When it became apparent that coronavirus was going to be a problem – but before hand sanitiser became unavailable – a hand-gel dispenser was swiftly installed on every floor of the office and posters were put up reminding us to wash our hands frequently.
Everyone started using the hand gel with great enthusiasm – in fact, they seemed more enthusiastic about the hand gel than about washing their hands (perhaps they think the chemicals in it are harsher on germs) – although apparently washing your hands is more effective.
A colleague of mine chuckled as we approached a dispenser. “I am so much washing my ‘ands,” he said, “that the – ‘ow you say? – the notes from my exams of school, they come up! Heh heh heh!”
Well, I’ve been so much washing my ‘ands that they are falling apart at the seams. Some of the dry patches are actually bleeding. It stings just putting them under running water. I do put hand cream on them, but not every time I wash them because I don’t want to have greasy hands if, for example, I am at the computer or preparing food. And anyway, as fast as I put the cream on, I wash it off again.
When I was about 10, I started developing a borderline problematic hand-washing habit. I refused to touch food if I hadn’t washed my hands immediately before. If I washed them and then they even just brushed against my clothing, I had to go and wash them again. I remember being at a picnic once and wandering around for ages looking for somewhere to wash my hands and not finding anywhere so just refusing to eat.
Then I was talking to a friend of my mother’s and I told her how meticulous I was. As far as I remember, I didn’t say it with particular embarrassment or particular pride; I was just recounting a fact. She looked me in the eye and said very seriously: “But don’t allow it to become an obsession, OK?”
And that was it. That was all I needed. Just like that, I was fixed.
I did still wash my hands before touching food, as a general rule, but I was no longer fanatical about it. If my hand accidentally brushed against something in the meantime, I let it slide, and if someone appeared in front of me proffering snacks, I would sometimes take one there and then without washing my hands first.
I would say, at a guess, that I still wash my hands more frequently than the average person, but certainly not so frequently as to be unusual, and I don’t make a fuss about occasionally touching food with unwashed hands.
Now, the “Wash your hands!” messages that we’re getting left, right and centre, feel very freeing, as if I’m being given permission to do something that I’ve spent years sternly telling myself not to do. I’m really enjoying being able to wash my hands a lot. Even though they’re a cracked, dry disaster as a result.
At the risk of sounding defensive, I don’t think I’m in problem territory. As soon as life returns to normal, I’m pretty sure my handwashing habits will revert to normal with it.
However, it’s made me think how hard it must be for people who genuinely have obsessive-compulsive disorder and who really struggle to keep their compulsion under control. The Man Who Couldn’t Stop, by David Adam, recounts the author’s experience as a sufferer of OCD, and one of the points he makes most strongly is how debilitating it is. He says he hates it when people bandy around expressions like “Oh, I’m so OCD – I can’t stand having a messy house!” because that sort of attitude trivialises the experience of people who genuinely have the condition.
“The worst thing about it,” he says, “is that you can’t switch it off. It completely controls every aspect of your life.”