I haven’t been consumed by OCD in several years, something I’m immensely grateful for. That particular kind of mental torture is truly awful and not something I would wish on anyone. One of the subsets of OCD that I had was contamination OCD. My body and belongings had to be whatever my disorder deemed to be “clean”, or else some unnamed disaster would occur. There were often no actual illnesses I was afraid I might contract, I was just terrified of potential contamination by unknown germs/viruses/entities.
Beyond the fear, maybe the worst part of this obsession was how time-consuming it was. If something was “dirty” and it touched something “clean”, or if I touched the dirty item and then the clean item, they were both dirty. I spent a lot of time planning out sequences of actions that would combine touching dirty items because otherwise, I would spend half the time washing my hands raw so as to not contaminate anything else. My hands were always painful. I scrubbed them under hot water until I’d stripped them of any moisture barrier. Any movement cracked and split the skin open, which, ironically, made my bleeding hands perfect entry points for bacteria and viruses. But, OCD is not swayed by reason and rationality. It creates doubt that can’t be rooted out with reassuring facts.
For the most part, I don’t deal with OCD anymore, contamination OCD or otherwise. My day-to-day life is not consumed by it like it was before, but every once in awhile, I encounter something that stirs those obsessions up. My perfectionism around self-harm is one, and tapeworms appear to be another.
I’m not squeamish, despite what you might think after learning of my past with contamination OCD. Again, OCD is not rational. Parasites are fascinating and don’t bother me from afar, but when I found a tapeworm segment in my dog’s stool, I felt the familiar stomach twisting of contamination OCD. Once the initial shock passed, I found myself thinking about all of the things I would have to clean. First and foremost, the hand that held the poo bag. I must not touch anything between there and home, not even to put my hand in my pocket. The bed in her crate would need to be washed, and all of my sheets and blankets because she often snoozes on my bed. Should I wash her leash and harness? Perhaps I should stop petting her– would that be going too far? On second thought, that would be impossible. I’ll just wash my hands every time I touch her. So, like, 80 billion times per day.
Keep in mind, the most common species of tapeworm is passed to humans only when you ingest a flea that carries the tapeworm eggs. Not likely. There is also a species of tapeworm that can be passed from dog to human through ingested feces on unwashed hands, but it’s not common in the U.S., and I’m a frequent hand-washer as it is. In other words, it’s very unlikely that I would get tapeworms from Stella.
That night, I lay in bed, Stella at my feet, and tried to control my rising panic. The vet was closed for the holidays, so I had left a message. Having no idea when they would return my call, I did what any smartphone-wielding person would do; I looked it up. Unfortunately, Google played the role of the reassuring-but-clueless friend that says something terrifying right at the very end of the conversation.
“Oh, it’s very uncommon for people to get them? OH, you might not show signs until years after ingestion?!”
Not gonna lie, my concern for Stella was overshadowed by my selfish, irrational fear for myself. The thought of something living inside me usually doesn’t bother me. After all, we are made up of more bacterial cells than human cells. Maybe it’s an evolutionary adaptation to be totally wigged out at the thought of parasites taking up room in your gut, like some kind of lizard-brain fear of fire.
The good news is, I realized that I was obsessing about this right before I returned to the scariest thought of them all: “What if I already have tapeworms?” This is good news because it really kicked me into the best way to face OCD thoughts, which is to say “Yeah, and?” In the dark in more ways than one, with my tapeworm-host dog not three feet from me, I had to say “Maybe I do have tapeworms. What am I gonna do about it right now?” Just sitting with the uncertainty brings you to the stunning realization that there is absolutely nothing productive about rumination. So, with a little more deliberate relaxation, my hypothetical tapeworms and I went to sleep. Well, maybe not the tapeworms. Do tapeworms sleep?
I still don’t know if I have tapeworms, and it’s honestly probably something that I’ll worry about off and on for a while. I do know that I’m much better at squashing obsessions than I used to be, maybe because I know it’s something I’m prone to and can catch it early on. Stella is on a deworming medicine and continues to behave like a dog. That is to say, eats anything and everything with gusto and drinks water out of the Christmas tree stand when nobody’s looking.