Covid 19 from an autistic woman’s perspective

I have OCD, which in my case means I have a pervasive fear of catching disease. Before the pandemic, I worried about catching colds and tummy bugs. I tried my hardest to challenge these thoughts  through logic , and managed  to get out and about reasonably often: I walked to Waitrose to buy food twice a week, saw my support worker twice a week, when we would get the bus to a local gardens or walk to Home sense and Sainsburys. If someone coughed or sneezed, I would get triggering thoughts ( ”are they infectious?”, ”will I catch it”?), that would trigger avoidance and a temporary increase in tension and nervousness.

A pandemic is surely a person with OCD’s worst nightmare, and when I first heard the news back in January, as I was eating my dinner with radio 4 on in the background, I had to immediately turn off the radio as soon as the news  stated that ”reports are coming out from China of a new virus” . I  reasoned to myself that ”what you don’t know can’t hurt you”, and I carried on living much as I normally do until the end of February. I even went on a supported trip to Southampton at the time when cases in the UK were rapidly increasing. I did not know much about the virus at this stage, but I had heard through the grapevine that it was mostly mild, and this reassured me. I used to be an obsessive follower of the news, but it ended up increasing my anxiety and OCD, so I then went the opposite extreme, and chose ignorance over knowledge. But eventually I could no longer ignore the seriousness of the situation, as I heard people talking about it in shops. This sounded serious, and maybe I needed to find out about it to ensure that I was not putting myself at needless risk. So a couple of weeks prior to lockdown I started to research Covid 19. I read the statistics, which reassured me to some extent. I am reasonably young (at 32), and am not in any risk category. On the graph, my risk of death and serious illness is very low. Because I am obsessive, I read and re-read articles about corona, which served to reduce my anxiety, but also to make me more nervous when reports increasingly came through of young healthy people dying or getting severely ill. I am now past the point where not reading the news is helpful, and Covid-19 has turned into a micro special interest (the science behind the virus is incredibly fascinating!).

We are now in lockdown, and I can no longer go inside food shops. My dad buys food for me. I feel guilty about this because he is 72 years old and has asthma, and I really worry that he will get sick. I told him about online shopping, but he is a creature of habit and insists on visiting the shop once a week. I feel that I should be the one doing the shopping because I am young and healthy, and I would do this if I did not have OCD. But OCD is a brain problem, a physical block that means you would rather starve than go into a shop at this time. I’m thankful my dad can do the shopping for me, and I’m really concerned about what I will do if he gets sick and can no longer shop for me (I have been somewhat hoarding canned beans and fish, pasta, rice and frozen goods in case I have to live off this food). I have also been searching Amazon grocery for the cheaper food supplies (still expensive by normal standards) that I might need to rely on in an emergency.

However, apart from not being able to do my own shopping, I have been dealing with the situation reasonably well. I follow a strict routine ( as I always do!). I get up every day at more or less the same time. I usually wake up slightly before or at 7 am, but then lie in bed for around 30 minutes because it takes a lot of effort to get up, particularly with so much stress in the air. But I will be out of bed usually no later than 7:45 am to have my breakfast, brush teeth and hair, and wash face etc. I then get dressed and aim to get out for a morning walk between 8:45 and 9:15, which has become a new part of my daily routine since corona. I always walk for 30 minutes around the same residential area. This walk is very anxiety provoking because just getting outside at the moment triggers my OCD. I have to get out because I want to stay physically healthy. Although I have a reasonably sized back garden, nothing compares to a brisk walk in terms of physical and mental  replenishment. So I grin and bear it, and walk very briskly, often having to run if people emerge from houses, often crossing the road, and remaining very vigilant. This means I can’t relax while walking, but I feel good once I have got back home. My daily walk is a sign that I am not letting my OCD completely take over my life. I religiously adhere to the 6 feet rule, and I am quite good at using my logic to counteract intrusive thoughts (my autism ironically makes my OCD less severe than it might have been if I was not autistic!). For example, I get intrusive thoughts if a jogger runs past on the opposite side of the road (particularly if I can hear them huffing and puffing), but I logically know that any virus would be dispersed in the air, and would be very unlikely to infect me at such a distance. In terms of hand washing, I am washing my hands more often, but then so are most people!. I am logical in my washing, though, because I am not washing my hands all the time, and I am not washing them for much longer than what the Government recommends.

