The Washing Syndrome

The Washing Syndrome.

Janice, Kim’s mother, was distraught and weepy throughout our first session. She could hardly complete her sentences as her emotions overtook her from time-to-time, disrupting our conversation. Jim, her husband, kept reassuring her each time she broke down telling their story. Janice repeatedly apologised for her distressed state. They had not seen a counsellor previously and had kept their family secret so well hidden that none of their relatives or close friends knew what was going on in their home. They have two kids, Kim was 25 years old, and Henry, 22.

Kim was their principal focus. Three years ago, on one of her days off, Janice found Kim scrubbing the bathroom sink over again and again for a whole hour. “Kim, I just cleaned the sink yesterday. It cannot be that dirty so soon.”

“The sink is dirty, mom. And my hands are dirty too from cleaning it. So, I am rewashing my hands and the basin again,” replied Kim.

The ritual went on uninterrupted. In Kim’s mind, the counter-contamination of the sink and her hands was a never-ending process. In fact, Kim had to wash seven times over before she was satisfied. And if she had become confused, then the recount started over again! Janice began to worry. She also noticed that her daughter was spending a long time in the bathroom until Henry started complaining that his sister was hogging its use throughout the day. Janice mentioned that in the last year, Kim had barred anyone using one of the bathrooms as she accused them of contaminating it. Soon, no one was allowed into her room as well. When Kim left for college each day, she locked both her room and the bathroom. When she returned home, her first task was spent cleaning the external door-nobs of the two closed rooms for over an hour. The family’s water bills alone escalated by several hundred-fold; until the local public utility meter reader called personally on the household to check for any leakages in the pipes running into the house. Kim’s anger with her family members also escalated whenever she accused them of touching her personal possessions. Mealtimes became intolerable as she washed and rewashed her forks, spoons and plate and served herself. In the last year, Kim would not eat with the family. She subsisted on purchased packaged foods.

After being threatened by her parents to commit her to a hospital if she refused to see a doctor, Kim went to see a psychiatrist. It all began when she was in her first year at university. One night, on a date, Kim’s classmate molested her and attempted to force himself on her. Terrified, she ran away from her date but told no one about the incident. The obsessive-compulsive washing syndrome began two years later when a stranger brushed against her on a busy thoroughfare, and suddenly the whole molesting incident resurfaced. She felt ‘contaminated and dirty.’ When she reached home, she scrubbed herself for one hour. Kim eventually dropped out of her consultation with her doctor and refused her anxiety medication. She began to deny that she had problems with her obsessive washing and declined to talk about it. She locks herself in her room most of the day and has not held a job since her graduation.

Janice and Jim’s lives were totally enmeshed with whatever Kim wanted, and although they desired to help their daughter, their immediate goal in counselling was to discover how they could disengage themselves from being trapped in enabling Kim’s obsessive-compulsive behaviour so that they could move on in their lives.