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.