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Let me tell you a secret: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is so much more than liking things tidy.
Phrases such as ‘I’m so OCD’ or ‘it’s giving me OCD’ are so common and have become so ingrained in our general vocabulary that most people don’t have any idea how harmful these expressions can be. In fact, the stereotype of ‘clean freaks’ and ‘germaphobes’ associated with OCD is a barrier to many individuals from receiving the treatment they need to get better.
OCD is a mental illness characterised by obsessions, such as intrusive thoughts of a violent, sexual, or socially taboo nature that go against your values and beliefs. OCD also comprises of compulsions, which are performed to ‘put right’ the thought. How is a 15-year-old meant to know that the thoughts that keep them up at night worrying about harming a child are the result of a mental health condition? How is a middle-aged man supposed to know that his intrusive thoughts about whether he ran somebody over are due to a chemical imbalance in his brain? When the stereotype of OCD is of people obsessively cleaning their homes, people with ‘taboo’ obsessions are likely to assume that they are going crazy before they identify their disorder as a mental illness.
Let me paint the scene. It’s a Friday evening after work. You can finally relax after a stressful week. You sit in the living room and watch TV. Suddenly you feel a tight feeling in your chest, and start to feel sick. What if you hit somebody when you were driving home? What if you left the laminator on and caused a fire? What if you were capable of murdering somebody? These questions may sound ridiculous and you’re probably thinking, ‘Well, obviously you would know if you did any of those things,’ but the OCD brain is wired differently. Compulsions come hand in hand with obsessions; they are the sufferer's way of dealing with these thoughts. They can include ruminating as to whether these thoughts mean that you are a bad person. For some individuals, contamination obsessions, such as feeling physically dirty because of ‘bad’ or unwanted thoughts, result in them performing the compulsion of cleaning. Many people with OCD worry about contaminating food or items and therefore spend hours washing themselves for fear that they will cause harm to others.
OCD latches onto what we value the most, making the condition unique to the individual. A new mum may love her child, and yet have intrusive thoughts about stabbing her baby. These obsessions are extremely distressing for the individual, causing them to ruminate and question their values. The truth is that people with OCD are often the least likely to perform these actions - the thought alone causes them enough distress.
Unfortunately, OCD was named the ‘doubting disease’ for a reason: it does not accept reason and logic.
According to OCD UK, on average, people wait between ten and fifteen years between the onset of symptoms and seeking medical help. As somebody who has suffered with symptoms of OCD since I was nine, I didn’t receive a diagnosis until I was nineteen. At my worst point, I felt so full of doubt and guilt that I didn’t see myself worthy of anything. I was constantly tearful and on edge and felt so sick that I couldn’t eat. I was so filled with self-hatred that I didn’t think I deserved to eat either.
OCD steals away the present moment, keeping us trapped in a cycle of ruminating. I lost sense of who I was and what I was capable of, believing every thought that entered my head. I spent so long inside my own thoughts that I couldn’t tell which memories were real and which were false.
Without access to online resources that explained OCD in a way that I had never heard before, I may never have begun treatment and would have continued to suffer in silence like so many others. My hope is that future generations will be empowered with the knowledge of what obsessive compulsive disorder is and will access the treatment they deserve much sooner. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is not a cute personality trait or individual quirk. OCD is a debilitating mental health condition that attacks the things we value most. I encourage you to educate yourself further on OCD and its symptoms and reach out to those who you suspect may be suffering in silence. Educating children from primary school age about OCD's symptoms can help us move towards a society that encourages an earlier diagnosis and treatment. By ending the stigma, fewer people will suffer and we will become a more inclusive and accepting society. So before you use OCD casually in conversation, please rethink your words. Doing so only furthers the dialogue of the disorder being trivial. Creating positive lines of communication that support and empower others is the best way to help more people get the support they need.