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.
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?