I was a fat kid in high school. I was a fat kid in middle school, college, and beyond, too, but in high school, it was a central part of who I was. I was teased for it throughout, but it never really got to me. I was taller than most of the other kids. Stronger, too, mentally and physically. I wore sweatpants or windpants to school every day. They were accompanied by a red fleece polo vest over an oversized shirt, oversized even for me. People probably saw it as some sort of anti-fashion statement if they noticed at all, but it wasn’t. I cared very little about my physical appearance at that point.
Well, parts of it, anyway. Most of my attention was paid to keeping my hands from running with blood.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when my OCD spread from my brain to my hands. At the very least, I know it was during high school, 5 years after the numbing onslaught of intrusive thoughts. My subconscious decided that it was my obligation not to influence the behavior or health of anybody else, so I began to wash. I made sure that everything I touched was clean by the time I was finished with it, no matter what. My obsessive cleanliness had very little to do with other people, which puzzled my psychologist at the time. When his patients overwashed, they were usually doing so to get rid of other people’s germs. They were afraid of getting sick or infected. In my case, I didn’t want to get anyone else sick or make their lives harder.
Undiagnosed alongside my OCD and panic attacks, I believe that I also developed a highly focused form of hypervigilance. In medical terms, hypervigilance is the habit of scanning one’s environment for potential threats at all times. It’s an exhausting and mentally taxing process often found in those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. When I say “highly focused,” I mean that instead of scanning my surroundings, I only scanned myself to see what threats I might pose to others. I checked my hands for foreign material constantly, noticed every time my body brushed against somebody or something else, calculated my every movement. I came into the habit of minimizing myself in everyday situations. I wanted to lessen myself. I wanted to affect people as little as possible. Handwashing was a manifestation of that desire to fade into the background, to go unnoticed. If I stopped, I’d be burdening them with my presence. I was a considerate compulsive.
In my junior year, I left class eight or nine times a day. There were any number of triggers to cause it – maybe I caught myself holding my pencil in my mouth then grabbing it, maybe my finger touched the bottom of a gum-riddled desk, maybe I wiped my nose with the back of my hand by accident. In the end, it didn’t really matter what the trigger was. The response was the same at first: fight off an all-encompassing sense of impending doom, or go to the bathroom. Take a guess which impulse won out.
I would open the door with my elbow, careful not to touch the handle. Casually, I walked to the bathroom, although my mind was already inside, planning every movement. Once there, I would start to keep a mental checklist of everything I touched:
Turn the cold faucet knob (1). Pump the soap dispenser (2). Scrub my hands, making a hole with my thumb and forefinger with one hand and repeatedly running the fingers from my other hand through the soapy hole. After a minute, rinse my hands, the soapy water hitting the sink (3) and the faucet head (4). Pump the dispenser again. Lather my hands. Wipe down the sink (3). Rinse. Pump. Scrub. Rinse. Pump. Wipe down the faucet head (2) and the cold faucet knob (1). Rinse. Pump. Scrub.
At this point during the ritual, my hands looked like prunes. They were red when I held them up, but if I left them at my sides too long, they would turn an unnatural shade of purple.
Rinse. Pump. Elbow the paper towel machine. Wipe down the soap dispenser (0) with my pruny, dying hands. Rinse. Pump. Scrub. Rinse. Grab the paper towel and furiously sandpaper the water from my hands.
My hands felt stiff, like if I made a fist the skin on the back of my hands would break in half revealing the overworked nerves and muscles beneath. I would shove my hands in the pockets of my polo vest, the absorbent material wicking away any residual moisture, all but ensuring my hands dried out.
I did this at least fifteen times a day for months on end.
If I’d gone to the bathroom, I would have wiped down the toilet handle (5) and sometimes splashed the toilet bowl (6) with soapy water too. At bath time, I’d wipe the showerhead (7), the handle (8), and kick some soap around the bottom of the tub (9) to kill off any residual evidence of my existence. If I had committed a crime, I would have been a very easy perp to find: just follow the standing pools of water, the perfumed air, the slow-popping bubbles from undiluted soap.
When I washed my hands, I got locked into a mindless ritual, and it was relieving. It was self-destructive, but I wasn’t thinking about how low I felt, how unhappy I was. I thought procedurally: water. Soap. Scrub. Water. Soap. The sink was an outlet where my brain could go to rest. Unfortunately, my hands suffered the consequences.
