Sunday, January 29, 2012

Washing my hands

Sometimes still I examine my hands and wrists and imagine I see a discoloration, almost like a tight glove pulled up over the area that is slightly darker than the rest of my skin.
My husband doesn’t see it, so I think it must be my imagination, a mental image leftover from when my hands were discolored.
I wash my hands a lot, but not with the ferocity that I once did and not for so long a time. My skin is dry, but that’s probably due more to the fact that I don’t dry them properly and put lotion on them afterwards.
When I was a child, the first manifestation of OCD that my parents seemed to notice was my use of water. When I was around eleven, I began washing my hands with a diligence that I had never had before.
The water had to be hot and running fast, and I had to rub and rub my hands under the water with soap until I got the feeling that my hands were clean enough.
I was afraid that if I didn’t get my hands clean, I would pass my germs on to someone else, or to something else, like a bowl or plate, that someone else might touch and be contaminated with.
The running of the water is what caught the attention of my parents. We lived on a farm and depended on well water. It was a good well, and there was probably little danger of it going dry, but my parents were conservative with water.
So they told me to stop running so much water.
That should have been enough. I was an obedient child ordinarily.
But the pull of OCD was stronger than my parents’ voices, and I continued to run water behind the closed door of the bathroom, washing and washing until I felt clean.
My parents fussed at me and ordered me to stop wasting water.
I had no real sense of the amount of water I was using or the time I was spending cleaning. I was focused on getting my hands clean. Time was not a factor.
Finally my mother had had enough. She brought a gallon plastic jug to me one morning and said that the water in the jug was all that I could use that day for washing my hands. I could flush the toilet and take a bath, but the gallon of water was all I could use for washing my hands.
This devastated me. For one thing, the water was cold, and I knew that cold water was not as effective at killing germs as warm or hot water.
And it was very difficult to first wet my hands, put the jug down, soap up, then pour enough water out to get all the soap residue from my hands. I also had to think about leaving enough water for what I would need for the rest of the day.
I cried and raged against the plastic jug, and after a few days, I abandoned it and went back to the faucet. I was more careful, though, and tried to run the faucet at a slower speed, thus more quietly, so that my parents might not notice it as much.
The compulsion to wash my hands waxed and waned as I grew older and after the first episode in my early adolescence, I didn’t have a noticeable problem with it until I went away to graduate school.
I lived alone in a series of apartments, and I could run as much water as I wanted with no one to fuss at me.
I discovered liquid soap, which I loved. I didn’t have to worry about a wet soap bar dripping from the soap holder, and then becoming sticky with thick residue.
After washing my hands, I didn’t dry them very well. I couldn’t be sure of the cleanliness of the towel I was using, so I preferred to kind of shake them and rub the back of my hands on my clothes.
My hands and wrists became red and raw. Sometimes they would bleed.
I don’t remember any of my friends saying much, if anything about my hands. If they did, I didn’t tell them what I was doing. I didn’t tell anyone that.
Here’s a photo of me from around 1986 or 1987. I was a student at the time and was taking a break in a park with a friend of mine. She took the photo.

I found the photo the other day, and I could see how dark the skin on my hands and wrists was.
The only time I remember someone really seeing my hands as a problem during this period of my life was during a visit to the university health center. I think I was having some problems with my ears.
After the nurse led me to the exam room, she quickly turned and walked down the hallway with the doctor. I turned to watch before I entered the room. The nurse was telling the doctor something while pointing to her hands and shaking her head.
Oh, I thought. She noticed my hands. What was I going to say?
I held my breath when the doctor came in. He didn’t say anything at first, but later on he asked me about my hands in an offhand manner. I told him my skin was really dry and got really chapped in the cold. He didn’t say anything else about it.


  1. Oh that must have been awful to go through that as a child. It is true, the compulsions are SO much stronger than even our normal capacity for obedience (if we're the obedient type - and let's face it, most OCDers are). The limitation of that jug would have horrified me when I was at my hand washing peak.

