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Emails to my Therapist

Hypervigilance: As If The Whole World Has OCD

Dear Nicholas, The way people are thinking now in order to deal with coronavirus is curiously familiar to me. People have adopted all-day hypervigilance–spraying germ-killers, standing six feet apart, not doing x, being sure to do y, holding continuous awareness of what’s the correct or incorrect next step.

Getting Every Move Right

It’s the very essence of obsessive-compulsive disorder: if I don’t do exactly right, something terrible will happen. And that requires constant monitoring of one’s thoughts and behavior.

We’ve even gotten into lots and lots of hand-washing, the classic and familiar symptom, the favorite TV symptom, which, as of course you know, is far from the only form or manifestation of OCD.

Scrupulosity–An Inside Job

Right now I’m lucky that my own brand of the ailment–scrupulosity– has little to do with germs. Without the fine pills I take, I’d be obsessing  about whether I said something damaging, did something morally wrong, when I’ll make The Big Mistake That Will Ruin Everything. It’s a type that’s mostly invisible, mostly just makes a person seem nervous.

The Constant Self-Monitor

For sure, I don’t want to pass on any germs, but avoiding that is actually relatively easy. I’ve worked at home this week. That’s much easier than constant monitoring of present and past for insensitivity and moral failure: the continuous scanning for Wrongdoing.

Now Everybody Knows…

I kind of like the idea that now everybody know what it’s like. Although everybody already knows to a lesser degree. I once said to a therapist buddy of ours: I have a touch of OCD. He said: You and everybody else with good sense.

But normal over-cautiousness, normal excessive neatness or moral preoccupation are not the problem. It’s when the pattern of thought or behavior goes hog-wild and attaches itself to dire threat and shapes a life moment by moment continuously. That’s the problem.

I don’t want the whole world to have OCD forever. Or to have coronavirus either.

I wish there were a fine pharmaceutical that could take care of this bug and the need to monitor and guard against it. At the same time a wicked part of me also thinks: See, all you mentally healthy people! this is what it’s like! Now you know!

A Lucky Obsessive

But this obsessive is so lucky: my pills work and I’ve never had a disabling case of OCD, just a troubling mind-warping one that,  except for a telltale bit of over-intensity, I could almost hide.

So, with all the hypervigilance practice I’ve had and the fact that I haven’t just been laid off from a job, I’m relatively un-freaked-out about my own situation in this global crisis.

It’s an irony I felt like sharing as I wish you continued good health.

Keeping calm and carrying on,



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  • kenju
    March 20, 2020 at 2:10 pm Reply

    I am so grateful to be on a list of retired people now, so that I don’t have to work with the public any more. I am at liberty to stay home and take great care not to be infected by anyone else. It is a liberty not accorded to all – and I know that and I am grateful for it. (sorry for the repetition)

    I do not know what it is like to deal with OCD or the constant frustration that one might do something to ruin the world, although when my first child was born, I came close – as I was constantly afraid that something I would do would harm him irreparably. I knew so little about babies back then. I am so glad I grew out of that mental state; it was exhausting. So I feel for you. Hang in there, I have faith you will overcome.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 20, 2020 at 3:10 pm Reply

      I’m also lucky to able to be at home, kenju–and not have to lose a job to do it. I’m doing fine with meds and this virus certainly puts the fear of doing harm to the test. But having a baby!–well, I can’t even imagine the fear of mistakes. Good health to you and yours!

  • March 20, 2020 at 2:16 pm Reply

    Peggy, am happy to read this today and hope you and Bob are both well and safe. It’s a crazy time – I feel like I’ve transported into a novel outline or TV series script. But life on the little farm goes on much as it always does. I have to temper my desire to stay moment-by-moment updated. When I do that things are so much better. Big hugs to you and to Bob. And yes, we’re all experiencing OCD right now. I hope the world comes out of this on the other side with a renewed sense of what matters, including the pure human struggle that connects us all.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 20, 2020 at 3:21 pm Reply

      Billie, I’m glad life on the little farm is going well. Country life is an exceptionally good thing right now. This virus is hitting the world in so many different ways; I keep thinking of new ones. My priorities have sure changed. Only weeks ago I was feeling overwhelmed by what voles have done to my garden. The voles have certainly slipped in importance. (though I can still get irked by my computer.) Anyway, I think the world will eventually return to something like normal, except for those who have lost people. This feels like the WWII of our generation. Good health to you folks!

    • March 22, 2020 at 1:45 am Reply

      Glad to see your fine comment Billie, and that you’re doing well on the farm. Did you ever add a LGD ? Your still welcome to visit our Maremma when we’re all able to be out and around again. Hugs back to you and yours, bob

  • George Wingate
    March 20, 2020 at 2:22 pm Reply

    Your words are comforting

    We are living in a particular time of paradox.

    I look forward to your next posts….no joke.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 20, 2020 at 3:23 pm Reply

      I’m glad they’re comforting, George. I wasn’t so sure they would be. You are right: “a particular time of paradox.” And that’s putting it mildly. I hope you all stay healthy. We’re doing what we can to stay careful.

  • Robert Braxton
    March 20, 2020 at 3:37 pm Reply

    my preference: Compulsive D. Obsessive – important that I have the letters alphabetical: CDO – introvert heaven now, practicing Social distancing.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 20, 2020 at 5:24 pm Reply

      Good point, Bob. And, yes, this is so much easier on introverts. Though I would not like to be living alone just now.

  • March 21, 2020 at 11:20 pm Reply

    Good post – outside of painful compassion for others’ losing loved ones, so far the major effect of COVID-19 on me is the shift from face to face therapy to video platforms, when a client has or can join me on one, and to telephone and conference call therapy. I haven’t the patience or expertise to run my own video platform. And HIPPA has looosened their restrictions for the crisis period, and most clients are comfortable enough with the low risk to confidentiality.
    We’ll get throughall this together, and likely learn things about ourselves we’d otherwise not know.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 21, 2020 at 11:48 pm Reply

      Sounds like a good system, Bob. Your work adapts pretty well to this situation. It’s likely more needed than usual for lots of folks, too.

  • March 22, 2020 at 2:58 am Reply

    Bob, we put the Maremma plan on hold as my daughter got a golden retriever pup to train as her mobility service dog. Clementine is 13.5 months now and just earned her Canine Good Citizen certification with daughter. They’re a good team! And we have 3 dogs in the house. 🙂

    Hope you’re well and glad you’re able to work with clients online.

  • March 22, 2020 at 6:38 pm Reply

    I’m doing a mix of phone, tele-platform when folks can get on Skype & invite a connection, or have a work tele-platfor we can use, and in my office scroupulously following the actual social distancing guidelines – I’m wiping down with spray mix of 1/3 C leach to a Gal of water. We’ll see how it goes. we’re well and you folks got nuff well trained dogs. I’ll be glad when this COVID-19 crisis passes !!

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