As Jenna says, the content of OCD doesn’t matter. I have come to learn this too, and I
know that to successfully recover from OCD, you have to focus on the thought process,
not the content. I am going to try and show this to you through two ways in which OCD
ran my life over the past few years and that directly contradicted each other in terms of
A few years ago, to make sure I wasn’t responsible for getting anyone sick, I used to
wash my hands like this:
I turned on the tap and made sure that the water was warm. It had to be slightly hot so I
could be sure that it was warm. As I picked up the bar of soap, I would think, “Ok, hit the
spaces between your fingers, use the traffic light image for the numbers and do NOT let
your mind drift.”
I slipped and rotated the soap in a short frenzy in my left hand, expertly spinning it
sufficiently to generate a lather that would last at least 21 seconds and withstand
additions of water at seven and fourteen seconds.
I started to count.
“One, and two, and…”
Dammit, the “one” always didn’t last long enough. Start again.
“One, and two, and three, and…”
The numbers appeared in the box below the traffic lights in my mind, counting down to
zero before the light changed. I used my memory of the rate at which they changed to
measure the length of a second passing. As I said each number out loud, I paused a
little before saying the next one to ensure that it was at least one real second that
This was my first re-application of water point.
My hands broke apart and I let the water spray onto my right palm for about a second,
noting the slightly above warm temperature. My hands returned to rubbing and I noted
the lather was “good” and continued.
“…and eight, and nine…(hold, extra pause for reassurance) and ten.”
Four seconds till the second water re-application point, I thought.
“…and 11, and…”
The lather was good, water warm, but had I been hitting the spaces between my
fingers? I think so.
“…and 12, and 13…”
Second water stop approaching, it’s ok, do it now, what about the spaces between the
fingers? I’ve been doing them. Have I? What if I haven’t been?
I rinsed all the soap off my hands and started again.
On my second attempt, I got to 16 seconds, but the lather of soap on my hands had
become very thin and was therefore “not good enough”. So, I stopped and started
On my third attempt, just as I reached 20 seconds, my hands rubbed a new spot just
below my right palm on my wrist. Now I had to include this spot in a new 20 seconds, so
I kept going until 40. When I got to 33 seconds, I touched another new spot, so gave up
and started the whole thing again because I feared touching another new spot if I kept
On my fourth attempt, while I was counting, my daughter asked me something through
the door and distracted me. I started again…
So, what’s the right way to wash your hands? You might quote me the public health
guidance of “Wash with soap for 20 seconds”, but as you can see for those of us with
OCD, that’s not specific enough. To me, that meant that I had to have both soap and
water on my hands (and nowhere else) consistently for a period of 20 seconds. But
what do you do if the water washes off the soap? Don’t use as much water? But then
there wouldn’t be enough water present for 20 seconds…
To solve these problems, I would wet my hands, add some soap, lather and rub for
seven seconds, add a bit more water to maintain the lather (and to ensure water was
present again – the fact that it actually was present from the initial lather wasn’t good
enough for me), rub for another seven seconds, add a bit more water, rub for seven
more seconds (for a total of 21 which was an extra second for security), and then rinse
all the soap off completely.
I washed my hands like this for a few years, until one day I read that you had to wet
your hands, lather for 20 seconds (no further adding of water required) and then wash it
all off at once at the end.
So, I had been doing it wrong. At least that’s what I thought.
Right and wrong. Two words that people with OCD struggle with a lot. In particular, how
can you be certain you are right or wrong? That’s a pretty tough question to answer. To
determine that, you would have to know a few things which aren’t really possible to
How much soap should you use? I read a psychologist said that he uses one pump of
soap, but that he knows others that use two. What if there’s no soap in the public
washroom or at your friend’s house or if you’ve run out at home?
Should you turn off the tap with your clean hands and risk contaminating them again?
Should you use your elbow? A paper towel? What if it’s not thick enough? What if your
elbow then touches something else and contaminates it without you knowing and you
touch that thing with your hands?
Do you need to dry your hands? What if some germs stayed in the water droplets that
didn’t get wiped off? What if an air dryer blew germs all over you and your hands later
touch your body and get re-contaminated?
Should you wash for 20 seconds every single time? Most of the time? Sometimes? I
used to count to 30 seconds to be certain that I had at least reached 20. If I was in a
rush, I would do 25. And then I started to risk doing just 20 and accepting that if I went
too fast and it was really 18 or 19, then that was probably ok. Close enough.
Is 16 close enough? 15? 12? 10?
Less than 10?! Hmmm…don’t know…probably not less than 10.
And then my therapist told me that Jonathan Grayson, who wrote the book “Freedom
from Obsessive-compulsive Disorder: A Personalized Recovery Program for Living with
Uncertainty”, doesn’t even wash his hands at all.
