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There is no such thing as 'a bit of OCD'
Personal experience has taught me that the mental illness is far much more than extreme cleanliness or turning the taps off twice
When you think of OCD, it’s easy to dredge up the same tired stereotypes: the germaphobe, the repeater, the tidier - going over and over the same spot with a cloth. Or just someone who keeps doing the same thing until it finally feels right.
Whilst OCD can present this way, the complexity of the illness is overshadowed by reductive examples and broad stroke archaic assumptions. Too often, I’ve heard cleanly or organised people claim that they have a ‘bit of OCD’, which only goes to further trivialise the issue.
Let’s make one thing clear: there is no such thing as ‘a bit’ of OCD.
From the outside looking in, it may seem like there is nothing wrong, as there are no visible markers to those close to you. Only recently have people begun to speak about ‘pure OCD’, which Mind defines as experiencing ‘distressing intrusive thoughts with no external signs of compulsions.’
Whilst my OCD currently manifests itself more internally, there have been times it would line up with a more ‘conventional’ display of the condition. Checking to make sure the taps are off, rechecking paperwork, making sure the oven and stove is off - then back to the taps, again - to alleviate the irrational fear that I’m going to burn the house down.
Whilst I can laugh at it sometimes, it quite frankly can be exhausting. But what helps is knowing that I am not alone, in fact, OCD UK claims that “around three-quarters of a million people are thought to be living with severe, life-impacting and debilitating OCD in the UK alone.”
Yet, whilst it may seem easy to reach out to get help, the very nature of OCD, specifically intrusive thoughts, can lead to immense shame and secrecy. Intrusive thoughts can take the most horrific and distressing forms and themes, and can deeply irrational.
As OCD advocate and peer support specialist, Chrissie Hodges explains:
“OCD doesn’t go off of logic. When we experience it, we are in a fight or flight response. We are triggered, we have anxiety. We think we’re in danger. The part of our brain that responds to threats, gets activated. Of course there is no threat, it’s a false alarm, but we are convinced otherwise.”
These false alarms can manifest in various different ways: someone who suffers with what is known as suicide OCD, may be unable to walk on an overhead bridge, without involuntarily thinking “What if you jump off?”
Someone with harm OCD may be unable to get drunk for the fear that they could possibly have harmed someone and forgotten it whilst intoxicated. Someone with sexual intrusive thoughts may worry that they have abused someone unknowingly, or perhaps may obsess on whether they have been abused by someone in the past.
Whilst these thoughts may seem irrational and based in delusion, to the sufferer these are genuine concerns. Their mind has convinced them that they are, deep down, a horrible and despicable person, undeserving of compassion or love. As the School of Life beautifully explains it:
“The sufferer of pure OCD has, first and foremost, a problem with self-esteem and shame. The unfortunate person feels, at some level, utterly disgusting and beyond the pale – and will in the background have been feeling like this for a long time.”
The core of OCD is a severe lack of self-compassion and self-esteem. The illness convinces us that we are terrible people who should be left alone. Yet with therapy and treatment, we will begin to realise that our thoughts are ego-dystonic, meaning ‘thoughts, impulses, and behaviours that are felt to be repugnant, distressing, unacceptable or inconsistent with one's self-concept.’
Perhaps the most eye-opening experience regarding this illness, came towards the end of my group therapy sessions. Asked what we were taking away from the sessions, the almost unanimous answer was that we felt ‘we weren’t as alone as we thought we were.’ Yet for so long I, along with almost everyone else, felt the shame and embarrassment of the illness effectively isolated us. That this was not a common mental illness but a personal failure.
Therefore, it is unsurprising that such isolation and shame can have deadly and tragic consequences. Studies have found that “that risk of death by suicide in people with OCD is approximately ten times higher than in the general population, and the risk of attempted suicide is five times higher.”
Yet with a wealth of information at our fingertips and increasing discussions around mental health, OCD sufferers are more equipped than ever to find the help they need. Websites such as NOCD provide a community for those who want to speak to other sufferers, as well as various other social media sites.
We all have our crosses to bear; my OCD will wax and wane depending on my stress levels, but, ultimately, it will still have a presence within my life. The hardest thing for me to accept is that I will never be without OCD - but whilst it has caused me a lot of pain and suffering, it is important to recognise how it has positively changed me.
It’s allowed me to make connections with others who struggle with mental illness. It has in many ways, increased my mental fortitude and emotional strength. And most importantly, it has taught me to be gentler with myself and others. So many are secretly suffering within their own minds, and just a little understanding could go a long way.
If you are struggling with OCD, here are some free resources available:
The Samaritans: Call 116 123 (for those in an emotional crisis and those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts)
NOCD (For OCD advice as well as community interaction)
Made of Millions ( An educational website all about OCD)
Chrissie Hodges (A YouTube channel which talks about her personal experiences with OCD, and her role as a peer support specialist)