There are many mental health problems that are misunderstood and one of the most misunderstood, in my opinion, is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The stereotypical image of an OCD sufferer is of a strange person who is a “clean freak” or someone who is almost creepy. This is so far from the truth it is beyond funny and enters the realm of insulting and unhelpful.
Across the world there are millions of people who suffer from OCD. Estimates are thought to range from 1-3% of the population. According to ocduk.org, current estimates of UK sufferers put the number at around three-quarters of a million. To put it another way; about the same as the combined population of Sheffield, Rotherham and Barnsley.
Many of those who suffer from OCD do so in silence. It is seen as embarrassing and shameful and society has a lot to answer for. People cannot chose to have OCD but society as a whole can choose how it responds to not just OCD but depression, anxiety and all other mental health problems.
OCD is still something of a mystery to those who have no first hand experience of it. I will attempt to clear some of that mystery and provide a brief overview of what OCD is and how it affects those who suffer from it.
The easiest way to think about OCD is to picture it as a loop or cycle.
Step 1: The Obsession: This could be a thought or feeling. It will be distressing and uncomfortable and to the person experiencing it, it will feel as though relief is all but impossible. The thought or feeling will endure and persist and it will feel like a build up of pressure which will lead to them breaking. This leads to The Compulsion.
Step 2: The Compulsion: The compulsion is an act, sometimes more appropriately described as a ritual, which provides relief for the obsession. However, the relief is temporary. Depending on the nature of the OCD the relief could be anything from seconds, to hours or days.
Step 3: Relief: For a period of time following through with the compulsion will provide relief. However, a return to Step 1 is inevitable.
Trying to rationalise OCD is impossible as, by the very nature of the condition, it’s irrational.
The OCD loop as I’ve described it might be easier to understand with a more concrete example.
Step 1: (The Obsession) Someone with OCD may have the recurring belief a friend has died. They cannot get the thought out of their head. There is a constant cycle of worry, doubt and insecurity that is playing on an infinite loop inside the person’s head.
Step 2: (The Compulsion) The OCD sufferer feels the urge to check that their friend has not died by calling them, texting them or going to their house to check on them.
Step 3: (Relief) The OCD sufferer will feel temporary relief when they realise their friend is alive. However, the OCD sufferer will soon, and inevitably return to Step 1. I have illustrated OCD with a very basic example, but the truth is there is another Step between Step 1 and Step 3.
Step 4: Guilt, shame, depression and misguided sense of responsibility.
The person with OCD may believe that the act of them checking on their friend has saved their friend’s life. This adds an extra dimension to the obsession. The sufferer will then believe that if they don’t follow through with the compulsion then their friend will die. There will also be the added complication of the stress, anxiety and depression that this will cause.
For someone with OCD every day is a constant battle. The thing that other people don’t understand is that the object of the obsession doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s the cycle that is important. To the person checking their door is locked to the person worried about what happens after death, the pain and suffering OCD causes is indiscriminate. The OCD doesn’t care what the focus of the obsession is, it will still hurt all the same.
With OCD one of the most frustrating aspects if the feeling of being out of control. The person does not ask for these thoughts or obsessions and they feel powerless to resist them. It is a form of constant mental torture with only temporary and fleeting relief. Personally, I find it very difficult to do nothing. When I’m doing nothing, it’s as though my brain opens itself up to all sorts of strange thoughts and beliefs.
Looking back over my life, I think my OCD really started in my mid-teens. I didn’t really know what it was and I’m convinced that my depression and anxiety comes as a result of my OCD. I really believe that the OCD was the root cause of almost all my mental health problems. I have lost count of the number of friends I have lost as a result of my OCD and depression. I don’t hold any grudges because I know how difficult it must be to maintain a relationship with someone suffering from mental health problems. However, as hard as that is, suffering with OCD is even worse.
There are many different and specific versions of OCD that are officially recognised. One such type, that I’ve only recently seen identified, is Relationship Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Doubt and trust are two things closely associated with OCD. It’s bad enough when the focus of the OCD is something like a door being locked, or a switch being off, but when the focus of the OCD is a relationship itself or relating to the other person in the relationship, then it can put unimaginable strain on the relationship.
It might be easy to blame the OCD sufferer in this example, but one has to remember the loop and also remember that the OCD sufferer has little to no choice in this. Having OCD is like a balloon being filled until it pops.
A quote from http://www.ocduk.org/media-ocd-facts
“OCD is ranked by the World Health Organization (WHO) in the top 10 of the most disabling illnesses by lost income and decreased quality of life. Mental illness accounts for over a third of the burden of illness in Britain. For example, some 40% of all disability (physical and mental) is due to mental illness. Whilst depression and anxiety illnesses like OCD account for a third of all disability, they attract only about 2% of NHS expenditure.”
According to mind.org.uk, OCD (1.3 in 100 people) is about as common as Panic Disorder (1.2 in 100 people) and only slightly less common than Eating Disorders (1.6 in 100 people).
I believe that mental health statistics are not entirely accurate. There are a lot of people out there who will suffer in silence. Many statistics are based on the number of people that come forward and admit to suffering from something, but they do not take into account those people that hide their condition.
OCD is a constant battle and it is mentally exhausting. There are treatments available but my personal experience with things like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and SSRI medication is mostly poor. In short, OCD sucks.
Critic. Writer. Thinker. Observer. Creator of nowwelive.com.