What?! Yep, no washing. Wow. Zero seconds.
So, who is right and who is wrong? What is acceptable? What is enough not to get sick?
What is enough not to get someone else sick? And how do you know enough to be sure
that you know?
This example on its own shows you why focusing on figuring out the content of your
obsessions will not help you. And if you’re not persuaded, the second one will convince
(By the way, I don’t count anymore when I wash my hands. Depending on why I’m
washing them, I either do it quickly or a bit longer. Sometimes I use soap and
sometimes I don’t.)
After a few years of washing my hands like I described above, the Covid 19 pandemic
hit. You would think that this resulted in me paying even more attention to ensuring that
my hands were 100% clean. Logical, right?
Since when does OCD care about logic?
At that time, I was less concerned with germs and more worried about chemicals. And
what happened with the pandemic? Everything started to be disinfected with cleaning
So, my days started to look like this:
I arrived at the grocery store, and someone would be spraying the grocery carts with
disinfectant and then handing them to customers. I would take one and think about my
food coming into contact with the cleaning chemicals and my family getting cancer. So, I
would walk around the store for a few minutes, leave the cart somewhere and go home.
I went back another day, got a cart that seemed dry from the parking lot, thinking I’ll
take my chances with Covid rather than the disinfectant, and got my groceries. I got to
the checkout and just as I was about to unload them, the cashier wiped down the belt
with disinfectant. I left the fully-loaded cart in the store and went home.
I went to buy some new towels and just as I was about to put them on the counter at the
checkout, the clerk wiped it down with disinfectant. I didn’t react quickly enough to hold
onto the towels, so I put them down, paid for them, walked out of the store and left the
bag in the parking lot and drove home.
You can ask yourself similar questions related to the hand washing: how much
disinfectant is ok? What happens if you eat some disinfectant? Does it cause cancer?
How much causes cancer? If I do get cancer, will I be cured? Is it my fault if everyone
else is spraying things with disinfectant? What happens if you dry yourself with a towel
that has disinfectant on it? And on and on…
Why should you be convinced not to focus on the content? As you can see, at one
stage, OCD was telling me to be super cautious to get rid of germs through meticulous
hand washing, and then later said we’re ok with the germs but not with the substance
that will kill them.
(I’m aware that soap and disinfectant aren’t exactly the same thing, but you get the idea.
I think OCD told me to put in that disclaimer. Also, disinfectants still bug me, but I’m
much better at tolerating them. Not always, but much better.)
Trying to figure out why you are thinking about this theme or that theme or to solve this
problem or that one will not help you. Because OCD always has one more question. It’s
like the concept of infinity – there is always a plus one. OCD will always have another
So, forget the content. As Jenna has said, you can’t win against OCD, you have to walk
away from the game. Instead of trying to win, do this instead:
Recognize the thinking patterns. The woosh of anxiety when you’re triggered. The
rumination. The analysis and wanting to figure stuff out. The catastrophic thinking. The
wanting to feel “just right”. Recognize all that for what it is: noise and garbage in your
head (that everyone has) and a game you no longer want to play. I know it’s really,
really hard to walk away because we want to win! We want to know. We have to be
sure. Walking away feels uncomfortable. We haven’t solved the problem. We haven’t
felt “just right.” Something bad might happen. And that’s true – we haven’t and
something might. Not will. And the key is to accept that we don’t have to solve it and
that at the end of the day, we don’t know what will happen next. So, we walk away. We
accept uncertainty. We accept not knowing. We accept life. Because life is pretty damn
And after practising that acceptance for a while, you get pretty good at it. I know
because I’ve done it. And if I can do it, you can. Because I’m not special. I’m a human.
Just like you.
It’s there for you. Go and get it.
Thank you to Matt Scoppa for his contribution with this guest blog. Matt was diagnosed with OCD in 2009 when he was in his early thirties. His symptoms were manageable for several years until he suffered a major crash in 2019 and spent two weeks in a mental health facility. Since then, he has received treatment from a psychologist specializing in anxiety and OCD and has taken his life back. Along the way, he has learned a lot about OCD and is now one of the facilitators of an OCD support group in Ottawa, Canada (he has recently moved to Australia but remains part of the group given it meets online).
Resources for Your Recovery
To learn more about OCD and anxiety recovery strategies and resources, visit my website at www.jennaoverbaughlpc.com. Here you can find additional support and guidance.
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This post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. The information and education provided here is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional advice of your own professional mental health or medical treatment, advice, and/or diagnosis. Finally, make sure to check with your own physician or mental health professional before trying or implementing anything read here.
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