That hand washing and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder are so commonly linked sometimes seems cliché. Think of OCD = think of hand washing. While OCD can manifest itself in a seemingly infinite number of ways, one reason hand washing has become so linked with the disorder is that it happens to be a common compulsion. In fact, although Blake showed symptoms of having obsessions (intrusive thoughts) for some time before we noticed compulsions, it was his frequent and excessive hand washing that finally tipped us off (I shudder to think how much longer it would have taken me to wake up if his obvious compulsion had been something other than hand washing).
Over the years, Blake has had numerous obsessions and compulsions. They morph frequently. OCD likes to play that trick. One obsession or compulsion disappears. As a parent in the early stages of dealing with this disorder, you can almost be tricked into breathing a sigh of relief. You think, “Ah, I’m so glad that’s gone.” But then, something else arises. Washing makes way for tapping. Tapping makes way for bowing. Bowing makes way for pushing in every chair in the entire restaurant. After a few of these incarnations, you learn that OCD is an evolving disorder that leaves you guessing where it is going to pop up next.
Over the years, Blake’s hand washing has waxed and waned. Over the past year it has taken up residence again. Blake’s poor hands looked weathered and chapped. They are cracked and rough with hard patches that I’m not sure will ever return to normal. One day, a few weeks ago, I noticed how awful his hands looked.
“Your hands look like they really hurt, honey.”
“Yeah, I don’t know how that happened. It must be the weather.”
“Ummm…I think that’s more than the weather. You’re probably doing a lot of washing.”
“I don’t know when, Mom. I really don’t. At least I’m not aware of it.”
I think he meant it. I actually think he’s not aware of his hand washing. That’s how automatic it’s become for him. Or maybe he doesn’t want to know…
I do know, though. After his statements, I became sort of curious about this hand washing thing. I mean, I’m living with the same weather. Plus, my hands are in the water all the time. I wash most of the dishes. I clean the turtles’ yard. I wash out the cat litter boxes. I bathe the dogs. At worst, my hands get a little rough. What was he doing that his hands were in that state? So I started to take better mental notes and then I documented what I noticed.
– He pet the dog. He washed his hands.
– He touched the laundry in his hamper. He washed his hands.
– He put a dish in the dishwasher. He washed his hands.
– He went to the bathroom and washed his hands. He washed them again when he made it to the kitchen. He winced in pain.
– He came back to the sink right after that and washed again. He winced again.
– He wiped down the kitchen counter with sponge. He washed his hands.
– He touched the pantry door. He washed his hands.
– He got up from the couch where he’d been reading. He washed his hands.
– A napkin I’d been holding brushed past his face (it wasn’t dirty, by the way). He washed his face – and his hands.
Blake may say that the weather is the reason for the condition his hands are in. He may even believe that. His behavior tells a different story. He is so locked up in automatic washing that his poor hands don’t stand a chance. However, since he insists he’s got his OCD managed and his dad and I have pledged to let him manage it in his own way, we don’t point this out. We wait, instead, for Blake’s own awakening. Until then, he will continue his absent-minded washing. Or perhaps it will morph into something new, and something new again – on an ever-renewing journey until Blake decides he’s had enough.