Charlotte Pearson Methven For You Magazine
‘I’m so OCD’ has become a modern mantra, mainly uttered by people wishing to make an excuse for their fastidious behaviour. But this diminishes the overwhelming anxiety associated with genuine obsessive compulsive disorder, as Charlotte Methven, herself a sufferer, explains
Charlotte with her baby daughter Emilia in 2005.She found that the chaosand vulnerability she felt as a new mother hugely magnified her OCD tendencies
For every generation, there is a collective psychosis we rush to embrace. Just as seeing a ‘shrink’ has become socially acceptable, so too have we come to wear our ‘issues’ proudly on our sleeves. And while during the Sex and the City years we’d giggle over our shopping binges with a slightly guilty ‘I’m a shopaholic’ admission, in today’s anxious times in which pressure to be ‘perfect’ is stronger than ever, many will proclaim, often proudly, ‘I’m so OCD.’
OCD, for those not familiar with the terminology, stands for obsessive compulsive disorder – an anxiety affliction in which sufferers are plagued by ‘obsessive’ thoughts. The obsessions are usually to do with tidiness, hygiene or safety, and can only be relieved by ‘compulsive’ behaviours, namely manic organising, cleaning and bathing; excessively checking things (such as the front door being locked or oven switched off), and carrying out bizarre rituals (I have a friend who has to kiss everyone hello or goodbye exactly three times). And if it’s possible for a disorder to be ‘in fashion’, OCD is on trend right now with celebrity sufferers including Lena Dunham (and her alter ego Hannah in TV series Girls), Charlize Theron and Julianne Moore.
‘It’s not clear if cases are rising, or if they were just under-reported before,’ says Ashley Fulwood, chief executive of OCD-UK, a national charity that helps the one million Brits who suffer with the disorder. The increasingly high profile of the affliction is definitely making more people come forward, which is a good and a bad thing. ‘It’s great that people are more aware, but it is not particularly helpful that everyone now thinks they are like Monica from Friends, and that they have OCD,’ he says, adding, ‘OCD is about a lot more than just a need to organise the sock drawer or a desire to line up the picture frames in a certain way. True OCD can be a severely debilitating condition.’
The World Health Organisation has ranked it as one of the top ten most disabling illnesses in terms of its impact on quality of life.
One case in point – that this is more than just an amusing little tic – is Heather from the Channel 4 series The Undateables who suffers so badly, specifically from a fear of contamination, that she can’t let anyone into her flat or even hug her own mother. But even in less severe cases, OCD can be very damaging. I am by no means at the acute end of the spectrum but when I had my first child – and was a nervous wreck – I was advised by a health visitor that I showed signs of having it mildly. Nine years on, things are better, but I still feel its impact – and it’s more of a burden than a bragging point.
Charlotte on holiday with Emilia and Milo
On the face of it, I am a high-functioning, working single mother of two. But scratch the surface and things aren’t always so sane. I don’t go anywhere without hand sanitiser; I largely avoid riding the tube because of germs; sometimes I’ll get up several times in the night to ensure I remembered to blow out the candles;
I have to sleep on the left-hand side of the bed; entertaining at home is challenging for me because I can’t bear the kitchen being messy; and I dread my children playing with Lego as I hate it when all the tiny bits end up under the sofa and I don’t know which box to sort them into (my hands shake just writing about this).
If I try to resist this behaviour – which, on some level, I know is ridiculous – I find myself in the eye of a tornado of anxiety until I have indulged in whatever crazy ritual is needed to drive away the sense of chaos. This is not, as it might seem, about an excessive concern with tidiness – I actually don’t give two hoots about that. It’s not about the grease splodges on the worktop or the Lego that needs to be put away.
It’s about the feeling of being out of control that these phobias trigger, and the manic behaviour needed to dispel the anxiety.
Cognitive-behavioural therapist Matt Broadway-Horner, whose CBT in the City clinics have helped many suffering from OCD, stresses that the key differentiating point between someone with OCD and someone who is just a ‘neat freak’ or a ‘very type-A personality’ is ‘whether or not they attach meaning to these compulsions. A true OCD-er doesn’t tidy and organise because they enjoy it. They really feel that something “bad” will happen if they don’t, for example, check the light sockets every day.’
According to statistics, 1.2 per cent of the population has OCD. Though, Broadway-Horner says, about two in ten may suffer to some degree. He confirms that this is a spectrum disorder, and even those who are not at the worst end can still find their lives hampered. ‘Looking at this as a continuum, rather than taking an all-or-nothing view, is far better, because it means more people can be helped. The OCD stats are going up: that could be because we live in stressful times or it might be that GPs are getting better at recognising it in people with milder cases.’
