PhD and OCD in the Time of Coronavirus

Our latest Guest Blogger discusses their PhD experience while dealing with OCD and the COVID-19 outbreak.

Pandemic, Contagion, Outbreak. I ardently read these books by Robin Cook when I was about twelve years old, dreamt about becoming a virologist studying deadly viruses. This was before I developed OCD.

I have been living with OCD for some years now and things were getting better. I stopped using hand sanitizer that was drying my skin to the point it looked like a crinkled tissue paper, and after a lot of ‘exposure therapy’ I started to believe that it is OK to touch food with my hands before placing it into mouth when eating out. But that was until COVID-19 made its appearance, when my worst nightmares came true a couple of weeks ago.

‘Wash your hands more often. Wash your hands more often for 20 seconds. Washing your hands could be a matter of life or death.’ 

‘Wash your hands, wash your hands NOW! You CANNOT be sick now, you have a thesis to write, work to go to, you cannot let people down by getting sick! If you get sick you will give it to others!’ These reminders were often on repeat in my head even before COVID-19, but they bombard me everywhere now. I open Twitter, email, newspapers and there it is, this intrusive reminder to wash my hands. So I keep washing. I normally wash my hands like 30 times a day, depending on how stressful my day is. ‘Should I wash them more often now? Of course! Another series of washing can do no harm! It can save lives.’ So, I keep washing…

Lockdown, Week 1, Friday. 

I am walking from my weekly grocery shopping. It is shortly after 6am, the shop was empty, but I am still worried I infected myself or someone else. I might already have it without knowing. I might be a walking Coronavirus. I start to walk quicker. I need to wash my hands. I need to have a shower. I need to wash my hair too.

I am at home, it takes me about an hour to disinfect everything – door handles, light switches, keys, and other things. After washing my hands about 20 times in between, I can finally take a shower. As I leave the bathroom a huge cloud of hot steam follows me. I look into the mirror. I look like a tomato or a boiled lobster. I am completely red. ‘How long have I been showering?’ I wonder if my skin and flesh eventually fall off my bones. I will look like a flayed St Bartholomew or a guy from the anatomy illustrations by Govert Bidloo I studied yesterday. I tell this to my partner, and we laugh.

I am in a trigger mode for the rest of the day. A thesis chapter I am working on is about pain and suffering, I do not think I can write about this now. I am stuck. I keep asking my partner if he washed his hands after touching this, or that. He is calm and says he did, but he washes them again. I thank him. He should get a medal when this is over, or at least a huge chocolate cake with ice cream.


Flayed St Bartholomew in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, 1534-41, fresco, Sistine Chapel, Rome.

Lockdown, Week 2, date and time unidentified.

I look at the apples I bought yesterday. I would like to have one, but can I? How long can Coronavirus survive on apples? Hmmm, it allegedly survives 24 hours on cardboard, so it might be something similar with apples. Ok, I will not have one now, I will wait until tomorrow. ‘It is better to be safe, than sorry’, I tell myself and wash my hands.

A package lands on the carpet. It is a book I ordered last week. I look at it and start crying as I hear our postman walking down the stairs. I feel guilty – having this book is not necessary. There must have been many people who had to do unnecessary work to deliver it. They cannot work from home as I can, they risk their lives just because of people like me. I promise to myself that I will not order any more books or unnecessary items. I write a note to our postman thanking him for his hard work and tape it on the door. I cannot concentrate on writing my thesis for the rest of the day. All I can think about are deliveries – I ordered a monthly food delivery for our dog a couple of days ago too. I manage to read some scholarly articles, that counts too. These days, one has to be grateful for every single written or read word.


Govert Bidloo, engraving from Anatomia Humani Corpis, 1865.

Lockdown, Week 3, Thursday, I guess.

I go for a routine morning walk with our dog. I feel like a dead man walking. My thoughts are gloomy and I feel pretty pessimistic about the (lack of) progress of my thesis. As I keep walking, I notice all the beautiful blossoming threes and flowers. I suddenly feel better and happier.

I get home, wash my hands (only 3 times this time), have breakfast and start writing. I started to use an app that allows me to listen natural sounds such as waterfall, fire or rain. Today I opt for the sound of ‘Northern forest’ and try to trick my brain into thinking that I am surrounded by trees and woodpeckers. It seems to work – I wrote about 2 000 words today. Our brains are complicated things, but they seem to be tricked fairly easily. I am determined to train mine, so that it starts to be productive every time it hears the sound of woodpeckers.

Lockdown, Week 4, what day I do not know

Another day, another delivery, another feeling of guilt. The dog food has arrived. I walk around the flat and I ask my partner: ‘Am I a horrible person?’, ‘Do you think the delivery man will get Coronavirus because of this delivery?’, ‘Do you think someone’s pet will die of hunger because of this delivery?’. He listens and answers patiently to all my questions. I wish I had his golden patience and iron nerves.

I take a break from studying and decide to play some music. Great decision, bad choice of song. I look through my ‘Favourite’ playlist and tap on Natalia Imbruglia’s ‘Torn’. I used to love that song!

I’m all out of faith
This is how I feel, I’m cold and I am shamed
Lying naked on the floor
Illusion never changed
Into something real
Wide awake and I can see the perfect sky is torn
You’re a little late
I’m already torn

‘O God’, I am thinking, ‘I can so relate to all that!’ (Apart from lying naked on the floor). After a couple of replays and out of key singing, I realise this is not helpful. I need to pull myself together, I need to make the most out of this lockdown.

I swipe through my playlist again and click. This is what I needed!

One life I’m gonna live it up
I’m takin’ flight, I said, “I’ll never get enough”
Stand tall I’m young and kind of proud
I’m on the top, but as long as the music’s loud

If you think I’ll sit around as the world goes by
You’re thinkin’ like a fool ’cause it’s a case of do or die
Out there is a fortune waiting to be had
If you think I’ll let you go you’re mad
You’ve got another thing comin’
You’ve got another thing comin’

If you think I’ll sit around while you chip away my brain
Listen I ain’t foolin’ and you’d better think again
Out there is a fortune waiting to be had
If you think I’ll let it go you’re mad
You’ve got another thing comin’
You’ve got another thing comin’
You’ve got another thing comin’

Judas Priest helped me that day and days after. It gives me energy and drive. I write 602 words that day. This needs to be celebrated! I reward myself with a chocolate bar after dinner. We watch our favourite Australian crime series from the 90s, we laugh at something stupid.

Life is good. It can be challenging, but it is good. It will be good!

Please do not hesitate to seek help when things get out of your hands. I could not go through this without a professional help. Talk to your supervisors if you struggle, they will understand and support you. And most importantly, love yourself and others even in the time of Corona. Remember that this will pass, this will not last forever.

The writer of this post wishes to remain anonymous.

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