The truth about obsessive compulsive disorder

So you’ll understand that we get a little irked when hearing the phrase bandied around in ways that would be considered totally unacceptable for other illnesses.

Myth: Having OCD means you like things neat and tidy

OCD Action: As described earlier, OCD is characterised by obsessions and compulsions. A compulsion for someone with OCD could be the need to keep things in order or symmetrical, but this is definitely not the case for everyone with OCD, and those who carry out these compulsions most certainly do not enjoy them, rather they carry out the compulsion to get rid of extreme anxiety caused by a thought. For many with OCD, being neat and tidy most likely won’t bother them any more than someone without the condition.

Lily: The key problem with misusing the phrase OCD is that every time someone does this, a step is taken away from understanding what it really means to have it. At my secondary school, people frequently used this term to infer, mostly, that they liked things to be neat and tidy. And the gleeful tones in which the words were shrieked indicated that they found their organisational activities a source of pleasure and personal pride. If you’d asked me what OCD was, I probably would have said: ‘it’s people who like to keep their things neat.’

As a result, it came as a shock when a doctor told me that the mental torment I had no name for that was taking over me was in fact OCD. ‘No, you’ve got it wrong,’ I thought. ‘I make endless lists in my head of things I’ve possibly done wrong all day. It’s not a hobby I enjoy and it’s got nothing to do with cleaning.’

I did not know then what I now know – that to have OCD only requires that you suffer from obsessions (unwanted thoughts, fears and ideas) followed by compulsions (the action you take, whether physical or mental, in response to the obsession), and that they cause you significant distress. Obsessions and compulsions can be anything. From thinking you might have run over a child in your car and so repetitively retracing your route, to holding your mouth shut because you fear you might start shouting out swear words in public.

But most people don’t associate OCD with those sorts of things, because our casual use of the term limits any real understanding of the disorder in the public consciousness. As such, people may spend years battling in silence with a terrifying mental anguish they have no name for.

Lily’s advice on coping with OCD

OCD is a tough beast that can take over your life in the most complex and uncomfortable ways. But the good news is, with hard work and persistence, recovery is possible. If you think you’re in the grips of OCD, speak to your doctor. GPs are becoming better at recognising all OCD, and not just the stereotypical symptoms like straightening things and tidying. The appropriate course of action would then be for your GP to refer you for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a special type of behaviour therapy that aims to get you better by thinking about and then changing how you respond to your thoughts.

There is an average delay of 12 years between the onset of OCD and treatment being received

Family and friends can be crucial in your recovery, but perhaps not in the way you’d expect. The instinct of those who see their loved ones in distress is to offer them reassurance that their fears are unfounded, and that they needn’t worry. The problem is, the seeking of reassurance in itself becomes a compulsion for the sufferer, and well meaning people end up feeding into and perpetuating the condition in this way. If you know someone with OCD and want to help, the important thing is to be there for them emotionally and let them know how much you care, without letting yourself become a vehicle to fulfilling their compulsions. This is harder than it sounds, but good healthcare professionals will be happy to offer advice as to how those around someone with OCD and put this into practice.

For more information about the diagnosis and treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, visit