Content note: if you have particular difficulties with contamination OCD or OCD focused on your perceived responsibility for other’s health, read on with caution.
When I was a young teenager a lot of my OCD thoughts were focused on preventing harm to other people. I had a period where I took care to make sure I didn’t cause a scuff on a carpet, in case someone tripped over, banged their head and died. I was very nervous around fire extinguishers in case I somehow damaged them in some way: if there was a fire and the extinguisher didn’t work because I had brushed past it, people might die. My OCD made me feel that these deaths would be my fault.
One way in which I worried about harming others was by eating or touching nuts. When I was a child/young teen I ate peanut butter sandwiches and Tracker bars with nuts in. However over time I couldn’t bring myself to eat them anymore, as I was so afraid of harming someone with a nut allergy. It became too much effort to try to make sure I avoided touching any nuts whilst eating those foods and/or make sure I could wash my hands immediately after without touching anything in the environment.
There was a girl in my class with a relatively severe nut allergy (she had to leave the room when we were burning peanuts in a science lesson – not sure why the teacher asked us to burn peanuts, something to do with energy). However I wasn’t only scared of harming her, I was scared of harming some unknown person who might have a nut allergy. For example, if I touched a nut and then opened a door I might transfer the essence of the nut onto the door handle. If the person who touched the handle after me had a nut allergy, they might die and it would be my fault.
I remember once being very distressed because we were playing a family game that involved passing a console around the group. My dad (and possibly others) were eating peanuts – I think it was a Christmas snack. I was really anxious about touching the console after someone who had handled nuts had touched it. It’s important to point out that I wasn’t going to be seeing any one with a nut allergy that day, or for many days after. It’s still making me feel tense to write about it though, about 16 years later.
I’m better than I used to be with nuts – I can eat peanut butter sandwiches and breakfast bars containing nuts. If offered a nut from a bowl I probably wouldn’t take one though, especially if I couldn’t wash my hands immediately after. Then again I’m not keen on eating food that other people might have touched anyway.
How to overcome this
I don’t remember treating this OCD fear in a direct way – it wasn’t really necessary as it wasn’t constantly interfering with my life like some of the other thoughts were. To some extent it faded naturally as my OCD morphed into other themes.
However, there are two cognitive factors that I’ve found helpful with this kind of compulsion. One is that it falls under the banner of “things that are biologically wrong”. The majority of people’s nut allergies are not so severe that they could be harmed by touching a door handle after someone who had just handled nuts. If they were that sensitive, they wouldn’t touch public door handles, which brings me onto the second factor…
You are not responsible for other people’s safety! Other people are responsible for their own health and safety. Repeatedly reminding myself of this fact has been helpful for me when I get these fears. I’ve built up my belief in this reality over many years, and now I’m towards the edge of the “normal” range of concern for other’s health – just a little more concerned than the average person. I’m happy with that.