DIANE DAVIS: That's the thing about OCD, is that you're never, you never break with reality. So there's a part of you that knows always that this is kind of ridiculous, and yet you cannot stop doing it. There's you know, the fear part of you that just drives you.
This is Death, Sex & Money...
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot
And need to talk about more
I’m Anna Sale.
DD: Hi Anna and the Death, Sex & Money team.
A couple of weeks ago, we got a voice memo in our inbox that stuck out to me. It was from a listener named Diane Davis.
DD: I’m calling from my quarantine here in my house. Forgive me if you can hear my small children downstairs screaming. I swear my husband is with them.
Diane’s kids are 8, 5, and 2. They live in New Jersey. Normally, Diane and her husband both work in Manhattan.
The subject line of Diane’s email was: "OCD and the pandemic."
DD: I’m wondering what people who have obsessive compulsive disorder are doing during this time and how they’re coping. I did a lot of work on that and with medication and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and I’ve done a lot of exposure response therapy, and then all of a sudden this pandemic happens and it’s like every nightmare I had in my head as I was furiously washing my hands is true.
Diane is an actor. Just over a month ago, she was performing eight shows a week on Broadway, playing Ginny in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Until March 12th, when Broadway shut down.
DD: We were at rehearsal, there's no show tonight, you know, go home. And, and then it was...it just all came to kind of an abrupt halt.
So now, she told me on the phone, she's home with her family, caring for her kids and trying to manage her OCD in the middle of a pandemic.
She’s dealt with fears of contamination and intrusive thoughts for over twenty years. They started when she was in her late teens.
DD: I would get these just overwhelming like, walls of doom is the way I can describe it. They would come towards me and hit me and I had no way to make sense of what was going on. I was 17 years old and, um, I just felt like something bad was going to happen. You know, that sort of spiraled into me washing my hands 300, 400 times a day, keeping track of everything I touch. Um, and when I went into therapy for OCD, what we did was just, um, sit with that original feeling.
ANNA SALE: Hmm.
DD: So it was like, you know, okay, now you're going to touch this door knob with your pinky and we're going to sit here and rate how anxious you are, and then just watch it crest and go. You know, I'd have this scale of between zero and a hundred. So it's like, how anxious are you now, you know? And then we'd gradually bring it up. So I remember touching the bottom of my foot with my pinky. It was like, I think I went to like a 95, you know. And I wanted to, I was sitting there in this room and I wanted to just like run, run out. And it was just, you have to sit, sit, sit, sit, and then you watch it and it kind of goes down eventually. That's the key to it, right? Is that you have to always go towards the thing that you're afraid of. And, um, and so that's sort of, I guess what I'm trying to do now. Um, yeah.
AS: So what has it been like for you for this real threat to be moving around?
DD: When everybody is like, "Wash your hands!"?
DD: I remember in January, some friends who know me very well texted. They were like, how are you doing? Because it was sort of coming-- or February, I guess, when it was sort of coming towards New York. And I was joking about it and I was like, "You guys, I've been preparing for COVID for my entire life." And I think I was sort of like, you know what? I'm going to be able to handle this because I know what it is to be really afraid of contamination. And I thought I was going to be okay. And then, I don't know, it's sort of, it's sort of came out of nowhere and just knocked me sideways again. Yeah, I had like a breakdown with my husband two weeks ago where... cause I also, then I get this, I get an anxious, uh, breathing thing where I hyperventilate. And I just, one night I just broke down with my husband and, just, "there's something wrong with me and I will never, you know... something's broken and I can't cope." This is like every, every fear that I had, you know, when I was struck really, really in the midst of struggling with this is like, "Oh, you were right all along." Um, so it's very weird that everything that I was afraid of is coming true.
DD: And then my rational brain knows--you know, there's like OCD brain and then there's rational brain--just like, "No, Diane, this is a very specific thing that's happening. It's fine. You'll be fine." But then I have this other spinning part that's just, um, yeah, that is, that is, on high, high alert.
AS: Does it, are there moments where it's confusing about whether it's--you're thinking about something that you need to take action about because it's rational and it will help you take care of your family and keep your family safe, or when you're like, this is me spinning out? Like, is it always clear what's what?
