Inside the Mind: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

David Roper 16 January 2015

I think it’s important at this point to provide a little background to the whole subject of OCD given how often it is misunderstood by the general public. It’s an anxiety disorder with two sides: Intrusion and compulsion. The former is what is misunderstood about OCD. Rituals (compulsions) are performed which elevate anxiety caused by underlying intrusive thoughts. This might be, for example, the fear that a family member or friend should fall to harm if a ritual is not completed, but specifics do not matter. Intrusions are often irrational, fear charged topics, which are specific to the sufferer.

I have OCD. Specifically primarily or purely obsessional OCD, a lesser-known form of OCD. I have minimal physical compulsions – I don’t clean, I don’t turn light switches on and off, and I don’t repeatedly check the door is locked.  To me the intrusive thoughts are horrific and real, and it takes considerable effort to appease the anxiety. Some examples of “themes” of intrusion for OCD suffers are: Responsibility, Sexuality, Violence, Religiosity, Health, Relationship obsessions. Yes my theme is on that list. No I will not tell you what it is, because it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter. My compulsions take the form of series of mental rituals that I’ll do my best to describe:

//Intrusive thought//

Counter thought: “This will not happen, this isn’t real, this will not happen” (many many many many many times).

Retrieve evidence to support this statement: Images and memories of my life where my behaviour strongly opposes the intrusive thought.

//Repeat as necessary//

But I understand this seems all rather irrational, and that’s the point. It takes up a big chunk of my day, and interferes massively with my work. It’s incredibly difficult to describe. Imagine that feeling in a nightmare where you’re falling, just before you’re about to hit the ground. It’s that fear stretched out and the only thing to make it go away is to complete your compulsions. This behaviour draws parallels with addiction, so strong is the need for relief. The specific theme for the suffer is literally the worst possible thing that could happen to their world, and three years ago I was of the opinion that it was better I died than let any of them become reality. They feel real to the sufferer and that’s the problem. At the moment that isn’t my opinion; like any mental health problem there were the dark early days. Dealing with OCD became my life during sixth form, and it quickly became all-consuming. Past the early diagnosis days of overly supportive family and friends, of fresh therapy and lifestyle changes, people forget. And you’re left to it. Quite right: it’s a harsh reality that this condition is mine, and in all likelihood in some form will be with me my entire life. That’s upsetting.

In my everyday life at University OCD has minimal visible effect. Episodes tend to take place in the morning or evening when I am by myself – unfortunately of course this also tends to be while I am working. The very nature of mental rituals often makes forming logical arguments and problem solving incredibly difficult – bad news for a materials scientist. If I get stuck I’m stuck for hours. The thought process of the problem becomes intertwined with compulsion, and so I can’t move on until it’s finished. This is horrific in Cambridge exams, and last year I sat for hours, not writing a thing, stuck on the very first question.

The biggest fear I have is that this will affect my ability to be a good parent. Themes are known to be transient, and odds on I’ll likely become obsessed with something happening to my child. This sounds so hypothetical, and hell I am only 20, but it’s honest fear, and this is an honest article. I can assure you I will do anything to make sure that I get into the position to raise a child. This is the only time I will consider taking medication. “WHAT?! The impingement on your life has been so large but you aren’t taking any medication?” NO! I like the way I think when I don’t have intrusions. I like being myself, and I don’t want to risk losing that, or somehow numbing who I am by experimenting with antidepressants (these are used to treat OCD) – not that that is to criticise those people who take them. Non-medicinal treatments I have undergone (CBT for those interested) have fallen short of complete management. I am patched up. And that will have do until I am ready, and there’s a drastic need, to move onto something more radical.

You might imagine, that those suffering from OCD dislike its stereotypical image. The media obsession with cleaning and checking is ridiculously frustrating. My room is absolutely, horrifically, overwhelmingly, messy- and that shouldn’t be surprising to you just because I have OCD. The second frustration is the trivialisation of OCD. “OMG, I’m so OCD!”, “OH that’s just my OCD”, “Oh I’m OCD about that” – shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up. OCD severity is a spectrum so I won’t deny that you might have it, but statements like that trivialise it. I was once told by a girl that she was incredibly OCD about arranging clothes by colour in her wardrobe; she was confused when I asked her what the motivational fear behind it was. It’s hard to not come across as indignant in those situations, and I’m sorry if I do, but please stop. Please.

But I am essentially happy. I have good friends, I am at the best university in the world, I play sport, music and have hobbies. I just happen to have OCD that makes a period of my day hell. And that’s fine for the time being.