My story aims to bring insight into the mind of someone who has been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. But first, a little background.
The National Institute of Mental Health Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder defines (OCD) as a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over. People with OCD may have symptoms of obsessions, compulsions or both. These symptoms can interfere with all aspects of life, such as work, school and personal relationships.
Obsessions are repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images that cause anxiety and often include fear of germs or contamination, unwanted forbidden or taboo thoughts involving sex, religion, and harm, aggressive thoughts towards others or self, and having things symmetrical or in a perfect order.
Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that a person with OCD feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought. Common compulsions may include excessive cleaning and/or hand washing (I mean to the point when your hands are red and cracked they’ve been washed so much, even in the middle of the summer), ordering and arranging things in a particular, precise way, repeatedly checking on things, such as repeatedly checking to see if the door is locked or that the oven is off and compulsive counting.
Not all rituals or habits are compulsions. Most people have moments in which they can’t remember if they unplugged their hair straightener or take an extra-long shower if they have completed a grimy task (gardening for example). But a person with OCD perseverates and focuses on such thoughts long after an average person would have moved past it…to the point he or she can’t think about anything else (did I turn that off, what if I touched that thing that was dirty, etc).
Obsessions and compulsions can often appear to be contradictory to someone who does not have OCD. For example, my car and room can be a complete mess but when friends and family come over to my condo, I won’t let them wear shoes past the mudroom.
My desk can be completely disorganized. Meanwhile, I will re-check the work I just completed multiple times even when I know it’s been entered correctly. I will wash my hands longer than is necessary even if I’ve had a conversation about something that is gross.
Bottom line: OCD isn’t rational. And just like any mental health disorder or condition, it can get worse due to stress or your surrounding environment, but it can also get worse for no apparent reason at all, as your brain chemistry can strongly impact symptoms.
Treatment can include therapy, medication, or a combination of both.
For me, symptoms began to be very apparent when I was about ten years old — and included excessive hand washing, worrying about germs, checking things multiple times and worrying I’d had a bad thought about something and having to pray about it (yes, really). I was afraid to have friends over, I wanted to take multiple showers a day, I would freak out if I thought something mean about someone…to the point that I was worried and anxious all the time.
I thankfully have very supportive and understanding parents (who, like most of my family, also have OCD). My parents took me to therapy, where I was able to learn to control my repetitive and obsessive thoughts. I have personally never needed medication to manage my symptoms and although OCD is not something you ever get over, at this point it does not impact me greatly on a regular basis (But I still hate using public restrooms. Why isn’t everything on an automatic sensor so you don’t have to touch anything?).
In general, I have learned to recognize when I am focusing on something irrational and move past it. However, I am also aware that if that changes, there is help available.
Like any mental illness, lack of understanding prohibits those who need help to obtain it without fear of judgement and stigmatism.
If you or someone you know has or suspects he or she has OCD, speak to your primary care doctor and they can recommend a counselor or therapist for you to talk to. Getting referred to someone who specializes and understand this disorder can guide you in coping mechanisms and if applicable, medication to help you so that symptoms do not negatively impact your day to day life.
For more information about OCD, visit www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/index.shtml.