How many times have you heard someone say or said yourself “Oh my god I’m so OCD!” or “I just need to flick the light switch off, its an OCD thing.” Now, I know that people don’t mean to belittle the disorder or cheapen its seriousness but comments like this do exactly that. For some reason Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) has entered the mainstream in a not so serious manner, people seem to think its funny that they are so particular and well organized. Few people actually realize what they’re parodying or talking about. This article is here to break the spell on OCD – to actually inform and give a first hand account on what its actually all about. First I will outline OCD as a definition before going on to explain my personal experience with it.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is so aptly named because it actually describes the issue clearly in its title. It works in a cycle of obsession then compulsion then back to obsession and compulsion and then so on in this vicious cycle. The UK NHS Choices website defines obsession and compulsion as-
An obsession is an unwanted and unpleasant thought, image or urge that repeatedly enters a person’s mind, causing feelings of anxiety, disgust or unease. A compulsion is a repetitive behaviour or mental act that someone feels they need to carry out to try to temporarily relieve the unpleasant feelings brought on by the obsessive thought.
These obsessions and compulsions can manifest in different ways for different people. The common element is that the thoughts, images or urges are intrusive, unpleasant and unwanted. They can cause anxiety and depression in the sufferer. Australia’s Beyond Blue describes unwanted thoughts really well: “‘What if I hurt my child?’. These thoughts can cause distress as they are out of character and make the person worry about what it means about them as a person to be thinking this way. Some people with OCD seem to infer that a morally unacceptable thought is on par with the action. As a result, their anxiety increases when these problematic thoughts arise.” People can become convinced that they have done or will do something terrible. The fear is dominating -it makes you fear the worst about any given topic, not just a mild fear but a fear where you genuinely think the worst is the reality.
As aforementioned these obsessions can manifest themselves in vastly different ways. One of these can be an obsession with some sort of moral issue. A familiar one that happens for me for example is the philosophical issue of free will. It can also happen when thinking about the future, whether that is the long term future or just about my day at hand. But lets roll with free will because that’s the one that has happened the most often in the past. It will start with the obsession of thinking about free will to the point that everything else that is happening in life is secondary until I have thought this through, people could die around me but my brain will still be stuck in trying to figure this out, if its not figured out then I will be unable to concentrate on anything else until it is. Because of the nature of the thoughts being intrusive they make you feel completely out of control. Its not something I want or need to think about.
The cognitive ability to engage with the outside world is momentarily disabled. Even if I’m talking to somebody else my mind is fully preoccupied on the obsession to the point where I will often look for reasons to excuse myself in order to address the obsession properly.
The reason why it can be categorized as an obsession is because more often than not I am thinking about something that I have already thought about. There is so much repetition involved with OCD. Free will is something that I know back to front and have thought through way too much but my brain continually wants to go back to it and think about it.
It is genuinely an obsession. Not just something that comes and goes once, or something that preoccupies me for a day. No, it will come and go and come and come and go- on and on and on. Things and issues I have already thought through, addressed and taken care of will have to be thought through again, I try and block it out but all my brain wants to do is think about it.
This is where the compulsion part comes in, and this is the really hard part I think. The compulsion makes everything in the world seem unbalanced until my obsession is thought through. When I say unbalanced I literally mean unbalanced. It is as if there is something in my head that is off kilter that won’t line up and my whole meaning of life at that point is to make it line up. Its like the chemicals need to be re-balanced, the world – my world- needs to be re-balanced and the only the way OCD brain identifies to do this is through the compulsion. This is the main reason why concentrating on anything else ,talking to people, living in the moment – anything! – becomes extremely difficult. And it becomes even more frustrating because each time it happens I know, or the person with OCD knows, what is happening, knows its just a compulsion, knows it is a silly thing to do and doesn’t actually help anything. (This knowledge can lead to extreme frustration, anxiety and depression.) The knowledge of what is happening doesn’t help or matter because everything is so unbalanced. Its not a case of just ignoring it or forgetting about it until it goes away. That would be like trying to watch a movie when the TV is just static with no picture – you can’t get on with the movie until the screen is fixed. Its exactly the same with OCD. It feels like you cannot get on with the movie/life until the picture is fixed/routine of compulsions run through.
