For as long as I can remember I’ve been obsessed with the number 3. I am not alone. The three graces; the holy trinity; the three act structure: it’s the magic number. 9 is the square of 3. 27 is 3 times 9. Adding 2 and 7 together also generates 9. These are, objectively, the most satisfying numbers.
This manifested in my life in needing to do things in multiples of three, on a good day; nine, on a less good day; and twenty-seven, on a very bad day.
Chief amongst the things I needed to do three, nine or twenty-seven times was washing my hands. Or using hand sanitizer. And when that became excessive, hands red-raw with chemical reactions, the logical next step seemed to be wearing latex gloves. But other people thought this was going too far. I started aversion therapies. The hand sanitizer and the gloves were consigned to the bin. I came to accept you could touch a door handle without risking immediate death.
In March 2020 I overheard some public health official or other on the radio advising us to wash our hands twenty-seven times a day. Of all the numbers. They would all be very bad days from now on.
I decided against it. I kept up my usual aversions. The hand sanitizer remained in the bin. Where before people had thought I was odd for going out of my way to avoid contamination, now people thought I was reckless for not conforming to the new rules. I felt their judgment but continued to strive for the best balance between keeping myself safe and well. It was my judgment to make.
I’m researching a new theatrical project about how people with obsessive compulsive disorder navigated the coronavirus pandemic. I’m particularly interested in exploring how behaviours which, before the pandemic, were considered ritualistic and pathological became new standards of normal hygiene amongst the general population. Hand sanitizer sold out; people began hoarding food, bleach, toilet roll; everyone wore masks. How does it feel to have the world around you transform to reflect beliefs and habits you’ve been told your whole life are abnormal, which need to be contained, to be treated? How do you understand and manage your own compulsions when the parameters for normal can radically change?
As part of the project, I want to represent the lived experiences of people with OCD, especially people with behaviours around hoarding, hygiene and contagion. I ran participatory workshops where people will be invited to share their experiences through creative theatrical storytelling, with the option to keep in touch and continue shaping the development of the play and guest tickets to the professional production. This part of the project was supported by an Arts Council Agility Award, and co-facilitated by Sinead Moloney.