Obsessive-compulsive disorder is sheer anguish for those who struggle with it. Vexing thoughts or images—things that are distressing or sexual in nature, for instance—are a hallmark of OCD. To counteract their anxious feelings, people with this mental health diagnosis may feel compelled to perform certain behaviors over and over, such as extreme handwashing, or mental rituals, like excessive counting.
Yet people who don’t know any better sometimes make light of OCD, equating it with perfectionistic personality traits. It’s true that some people with OCD have persnickety habits, like the freakishly neat Monica Geller played by Courteney Cox on Friends. But life with OCD is much more complex than stereotypes make it out to be.
As many as 2 to 3 million U.S. adults and half a million kids are living with this disorder, according to the International OCD Foundation. Symptoms can subside or go into remission with treatment. But it takes courage to confront one’s obsessions and compulsions and “break the cycle,” asserts Anne, one of three women with OCD who agreed to share intimate details of the specific thoughts and compulsions they live with. “For those of us who have it,” she says, “it’s not a joke.”
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“I had these terrifying thoughts of taking a bag and, ugh, holding it over my son’s head”
Anne began struggling with cycles of anxiety and depression in 2004. When a licensed clinical social worker mentioned OCD in passing, the now 38-year-old dismissed the idea, believing you had to be fastidiously clean (which she assures me she is not) to meet the diagnosis.
Then her thoughts turned grim (and I can hear the angst in her voice as she reflects on the horror of it all). She’d see scissors or a knife and think of stabbing her toddler. She’d see the atrium at her workplace and imagine herself taking a leap to her death.
She enlisted friends at work and family at home to sit with her so she would never be alone. “That was my compulsion,” she explains. “If I had somebody with me who was normal, then they would stop me from doing anything abnormal.”
I sometimes find myself “getting reassurance to the point of ridiculousness”
Terrifying, intrusive thoughts no longer haunt Anne, who sees a clinical psychologist specializing in OCD. But she still has a habit of seeking reassurance, a common trait among people with OCD.
The Connecticut mom realizes she shouldn’t have to call others to decide how many rolls to buy for a large family dinner. But she is compelled to gather their opinions because what if people really like rolls, or different types of rolls?
“If I can’t find somebody to talk to,” she explains, “I’ll end up doing a compulsive buy.” This past Thanksgiving, she purchased 100 rolls for 37 people.
“I’m doing these things; I can’t stop doing them; I realize they’re irrational”
Laura, a 35-year-old blogger, says her compulsions are mostly mental: She repeats phrases or sentences in her head. (When I asked for an example, her voice rose in pitch, as if she were panicked, telling me that reciting them aloud might trigger an OCD episode.) But she did recall one vivid event from her adolescence.
“My brother noticed me knocking on my head, because in my head I was saying, ‘knock on wood,’ and he was wondering why I did it,” she recounts. To stop her, he sat on her hands. “It was just excruciating,” says Laura, “because I felt this compulsion, this need to do it.”
“I couldn’t stop the brain loop, sort of like a broken record”
It was during a college psych course that the pieces of Laura’s life—intrusive sexual thoughts that made her feel ashamed, plus other obsessions and compulsions over the years—instantly fit together. She was relieved to attribute her symptoms to a chemical imbalance, not “a moral failing.”
Actually, researchers have yet to pinpoint the cause of OCD. But risk factors include genetics, physical or sexual abuse in childhood, and differences in brain structure and function. A recent review of studies involving brain scans of people with OCD suggests a brain circuitry problem may be to blame for repetitive behaviors.
“I’ll find myself pushing down the faucet even though no water is coming out”
Laura is a compulsive checker of door locks, ovens, and faucets. Repeatedly checking on things is something some folks with OCD do to ease the fear and stress of perceived harms to themselves or others.
“I’ll watch myself turn off heat from cooking or making a pot of tea, but then sometimes I’ll still stare at it—like, ensure that it’s off,” says Laura.
“I’ll spend hours in bed before my brain will let me sleep”
By all outward appearances, 33-year-old Diana is a supermom. She’s the one who bakes the prettiest cakes and plans for every contingency. Before a Yellowstone vacation, she assembled kits containing just-in-case supplies for her immediate family members and others going on a hike.
The truth is that Diana strives to do her best, but not because she’s trying to one up anyone. Her obsessions are related to perfectionism. Every night, she scours Pinterest articles for ideas on how to be more tidy and organized. “I’ll spend hours in bed (seeking tips and making lists) before my brain will let me sleep,” she confesses.
And that family vacation? At one point she was physically ill because she couldn’t give herself permission to relax.
“I’m so overwhelmed, but I need to clean my bathroom”
Diana feels compelled to clean house. But it’s not easy for her, and the more she has on her plate, the less she’ll get done. When things get cluttered, she’ll lose focus. Paperwork is her nemesis because she can’t decide on a system for handling it.
The one thing she’s driven to do each day is wipe down and disinfect each of the four toilets in her three-story home. “Even when I’m sick, if I don’t do anything else that day, my bathrooms will be clean.”
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