Now, lots of people have different methods to their madness, different ways that the compulsion will happen. A common one is cleaning or re-checking things over and over again, washing hands repeatedly is another one. Mine comes in the form of set routines and urges in my head. I have to go through a set routine in my head in a set order and in a set way for equilibrium in the world again – until the picture is fixed on the TV and I can go on living my life. But it doesn’t stop there. Once the routine is done in my head I have to find some sort of symmetry, often that is tapping my hands on my legs at exactly the same time. If I don’t nail it and one hand touches my leg before the other then the whole process has to be started again, right back to the beginning, go back to the original obsession and do the whole routine again. Balance needs to be restored! If I don’t tap my hands on my legs I might have to do something else like line up my vision with a straight line of a desk in front of me, or make sure the phone sitting on the desk isn’t hanging over any lines. If I’m walking I have to not step on a line for the next 5 steps otherwise everything is started again. Another major one for me, probably the major one is coughing. If I hear any sort of coughing throughout the whole process of obsession and compulsion then I go right back to the start, even if there’s a cough in the 30 seconds after the process, even if I’ve finished and the legs are tapped, it all begins again. Not until this is done will I be able to feel any sense of normality again and complete the task at hand. It is crippling in this way, it can stop you from doing simple things like finishing the words on a page of a book you are reading, to not being able to concentrate at work or in a conversation and then it can get worse to avoiding social occasions, avoiding situations where it might come back and you can’t address or control it properly, it is isolating.
The real bitch in all of this as well is that when the routine is done it is still not dusted. All it does is accentuate the cycle and make it come back again. Think of a thick forest and you want to walk through the forest but there is no track. The more you keep walking along a certain way in the forest it will create a track, you keep doing it and the track becomes ingrained and it becomes harder to walk anywhere else through the shrubs because there is already a track made. This is the same thing with the OCD process. The more you think about one thing and go down one track in your head the more that way of thinking gets ingrained in the your wires and neurons and the harder it gets to use your brain differently. It is truly a vicious cycle. Again with the repetition. You obsess, you get compulsive to try and get rid of the obsession but that just makes it more ingrained into your brain and so before too long, a minute, 5 minutes, an hour or a day it will come back. Trying to “psych” yourself out of it and not think about it doesn’t work. It literally wells up from inside of you. Its a rash but not on your skin, its in your brain, and it just won’t stop being itchy so you relent and finally scratch it and it feels so damn good for a short time but of course all you have done is just inflame the situation.
Thankfully for me my worst days are well behind me. I haven’t felt it too bad for over a year now. I can still feel it every now and then wanting to well up but am able to avoid it for the most part.
The way I got over it was through disassociation. So instead of becoming obsessed with it when I feel it welling up I detach myself from it. There was a time when this was impossible but over the last year and a half I have practiced walking down a different track to the OCD one. Now when I can feel the obsession wanting to rear its ugly head up I simply say to myself “I notice right now that my brain is having the thought that it would like to obsess over free will again, hmm thats interesting, good for you brain.” Then I can get on with my day without ever going through the routine. I’m also a lot better now at identifying when its going to happen, I can feel the obsession and the subsequent compulsions come and now I say “hey this is that old dog that you don’t like. I’ve been through this, thanks for coming but goodbye.” And then on with my day.
Obviously I don’t succeed all the time and I’ll get stuck in my head now and again. But these occurrences are becoming fewer and further between. This is actually really exciting because there was a time a couple of years ago when I would go months without it relenting, and the times that I felt free from it were few and far between. Thankfully all this has reversed now and has put me in the position to respect what it is but not be controlled by it anymore.
Something like disassociation isn’t easy though, it took over a year of practice and attempted implementation. It takes a lot of fails and further OCD cycles to get to a more peaceful brain state.
One of the major helps for me is to have a tool-kit. The best tool-kit I found was in the book The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. No book I have ever read has changed my life more. It offers practical and proven methods of overcoming OCD, anxiety and unwanted thoughts. It gave me the methods and confidence to be able to get over and through OCD. The other thing that I can advise is to obviously talk to people, experts and friends. OCD can be a shameful thing as the person suffering from it can know what they are doing is ridiculous but unable to snap out of it, therefore they feel can often feel frustration and shame for not being able to break free from it.
So please, next time you feel like making an OCD joke – don’t. It is not a funny or a light thing. Its serious, damning and real. Every time a joke about it is made or an uneducated comment it belittles the condition. It creates more shame, more stigma and makes the person suffering from it feel like they’re going crazy from further isolation because no one understands them or takes them seriously. As is often the case with these things – education and knowledge is the key to help and progress.