Unlike many areas of OCD, hand washing seems to be one symptom that has reached the general public’s consciousness. Yet most people don’t know what it truly means to wash your hands in the way OCD demands.
When I was about 13, hand washing was one of the things my OCD focused on. I washed my hands so much that the skin became dried out and red. I got more and more cuts on my hands, the most I counted at one time was 17.
Despite these cuts I used hand sanitiser (I think this was because the school toilets didn’t always have soap available, or perhaps it was for putting on after I had touched the door handle to leave the toilet block). If you’ve ever got hand sanitiser in a cut you’ll know how painful it is. To the young me, this pain was worth it to try and get rid of germs, and to feel like my hands were clean.
I remember hearing another teen who I didn’t know referring to me as the ‘girl with the hand cleaner’ (I kept most of my OCD symptoms well hidden, but being clinically obsessed with morality and hygiene doesn’t grant you much popularity amongst teenagers).
I can’t say for sure how I stopped, it was a long time ago. But I think it was partly making a conscious effort to limit the actual process of hand washing (I used to wash them a bit like you see on those NHS posters – going in between the fingers, the back of the hand and so on) so it was a shorter sequence. My OCD also moved on to other forms as I got older – perhaps because I was gaining strength against the symptoms I was familiar with (usually when I have beaten OCD symptoms it has morphed into a different kind of OCD), or perhaps just a natural progression of the illness. At this time I was still refusing to seek any medical help.
Nowadays I wash my hands more than the average person, but not an obsessive amount. My hands aren’t red and there aren’t any cuts. Writing this makes me feel sad for the teenage me, yet I would happily swap the mental OCD horrors I live with at the moment for 17 cuts on my hands.