IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Had Crippling OCD and Believed I Could "Catch" Cancer
After the tenth time I triggered my apartment’s smoke detector from a frantic, germ-blasting, Jacuzzi-temperature shower, I knew things had gotten out of control.
It was 2 a.m. as I stood naked, teetering on a chair, trying to shut off the incessant beeping. I was shivering, yet my skin looked sunburnt and felt like it was on fire after I’d sautéed it clean. I was relieved, yet worried my landlord would come bang on my door. Would this be the time he’d kick me out for waking up the whole building again? I felt like a marionette, controlled by something I could not see or understand: OCD.
This wasn’t the OCD that’s portrayed on TV. Mine had me convinced I could catch cancer just by being in a room with someone who looked sick. I had a paralyzing fear that it was easily transmittable, like a cold. People tend to throw around the term OCD loosely, saying things like, “She’s so OCD” when someone aligns everything at 90-degree angles or spritzes their hands with Purell. Two-hour showers were my Purell. I lived tethered to the sink and my apartment, petrified of the grimy universe beyond, my hands as red as candy-colored gloves.
In the spring of 2002, I suffered several destabilizing losses: My ex-boyfriend got engaged; my apartment became infested with fleas, so I put my life into storage and moved; my belongings were unexpectedly auctioned off from storage after a late payment mix-up; and a work friend suddenly died of cancer. My co-worker’s death tricked my OCD head into thinking that I could “catch” cancer -- even from a piece of paper. My brain rationalized this, even though the logical part of it once knew cancer was not contagious. But that logical part was now masked by crippling anxiety about loss and dying. I felt that Grim Reaper-looking germs were waiting to attack me around every corner -- they’d jump me like a mugger, infect my cells, and kill me.
My obsessions and rituals followed me everywhere. Something as mundane as going to a coffee shop proved excruciating. If someone looked sick, or was missing hair like a cancer patient, I’d drive to another one, sometimes driving to as many as six in two hours before I’d find a café where everyone appeared healthy and I’d feel safe enough to enter.
When I learned that a co-worker's wife had cancer, I was uneasy whenever he spoke, convinced that his breath was transmitting his wife’s deadly disease to me since he’d probably kissed her earlier that day. Unwanted thoughts would taunt me, on a loop: “You don’t want cancer, do you? It kills people! You better go scrub your mouth off.” I’d immediately go scour it with soap. My mouth became chapped, blistered and painful -- it hurt to smile.
Outside of work, I started losing friends. “Don’t touch that CD,” I told my friend Kate when driving her home. “It has cancer!” I nervously watched as Kate touched the CD anyway, then her seatbelt, transmitting cancer germs. We arrived at her house and she leaned toward me. “Don’t hug me!” I said. “You have cancer hands now.” My eyes welled up with tears. Hers did, too.
Earlier in the day, I had us cross the street when a bald woman walked toward us, then scrubbed my mouth profusely at Kate's house. I had also changed outfits, quarantining the “cancer clothes” in a black garbage bag. “Natalia, you’re crazy,” Kate said now. “It’s too much work being friends with you,” she added as she exited the car. I never heard from her again.
My obsessive thoughts began when I was eight. My grandparents were the only stable parental pillars in my life. When my grandfather died, I became terrified of death. I was in church with my mom and stepdad, and saw a crucifix hanging by the altar. I looked away, then had an overpowering thought, so strong I gripped onto the pew in front of me as though it were a shield. A voice popped into my head and demanded, “Look at the cross again or else something bad will happen to your mom.” I started sweating, my fingers sliding off the pew, and I couldn't concentrate on anything but the crucifix. Parishioners noticed my eyes darting back and forth from the cross, dozens of times a minute. My menacing stepfather threatened to ground me if I didn’t stop.
My intrusive thoughts turned into rituals. I started believing my personal belongings were Petri dishes collecting fatal bacteria. I “saw” them on everything from my school books to my Barbie dolls. I had to wash my hands between each thing I touched, at least 30 minutes each time. I’d scrub my angst down the drain until the uncontrollable thoughts dissipated. My sink became my new altar.