DD: I feel like this pandemic is sort of blurring those lines a little bit. Um. You know, like, I don't know if this is a rational thing, but I'll tell you something. I did, my husband took out the recycling and he came in after taking out the recycling and he didn't wash his hands. And I completely freaked out at him. And I screamed at him that, um, I was just like, "You have to think about that garbage can and that the people who are taking out the garbage have gone around..." And this is where my brain goes: it's like picturing every single house that they've gone to and they're touching those things. And then they're touching our recycling bin. And then he goes and he touches our recycling bin. He walks in and now it's all in our house. And I just was like, and I followed him out and he was...[laughs] I swear we have a good marriage! It's fine! But he was like, he knows me very well, and he was like, "Okay. Okay."
It's like, then when he comes in my house, he feels like a foreign...like a foreign, you know, body of something that's coming to infect us.
AS: I see. Yeah.
DD: And maybe that's not the rational part. You know? That's where I, that, yeah, it's that, it's that inner, um, engine of fear that is the part that is confusing and the OCD part.
AS: What's it like for you to be, um, trying to take care of yourself and, and have compassion for whatever things come up, um, while, you know, you're being watched by your little kids in your house?
DD: Yeah. That, um, that I'm trying to be very, um, aware of. Because my middle child, especially, is the most like me and we were just hanging out in the kitchen the other day and out of nowhere, she just went into the bathroom to go wash her hands. And I was like, "Oh, what are you doing?" And um, and she was like, "I'm just washing my hands." And I was like, "Why? We were just standing here." And she said, "I don't know. I just felt like I needed to." And I, that made me just, you know, a little alert bell kind of just went off in my head that, um, I should keep an eye on that with her. And I worry that this...I worry about what this pandemic is instilling in her, because she's five. Um, in terms of that.
I mean, there's nothing I can--I try not to be insane about having them wash their hands. They’re kids. We’re all in an isolated house together. But I, I will keep my eye out on her and just make sure, you know, over the next years, few years that she's, um, yeah that she's okay.
AS: Do your kids know you have OCD?
DD: They do not. No. I've never said that to them. No. No. Uh, yeah. I don't know if I should. Maybe I will someday. I try to really, be--I really don't want them to grow up with unnecessary fears. Does that make any sense? Am I making any sense?
AS: Of course it makes sense. I mean I’m struck by, you've been in treatment for years for this and learned language for how to identify what's happening in yourself. Um, but I think you're, you're probably, when you describe that like fear response that gets activated and then that can intensify a lot of worry or, um, that feeling of trying to manage--I feel like most all of us are going through that right now--
AS:--in some way? Have you found that you are needing to lean on sort of, um, techniques that you haven't needed to manage your OCD that you didn't feel like you needed anymore?
DD: I did have to--um, I do stay on a, um, an anti-anxiety medication that I've been on, um, for years now. Um, and a few times I've had to take something for an acute panic response. Other than that, I do a lot of like meditation now, which I think is very helpful. Almost inviting in what feels uncomfortable and sitting with it, being with it and letting it have its say and have its moment. Because I think it's when you try to push it away, that it just kind of comes back and tries to, then it starts screaming at you. So, um, yeah. I was thinking about, you know what I feel like people must be going a little bit through something like what I went through when this first hit me, when I was, you know, 17 years old. You know, this fear of contamination is in all of us now. And I was talking to a friend and I was like, I know what that's like. I hope that the world doesn't become me.
AS: What did you mean by that?
DD: Just afraid. Afraid. You know, afraid to touch, to hold, to be near. But I just don't want people to be afraid after this is all done. I know we're all going to have to do some sort of collective exposure response therapy.
AS: I kind of love that everybody Zoom in and Diane's going to help us [both laugh]
DD: I know! It's like, touch your friend! Now sit. How afraid are you now on a scale of one to one hundred? [laughs]
Coming up, author John Green. The last time we talked on the show, he told me about the tools he’s gained over time to manage his OCD. Now, like Diane, he’s finding that a lot of them aren’t as helpful.
JOHN GREEN: Yeah, I don't have a brand that's perfectly designed for global disease pandemic certainly. Like I have a, I have many years of of not knowing what size of a response to a perceived disease threat is rational.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
John Green is the bestselling author of young adult books including The Fault In Our Stars. He’s also a podcast host here at WNYC Studios and, along with his brother Hank, an avid YouTuber.