    I didn't really struggle with contamination issues until the mid-1990s when I was in my late 20's. I don't know that my hands were as discolored as yours were in your picture, but they were noticeably red and raw in about the same location as your hands and wrists were. It had to be noticeable but no one said anything to me either other than my husband. I also really appreciated the advent of liquid hand soap for the home.

    I will say that it is very disturbing to me that the doctor at your university health center did not show any interest in your obvious skin issues. Sometimes I'm stunned at how medical personnel are clueless about some of these things. Maybe he couldn't have done anything about it, but he sure should have inquired more about it to see if you needed help of some kind.

    1. Thanks, Sunny. Yes, I still feel a little anxious when I think about that water jug.

      The doctor should have inquired more, but at the time, I was relieved. I don't know if I would have told him the truth if he had pressed for more information. But maybe he would have referred me so I could have gotten help sooner. I don't blame him, but I do hope doctors are doing better with this nowadays!

  2. I identify so much with this post! When I was about 10, I started washing with a vengeance and was always getting in trouble for using so much water, leaving the hand towels sopping wet, and making the soap dish all messy. Like you, I was so happy when Liquid soap came on the market-- or at least was brought into my house. But then I got in trouble for "wasting" that too! But at least the family didn't have to contend with a messy, sloppy soap dish. Gosh, the more I hear of all our stories, the less alone I feel!

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. It helps me too to share my stories and to get feedback. I don't feel as alone when i realize that others have experienced so many of the same things.

      Yep, I got in trouble for "wasting" soap too.

  3. Oh my goodness...I totally relate. My parents ended up taking me to a dermatologist (after 4 years). He told my parents I didn't need him....I needed a psychiatrist. True enough! But apparently I was showing great signs of improvement by then. On the way home from the Dr., my dad told me that I could get a hold of it on my own. And I did....for the most part.

    Every once in a while, when I'm dealing with raw meat or just feeling overwhelmed or out of control, I will fall back into old habits. My husband will kindly say, "Haven't you washed your hands enough?"...and then "dry them off, Mel" (sometimes getting me a clean towel if he can see my hesitance)...and then "here's some lotion." He's a good guy. He deals with my "quirks" quite well.

    1. Hi Melanie. That's so funny, it sounds like our husbands are two peas in a pod. That's pretty much how he deals with my stuff too! Last night we went out to dinner and I was afraid of touching the doorknob to the restaurant, so he he held my hand and we grabbed it together. It does help when others around us understand how to kindly deal with it. Getting angry with us sure doesn't help!

  4. Melanie and Sunny, It does help tremendously to have a supportive spouse, or a supportive anybody, in your life! My parents were not supportive. My mother fussed at me and said sarcastic things to me about my compulsions, and it didn't help at all. Anger does not help. That is a message that I would like to get out to parents and other family members of people with OCD. They can be supportive without being complicit and without being angry and, sometimes, mean.

    1. Hi Tina, I cringed a little when I read your post above because before we knew what was going on with our son Dan, I'm sure I became annoyed with him at times over things that were not in his control. Once we became aware of his OCD, I learned that it is okay to be annoyed, frustrated, and overwhelmed....but these feelings need to be directed toward the OCD and not your child, who more than anything needs love, understanding, and acceptance. And "mean" is never good! Thanks for sharing your memories.

    2. You are so supportive of your son. The annoyance and frustration you felt was very natural because the OCD was so new to you.

  5. That sounds really hard. I can imagine the devastation of having the gallon jug. I personally wouldn't want to wash my hands from that either! Hot water and foam soap for me please!

    1. Lisa, Thanks for commenting. I need the hot water and soap too!

  6. Tina,
    It seems you have overcome so much. Isn't it great to look back and actually see the distance you've traveled? My issue with OCD has always been straightening and checking but while the behaviors differ, the underlying tone is the same.One day at a time...

    1. Tracy, Thanks of commenting. I have made a lot of progress. I just want to take the next steps now. I am also a checker. You're right. One day at a time. It's the best way, but it is not easy!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.