I’m Rebecca, a 21 year old from the North of England and I have OCD.
I thought I’d start off by taking a photo of my hands. You’re probably looking at them wondering where the cracks and sores are, after all, all that hand-washing I do should really be taking its toll on them, shouldn’t it? But… they look pretty normal don’t they?
That’s because they are. I have OCD and I don’t wash my hands once every thirty seconds. I don’t beat my head against a wall if my CD collection isn’t perfectly straight and to be honest, germs rarely cross my mind. Probably less than they should, actually…
OCD is probably one of the most stereotyped and misunderstood mental illnesses in existence but in reality, I’ve never met or spoken to two sufferers who display exactly the same symptoms. Most publicity focuses on contamination but despite the fact that contamination OCD is currently one of the most common forms diagnosed it’s far from the truth that a fear of germs is a definitive symptom. In reality, OCD is a brutal, extremely personalised anxiety disorder, irritating at best, completely debilitating and all-consuming at worst. It is driven by fear; not the fear of germs, but the deepest, darkest fears of any individual who sufferers from it and at times it has made my life a living hell.
I have a type of OCD most commonly known as ‘Pure O’. Both Pure O OCD and traditional OCD follow the same patterns of obsession and compulsion, it’s just that the rituals in Pure O are more internalised. Tapping things doesn’t work for me. Neither does counting or washing my hands to excess. Instead, I go over the same thought over and over for weeks or months on end, looking for clues as to whether it’s a real memory or just an intrusive thought.
In many cases, Pure O is driven by social taboo. Sufferers are tortured by intrusive thoughts spurred by unavoidable triggers, such as things they have seen on the news or read about in articles online or in newspapers. I’ve heard of so many various themes of Pure O and the one thing that most of them have in common is that they are all things that society fears or abhors; usually sexual or violent in nature. Examples include fears and thoughts connected with psychopathy, paedophilia, incest, bestiality, AIDs, adultery, etc. The media plays a large role in determining the nature of thoughts, as often there is mass hysteria surrounding a social issue. For instance, the 1980s AIDs campaign led to an influx of OCD sufferers with fears of contracting the disease and recent media coverage on men such as Jimmy Saville and Ian Watkins has led to an increase in sufferers with fears of harming children.
Like traditional OCD, Pure O feeds and flourishes on the sufferer’s worst fears, changing as new things scare them, and intrusive thoughts often become false memories. ‘False memories’ are actually nothing but intrusive thoughts, but the sufferer struggles to distinguish between thoughts and intention and/or between thoughts and memories leading to intense anxiety and often an inability to function. The sufferer believes that they are capable of committing acts that they strongly believe are morally wrong and would never want to do. Often sufferers will be unable to stop scanning their memory and asking for reassurance about certain events in attempt to gain certainty that they have not done anything/will not do anything that they consider to be wrong. In moderate to severe cases of OCD, however, no amount of reassurance is enough to stop the anxiety the thought cause and, sadly, many cases of mild OCD will become more severe if left untreated.
For me, anxiety about a certain event can last for weeks or months on end unless I have total certainty that what I’m worried about hasn’t happened. A few months ago, I was trying to coax my pet out of his bed when suddenly my mind was filled with a horrible thought: what if I’d been downstairs in the middle of the night and killed him with the kitchen knife? Needless to say, the relief was massive when I saw his tired, grumpy little face emerge from beneath the bedding, completely unscathed.
Six months ago, every step I took out of the house induced a flurry of similar thoughts and doubts, not all of which could be so easily disproved. My OCD is fuelled by a need for certainty and consequently, the most anxiety-provoking (long-term) obsessions tend to focus around harming strangers or acting inappropriately around friends or loved ones. I was heading towards becoming housebound, travelling only out of the house if I was with someone. The most I could do alone was drive from one place to another to meet someone, but journeys could take three or four times longer than they should have been because I was having to retrace my route so often, just to check I hadn’t caused an accident. Driving in the dark became impossible because of the poor visibility.
I’m not looking for sympathy; I’m looking for understanding. I still have OCD, but I’m in a better place than I was and I want more people to be aware of what OCD truly is; a world away from the light-hearted little quirk that is so often portrayed by the media. It’s so important that more people become more educated about the reality of OCD so that sufferers are aware that what they are experiencing is a listed and extremely common disorder that is very treatable given time, perseverance and proper therapy and/or medication. A year ago, I genuinely believed that I had no future; I couldn’t see a possibility of a life without OCD and I thought that the only way I’d ever have any relief would be to die.
But I never tried to end my life; instead, I took myself to see a doctor and started a course of CBT. I didn’t want to die; I wanted a chance of life without OCD. I’m still working on CBT but after just a few months things have improved so much; I can handle the thoughts as they arise now which was something I thought I’d never be able to do. I just need to work on the obsessions I have about the past now; changing emotional response to a stimuli is extremely difficult. Above all, I credit CBT for giving me hope when I thought it was lost.
As you have probably gathered, there is a massive amount of stigma surrounding this disorder and it’s my belief that there are multitudes of sufferers out there who are too afraid to get help due to their fear of being judged. If you are experiencing the symptoms I have listed above you are not an immoral person (as many sufferers believe themselves to be) in fact, you are quite the opposite; the reason that the thoughts affect you so much is because you are so opposed to them. If we learn to spot the signs of OCD in ourselves and/or others at an early stage of the disorder, it will make it much easier to treat. One of my biggest regrets is not going for treatment earlier and so many sufferers won’t get that chance if they don’t know what they’re suffering from. Believe me, however grotesque or horrifying you consider your obsessions to be, any therapist with experience of treating OCD will have seen it all before. The right treatment is out there; all you need is the courage to access it.