My OCD began to disappear when my mother divorced my stepfather and we moved back in with grandma. She became my one -- and only -- friend during my darkest period. We’d do everything together, from going out for bubble gum ice cream to taking the subway downtown to see Christmas decorations. The more time I spent with her, the less time I spent with the faucet. My grandma’s stability and warmth made my OCD dormant. I eventually brushed it off as a childhood quirk, and even worked as a hospital candy striper throughout high school, never concerned about diseases or dying.
But in 2002, when I was 25 and living alone in L.A., after losing my ex, previous apartment, possessions and friend to cancer, my OCD returned with a vengeance. My kid-sized germ obsessions became adult-strength. I drove around with black garbage bags over my car seats, which I would change between errands. I also had bags of “cancer clothes” scattered across my backseat -- items I was too afraid to touch, let alone wash. An aunt was on hospice for cancer and I missed her last birthday party because of my boundless phobia.
After several smoke detector-inducing showers, my skin unrecognizably wrinkled and red, I realized that my life was out of control and wondered if I needed to admit myself to a psychiatric hospital. I had a choice to make: live in my black garbage bag existence, alone, or try to break out of it.
I went to a few therapists, but none of them knew how to conquer my OCD. I then went to see my regular doctor at the hospital. I wore a surgical mask and held my breath, didn’t touch elevator buttons or doorknobs, and avoided the bathrooms. Tears poured down my cheeks. I was afraid to be there, but also afraid to go back out to the unhygienic world. My doctor said I was “just depressed,” called me a hypochondriac and handed me a prescription for Prozac. I lost faith in doctors and stopped looking for new ones.
I longed to be normal, and decided to fake it by going on a date with a friend of a friend, Matt. As we ate chips and salsa, I hid part of each chip in the napkin on my lap, for I believed the corner of the chip I touched was contaminated and would poison me if I ate it. All was going well -- until the waiter picked up my napkin and leftover chip bits flew all over the table like confetti. I was mortified. Matt looked from the crumbs to my scarlet hands and asked if I had OCD. I said nothing and figured all was lost. But then he smiled and confessed that he’d struggled with it for years -- until he met Dr. Deborah Cooper, Ph.D.
My relationship with Matt didn’t last, but the one with Dr. Cooper did. She was a hypnotherapist who not only specialized in OCD, but also had it. She said the losses in my life had triggered my anxiety and obsessions, and my cancer contamination worries stemmed from my co-worker’s death. She introduced me to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and had me do things like wash my “cancer clothes,” and walk by someone sick without showering afterward. The longer I could resist giving in to my compulsions and ignore the thoughts that said, “Shower now—or else you will get sick and die!” the better, no matter how challenging it was. We’d recite phrases, “It’s not me, it’s the OCD” and do CBT to lessen OCD’s power -- mind over matter. Dr. Cooper purposely kept me in her office a while after these exercises, to show me that I was okay, I was still alive.
Eventually, I got rid of the “cancerous” black garbage bags in my car and my showers went from two hours to 10 minutes.
The biggest test, however, was when my grandmother, Busia, was hospitalized for heart problems. I couldn’t imagine not having her in my life and flew home to Chicago to see her.
When I first walked into the hospital, the same one I’d worked in during high school, a nurse asked if I wanted a mask. I said no -- I just wanted to get to Busia’s ICU room.
As I rushed down a maze of hallways, I passed patients in all kinds of conditions: in wheelchairs, attached to oxygen tanks, missing limbs -- amidst a feast of germs. I repeated my OCD mantras, reminding myself that Busia was my priority now. When I reached her room and she smiled at me, I knew I was in the right place.
I ended up spending all summer with Busia, the duration of her hospital stay. Some nights, I even slept there. We’d eat in the communal dining room alongside those patients I’d first seen. Day after day, I survived. We played cards and laughed when one of them tried to hide cards under her dinner plate. I didn’t quarantine my clothes, and sometimes I’d go to bed without showering. It was the best CBT possible-- the more time I spent with the patients, the more my distress evaporated, and I no longer believed I could “catch” cancer. I felt free, and finally felt safe.
My irrational fear of cancer is gone, but OCD never fully goes away. Sometimes, contamination concerns return, especially at times when my life lacks control. They come to the door, trying to bang it down and get in my head, tempting me to do rituals. But I’ve learned to keep the deadbolt locked and not let them in.