KEEP IT CLEAN
Washing My Hands Felt Like the Only Way to Control My Life—and Body
After a worrying health diagnosis, I became obsessed with washing my hands. Was it anxiety? OCD? And could I stop?
It took those dead chunks of skin, shedding off onto my sweater sleeves, to prove that something was wrong. I had become obsessed with washing my hands.
The compulsion had begun with a panic that bubbled up after finding raised red bumps on my inner thigh last November.
Seconds after I showed my dermatologist the pimple-esque spots that now occupied some very private real estate, she made her diagnosis: “Definitely molluscum.”
A quick note to anyone who may have recently cast a pox against my house: nice work! As a result of your possible hexing—or more realistically, skin-to-skin contact with someone who had the viral skin infection—I contracted molluscum contagiosum.
The benign condition is most commonly seen in children, but a few unlucky adults who did not develop an immunity while they aged are also susceptible. In adults, molluscum is often spread through sexual contact, though one could also ostensibly catch the virus through sharing towels or even using a dirty yoga mat. (My dermatologist diplomatically told me that judging from the placement on my thighs, I could have caught it from a bikini wax.)
However I contracted my new viral friends didn’t matter—these unwelcome tenants were now squatting on my body. If left untreated, the condition lasts anywhere from six to 12 months. (An ill-advised 2 a.m. Reddit search informed me that some cases can last for up to four years.)
To speed up the process, my dermatologist prescribed Imiquimod, a pricey cream that would hopefully stimulate my immune system’s response. She recommended using the topical, changing my sheets and towels daily, abstaining from sex, and keeping my hands clean so that I didn't spread the virus. If I was good, I could be molluscum-free in a month. Maybe. Perhaps. No promises. Your co-pay is due on your way out.
My prognosis was by no means bleak. Still, my body, which I have always been quite partial to, was waving these whiteheads of distress, and it needed my help. I decided that getting better would be a project or a hobby, like taking care of a plant or doing whatever it is people do in bullet journals. With the enthusiasm of an assistant project manager tasked with her first big assignment, I resolved to cure myself.
Waking up every morning meant checking the progress of my treatment via a small hand mirror. I had no say over what I was going to see. But there were ways I could take back some control.
I bought a towel for every day of the week. I drank so much water that I frequently had to stop mid-commute for a bathroom break. I commanded my Diptyque hand wash—which is reportedly Meghan Markle’s favorite and something of a millennial status symbol at $42 a pop—to the depths of my medicine cabinet. A $4 antibacterial soap took its place, its label pledging to kill 99.9 percent of germs.
The soap came in an hourglass-shaped container. Even just holding it made me feel a little cleaner. When I pressed on the nozzle, out came a quarter-sized dollop of soft white foam. For the one or two minutes I spent rubbing soap over my knuckles, under my nails, and in between each finger, I wasn't the girl with a pox on her thigh.
So I kept washing, washing, washing. One night, I ran to the sink 17 times to rinse. I went through two bottles in three weeks. My hands, which are fairly soft due to the fact that I write about pretty fashion for a living, started peeling.
Obsessive compulsive disorder is a complicated diagnosis, and cannot be reduced to one single cause. I have not been diagnosed with OCD, but excessive hand washing is one of the best-known and most common symptoms of the disorder.
Robert E. Brady, assistant professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, told me that under times of huge stress, compulsions might become more pronounced.
“Any time we have this increased sense of responsibility or a perceived need to prevent harm, we're more likely to do things to eliminate that harm and relieve the anxiety related to that harm,” Brady said, noting that it is common for new mothers with a history of anxiety disorders to start excessively washing their hands because they want to shield their newborns from germs.
“Moral contamination” is not just something Mike Pence would be afraid of—it's also another reason to over-wash hands. As Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz, professor of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill told me, “For some people, they're washing away their thoughts, or a feeling of disgust.”
The “Macbeth effect” is real—sure, I wasn't frantically sudsing up after killing someone à la Lady Macbeth, but I was trying to maintain some semblance of purity after contracting a sort-of STD.
To stop my washing (and save my poor mitts), Dr. Robert Schachter, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Mt. Sinai Hospital, recommended a standard OCD treatment called response prevention.
“The discomfort people with anxiety feel comes from uncertainty,” Dr. Schachter said. “To treat anxiety, you have to teach patients to learn how to deal with the discomfort.”
That means asking patients to limit their compulsive behavior for a fixed period of time. “When you have the urge to use a compulsive gesture or action and you don't, it becomes extremely freeing.”
With those words of encouragement, I threw out my antibacterial soap (OK, I wasn't quite that brave—I just hid the bottle). I replaced my glorious Diptyque wash on its rightful throne. I've cut my pack-a-day washing habit to rinsing only when appropriate. Take that, compulsion—I beat you. Sort of.
Since falling off my soapy wagon, I've gone through two tubes of hand cream.