Obsessive Compulsive Disorder - The Bad, the Good, and All of Us
What is having OCD like?
As someone who suffers from OCD, I'm qualified to tell you this much: it's not fun.
While the disorder is generally manageable, stress-related flare-ups can cause disruption in my daily life—this includes social avoidance, periods of agoraphobia, and loss of relationships. In the past it has also led me to lose weight obsessively, behave in an alienating manner, and compulsively pick at my skin.
As you read this article, I'm sure you'll find yourself thinking, "Why can't people with OCD just stop having these thoughts? Can't they see they're reaching? Why can't they just recognise that what they're thinking is ridiculous and illogical?"
You know what really sucks?
We know it's illogical too.
And it is so incredibly frustrating.
That, in a way, is what OCD is: being unable to process thoughts and impulses that most people can write off. And that (understandably) makes it difficult to empathise with us.
Do you suffer from OCD?
Do you suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?
But what is OCD?
In an article that appeared in Psychology Today, OCD is defined as "an anxiety disorder in which people have unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations (obsessions) and engage in behaviors or mental acts in response to these thoughts or obsessions."
- Obsession: where a distressing impulse or image repeatedly enters one's mind. Often known as "intrusive thought."
- Compulsion: repetitive behaviours or thoughts that one feels compelled to do/have as a result of anxiety or stress. Fulfilling these provides temporary relief from said stress. These acts can be referred to as "rituals."
- Anxiety: a sensation of stress, nervousness, or discomfort.
While all of these symptoms can be present in an ordinary person, it is the combination and the intensity of them that is characteristic of this condition.
Obsessive Thoughts. While unwanted or unpleasant thoughts are common (and do not mean you have any form of disorder), they are often extreme enough in OCD sufferers so as to become debilitating. They are repetitive, persistent, and often range in severity: one may obsess over minor physical flaws, or one may obsess over whether or not they left the cooker on, set the street on fire, and indirectly murdered their neighbours.
However, that is not to say "obsessing over minor physical flaws" isn't a problem. Excoriation disorder is common amongst sufferers of OCD, and can result in increased social anxiety, agoraphobia, and even skin infection or scarring.
Fears of the accidentally-killed-my-neighbours kind tend to be even more irrational, but can result in just as much anxiety (see below for more on that). No matter how bizarre or illogical these thoughts may be, OCD can make them dominate the sufferer's mind to such an extent that they believe they are true: in order to be rid of that fear, one may have to either go home and check for themselves (known as "checking"), or perform a "ritual."
Some of these thoughts can be disturbingly violent or sexual. If you are a sufferer of OCD, it is important to remember this: you are not a bad person, and the fact that these thoughts are bothersome to you only shows that you aren't having them out of actual immorality.
Anxiety. Anxiety is a disorder all on its own, but often goes hand-in-hand with OCD. For sufferers, anxiety is often caused by mental images, worrying about what intrusive thoughts mean about you as a person, and made up what-if scenarios.
While everyone experiences some degree of anxiety, it easily becomes debilitating for those with OCD. It can cause panic attacks, self-isolation, agoraphobia, and the creation of rituals.
Rituals. Rituals come under the umbrella of compulsive behaviour, in that they are actions performed on impulse. Although most sufferers of the disorder are aware of their irrationality, they can become extremely anxious if they don't perform these rituals; for example, "I didn't wash my hands twenty times, so now my little sister is going to die in a car accident." This can result in questioning morality, worrying that one is effectively a murderer, and being unable to stop thinking about it.
Common examples of rituals include:
- Washing one's hands, sometimes for fear of imaginary "germs" or "infections".
- Checking. For example, repeatedly checking that the back door is locked before one goes to bed.
- Asking for reassurance from others. Some sufferers of OCD will worry that they did or did not perform a certain action, so will ask those around them for reassurance.
- Counting. Self-explanatory.
- Ordering and arranging. Again, self-explanatory (and typically associated with the disorder).
- Avoiding places, names, and people that will trigger intrusive thoughts. And this can be the seemingly most innocent of things; for example, a particular name that a sufferer associates with an irrational fear they've had in the past.
Perfectionism isn't always a bad thing. While this varies from person to person, I would consider my own brand of the "OCD perfectionism" to be a positive.
Is it enjoyable to go back and check your work four or five times? No.
But has it resulted in some well-written essays, grades, and letters? Yes, it has.
Paranoia can pay off. I regularly find myself running home to check that the front door is locked, or the oven's turned off, or the hob's not on. As much as it's unnecessary 99% of the time, it's still prevented the odd disaster.
Being socially over-aware can make you friends. Some sufferers of OCD, such as myself, suffer from a form of social anxiety as a result of the disorder. This often makes it impossible to get through conversations without calculating responses, reactions, and tailoring your own "opinions" so as to best please whoever you're talking to. Is this exhausting? Most definitely! Does it often make people like you? Again, most definitely!
Finally, it teaches you responsibility. One of my elder siblings also suffers from the disorder; I grew up without an excess of parental attention, and often took on the role of caretaker myself. While this might not have made for an especially happy childhood, it meant that I became independent earlier than most of my peers, learned to take care of myself, and was taught how to care for others. If you are dealing with mental illness in your own family, this is particularly important to note.
All of Us
Approximately many adults in the United Kingdom suffer from OCD?
- "Here in the United Kingdom current estimates suggest that 1.2% of the population will have OCD, which equates to 12 out of every 1000 people, and based on the current estimates for the UK population, these statistics mean that potentially, approximately 741,504 people are living with OCD at any one time." - OCDUK.org
Approximately many adults worldwide suffer from OCD?
- "It has been estimated approximately 2.3% of the population between ages 18- 54 suffer from OCD. Estimates are that one out every of forty to fifty people are affected by some form of obsession or compulsion." - DesignedThinking.com
How important is finding treatment if I believe I am suffering from the disorder?
- Extremely. While the severity of OCD can fluctuate over the course of one's lifetime, it is worsened by stress, fatigue, and illness. There is no cure for the disorder, but it can be treated with CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). Treatment drastically lessens the symptoms, allowing the sufferer to lead an ordinary life.
Are there any famous people with alleged/confirmed OCD?
Yes! These include...
- Charles Darwin (1809-1882, scientist)
- Jessica Alba (1981-, actress)
- Leonardo DiCaprio (1974-, actor)
- Albert Einstein (1879-1955, physicist)
- David Beckham (1975-, footballer)
- Martin Scorsese (1942-, filmmaker)
- Cameron Diaz (1972-, actress)
As unpleasant as OCD may be, it is simply a part of life for many of us. It's not "quirky" or "cute." You are probably not "OCD" because you like your desk to be tidy, you are probably not "OCD" because you spend half an hour on your hair in the mornings, and you are probably not "OCD" because you line up your pens according to colour.
Or you might be.
(If so, I encourage you to seek help. OCD's a pain, and CBT is actually pretty alright).
We're in a changing world, and one in which the stigma that has so long been attached to mental illness is slowly fading.
But, please. Let's not make it into a trend?
Living with OCD
© 2017 Caitlin Jay