During that time, I tried another solution to my problems: hand sanitizer. It was quick, easy, and I wouldn’t have to worry about leaving the classroom every fifteen minutes. This blessing turned out to be mixed: the alcohol in the sanitizer sapped all the remaining moisture from my hands, and left them dehydrated husks. The stench of the sanitizer was much stronger and much more noticeable. No one at school ever seemed to notice, but I’m sure they did and just didn’t care. At that age, you understandably have a hundred things on your mind, and none of them are likely to be “that guy’s backpack smells like aloe and vodka.” They didn’t know me.
That winter, my body gave up. I was spending an hour each day scrubbing skin from my hands, then taking those hands unprotected into sub-freezing weather. My skin turned ashy and white. The next time I washed my hands, I felt sharp stings in the back of my hands. I inhaled sharply and looked at them, these little red spots that formed and slowly ran in tiny rivulets into the sink. I was horrified at first, but behind that, I expected something similar to happen. I could only abuse myself for so long without any significant repercussions.
My hands itched like crazy. Contact with open air made them puffy and blotchy, and when I closed them, cracks formed like the dry bed of a salt lake and quickly filled with blood. I started wearing gloves everywhere, including school. Even still, I washed my hands frequently, padding the gloves with paper towels to try and blot out the bleeding. Infection never factored into my head. The only thing that mattered was leaving no invisible trace of me behind. Paradoxically, I was leaving behind more of myself than ever before. In my mind, the blood and skin left in the sink was nothing compared to the phantoms I might unleash by simply . . . being.
The pain eventually became unbearable, and I started slathering my hands with lanolin at night. This had the dual effects of undoing the previous day’s damage and turning my hands into gooey monstrosities, so I also put on cotton work gloves to protect the furniture. I did this every night until winter was over and my skin recovered enough to breathe again.
By the time I moved out of my parents’ house and into my two-bed dorm room in western Pennsylvania, my hands were a bright red, but the bleeding had stopped. I was able to restrain myself to washing only my hands and the knobs. The color eventually faded to a mellow pink, and life went along pretty smoothly. No one was the wiser.
Starting in 2010, I began to notice bumps on my hands. I dismissed them at first as figments of my imagination, just discolored skin, a product of my harsh antibacterial regimen. Then they grew larger and scaly, and started to cluster. One on the palm of my right hand was as large as the chad produced when you hole-punch a piece of paper. It felt like sandpaper when I ran my thumb over it. The back of my left hand became mottled with light brown dots. I was mortified at the spreading growths on my hands, upset that my past may have come back to haunt me. I quickly went on Amazon and found the cheapest pair of fingerless gloves that I could find. Maybe if no one else saw what was wrong with me, I would start to forget it too.
I graduated in May of 2012 and moved to Pittsburgh in August. By that point, there was no running from the problem anymore. The warts became painful to the touch, radiating upwards from the nerves in my hands. I made an appointment with a dermatologist and we began long overdue treatment. Treatment turned out to be more like torture. The doctor took a can of liquid nitrogen, directed it at my hand, and squeezed the trigger. In two seconds, the targeted wart turned frosty white. It felt like someone was stabbing me with a hot iron. She did it twenty more times before calling it a day.
The next day, each frozen wart ballooned into a blister, emerging from my hand like a bloody dome. I felt like a circus freak, walking around with tiny balloons on my hands. Every time they brushed against my clothing, I let out an involuntary whine. Within three days, each blister burst, covering my hands in pus and blood. My handwashing symptoms returned out of necessity, as I would abandon my desk during work and quarantine myself in the bathroom while I cleaned my gloves and my hands.
I had four more freezing sessions after the first. The pain of freezing recently scorched skin grew unbearable. I did my best not to yell while the doctor’s torch destroyed my hands; by the end of each appointment I was sweating and faint.
Two years removed from my last wart removal, I can still see the dark circles where those invaders used to sit. They’re discolored and shine when held at a certain angle in the light, but they’re flat. A couple warts remain, but they don’t seem to be spreading, and the painful ones have receded. Safe for a while.
As for the handwashing, my hands are a pale pink. My reflexive hypervigilance has subsided to a faint thrumming, like electricity, in the background—present, but tolerated. Still, every winter, my hands near the point of cracking, but never quite do. Dead skin flakes off on the webbing between my fingers. Whenever I use the bathroom, whenever I walk outside in the rain, whenever I go swimming, whenever I spill a drink on my hands, I’m reminded of my former self. I feel that familiar sting, the water seeping into my skin, dripping through the dams that web the back of my hands. A painful reminder that I can never escape who I was.