What It's Really Like to Live With Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
It's more nuanced than the stereotypes.by Miranda Martin
“After speaking with you, it’s clear that you are exhibiting signs of OCD.”
When my therapist told me this at one of our first meetings, I was completely thrown. I knew I dealt with anxiety and that my recent symptoms didn’t fit into that category, but obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, didn’t describe what I was dealing with at all. Or so I thought.
I thought OCD was when people have to do something a certain number of times, are germophobes, or check to make sure their doors are locked over and over. Like more and more people of my generation, I’m very open about my mental health. I wasn’t denying that I had OCD because I was embarrassed or ashamed, I just didn’t think I had it because all I knew were the stereotypes.
Two sides to obsessive compulsive disorder
In reality, OCD is made up of two parts: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are thoughts that repeat over and over in someone’s mind.
Though many people deal with repetitive thoughts, people with OCD cannot stop thinking about them or let the thoughts pass, according to the International OCD Foundation.
Those who are experiencing obsessive thoughts often try to make them go away, but by focusing on them and giving them power, they end up becoming stronger.
The second part of obsessive compulsive disorder is the more commonly recognized part: compulsions. Compulsions are behaviors people perform to make themselves less anxious about their intrusive thoughts.
Generally, these compulsions interrupt daily life, and are things the person with OCD would rather not do. Most people know the stereotypical compulsions: cleaning, putting things in a “correct” order or checking things over and over.
"These actions create distress, but even greater distress is caused by trying not to engage in them," said Michael Deitz, a nationally certified counselor with a master's degree in clinical mental health counseling.
Though many people with OCD experience both obsessions and compulsions, “compulsions aren’t necessary for a diagnosis of OCD,” said Liana Peeples, a licensed independent clinical social worker associate. “People have obsessions without the compulsions, and I think it’s less well-known because it’s not as visual. You’re not watching somebody wash their hands or do those things a bunch of times — it’s more of an internal struggle.”
Even for people who don't experience compulsions, the OCD they're experiencing is very real and should not be taken lightly, Peeples said.
“It can be really intense for these people who have these thoughts that pop into their heads," she said. "Even without compulsions, obsessions can cause clinically significant distress."
Scary movie on repeat
I experience obsessive thoughts with no visible compulsive behaviors, which is why I didn’t believe I had OCD until I learned more about it.
Obsessive thoughts are like seeing a scary movie, and knowing that if you just ignore it, you won’t think about it. But instead, the more you try not to think about it, the more you do until you’re terrified.
On days where my repetitive thoughts are strong, every moment is like the middle of the night for me, a battle against my own brain.
There are different types of obsessive thoughts. According to the International OCD Foundation, people who have obsessive thoughts may fixate on religion, violence, sexuality, germs, perfectionism, losing control and more.
These thoughts are often disturbing and out of the ordinary for the person experiencing them. Even if the person with OCD realizes the thoughts make no sense, they still have them, and they're still scary.
Should you see someone for OCD?
OCD isn’t only having these thoughts or compulsions, but also having no control over them. They take up a lot of time and disrupt daily life.
“There’s a really distinct difference between being neat and tidy and liking things to be organized and being caused significant distress because you feel like you have to be, or you feel like something bad is going to happen if you don’t," Peeples said.
There are warning signs of obsessive compulsive disorder people might not notice right away, Deitz said. These include "panic, substance abuse and misuse, perfectionism and eating disordered behaviors, i.e., compulsive calorie counting and weighing oneself."
When I go back three times to check that I locked my car even though I know I did, people recognize it's my OCD in action. But when I talk about my obsessive thoughts, which are much more time consuming and serious for me, people struggle to recognize it's also a symptom of my OCD.
Even after I was seeing a mental health professional about my obsessive thoughts, I still felt I was not “OCD enough” to really be OCD, because I don’t exhibit the typical compulsive behaviors we expect from someone with this disorder.
But OCD occurs on a spectrum, and if left untreated, it can become worse. If your symptoms make you uncomfortable and interrupt your life, it is worth seeing a professional.
Why we need to talk about it
Only discussing obsessive compulsive disorder through stereotypes can make people rule out treatment if they feel they don’t fit what they've seen and heard.
Discussing the reality of OCD should become more common. It would help people realize they're not alone or unusual, and encourage them to seek treatment.
It's important that anyone dealing with obsessive thoughts or compulsions goes to see a mental health professional. Don't be discouraged by stereotypes.
If you are experiencing symptoms, you don’t have to feel that way forever. Therapy can lessen some of the burden.
“I think one thing to really be aware of is that OCD is very treatable," Deitz said. "An individual can learn to cope, recognize triggers and successfully manage symptoms of OCD.”