OCD and Contamination: Obsession and Compulsion Explained
— Fred Penzel, Ph.D., Psychologist
For someone with Contamination OCD (a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), contamination isn’t simply limited to dirt and germs. It can include anything from household chemicals and spoiled food to broken glass, newsprint, pets, birds and even soap. There are practically no limits to the things that could be contaminating.
Tiny amounts of contaminating substances are often believed to cover very large areas. Some sufferers believe that a minute quantity of a contaminant (such as blood or urine, for example), can somehow be spread to coat entire rooms, or even everything they own.
There are some sufferers who fear to touch the floor, the ground outdoors, or any public objects. There are also cases where a sufferer will get the idea that another person is contaminated in some way, although they cannot exactly say why. It may be a total stranger, or a member of their immediate family.
Compulsions are the obvious responses of sufferers to these fears. They may involve any protective act that an individual carries out to avoid becoming contaminated or to remove contamination that has somehow already occurred. Compulsions of this type may include:
- excessive and sometimes ritualized hand washing
- disinfecting or sterilizing things
- frequent clothes changes
- creating clean areas off-limits to others
- simple avoidance of going to certain places or touching things
Another form of compulsion can include double-checking by a sufferer to make sure that they have not become contaminated, or asking others for reassurance that this has not occurred. Some will go as far as to make lists of things they believe may have happened in the past, so as not forget this vital information.
In an attempt to keep clean and minimize compulsions, some sufferers will create two different worlds for themselves: one clean, and one dirty. When contaminated, they can move freely about their dirty world and touch and do anything, since everything in it is already contaminated. Nothing in it has to be cleaned or avoided. Clothes that are considered contaminated must be worn when functioning in this zone. This dirty world usually takes in most of the outside world, and can also include portions of their home or work areas. It may even extend to having a dirty car, to be driven only when contaminated. They may also be able to function freely in their clean world, as long as they themselves are clean when they enter it, and stay that way. The clean world is usually a much more restricted area than the dirty one, and is often limited to special places at home or at work. There may also be a clean car, which can only be driven when clean. The two worlds may exist side-by-side like parallel universes that are never allowed to meet.
In some cases, family members have been drawn into the sufferer’s web of compulsions. They are made to reassure, to clean things that cannot be approached, to check the sufferer or the environment for cleanliness, or to touch or manipulate things that are supposed to be contaminated. This type of help, of course, doesn’t really help, as it only locks the sufferer into the illness and increases helplessness. It also leads to resentment and fighting, as family members feel increasingly imposed upon, and their lives become limited. This is especially true when a family member is seen as the source of contamination.
OCD is chronic. This means that there is no cure. There is recovery, though, and many have achieved it. With the right treatment, you can hope to live a normal productive life, and go on to fully realize your potential as a human being.
Select the sound files below to hear Bron describe her experiences with