalem that is always just a little too far away to reach. It’s about finding those brief moments when it does feel like you’re at home again, and learning to hold onto them and find enough happiness in them to get you through the times when you once again feel in exile.

Inhabiting my body is like that. I can never fully end my exile from my own skin, but I can learn to live with it. And, for short times, I can even feel almost whole again. I can catch enough of a glimpse of what it might feel like to end that exile from myself, to learn to inhabit my own skin, that I can even enjoy bodily contact. Sometimes I can even look in the mirror and dream about returning home to my own physical self.

That’s what I’ve tried to hold onto during this past week, when it feels like the world is falling apart. When it feels like my anxiety is finally justified by everything happening around us. When it feels like everyone’s body is as polluted as I’ve felt like mine was for years. That feeling that drives me to keep working toward inhabiting my own self once again. Those brief moments when it almost feels like I’ve succeeded.

And if I have to go back to washing my hands obsessively in the meantime, at least I know that obsession comes from somewhere real, that it isn’t all in my head. There’s some strange comfort in that.

Next year, in a healthier body. Next year, in Jerusalem. May we not have to go through two weeks of quarantine to get there.

Joel Swanson is a contributing columnist for the Forward.


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