It was on John's YouTube page a couple weeks ago that I saw something that actually gave me a lot of comfort right now. John filmed himself taking a walk in the woods near his home in Indianapolis, looking at some trees and talking about the things that are helping him stay grounded right now.
It reminded me of my first conversation with John back in 2018, when we talked about how he’s had to learn to manage his mental health both on his own, and by asking for help from other people.
So I called John up to hear more about how he’s doing right now.
AS: Hi, John.
JG: Hi. How are you?
AS: I'm okay. How are you?
JG: Also doing okay. I think that's the best case scenario for the moment.
The first thing John Green wanted to talk about was John Prine.
JG: I have to say, um, how much, I loved your interview with John prine that you just re-uploaded.
AS: Thanks. Sad, right?
JG: It's very sad, but it was just, it was such a, it was such a wonderful interview. IT took me back to high school actually. Uh, there was a John Prine, song that famous John Prine song "Angel From Montgomery" was like the only thing that brought me any comfort or consolation on the worst day of my life. And I was just thinking that it's a, it's a hell of a gift, you know, to give a stranger, to give somebody some consolation on their worst day of their life. And John Prine gave that to me.
AS: That's nice. Um, am I calling you at home?
JG: Yeah, I’m actually in my bedroom.
AS: And how's your, how's your household working right now?
JG: Oh, I, I would say it's working poorly.[Both laugh] I mean, my wife Sarah has a book coming out in five days. A book that she has worked on for two and a half years, and it's a wonderful book. And of course, this is a difficult time in which to publish it. And so that's challenging for us because Sarah has a lot of, a lot of work obligations, and like millions of parents around the country, we are also kind of home schooling our kids, which is not a job that I am qualified for or good at.
AS: What, what grades are your kids in?
JG: Uh, my daughter is in kindergarten and my son is in fourth grade.
AS: Uh huh. Have you picked up on how much of this they are capturing? Like are they, are they feeling stressed about the state of the world?
JG: Yeah. This is hard for them and they're extremely resilient kids. They're also kids who, who are very fortunate to be in a safe place. And I think they know that they're fortunate, but it is hard for them. And I can't pretend like life is normal. I actually have found the thing that's most helpful is, is not to say much, but just to try to listen.
JG: Like that thing that, that you, that you just did, I've just learned to do this. I don't know if you do it on purpose, but, um, a lot of times if I just make that noise to my kids, they keep talking.
AS: Yeah. I probably do that more in interviews than I do with my children, though. [laughs] I think with her, "I'm like, wait, are you sad? Are you scared? Tell me more!" You know? And she's like, "Aah!"
JG: Yeah, I think it's one thing to name the feeling. Um, but it's another thing to like over-name the feeling, you know? Like sometimes I feel like I over-name the feeling to my kids where I'll be like, "Are you sad? Are you sad because of the Coronavirus? Are you really, really sad because you can't see any of your friends?" And they're like, "Thanks. Okay. Got it."
AS: [laughs] And how are you, how are you coping? What have you noticed about your mental health while you've been at home with your family during this time?
JG: Yeah I think a lot of people with anxiety disorders, or who have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder like I do, are having a difficult time and I certainly am. I also however have work, and I have a house and there's, there's some outside space. That's incredibly helpful to me because when I am outside, the world is mostly normal. It's spring here in Indianapolis, very early spring. And so, uh, that's kinda where every day I get the dose that I need of, um, something being approximately normal.
AS: I also saw you posted a video, um, where you mentioned that you're taking a daily bath?
AS: Tell me about your baths.
JG: Ah! If you can take a bath I really recommend it. I'm a, I'm a, I'm a profound bath enthusiast. Like I've always loved baths and the unhappiest periods of my life coincide with when I've only had showers. And our house has a bathtub. It's not huge, but it's an acceptable size for a grown man to take a bath in. And every day I take a bath toward the end of the day and I light candles. I go all out, Anna.
JG: If there is a thing in my house that I can use to make the bath feel more like an otherworldly experience I do it. Aroma therapy? Absolutely. Bath salts if they're available? Yes. Have I used my kids' weird glitter bath bombs? I have.
AS: And do you listen to anything or read anything in the bath?
JG: Is it weird if I tell you that I, that's where I listened to the John Prine interview?
AS: [laughs] I actually love knowing that! I'm honored!
JG: That's where I listened to the John Prine interview and I had a nice cry.
