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From the moment we are born, we yearn to be touched. Physical touch is one of the five love languages, and for valid reason, as it is a universal way to communicate. No matter where or who you are, we all understand what a comforting touch is and how it makes us feel. I want you to close your eyes and envision your fondest memory, as well as all the senses which came with that moment, specifically focusing on touch. Running our hands through our favorite pet’s fur, holding a newborn baby or jumping into a pool on a scalding summer day all center on touch. 

Now, I ask you to imagine living without it. Pretend your best memory still occurred, but touch could not be involved. I ask you to imagine being incapable of flipping a restaurant menu to its other side, unable to open a door in your own home, helpless to dress yourself in the morning. A scenario as unorthodox as this seems unprecedented; we feel that it can only occur in a hypothetical world, and suppose it would be impossible to live one’s entire life with an absence of touch. 

Unsettlingly, this situation is not a hypothetical situation but a reality for many. About 1% of the United States population battles contamination OCD, a subcategory of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, characterized by an obsession with spreading and being in contact with germs. In my own non-dictionary definition, I describe it as the diminished opportunity to touch. Because germs are present on virtually every surface, this condition can leave a person entirely unable to function in society for fear of becoming contaminated. 

Someone suffering from this mental illness may experience a variety of compulsions rooted in their fear of contamination. They may take showers upwards of three hours, as they may feel required to take exceptional care in killing every single germ on their body. From washing their hands forty to fifty times a day, their skin is ridden with bloodied cracks and cuts. The individual may be left feeling so helpless that they even consider themselves a burden to others. Most dismally, a condition as isolating as this can make one feel so far removed from society that they experience suicidal ideation. This is not meant to streamline every case of contamination OCD to the examples I provide, but rather to illustrate some of the potential consequences in an effort to educate and increase awareness of the topic. 

Living with contamination OCD robs the affected cohort of many opportunities to socialize and form relationships with other people, especially due to the nature of our culture. We live in a society where being able to hug, kiss, shake hands and go out in public with the people we are closest to is very normalized. 

Ironically enough, this state of normalcy was interrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lifestyle of an individual with contamination OCD echoes the way many of us were and are obligated to live during the height of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While we are coming nearer and nearer to normalcy as time passes, many of us have been forced to revert toward withdrawn socialization and a lack of touch. This manner of socializing happens to be the way in which people with contamination live every day of their lives. 

While it is not obvious to the naked eye, students living with this mental illness surround us every day on our campus. We must be mindful of the idea that we do not always know what others are going through, respectful of each and every one of our peers’ mental states and compliant with COVID-19 guidelines in a show of compassion for those who need it most. To pick yourself up and go to class every day when you are petrified of germs is a feat of bravery most of us will never know or understand.

For those of you who have not been affected by contamination OCD, the mental toll of the pandemic certainly did not skip over you. I applaud you for composing yourself and persevering. We should all be proud of ourselves as individuals and as a student body for persisting through these difficult times. 

On this optimistic note, I can promise you one of my deepest bonds with another person is with someone whom I cannot touch. This gives me faith in the human ability to touch someone with more than just your body, but rather with your mind. I hope that this renews your faith in these intangible human connections as well. 

We are living in a time of false reality, where we can be as close as six feet apart which feels more like six light years away. Having the human connection we so desire right in front of us without being able to act upon this is arguably one of the most heart-wrenching feelings. Despite this, I believe we can find peace in knowing we are and have been strong. There are so many ways to express emotion that do not involve touch. 

My best friend with contamination OCD has taught me to listen to others with my heart, read their eyes and perceive their feelings through empathy, all with the intention to erase the barrier of isolation between myself and others. To trace every inch of someone’s soul is easy when you seek to understand. 

If you ever feel distant and isolated from the world during this time, remember that our student body is diverse and accepting and that we all want to feel love. Do not hesitate to do so in ways that transcend physicality.

Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at annatrup@umich.edu.