WE have become a nation of germaphobes during the coronavirus pandemic as we frantically wash our hands and avoid contact with other people.
But if your loved one is more paranoid about personal hygiene than normal right now, spare a thought for mother-of-one Liz Robertson.
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Her husband Scott suffers from an extreme form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that has spiralled completely out of control since Covid-19 started spreading.
By the time you read this article, the classical guitarist will have wiped down every door handle in their house, disinfected the mail, hosed down the shopping, bleached the milk bottles, scrubbed the dog, washed their seven-year-old son Robbie and frantically cleaned their cereal boxes.
Living in fear
His fear of catching the virus has resulted in Scott, 42, being thrown into a panic every time the postman arrives with a new batch of potentially germ-infested letters.
He has even taken to carrying a two-metre-long broom and face mask wherever he goes so he can rigidly enforce social distancing rules during his walks.
Liz, 43, says OCD has become the “third person” in their relationship and her husband's strict “Covid routine” is making life unbearable during lockdown.
The broadcast journalist, from rural Clitheroe in Lancashire, is speaking out with Scott's blessing to raise awareness of the debilitating anxiety disorder, which affects 12 in every 1,000 people.
"Scott fears that if he doesn’t wash his hands, clean the steering wheel, hose down the shopping, disinfect our child, carry out his daily walk with a two-metre stick to keep his distance, someone may well die," she says.
“His Covid routine leads to lots of rows as he keeps me and our son awake at night as he constantly checks and re-checks that everything is clean.
Him carrying a broom on walks is embarrassing. He looks like a chimney sweep
“I can just about cope with disinfecting Robbie and cleaning the dog's paws, but constantly telling us to keep two metres away from people when we are on a walk is too much and him carrying a broom is embarrassing. He looks like a chimney sweep."
She adds: “We’ve all got elephant hands at the moment from washing them so much.
“We had a friend round the other day who sat at the bottom of the drive so we could have a chat and he could not believe the lengths we are going to.
“We even have sanitiser wipes to make sure the sanitiser bottle is clean. I don’t know how we are ever going to get out of this to be honest.”
Exhausting daily routine
A quick look at a day in the family's life gives an idea of what an ordeal having OCD can be at a time when the world is in the midst of a major health crisis.
In the morning, Scott normally wakes around 8am and immediately checks that all the plugs are switched off, to ensure they are not a fire hazard, and the window latches are still secure.
Just before 9am, he and Liz make breakfast with Scott re-cleaning all their utensils and checking the cereal boxes bought from the supermarket for the umpteenth time.
Then, after their Tri-Colour Collie dog Cindy is let into the garden to do her business, Scott insists on cleaning her thoroughly with anti-bacterial wipes.
After completing this task, he will wash his hands repeatedly with scalding hot water until the “anxious feeling” in his stomach goes away.
WHAT IS OCD?
OBSESSIVE Compulsive Disorder, commonly referred to as OCD, is a severe anxiety disorder that affects 12 in every 1,000 people.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) ranks OCD among the top ten most debilitating illnesses of any kind in terms of lost earnings and lowered quality of life.
There are two aspects to the condition – obsessions and the compulsions.
Obsessions are thoughts, ideas and urges which feel impossible to ignore by sufferers.
They can cause a huge amount of anxiety, particularly if they are distressing thoughts about harm coming to someone you love.
Compulsions are the rituals patients perform to rid themselves of the attendant anxiety of obsessive thoughts.
Most people with OCD recognise their obsessions and compulsions are irrational but they can’t stop acting on them.
While OCD tends to develop slowly over a long period of time, stressful life events can also act as triggers, including bereavement, illness, or family issues.
Keeping strangers at bay
At around 10am, the family will go on a dog walk in the nearby fields with Scott brandishing his broomstick to keep other walkers and ramblers two metres away.
On their return home, the dog and their son’s shoes are sanitised and the top layer of their clothes are removed and washed by Scott, who usually showers afterwards.
He then sets about bleaching and sanitising all the doorknobs and surfaces in their three-bedroom semi-detached house.
At 10.30am, the mail normally arrives which sends the dad of one into crisis.
Liz normally helps him by using tweezers to take the mail to the garden so she can disinfect it then carry it into the house to be opened.
Another panic erupts when the delivery man arrives with their supermarket order.
Sweating with fear, Scott will check all their windows are shut so he can be certain that the driver’s germs will not get inside the house.
The shopping has to be left outside in the open air for two hours before it is allowed in.
Scott insists on checking all plugs and cleaning every door knob, utensil and surface again at lunchtime, and if his wife or son touch anything they have to wash their hands again.
He often takes an afternoon run wearing a mask but will return shaking with paranoia, concerned that he got too close to another person and might already be infected.
The routine starts again in the evening, and Scott will often be downstairs in the communal areas until 1am checking for germs and wiping surfaces.
Scott and Liz met at school when they were still teenagers but did not become a couple until they were students in their early 20s.
They got married in 2003.
Liz says: “Scott has had OCD since he was a little boy and as a child he would spend hours making sure the curtains were shut properly.
“When we first started dating he would frown a lot but I didn’t know why. It was only later that I realised it was because he was so worried he had stood on a worm or crushed an ant when he was out walking.
As a child, Scott would spend hours making sure the curtains were shut properly
“When we moved in and bought a house together in 1999, he started staying up until the early hours checking plugs to make sure they were unplugged and turned off.
“He’s terrified of the house catching fire. He also has to check all the windows and doors are locked.
“Our son Robbie was born in 2012 and his OCD hit another peak then as he would constantly check to make sure he was breathing.
“We still have a baby gate in the house so we can close off the top of the stairs, and Robbie is seven. He’s worried about him sleep walking and falling down the stairs."
OCD 'off the chart'
She added: “The disappointing thing is that we had managed to get his OCD under control before the pandemic.
“Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helped him cope by writing lists of what he had done and making him confront his worst fears about what might happen if he doesn’t carry out his routines.
“But with coronavirus, those worst-case ‘what ifs’ are difficult to manage so Scott’s OCD is off the chart at the moment. It has become the third person in our relationship.
“We have been close to the edge a few times, it has driven us to breaking point, but we also try to support each other and love each other deeply.
“I stuck by him because I love him and he’s a wonderful caring person. When I get close to the edge I think this is born out of his care and love."
Scott is supporting Liz’s decision to speak out, and says of his condition: “Even though I may have sanitised something before entering the house my OCD mind tells me: 'What if' I missed a bit? It won’t take long just to give it an extra wipe. Your family is at risk and it would be your fault!’
“So I wipe it down. I then have the problem of – because the cereal box potentially had Covid-19 on it – how do I wash my hands?
“Anything I touch such as door handles and taps then needs to be re-sanitised. The wipes will have to be disposed of without touching the bin.
“I want to get help because I know what an ordeal having this condition is for me and everyone in my family.”
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