Obsession with cleanliness and hygiene: when is it dangerous for you?

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Ann, who lives with OCD, explains why she hates the expression: “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Obsession with cleanliness and hygiene: photo of a happy young black woman smiling under a protective face mask during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Obsession with cleanliness and hygiene: when is it dangerous for you?

Ann, who had an obsession with cleanliness, explains in a personal essay why she hates the expression: "Cleanliness is next to Godliness" and how the pandemic affected her OCD.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness!

I hate the expression: “cleanliness is next to godliness,” not only as an obsessive-compulsive with an obsession for cleanliness but as a living being with a heartbeat. 

I first became acquainted with the expression 'cleanliness is next to godliness' while I was acting in The Miracle Worker in high school, where ironically, I played the maid to the Keller family. 

Anyway, 'cleanliness is next to godliness' is what Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, would tell her day in and day out. Anne taught Helen that cleaning up after herself is an essential step toward success, which I understand, especially in Helen Keller’s case.

A girl, who was both blind and deaf, needed to understand the fundamental value of cleanliness and hygiene. She needs to master this if she ever wanted to move on to more advanced pursuits like reading and writing. 

But honestly, I don’t believe that “cleanliness is next to Godliness” crap at all. I think that God, if you are a believer, will bless us regardless of our respective messes; he just wants us to come out figuratively cleaner on the other side, not literally.

I don’t believe that “cleanliness is next to Godliness” at all. I think that God will bless us regardless of our respective messes!

I’d give anything to be writing this article about my obsession with cleanliness and hygiene in a coffee shop right now. 

Smiling at my boyfriend from across the thick wooden table, sipping on a dark roast coffee while pressing my pen to the bleached white paper. The gentle hum of kettles and grinding of beans sounds like paradise compared to overhearing my neighbor’s power-washing while I write in my room. But the whiff of rich Colombian beans seems like an ever-disappearing memory now.

Although the COVID-19-riddled state of the world over the past few years reflects the resiliency of the human race, it has not always been kind to me, given my past obsession with cleanliness and hygiene. 

In 2020 the world was somewhat united. People were grocery shopping for the elderly, having drive-by birthday parties, and donating to our essential workers. These are all testaments to the human spirit that should be celebrated. But simultaneously, Americans, in their gas-chugging pick-up trucks, with automatic guns tucked under their arms, were raiding Wal-Mart for every last roll of toilet paper in stock.

And that was scary. Even today it remains so unsettling not to know when things will go back to normal when I can sit with my pink sparkly laptop and sip dark roast. I’m not even sure that I’ll be able to do that again, at least not like before. 

Before the pandemic, I had developed coping mechanisms for my obsession with cleanliness and hygiene. Exposure and response prevention therapy, amongst other approaches, worked for me. I had learned to face my fears, to know my obsessions with cleanliness and hygiene, and identify the triggers that would bring on my obsessions and compulsions.

But the pandemic initially undid most of my progress.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to add creamer to my cup and watch it swirl into the blackness of the coffee, lightening it, if only for a second before it slides past my lips.

My boyfriend, the same one that I wish I was sipping coffee with, says that my child-like spirit is infectious, and I believe him. I am a child at heart. This fact is confirmed by the Rapunzel doll that lays on my bed, and the Peter Pan poster plastered to my wall as I’m writing this. I have been watching cartoons daily and listening to the Finding Nemo soundtrack as I write for years. I eat more than my fair share of chicken nuggets and adore ice cream. 

My personality is pink and sparkly- there’s no other way to put it. But this year at college, I started to become a full-fledged adult…sort of.

I’m not graduating this year, thankfully. Still, I did leave my friends, my apartment, and a relevant internship at a reputable non-profit to travel back to New Jersey to shelter in place at the start of the pandemic. Now I’m left with no choice but to sit in my childhood home and worry. 

Not only about COVID-19 but also the sense of independence that I was forced to throw out of my penthouse balcony in favor of feeling guilty about not spending every conscious moment at home with my family.

But this past year, I started to get settled into college life. I had two roommates with whom I was close. Threw legendary parties where people set movie tickets on fire at my apartment and had a car that could transport me and my emptying wallet to IKEA on a whim. For the first time, I felt like a real adult, not bound by my parents’ rules or on-campus living. I felt that my obsession with cleanliness was under control. That I was on top of my OCD.

But now I’m terrified that my sense of independence has been permanently castrated by COVID-19 and the seemingly never ending pandemic.

Obsessed with cleanliness is but one part of my OCD

But I know this isn’t true. I know I will regain my independence: even if COVID-19 remains with us. I know I will reassert my control over my obsession with cleanliness and hygiene. 

But this is just how my OCD works. Despite having obsessive-compulsive disorder, I had gotten to the point where I didn’t typically wash my hands profusely or spray down my room with Lysol, even though this pandemic is forcing me to do so. 

I do not have an obsession with cleanliness and hygiene per se. No. It is my OCD simply trying to convince me that falsities are true. It is my OCD trying to force upon my compulsive hygiene practices. 

It’s like my OCD is a news network devoted entirely to pushing fake news in my face, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It tries to convince me that every story is rooted in truth, even though I know that the news is just that-fake, and as a person with OCD I should have an obsession with cleanliness. 

Still, my OCD gnaws at my brain, forcing me to spend hours analyzing the merit of thoughts that I know are meritless. 

As one can imagine, the pandemic has been an effective vehicle for my OCD to torture me. 

However, my OCD has gradually been silenced, initially through the stay-at-home order, because I have been able to spend copious amounts of time writing. This is all I want to do with my life- I want to write. 

Hopefully, I’ll be lucky enough to be accepted into an MFA program next year, where I can devote two years not only to my craft but also to teaching others about the complexities of writing that boil just beneath the surface. Mainly, that writing can be the ultimate form of escapism, as it has been for me in these trying times. I have a nearly twenty-one-page fiction piece that proves that I feel more at home on that page than I do, well, at home.

This quarantine has allowed me to cement precisely who I want to be in the future, a writer, and I’m thankful for that. However, I’m remised that I had to have this realization in my childhood home, not at the apartment that served as a testament to my independence. 

But, honestly, sometimes the best self-exploration is untidy and doesn’t play out according to plan.

But I still don’t think that “cleanliness is next to Godliness” because, in the end, God will not judge our mess. He will not judge our college experience or OCD. He will not judge my obsession with cleanliness.

He will not judge us for our handling of COVID-19, for our refusal to wear masks, or social distance. He will not judge me if I have or do not have an obsession with cleanliness. 

In the end, He will judge us on how we power through as a society, how we cope with the cards dealt with us, how we love thy neighbor. And in these challenging times, all we can do is work on who we are internally, messy and dirty- or not, if we ever want to come out clean on the other side.

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Article by
Ann Lipsett

"I hate the expression: "cleanliness is next to Godliness," not only as an obsessive-compulsive, but as a living being with a heartbeat." Ann