The Many Disguises of OCD

The Many Disguises of OCD

TW: Mentions of OCD and suicidal thoughts/feelings. 

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – more commonly referred to as OCD. Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘that’s the one about germs, right?’. 

Well, not exactly…

At the age of thirteen, I was quite a messy person. I didn’t care much for organisation, and I rarely thought about the potential bacteria covering my hands. Nevertheless, I began suffering symptoms of what I now know was OCD. Of course, I would never have believed that’s what it was back then. As far as I was aware (largely due to the misconceptions that exist around OCD) I could only have that if I washed my hands 100 times a day.

You see, the majority of us think we already know all there is to know about this condition. Perhaps, we even think we’ve got a ‘little bit’ of it ourselves (just typing that made me shudder). However, if you think every person who suffers from OCD is afraid of dirt and disorganisation, then I can tell you with the upmost certainty that you don’t know the half of it! It’s funny really, that a condition that has been included in the top 10 most debilitating illnesses by the World Health Organisation (WHO), can have such a misconstrued meaning within our society.

Firstly, for a bit of context.

As we have already established, OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – named as such because it is characterised by two major components:

  • Obsessions – unwanted thoughts or images that enter a person’s mind repeatedly, often causing distress and anxiety.
  • Compulsions – repetitive actions or ‘rituals’ that the sufferer feels compelled to perform, in order to reduce the anxiety caused by obsessions (the more you engage in compulsions, however, the stronger the obsession/compulsion cycle becomes!).

*To read more about OCD – including the symptoms, causes and treatment – visit the Mind website.

A key point I would like to emphasise about these obsessions and compulsions, is that they are expansive. Meaning, every person may experience them in completely different ways, on different scales, and about different things. Yes, for one person, this may mean an obsessional fear of bacteria, leading to repetitive hand-washing. However, for another, their OCD may comprise of completely different thoughts and behaviours! To assume that every sufferer of OCD is afraid of germs and washes their hands ‘a bit too much’, is like claiming that every person with a phobia is afraid of heights.

My Experience

During my teenage years, I experienced what my CBT therapist once referred to as ‘habitual compulsions’ (I don’t know if that’s an official term, but I think it sums it up quite nicely). They involved actions such as tapping, counting and repeating actions over and over. Certain numbers and colours were deemed ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (with the bad being avoided at all costs). If I was to ignore the urge to carry out these compulsions, then I feared that something horrific would happen. I remember going on a family holiday on a cruise, and worrying that my actions would result in the ship sinking!

Fast forward to early adulthood, and the focus of my obsessions shifted to contamination. Never before had such a concern entered my mind, and yet it quickly became all-consuming. Still, bacteria wasn’t a particular issue for me. I worried more about potential allergens and harmful substances coming into contact with my skin, my hair, my lips, my food, my clothes (basically EVERYTHING). It got to a point where I was unable to do things for myself. My Mum had to prepare my food (all other members of the family were ‘contaminated’ and therefore not allowed in the same room when I was eating). I wouldn’t sit down to eat, either. Instead, I stood in an exact spot of the kitchen considered ‘safe’.

My experience of OCD during this time was severe, and it would be impossible to list here the many ways in which it took over my life. To sum up, it became so debilitating that it led to a bout of depression and suicidal ideation (but that’s a post for another day).

Ultimately, what I am trying to get at with this post is this:

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder comes in all shapes and sizes.

We can’t, therefore, assume that a certain behaviour equals OCD (or vice versa). Take me, for example. The above accounts describe the same person experiencing the same disorder. Yet, in each of them, OCD has manifested itself in very different ways.

Can we PLEASE stop generalising such a serious and complex condition?

6 Comments

  1. MJ
    January 25, 2018 / 8:44 pm

    Thank you for your post. Unfortunately, from my own experiences, I am all too aware of the truth you speak. Still, it is a comfort to know that others out there do “get it” and can empathize. For me, one of the many hard parts is the lack of understanding in others. Even family. They do not get it, no matter how much they think they do – they often seem to think that I am being deliberately difficult, or selfish. Yes, living with me can surely be stressful for them, but if they could walk a mile in my shoes perhaps they would see things a little differently. My behaviour is certainly odd, but that is not the real me – it is not my personality, but rather the illness that controls me. I think they sometimes forget that and a resentment builds up, which then hurts my feelings. Especially when so many of my “episodes” are generally caused by worrying about them and their wellbeing. There is nothing “selfish” about it.

    I guess I’ve rambled on a bit, but again – thank you, and well written.

    • January 26, 2018 / 12:18 pm

      Thank you for your comment, I can relate to what you said very much. Especially about those around you assuming that you are being ‘selfish’ or ‘difficult’. My experience with OCD caused many tensions with people in my life, and it made it all the more tough for me to deal with what I was going through in my head. Sometimes, I don’t even need others to understand (after all, I don’t even understand my own brain sometimes!). But I still expect a level of respect and acceptance. If I open up to somebody, and tell them that what I am experiencing is an illness and not deliberate and that I am struggling, then I expect them to listen and accept that fact.

  2. Sully
    January 23, 2018 / 10:29 pm

    Thanks for the informative post. It great to read an inspiring and educational piece one that true meaning of OCD. Thank you for sharing your experience I felt that it was a real insight in to the different forms that OCD can occur. I agree with what Kat said above when people say they have a bit of OCD. its generalised and not very well informed. Having come from a family where it has affected us I find peace inside myself knowing that other experiences are being shared. 🙂

    • January 24, 2018 / 4:13 pm

      Thank you for your comment. OCD certainly is misrepresented far too much, which is why I feel it’s important I talk openly about my experience. I’m sorry to hear that you and your family have been personally affected by the condition, but I am glad that my post could offer even a little comfort. 🙂

  3. Kat
    January 20, 2018 / 7:45 pm

    great post and really informative 🙂 it also makes me cringe when people say they are ‘a bit OCD’. It really is such a complex disorder and one that can sometimes stand alone or be a part of another illness. I never struggled with OCD until my eating disorder and emetophobia got much worse. I thought I could control situations, prevent myself from being sick with rituals and repetitive behaviours. CBT helps but it’s such a difficult disorder to overcome. Thank you for sharing your experiences! 🙂

    • January 20, 2018 / 7:55 pm

      Thank you for your comment. 😊 It’s true, OCD is very complex indeed and often co-exists with other mental health conditions. I believe that my experience with OCD and now anorexia are very much interlinked, as both have consisted of obsessions around food. I think that’s partly what can make it such a difficult disorder to overcome – because it’s difficult to disentangle all of these thoughts/behaviours and where they stem from!

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