After the walk, I will read a book for about 2 hours. This was my routine before the pandemic, so not much has changed. I still have my lunch at the same time (around 11:30-1 pm, give or take), and will then go on the internet until dinner between 5:30 and 7 pm. After I have washed up I will watch you tube videos to unwind (usually of other autistics talking about their lives, which I find very interesting). I currently go to bed at 9:45 pm because I need a lot of sleep. I forgot to mention earlier that one improvement in my life since the pandemic is that I am now fully settled in my new home, next door to my dad’s. The pandemic motivated me to start sleeping and spending all my time at my new home, because I wanted to avoid contact with all people (including family) due to my OCD virus fears. However, this has been positive too because it means  that, although in some respects life is more unpredictable and chaotic, in other respects my life is more ordered and in control because I get to go to bed exactly when I want, without being disturbed.

One way I am getting through the current situation is reminding myself that all pandemics come to an end. The current situation will not last forever. Either a vaccine will come out and bring the end point forward, or the pandemic will naturally die out. And even before this happens (in my estimates, it will probably be some time in 2021), the current situation will improve. I expect that my OCD will not improve until the pandemic is declared over or there is a vaccine, but I know that every day brings us closer to the end.

Humour and comedy is also important (whoever said autistics are not capable of laughter?). Corona joke memes can be hilarious, particularly the ones about toilet paper and hand washing. Self deprecating humour can be a great stress relief, and where there’s laughter there is a way (it’s also good for the immune system).

Being hyper logical and very unemotional (almost Spock like in some respects) has also come to my aid. I am surprisingly stoical in crisis situations. I’m very matter of fact and intellectual about difficult situations, once I am forced to accept that this is what is happening. I see no gain to be had in being in floods of tears or being self destructive. I worry endlessly, but I also get on with my routines because routines are my life and keep me grounded. Even when the world is falling down around me, if I have my routines, I can survive.

Because I am an introvert as well as being autistic, I can go days and weeks without seeing a human face and not feel lonely. Therefore, social distancing itself is not too difficult for me to manage.  The internet and social media means that I can still feel connected without needing to actually see anyone. The hardest part of the whole crisis for me is the cancellation of activities I was really looking forward to, not knowing how long it will last, and the fear of catching the disease itself.

My synaesthesia however has  come to my aid. I can literally see the months of the year spanning out colourfully before me. This can make time appear condensed, as well as lending order and a concrete coherence to otherwise chaotic reality. So I can see into next year, I can see time flowing past, and this means I can use time as my healer: the pandemic will pass, each day is progression. Each day also  brings more knowledge about this fascinating disease.

Here are some interesting Covid -19 facts:

  • It is a corona virus, one of many, but different to the other corona viruses we are familiar with  because it originated in animals (bats). Corona means crown in Latin. The protein spikes on the surface of the viral ball resemble the spikes in a crown!
  •  Bats hardly ever get infections. They have super strong immune systems, arguably because they have such a high metabolism to enable flight (they are the only mammal that flies!). Because they generate so much heat, this puts their body under immense stress, so  they evolved to be very efficient at keeping themselves healthy. But they play the role of hosts to many viruses. These viruses can then infect other animals that do become sick.
  •  An intermediary animal is needed in order for a virus to make the leap into humans. It is speculated that a pangolin may have been involved. A bat infected a pangolin, the virus then mutated (known as antigenic shift) , enabling it to infect a human host (known as patient 0), who launched the current pandemic.
  •   Unfortunately wet markets (where pangolins are traded for meat) and intensive farming (that reduces biodiversity by herding thousands of individuals together) increases the risk of viral mutations and pandemic disease. The question is, will humans ever learn?

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