Every time I hear someone say they are “so OCD” because they frantically cleaned their kitchen that morning, I feel a surge of disappointment in my stomach.
Over the years, we have become conditioned to believe that obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is nothing more than liking your shoes lined up, having to count to a certain number or organising your cupboards with labels.
Not only has this become a misconception due to people using the condition as a description for their personality quirks, but even TV shows have added to the stigma – such as Channel 4’s Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, which added to the belief that having OCD is all about getting down on your hands and knees to scrub a toilet over and over again.
While people often use the term lightheartedly, they don’t realise the damage they’re doing. But this isn’t exactly their fault. It’s a frequent misunderstanding. It’s a misunderstanding that has gone on for too long, and is demoralising to those seriously suffering with the disorder.
As part of OCD, an obsession is an unwanted or unpleasant thought, image or urge that repeatedly enters your mind, causing feelings of anxiety. These can be severe, intrusive thoughts – the fear that if you don’t wash your hands a certain number of times, you will contaminate yourself or someone else. The fear that if you don’t repeatedly check your oven, the house might set on fire. Or the fear that not properly turning the taps off – and doing so over and over again – will cause a flood.
Checking the oven, washing your hands and things like that are the compulsion. And the compulsion is done to ease the anxiety the obsessions cause.
Of course, this isn’t just a standard check. It’s non-stop. Going back to the taps and the oven to check you really did turn it off – because a voice in your head tells you that you didn’t, and that something bad is going to happen, is not a one-off.
These are rituals that can take hours out of your day-to-day life – for some, making it impossible to even leave the house.
There are so many subtypes of the disorder that people aren’t aware of – and they can cause a sufferer such extreme anxiety and feelings of guilt and shame that they do not talk about them.
Harm OCD, for instance, will cause a sufferer to have intrusive thoughts about harming people. They may hide knives away, fearing that they will actually carry out the thoughts. Or maybe they’ll refuse to drive, convincing themselves that they’ll steer the car into someone. Of course, a person with OCD will not act on these feelings. According to cognitive behavioural therapist Helen Tyrer, a person with OCD is actually less likely to harm anyone else due to how overwhelming the fears are. But the thoughts make you think otherwise.
There are also even darker subtypes, including paedophillia OCD (POCD), which causes a person to have awful thoughts about children. They may worry that they are a danger around children. That they might harm a child. Again, these people are not actually in any way harmful – but they will go on to avoid being around children, be that by cancelling on a nephew’s birthday party, or avoiding going near schools or parks.
The intrusive thoughts about harming children are the obsession, while avoiding certain scenarios to prevent danger is the compulsion.
Alongside POCD, other serious subtypes include post-partum OCD – where a mother becomes obsessively scared of harming her child, and sexuality OCD – where a person becomes convinced that they are gay, even when they are not. This can be incredibly confusing for a person with this condition, who is unable to define their sexuality due to their thoughts.
I was officially diagnosed with OCD last year. I had been suffering with a number of symptoms. I was washing my hands up to 60 times, scared that if I didn’t, I’d contaminate myself or someone else and make them sick. It sounds silly, but I worried that if I or someone else became sick because of my own hands they would die.
Other symptoms included taking an hour to get into bed, from frantically checking plugs and light switches, worried that there would be an electrical fire in the night. Leaving the house would be a nightmare for the fear of the doors being unlocked and someone breaking in, and I found myself obsessed with the thought that I’d killed someone while driving and being unable to remember it. At its worst, my OCD was a terrible, debilitating condition that reduced me to tears and even made me question my own life. I felt like I wasn’t living, merely existing, consumed by terrible thoughts and tiresome rituals.
Dr Fiona Challacombe, clinical psychologist at the Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma, Maudsley Hospital and King’s College Hospital, explains that OCD is often thought of as a cleaning disorder or, worse, she says, a “behavioural quirk”.
She adds that though OCD is distressing to live with, it can be treated – most commonly with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or with Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), both of which are recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as first line treatments.
With all of this in mind, we need to start recognising OCD for the life-destroying illness it really is. We need to educate ourselves, and others, too.
Not just to battle the old-fashioned misconceptions surrounding a very misunderstood condition, but to allow those suffering to feel like just that – sufferers – and not as though their illness is some form of ongoing joke between people who just don’t get it.
We need to do better. We can do better. And understanding OCD for what it really is – and what it’s most definitely not – can only take us a step forward in reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness that we sadly still face today.
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