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The Fear of Contamination

I haven’t had a lot to say about OCD lately. Mine has been under control, and I can only write so many blog entries about how grateful I am for therapy and medication.

Midway through last month, I took in an emergency foster cat. She’s very sweet and funny and playful, but when she first arrived, she had a case of cat flu and had to be isolated from my own cats.

And that’s when OCD paid a visit for the first time in a long time.

What if it’s rabies? it said.

“It’s not rabies. She doesn’t have any rabies symptoms.”

It’s asymptomatic rabies, OCD said.

“That’s ridiculous. Besides, she’s had her shots.”

It’s rabies.

I spent a sleepless night worrying about rabies. I ended up going through an exercise I learned in therapy, where you accept the worst and consider the consequences.

“Okay, it’s rabies. That’s sad, but my cats have their shots, so they’ll get boosters and I’ll go through the treatment. The end.”

But what if the treatment doesn’t work?

“Then we all die. Impermanence is part of life.”

Finally I wore my OCD brain out and managed to sleep. In the morning, I felt really silly. None of her symptoms matched rabies, and there have been no known local cases since 2014 among cats, and that was clear across the county.

I was fine until that night.

So it’s not rabies. It’s probably feline calicivirus. (You learn a lot of obscure cat diseases when your OCD drives you to look up every possible symptom your beloved fluff children might have.)

“That’s just cat flu.”

Is it?

I looked it up. She did have some symptoms that matched this one, though hers were mild. OCD beat me this time. I took her to the vet and spent a week washing my hands and face and changing my clothes every time I entered or left the area she was staying in, disinfecting stuff, and so on. My fingers peeled. It sucked.

And now, a couple of weeks later, she’s perfectly healthy and my cats never caught so much as a sneeze.

Mike Sacks wrote about his struggle with OCD in the New York Times.

I wash my hands up to 25 times per day. I perform intricate routines and complicated movements to avoid becoming contaminated. With what, exactly? Nothing specific, just a murky sense of something bad. But I also perform these tasks so that friends and family members — and even potentially you — don’t become contaminated.

Boy was I feeling that this past month. The worst thing is, when everything turns out okay, your OCD tells you that it deserves the credit. If you had taken only basic precautions or no precautions at all, your OCD brain whispers, everyone you love would have died.

It’s hard not to buy into this mentality, especially when you spent years lost in it.

All in all, I had about a week of moderate OCD symptoms (only lost one night of sleep, wasn’t suicidal by the end), which is much better than past OCD attacks. And I didn’t give in right away, but used the coping skills I learned in therapy to resist. In the end, I caved, but that’s okay. Sometimes you have to take two steps back before you can take another step forward.

It sucks to know that even when I feel “cured” for months at a time, my OCD may pay an unexpected and nasty visit, though.

The Fear of Contamination

Kyla Cathey

Kyla Cathey is a freelance writer from Galt, California who has been overcoming OCD for the past year, after struggling with it for much of her life.

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APA Reference
Cathey, K. (2016). The Fear of Contamination. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2019, from


Last updated: 5 Sep 2016
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