JG: Yeah. Mostly I look, so I listen to podcast or I listene to like soft music.
AS: That's nice. Um, I'm curious for someone who has developed tools over time to deal with intrusive thoughts, um, including about illness- What, what has this time been like for how you manage your inner monologue?
JG: Well, in some ways I have a lot of experience managing those thoughts and not knowing whether they're rational. It's just that the balance has shifted so dramatically. Like I'm used to being able to look at people in my life. And I have this intense fear that's the only thing I can think about. And I look at them and I see that they don't have that fear. They don't have any--for them, this is a normal day. And that's, that has been in the past, like one of the ways I've reassured myself, and now I look into the eyes of the people I love and I see that they have some version of the same fear that I have. And that's scary and a little destabilizing.
AS: Mmhmm. Have you, has there been a moment that you can think of where you had to sort of stop and say, "Oh, I've got to ask somebody for help right now I need help"?
JG: Yeah. Yeah. A few times. I get, I mean, I get stuck in my head, and if I get stuck in my head bad enough for long enough, that becomes pretty much debilitating. For me at least, like being pulled out of my routine and then, um, having some of that stuff that I took for granted as, as normal or natural or inevitable...uh, losing some of that has been really hard. And, um, and so there have been periods where it really, it is like literally hard for me to get out of bed because even though I know there's a lot to do, and I know there's a lot of people counting on me, I just feel so overwhelmed and I feel like scared beyond all reason or reassurance. And so then I do have to reach out for help and I do have to, I have to, you know, call my therapist or call one of my best friends and just have them talk me through it.
There's that great Emily Dickinson poem where she's talking about losing touch with reality and she says, "And then a plank in reason broke and I dropped down and down." And that, that feeling of dropping down and down and not knowing where the bottom is or where the floor is, is, is really scary. Um, and so when I feel that happening, you know, I know that I need to call somebody I trust and somebody who loves me. And that I'll be okay. Yeah. But it took me a long time to know that.
AS: Yeah. Well, you're making me think about this in such a-- just like how our routines provides just this scaffolding that helps us, you know, hold on to that plank of reason. And I, when you describe that, that plank breaking, not having a bottom, um, yeah. That really...I had an argument with my husband this week and I feel like--just like when you all of a sudden don't know what facts are real or what feelings you want to defend and what feelings are, um, ones that you need to let go of?
AS: You know, it's just so disorienting, but you know you feel panicked.
JG: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's just a lot. You know, this has no precedent for most of us in most of our lifetimes. There hasn't been anything like this. And I think maybe there maybe there's some help in acknowledging that, or some hope in acknowledging that like, part of the reason that this is hard is that we don't have a, like we don't have experience doing it. Like, we don't have experience with this. This is new and it's super weird and really, really difficult. For some people, you know, unbearably difficult. That's really hard. It's really hard to go to your job every day and not know if you're safe. And I think acknowledging that it's hard is okay. And that's the other thing, is that it's okay it's inevitable in fact to go slower. And I'm going to try to keep myself safe and keep my kids safe and support my spouse, and I'm going to really look forward to this bath that I'm taking.
That’s John Green. There’s a link to my first conversation with him in the show notes of this episode. There’s also a link to that Youtube video of his walk in the woods.
John’s wife is Sarah Urist Green and her new book that John mentioned? It’s actually a really great thing to have if you’re staying at home right now. It’s called You Are An Artist and it’s full of prompts from famous artists to help you get your creative juices flowing. I have already bought my copy.
Death Sex and Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m (usually) based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, CA. Our team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
Our intern is Ayo Osobamiro.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to Alexander Dugger who--like John!--lives in Indiana. He’s a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. And if you’ve been looking for some motivation to join him and all the other listeners who are supporting us right now, John Green made a pretty compelling case at the end of our conversation.
JG: I am one of many, many people who I, I in fact, everybody I know who listens to your podcast, like, we don't just like it, we love it. And that's something that like, listener metrics are so terrible at judging. Like it's so, it's so hard to make the case to sponsors like, "Oh, but our podcast, people don't just listen to it, like, it changes their lives." But it really does! And I know that everybody who loves this podcast as much as I do feels the same way. So thank you for continuing to make it even in really difficult circumstances.
Thank you John. And thanks to all of you who are supporting us right now. To join them, go to deathsexmoney.org/donate. We really appreciate it and it really matters.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.