Aarti, 22, Mumbai, India

I was obsessed with the idea of being possessed

Aarti Picture One of the strongest memories from my childhood is one of me drawing ‘protective’ symbols on the doors and windows to prevent spirits from entering it. I was obsessed with the idea of being possessed. I hadn’t seen the Exorcist but the trailer on TV left me so scared that I couldn’t sleep unless I’d crept into my parents’ bed. I’d repeat over and over, always in sets of 3, ‘I’m not being possessed’ as though not saying would be equivalent to inviting a spirit to take up residence in my body and keep my mind a prisoner.

Over the years my anxiety has been channelled in different ways. There was a period in my life where I would pray constantly. A tiny cross in the car 50 meters away on the other side of the junction, a stamp sized picture of Lord Ganesh in a shop window two streets over that would flash into my mind. I had to cover all my bases, all religions. 3 joined palms, 3 raised palms and 3 crosses. All while asking for forgiveness from God, always 3 times.

The most recent and perhaps most lasting (perhaps because I finally realised what was going on, or adolescence hit or I don’t know what) has been a fear of contamination. This thing is dirty and if I touch it something bad will happen.

With my earlier anxieties there was always an end result. If I don’t put up protective wards, I will be possessed. If I do not ask for forgiveness, God won’t grant me good grades. If I don’t put shields on my mother’s plane it will crash. If the volume isn’t on 27 (3*3*3!) there will be a cosmic imbalance of some sort and my luck will run out. With the contamination anxiety I don’t know the end result. Maybe my mind is too afraid to confront it or maybe there isn’t one. It’s made rationalising it much harder. It’s made it much harder to get under control.

My best friend in high school was my best friend for this reason: she’d open and close the tap for me in the bathrooms when I wanted to wash my hands. I couldn’t bear to touch them, convinced they were crawling with other people’s germs. In college I had to move out of the hostels at great cost because I couldn’t bear living in close quarters with someone whose hygiene I had no control over. When I got my own flat, even unknown delivery guys used to comment on the strong smell of Dettol and bleach that emanated from it all the way into the corridors.

I stopped going out with friends because keeping tabs on what was clean and what was dirty was too much of a hassle. My skin started to break out from excessive use of harsh soaps. My arms were frequently covered in harsh red soapburns. When times were rough, my neck and face had them too. I destroyed all my earrings because I tried to sanitise them and they couldn’t withstand the washing. My clothes had spots of brown and white from when I added bleach in the wash. I spent a ton of money on electronics because they all got damaged by the constant barrage of sanitising products. My best feature, my hair, lost lustre and started falling out because I stopped using shampoo. Only dishwash liquid felt ‘clean enough’. I trained myself to pee only twice a day, in a gymnastic fashion without ever having to touch the porcelain seat. Showers were carried out with military precision to minimise contamination. Nothing was safe.

I danced around the closed bathroom doors in college so that none of the germs flew onto me. I circled spots where I imagined spittle fell on me with pen and held them away from other things until I could wash. Not even my face was exempt. I looked like a Dalmatian on some days. I couldn’t even high five my friends let alone hug them. My grades didn’t drop but my performance in my extra curriculars did. I’d come to college a bright butterfly brimming over with confidence and after 2.5 years I was a shell of myself. I couldn’t socialise at a party, let alone perform a monologue before a crowd. My ‘friends’ dropped out of my life. I felt like I had dropped out my life too. I was ugly, alone and severely depressed.

I started seeing someone about my problems almost 2 years ago. They gave me meds but I was never at home long enough to start CBT. College was at a remote place which had a teaching hospital attached and I lived in fear of being farmed out to a student to practise on (despite knowing that this was not how it actually worked). The medicines helped with the anxiety. But what helped the most was Twitter. There was a fantastic OCD community that existed on it and offered support. I found others there who dealt with the same problems. Suddenly I was not alone. There was at least one person out there who understood what it was like to sleep on a cold floor because you’re dirty and your skin burns when you shower. The more I read about others with OCD, the less I stigmatised myself. I didn’t get out of any of the habits I’d formed, but I didn’t feel like such a ‘freak’ for having these compulsions. The fog of depression lifted a little. Now, over a year later, I’m still in the same place I was in OCD-wise, but I’m less depressed (something positive?).

Mine isn’t a story that has a happy ending. I live at home now and there are fights almost every day because of how ‘particular’ I am. I hug my mother so rarely (and always just before a shower) that it has become something of an event. My brother is afraid to breathe near me in case I freak out and I am afraid to stand near him because I am convinced I will be contaminated. It is far worse than when I was at college because I was alone then and didn’t have to worry about the fumes from the bleach aggravating somebody’s asthma. I didn’t have to worry about someone touching my stuff, even by accident. I didn’t have to constantly feel the effects of my OCD. It’s not just ruining my life, it’s ruining theirs too.

When I try to picture the future, I can’t. I can’t see myself with somebody. Can’t see myself having kids. Can’t see myself ever free of this disease. But I want all these things and so I have to try. I’ve started CBT and hopefully I’ll respond. I have exactly 2% hope in my heart that it will be OK some day, but I cling to that. The old me, the ambitious, social, confident me is still lurking below the surface somewhere, taunting me, telling me to achieve things, to have a meaningful life. I know I can’t go back to being that person, but maybe some day I can get a grip on this. Maybe some day I can have all the things I want and be happy.

It makes sense to at least try.

Categories: The Wall

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