OCD During Pandemic
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Is Not Just About Meticulous Cleaning
By Mary Beth Spang
“When the COVID-19 pandemic transpired, some sufferers’ symptoms emerged for the first time, while others’ reappeared.”
The National Institute of Mental Health describes Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as “a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.”
Approximately one year ago, in March of 2020, the spread of COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. As both speculation and science about the virus surfaced, and the number of cases and deaths increased, so did OCD sufferers’ symptoms.
OCD loves certainty. It wants a sufferer to think that certainty is attainable, and offers suggestions, also known as compulsions, for how to obtain it. But nothing was certain when the pandemic began– how long it would last, if a vaccine could be created, who might contract the virus, who could survive it, and whether or not the world would ever return to ‘normal.’ OCD sufferers were suddenly inundated with overwhelming uncertainty, and for many, OCD took full advantage.
There are a variety of “themes” that OCD can latch onto within a sufferer’s brain. For example, some OCD sufferers obsess about thoughts or fears related to safety of their loved ones (harm OCD), the security of their romantic relationship (relationship OCD), their spiritual well-being (scrupulosity), or the spread of disease/germs (contamination OCD). When the COVID-19 pandemic transpired, some sufferers’ symptoms emerged for the first time, while others’ reappeared.
My OCD– the relationship variety– emerged twice during the pandemic: first at the beginning while I was going through a break up, and again in the fall after I had started dating someone new. At that time, at the suggestion of my therapist, I agreed to try exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, the recommended treatment for people with OCD.
Because the idea of ERP frightened me, my therapist researched OCD-specific resources within the Pittsburgh area. She discovered an online support group through the International OCD Foundation called “Pittsburgh Bridges” and suggested that I reach out to Ann Tomer, whose contact information was provided on the group’s website. I contacted Ann, who quickly offered to meet with me (masked and socially distanced) to discuss OCD and the Pittsburgh Bridges support group.
Ann kindly offered a wealth of information. First, she described “the cycle of OCD.” She drew the cycle on a piece of paper that she gave me to keep afterwards. She also provided a list of OCD therapists in the area who specifically practiced ERP. She clarified, from first-hand experience, the process of ERP, even showing me a copy of her ‘fear ladder’ and answering my many, anxiety-filled questions. Lastly, she shared that the online support group for Pittsburgh Bridges meets every Tuesday and Thursday from 7-9pm and recommended that I attend.
I am so grateful for the few hours of Ann’s time that she dedicated to assisting me, a stranger, who happens to suffer from the same illness she does. This type of generosity, I learned, permeates the entire Pittsburgh Bridges organization.
With a mission to “build a thriving OCD community in Pittsburgh,” Pittsburgh Bridges was created by Ann, David Hiltabidle, and Megan Morris. All OCD sufferers themselves, these founders strive to provide education about OCD and advocate for those living with the illness. The group launched in October of 2019 and began hosting their first OCD support group meetings in-person in Squirrel Hill. They also hosted “1 in 40: An OCD Awareness Event” at Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery to highlight the statistic that approximately one out of every 40 Americans has OCD. Shortly before the pandemic hit, the group secured a fiscal sponsor and achieved non-profit status.
As OCD sufferers themselves, the Pittsburgh Bridges leadership team also endured the disruptive anxiety that pandemic-driven uncertainty plus OCD inflicted. While they struggled, they recognized that others with OCD were likely experiencing something similar. They adapted to our “new normal” by changing their support group meetings from in-person to online. They started hosting the two hour, twice weekly zoom groups that they now promote on their website, the same site that my therapist stumbled upon last fall.
David and Megan, who lead the groups each week, extend time, patience, expertise, and love, to those of us in the group. Their guidance has fostered community not only among Pittsburghers with OCD, but also with people across the country. Because the group meets via zoom and the link is public, participants join from Indiana, Iowa, Washington, Florida, and various parts of Pennsylvania. With empathy for the shared, sometimes tortuous experience of OCD, David and Megan welcome participants from any location.
Through Pittsburgh Bridges, I learn from people who have been living with OCD for years about the benefits of ERP. The insight, support, and encouragement from group members and leaders bolsters my own ERP treatment and recovery process. I feel a sense of belonging, acceptance, and community within the group. My illness is not shamed there; it is understood.
Relationship-themed OCD can be difficult to detect and diagnose, as sufferers like me may be so ashamed of our fears that we don’t disclose them. I encountered a variety of potential diagnoses (Panic Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) before finally arriving at the correct one. Prior to starting ERP and joining Pittsburgh Bridges, I avoided anything that might spark my anxiety or panic, including simply talking about my fears. Now, however, I confront those fears on a regular basis through ERP, and I am comfortable disclosing my illness because I do so within a safe space, the Pittsburgh Bridges support group, each week.
Mary Beth Spang is a therapist in Pittsburgh, PA. She works with youth ages 18-25 living with mental illness, helping them to transition into a more independent lifestyle equipped with coping skills for managing their mental health. Diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder herself, she also writes about her personal experience living with and managing mental illness. Her writing has appeared in The Mighty, Disability Disclosed, and Germ Magazine.
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