Clean and Serene?

Imagine feeling so dirty that you spent up to 20 hours a day in the shower, obsessively scrubbing until the water ran red.

This was a typical day for Samatha Hancox, a 40 year-old woman who suffered from Obsessive Compulsive  Disorder and died last May.  Her story is in the papers because her parents were on trial for manslaughter, but were cleared of charges after she was found to have died of dehydration and skin infection.

Samantha’s condition was triggered at the age of 10 when her grandmother died.  By age 14 she had to leave school to be cared for at home.  Although she had trained as a law student, the final years of her life were spent at home with her parents, washing and watching TV.

It would be easy to dismiss Samantha’s story as a tragic one-off, a medical anomaly explained by the loss of her grandmother.   Yet in the UK alone there are some 750,000 sufferers.

What must it feel like to be  Samantha’s parents, watching helplessly as your only child washes away her dreams?  Or to bury her, years before her time?

How would Samantha have felt?  To wake every day in the grip of the compulsion to wash, scrubbing till she could hardly stand and then falling into bed, only for it to begin anew.  The exhaustion.  The frustration and misery of finding oneself trapped in an endless, relentless cycle. The loneliness.  In 18 years she hardly left her home.  She didn’t know what it was like to be a relationship, to go out with friends, to live.

Did she ever think: this is it?  This is my life?

Did she hope to recover?  Or was she so worn down by this debilitating and miserable disorder, that in the end she just gave up?

When I was growing up and recovering from anorexia, I had severe OCD.  For me it was hand-washing.  I felt that unless I scrubbed them, over and over, in a certain order, something terrible would happen to me or to the people I loved.  It took hours to get it right and even the slightest deviation from routine meant that I had to start again – from the beginning. Left hand first, finger by finger, under the nails, 26, 27, 28 times. In desperation, I would even plunge them into neat bleach.  The skin broke apart and I had to have my wrists bandaged. My fingers were a bloody pulp.

The worst thing was this: my behaviour  and fears  made no sense.  I knew that it was crazy but I couldn’t stop. How could I tell other people, when I didn’t understand it myself? In my head, I could see that it was dominating my life and controlling me.  But that wasn’t enough.  The stress caused by not washing or ‘exposure’ to ‘germs’ was so great, I would do anything to feel better, safer.  And even though I was mentally and physically drained, the alternative – sheer terror – was even worse.

My story didn’t end there.    And there is a way out.

For those of us who don’t struggle in this area, it’s a condition that’s hard to understand  – but if we love and care for others, we will make the effort to find out more. (See also this post). If we’re experiencing it or have been there ourselves, there is hope – and freedom, both from the disorder and the shame that surrounds it. But don’t keep battling alone.  Don’t settle for existing instead of living.  And don’t make peace with slavery.

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