Cover your face, scrub your hands, repeat. The pandemic has heightened anxieties of infection, even more so for people with obsessive compulsive disorder
Once in every 20 minutes, like clockwork, Sivakumar Bharati* washes his hands and checks if the window are shut. “I have not ‘relaxed’ in three months aside from my REM sleep,” he says. “There is the prevalent fear of germs and contamination which is why the pandemic has been particularly stressful.”
This is the reality of OCD or obsessive compulsive disorder.
“You don’t really take notice of it until someone else points it out — and a lot of people did,” says 59-year-old retiree Sivakumar . “And back in the 70s, mental health was not taken seriously. People back then just thought I was militant about being neat, some poked fun at it.”
Sivakumar’s home in Hyderabad is evident of his obsessive compulsive disorder: to want everything symmetrical, no clutter, even the presence of muted tones. There are moments of anger and frustration where if things are not lined up, there would be a meltdown, curable only by the correct positioning and considerable time to cool off.
Chennai-based Professor Dr Gauthamadas Udipi, specialist in neuro-behavioural medicine, who has worked with people with OCD for almost many years explains, “OCD may only be the behavioural marker of a more extensive systemic disorder. “After all, the mind is only an expression of the functioning of the brain, and the brain is only a part of the body. At one end of the OC spectrum is ‘normal’ obsessive thinking and ordered behaviour in daily life, which does not interfere significantly with daily functioning. At the other end is severe obsessive rumination and compulsive behaviour that does not allow daily function.”
Essentially, the underlying pathology is in the Salience Network (SalNet) or ‘worry-loop’ of the brain, which sees a person having uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts and/or behaviours that they feel the urge to repeat over and over; it can be especially harrowing now, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic which invites uncertainty, rising tensions and innumerable risk factors. Often caused by severe psychological stresses, OCD manifests in different forms, from ritualistic obsessions to suicidal compulsions. Sivakumar is on the lower end of this spectrum, and it took a long time for him to realise what he had.
‘I’m OCD about that’
Sivakumar, during the late 2010s, was finally formally diagnosed by a neurologist in South Africa, who stated that OCD is a legitimate condition — and not one about which to be ashamed. “I remember him mentioning how popular culture had not even normalised but trivialised OCD. The parameters of what was ‘deemed’ OCD had shifted in a big way; people thought being tidy was OCD,” recalls Sivakumar.
And things have not been easy as the pandemic trudges on.
Dr Udipi affirms that the pandemic can be a heightener, explaining, it could “result in triggering underlying OC spectrum disorders in a genetically prone person, tilt the balance from ‘normal’ obsessions to a pathological OC pattern, or worsen an already existing OC disorder.”
The International OCD Foundation, Boston, sees the unique challenges for the OCD-afflicted and has offered numerous online resources, which are free-to-use and which help people run through their OCD anxiety with some ease while maintaining physical distancing. These options include WHO-approved tips on how to deal with contamination fears, video teletherapy, which helps those with OCD find a licensed teletherapy provider while retaining physical distancing, and printable coping cards. These cards, not a replacement for help from a medical professional, are written reminders and questions for the self to be mindful, breathe easy, take back control and understand that progress is better than perfection.
Dr Udipi adds that empathy from close friends and family is helpful. “[They] must understand that this is a disorder originating in brain circuits over which the person has little control, and advising the person that ‘it is all in the mind’, and ‘learn to control it’ is of no use, and that yoga, meditation, and other ‘self-therapies’ will not work in the case of a ‘pure obsessive thinking’ (which occurs in a very small percentage of people with SalNet disorder), as the person cannot bring the mind to focus on them due to pure circuit overdrive.” He emphasises that early identification and proper treatment by a qualified psychiatrist and team is the key.
Sivakumar agrees, concluding, “There are times you may not feel worthy because you feel like you are adding stress to home life or work life. But when you start humanising yourself with the help of a mindful and informed healthcare professional, it helps tremendously. It also helped that my family and I could find common ground with patience. But for other OCD folks out there, you have to want to accept it as a condition and not as an extension of the self. It’s emotionally taxing to go through it because your mind is telling you that this obsessive order of things is paramount.”
* Name changed to protect identity