Charlotte at homewith her children.A messy housedoesn’t worry her –it’s the feeling ofbeing out of control that triggers her OCD tendencies
Functioning OCD can often be hidden or passed off as a quirky tendency to run around clutching a dustbuster, à la Monica; OCD-ers are very adept at making self-deprecating jokes about ‘going mad’. OCD also disproportionately afflicts high-achievers. David Beckham has admitted to a need to line up the drinks cans in his fridge in neat rows; Hillary Clinton says she sometimes washes her hands hundreds of times a day; Tory MP Charles Walker, who spoke of his 30-year struggle in a speech applauded by ministers on both sides of the pulpit in the House of Commons, has to repeat everything exactly four times; author JK Rowling based the OCD-riddled central character in her novel The Casual Vacancy on her teenage self, who was constantly ‘making lists’ and ‘triple-checking’ things.
According to OCD-UK, 50 per cent of cases are classed as severe, while 25 per cent are considered mild, and the remaining 25 per cent fall somewhere in the middle. The typical age of onset is late teens or early 20s. ‘Leaving university and starting a job for the first time can be a trigger,’ explains Broadway-Horner, as can a stressful or traumatic life event – perhaps an accident or the death of a loved one. ‘It can start out as someone ritualising or counting in their head to block something painful out.’
There are also quite a number of postnatal cases of OCD. One recent study showed that new mothers are five times more likely than the general population to develop the illness, making postnatal OCD more common than postnatal depression. And it’s not hard to see why, with the combination of chaos and vulnerability that a new baby brings.
US-based psychologist Stephen Whiteside, a specialist in anxiety disorders, confirms that having children can make symptoms worse for OCD sufferers, especially as a big part of the disorder is a fear of harming others. ‘OCD symptoms latch on to the things that matter to us most, so parents with OCD may have doubts about their abilities, intrusive thoughts about their child’s safety or a fear of inadvertently hurting their child.’ Such parents will be likely to check and recheck their baby to an excessive degree.
Charlize Theron has spoken of the challenges of parenting with OCD since adopting son Jackson three years ago. And my own tendencies came to the surface when I had children – initially with obsessive fretting over them as newborns (often waking them and causing them to howl just to be sure they were breathing) and, more recently, feeling constantly unsettled by the daily disorder that is part and parcel of family life (again, the Lego).
I am not proud of the fact that I struggle to enjoy fully the opening of presents on Christmas morning, so distracted am I crawling around collecting the stray bits of wrapping paper
and packaging strewn about the floor to relieve feelings of panic. One of the best moments of the day for me is when I get to drag
the sacks of festive detritus out to the bins. I accept that I may seem a bit mad, and take solace in the fact that I am not the only one (as evidenced by the ‘likes’ and chorus of ‘I hear yous’ by other mums in response to a post I made about the subject on Facebook).
Key steps to overcoming OCD
If you try to manage OCD on your own, you will set yourself up for a fall. Give it an inch and it will take a mile. OCD needs to be cured by professionals. OCD-UK’s philosophy is to promote recovery, not to help people learn to live with it.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been shown to have helped 75 per cent of those suffering from OCD and is recommended by the NHS. CBT is a talking therapy that focuses on the present, rather than delving into the past, and aims to challenge the thought patterns and behaviour that manifests from such tendencies.
Knowledge is power when it comes to OCD: the more you understand the disorder the better your chances of overcoming it. Break Free From OCD: Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is an excellent book.
Regular exercise and sleep patterns, alongside a healthy diet, can make a big difference.
Although OCD is a very individual affliction, you can benefit greatly from connecting with other sufferers through a positive support group.
Medication can be used alongside CBT in extreme cases. SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) – also used in the treatment of depression and anxiety – are the most effective.
But, happily, there are some mothers, such as actress Julianne Moore, who say that the experience of having children has helped them to overcome their OCD. ‘I’m still a bit fanatical about lining up furniture… but much more laid-back than I used to be,’ she said. Fulwood stresses that no two cases are the same. ‘You might get two different people with an obsessive fear of contamination, but one will be worrying about being contaminated, while another will worry about contaminating others. It is a highly individual affliction.’
I have noticed a slight improvement in mine of late. Last Christmas was the first year I was able to let the children hang the ornaments on the tree themselves without becoming panicked by the lack of symmetry. Living with that wonky tree felt quite liberating. Getting divorced and moving home three years ago shook me out of my routine so fundamentally that I had to relinquish my perfectionist ideals to a degree, which has helped. I still have my moments, though. OCD madness can rise up as if from nowhere. I recently spent a small fortune on an electrician to rip out every single socket cover and light switch in my home (there was nothing wrong with any of them) and replace them with new ones, so that they are all now exactly the same, in identical clear Perspex. Why? I couldn’t tell you. I just had to.
There is a proven genetic element to OCD, with one generation often handing their tendencies on to the next. So, when my nine-year-old daughter Emilia – who, incidentally, when we recently shared a hotel room insisted on sleeping on the left-hand side of the bed – told me that the disorganisation of her bookshelves was making her ‘feel funny’, on one level I relished our joint effort to put the books in order: lining them up neatly with spines facing outwards, grouped together by author and genre. But, on another level, I knew how important it was to distract her by reading a story, and to reassure her that messy bookshelves really don’t matter. Well, not that much, anyway…
For more information on obsessive compulsive disorder, visit ocduk.org. To locate a CBT in the City clinic, visit cbtinthecity.com