9 February 2015

Alternate reality

In the Ladies at work recently, I noticed a woman two basins down using a wad of toilet paper to shield her right hand from touching the tap as she turned it on. She put the paper down to wash her hands and then picked it up again to wipe them, before walking over to the air dryer to finish the job.

Image courtesy of chrisroll/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
We exchanged smiles as she went past and I think she knew that I'd observed what she was doing, but we didn't speak. I longed to ask 'Are you trying to protect yourself from contamination, or others from the germs you think you're carrying?' Either way, I was bemused that she'd dried her hands on the paper, which, in her eyes, was presumably contaminated either from her fingers or the tap.

The following day, as I drove to work, I saw a man on the pavement suddenly step a few feet to the left and reach out to touch a lamppost. I tried to track him in my rear-view mirror, but lost sight of him before he reached the next post. If I'd been able to follow his progress, I'm sure I'd have seen him touch every one he passed.

Later that same day, a close colleague came over to the sink in our kitchen area, where I was making tea, and washed her soft drinks' can under the tap. We exchanged greetings, but I didn't comment until I got back to my desk, which is near hers.

'I hope you don't mind me asking,' I said, 'But when you washed your can just now was it because -'

'Yes, it was,' she said, anticipating that my question was about contamination issues. 'I thought you'd notice that!' She doesn't have OCD, but is aware that I do, and she didn't seem offended by my query; she probably realised that I was more likely to empathise with her than engage in ridicule.

'I suppose it makes sense,' I replied, although it had never occurred to me to do that, in spite of my own concerns about contamination.

She shuddered. 'Well, I've heard all sorts of horror stories.'

I searched online subsequently and the only 'horror story' I found was one that has been circulating for more than 10 years, but has been dismissed as an urban myth: about a woman dying of leptospirosis, allegedly transmitted via dried rat's urine on a drinks' can.

It was odd to witness three people, in less than 24 hours, publicly carrying out the kind of rituals I keep hidden as far as possible. Of course, it may well be that none of them have OCD, just a few compulsive habits that don't unduly trouble them.

Still, the experience made me feel, for that short while, as if I had landed in a parallel universe where compulsions are the norm. Imagine that - an alternate reality where those who don't have a mental health disorder feel like the odd ones out!


ocdtalk said...

Great post, Helen! I do think the majority of us do have our "quirks" or "compulsions" or whatever you want to call them....most people just don't talk about them!

Helen Barbour said...

Thanks, ocdtalk - I only wish I could have spoken to the other two, to find out what their stories were.