For people with OCD — and fearful of germs — the pandemic is upending years of therapy

Long before the pandemic arrived, Renée battled intense fears of getting sick from daily life. She worried she could get HIV from doorknobs or suffer brain damage from odorless carbon monoxide leaking from a faulty furnace. Danger lurked everywhere. How could she be sure her plates and mugs were safe to use, even if they’d just come out of the dishwasher? What if, through casual contact, she somehow picked up the herpes virus? Who knew what potential germs might linger on cupboard knobs?

As an adolescent, she soothed her anxieties with elaborate rituals that she believed kept her safe. She inspected items she encountered in public for specks of blood. At home, she made frequent trips to the sink, where she scrubbed her hands like a surgeon preparing for the operating room. She hugged only her very closest friends. And she did everything she could to dodge shaking hands.

Over time and with treatment for her severe form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, Renée, now 36, reached an imperfect equilibrium. She had gotten to the point where she was able to eat lunch with her colleagues in the break room of the Philadelphia school where she teaches technology. She was enjoying working with her students.

Then last winter, as news of the coronavirus bubbled up in China, South Korea, Italy, Spain, and not long after, the United States, Renée found her years of therapy upended.


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