“Haanah,” her boyfriend said quietly. “Life cannot stop. We need food to survive.”
“I would rather starve, honestly,” groaned Haanah.
Haanah held out in self-quarantine for as long as she could with her boyfriend, Sam. Now, staring down nearly empty cupboards, it was time for her to put some social distancing into practice and restock. Except the idea of leaving the car during a pandemic felt like literal torture to her.
Haanah has had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) most of her life, but it reached a fever pitch (pun not intended) during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Touching anything felt like willingly placing her hand over a stove burner. Breathing the same air as anyone near her felt like inhaling a death sentence. And not just afraid of other people she was, either. Because carriers of the virus can appear asymptomatic, she was even more fearful of unknowingly spreading it to someone’s beloved or an immunocompromised friend.
But with something as serious as a pandemic, OCD being activated makes a lot of sense. In a way, it is like the brain is trying to protect itself. The trouble was that it was not actually helpful — for example — avoid touching a door in the same place twice or refuse to sign a receipt because you are convinced the pen will kill you. And it is definitely not helpful to insist on starving rather than buying more food.
In other words, there is a difference between being cautious and being compulsive.
But as her boyfriend said, life cannot stop.
Haanah finally decided to step in the car, and not let her guard down until she finally binged on stocks. But the moment Haanah put her foot on the ground, she started to feel anxious, and all the images of her getting infected began to flood her mind.
“What if I died? What if I became asymptomatic and transferred this virus to Sam? What if my parents got infected? What if Sam’s diabetic mother got this infection? How will I survive with this guilt?”
She was shivering and nauseous. She tried calling Sam, but he did not respond. She had an overwhelming amount of fear, dizziness, nausea, and her thoughts were racing uncontrollably.
The blood pounded in her ears. Her heart thudded in her chest. Her hands shook. Her feet tingled. Her vision disfigured as if she were looking through a fish-eye lens. She had to get away. She could not stay near that damned house any longer. She could not look at it. There was too much of a risk of someone walking out of it and trying to talk her out of her decision. She was stranded. She clutched the steering wheel, her hands wrapped so tightly around it that her nails dug into her palms. Breathing was hard. Really hard. As if she had just run the London Marathon.
She tried calling Sam again, this time he picked up.
“I am having this cold sweat, but I am on fire,” she said with trembling hands. “I am dying, I am going crazy, and I know I will not make it through. Sam, just know you are the love of life, and I am at the plaza having this panic attack maybe because I forgot to take my meds, or I think I had them, I do not really remember!” shrieked a frightened, insecure Haanah. She was hyperventilating yet trying to calm herself down with the ‘scream therapy.’
Sam rushed to get Haanah back. He found Haanah, all unconscious in her car, kaleidoscopic. It seemed as if life had been drained right out of her. He took her white, almost lifeless body in his hands, kissed her forehead, and without losing a second, drove her back home.
Haanah gained her heart and soul back after almost 13 hours. She moved her head, eyes looking out for answers. “Where am I? Is it my home? Where is Sam? Who brought me back? Was I dead?” ruminate an addled Haanah.
“Sam? Where are you? Oh! My heaven and Earth look I fought with the Stars to get back to you. Where on this globe are you?”
She wanted to stand up, but the floor felt like it was slipping away every time she tried. After almost an hour, Sam came into the picture. He was with a well-built woman, with glistening eyes and red hair. Haanah’s heart started drowning. Her mind and heart started racing again, with thoughts she never wanted to face.
“You do not have to worry, I am Mariah, a psychiatrist. You had a panic attack before.” affirmed the red hair woman. “Your boyfriend, Sam, found you comatose in your car. Honestly, it was he who fought with the stars to get you back. He shot you with benzodiazepine, which I must appreciate. He called me when he heard your voice for briefing you further.” Her words relieved Haanah like a hot spring bath.
“So, here I am to help you keep your anxiety at bay.” Mariah winced with a coquettish smirk.
“To begin with, the best way I know of to fortify health — both mentally and physically — is to keep yourself fed, hydrated, and rested. That is why Sam wanted you to restock.” Her slender fingers pointing towards the cramped cupboards.
Mariah continued, “Also, completely boycotting social interaction can be detrimental to your mental health. As long as you maintain 6 feet of distance between yourself and others, it is perfectly safe to take a walk around your neighbourhood. Isolation is never the answer when you are struggling with your mental health. So whenever possible, make time for a breath of fresh air, even if you cannot go very far. When it comes to precautions, do not make the rules! Always stick to the CDC’s recommendations that include practising social distancing, by keeping 6 feet of space between yourself and others, avoiding large gatherings and nonessential travel where the virus is more likely to spread, washing your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing, and cleaning or disinfecting frequently touched surfaces once per day like tables, doorknobs, light switches and countertops. And try to accept the fact that you could take every conceivable precaution, and still end up getting ill to no fault of your own. Learn that radically accepting uncertainty, as uncomfortable as that may be, is actually the best defence against obsessing.” Mariah explained the duo patiently.
Haanah got a sense of solace in the doctor’s voice. She felt serene yet determined. She decided to include her suggestions in her mundane lockdown lifestyle, or at least try to!
Maulana Azad Medical College, Delhi University