I was in a public restroom last week and came across something I had never seen before: a toe opener. This particular one was attached to the bottom of the main door which allowed me to open it with my foot instead of my hand. My first thought was, “What a great idea,” and my second thought was, “People with contamination OCD aren’t the only ones who don’t want to touch doorknobs. They are loaded with germs.”
I think many of us without OCD can understand, to some degree, the contamination issues of those with the disorder. Just look around. There are signs in restrooms insisting we wash our hands so we don’t spread disease, and instructions as to the best way to do this. There are hand sanitizer dispensers in supermarkets and other public places. Moms now bring shopping cart covers for their babies and toddlers to sit on to avoid germs. The examples go on and on. We can relate.
But there is another type of contamination OCD that, while not uncommon, is less talked about, perhaps because it is less “acceptable” and harder for those of us without OCD to comprehend. Emotional contamination involves fearing that certain people (or places) are contaminated in some way, and therefore must be avoided at all cost. The OCD sufferer might have had a negative experience with the person in question, might feel there is something undesirable about the person that might “rub off” on them, or might not even have a specific reason for their fears. Those of you who saw the recent show about OCD on ABC News “20/20″ might remember that one of the girls with OCD could not be near either of her parents, and was living temporarily with her grandparent. I believe this is an example of emotional contamination. How heartbreaking it must be for all involved when the “contaminated person” is someone you love.
One aspect of this type of OCD that stands out to me is how quickly this magical thinking can snowball. Of course, this can be true for other subtypes of OCD, but it just seems so pronounced with emotional contamination: Fear, and subsequent avoidance, of a person might then extend to avoidance of any place that person might have been, any people who that person might have associated with, or any item that person might have touched. Before we know it, the OCD sufferer’s world has become so small that he or she might be housebound, unable to breathe the same air as the “contaminated person.” This great article gives a good explanation of emotional contamination, and details a case study as well.
The good news, of course, is that the treatment for emotional contamination is the same as other types of OCD. Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, by all accounts, works well for this type of OCD. If you suffer from emotional contamination, there is so much hope for your recovery. Please take that first step to find a competent therapist, so you can reclaim your life as soon as possible.