I look down at my hands, the red crusted sores and inflamed skin. How ironic that my efforts to prevent contamination have caused an infection.
“I’ll give you some antibiotics and cream,” Doctor Sherman says, “And try and keep your hands out of water for a few days.”
She knows. I can tell by the way she looks at me, the question in her eyes before she speaks again.
“Sarah, how often have you been washing your hands?”
My voice is spindly and weak. “More times than I should.”
She nods. “What about showering?”
“That too.” I stare at the raw patch at the base of my right thumb.
“Does it worry you?”
“Kind of.” Actually it’s all I think about.
Let’s look at a day in your life,” Dr Sherman suggests picking up her pen. “Talk me through it, Sarah.”
“I go to bed at 10pm every night and wake up at 6am. The first thing I do each morning is shower.”
“Umhmm. And how long does that shower last.”
“Ten minutes,” I lie.
She looks me in the eye. “The truth please, Sarah.”
“An hour.” I whisper.
“And then what?”
“I eat breakfast and then I have to wash my hands to decontaminate them.”
She keeps going and the whole story comes out. The fears and compulsions, the hours spent scrubbing the bathroom and bedroom, the time wasted in showering and washing my hands, the inability to hold down a job. She jots it all down - accounts for every part of my day.
“You sleep for eight hours,” she tells me. “You spend another hour eating. Showering swallows up four hours, hand washing two and cleaning the house five. That leaves you four hours to live life.”
She takes her glasses off and lays them on the page. “Do you want me to help you?”
I feel tears wobbling in my eyes. I hadn’t realised how many hours I was wasting ... but if I don’t keep cleaning ... I lift my hands off my jeans and see the sticky patches they’ve left behind. Feel afresh the pain of oozing skin. I never used to be like this.
Snatches of childhood come back to me: cart-wheeling on fresh mown lawns, climbing trees, eating sweets that had fallen on the floor, licking sticky fingers, hugging my dog. The memories are laced with freedom and delight and I compare them to my current sterile existence; the plethora of disinfectants and cleaning rituals that make up each day.
Eventually I raise my eyes and look into her face. There’s no condemnation there, just a genuine offer of help.
“Yes,” I say, “I would like you to help me.”
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