“You’ve got that compulsive… bloody… disorder.’ -my dad
Words from my dad. I was keeping him awake most nights, pacing the hallway outside his room. The thing was, I couldn’t go to bed without walking in and out of my room until it felt …right. First, I would make my bed and shake the duvet five times. If I lost concentration or had a certain thought, I had to shake the duvet five times more. Then I would go to the loo, and go back to my room, that’s where my pacing came in. Closing the door had to be done correctly too, a certain number of times or until it felt safe to move on. All of this was just too loud for my dad.
On a good night, this took around an hour. On a bad night, it could take two and a half. It was like there were two parts to me, one part was saying ‘this is so stupid, go to bed,’ and the OCD part was saying ‘walk in and out of your room again, do it again, do it again, do it again or something awful will happen.’
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) affects 1.2 % of the population, 12 in every 1000 people. It is a condition characterised by intrusive thoughts (obsessions), and behaviours aimed at ‘neutralising’ these thoughts (compulsions). Everyone has intrusive thoughts. They are those unwanted, nasty thoughts or images that unprecedentedly infiltrate your consciousness. If you are driving and you stop at a red light, you might think ‘what would happen if I took my foot off the brake and hit all of those people?’ When healthy people experience intrusive thoughts they are quickly dismissed, unstudied. In OCD the thoughts dominate, causing a lot of anxiety.
‘Your dad will attack you.’ That was my main thought. Most nights, just thinking the word ‘attack’ while I’m in the middle of a compulsive behaviour means I have to start the whole thing again. There was nothing in the physical world to give that thought any meaning. Intrusive thoughts are like that, rarely grounded in reality. As a sufferer of OCD you worry that because you thought something dreadful, it might actually happen.
I was about 8 when I first started showing symptoms of OCD. At 13 my dad said the ‘bloody…disorder’ thing. I didn’t think that could describe me – my actions were about getting into bed, not washing my hands. That’s what OCD is, right? I had no idea what it was until I was around 15, when I learned more about mental health disorders. At 17 I went to the doctors, made some awkward jokes, and blurted out that I thought I had OCD.
In OCD there is often a vicious cycle, where intrusive thoughts cause anxiety, which is (somewhat) reduced by compulsions. This means that in an attempt to reduce future anxiety, compulsions are repeated. The compulsion also reinforces the thought. It is never proven that if you don’t act on a thought nothing bad happens, so the negativity of the thought gets stronger.
A common compulsion is checking things; checking doors are locked, checking you turned the hob off. Everyone checks, but it becomes extreme in OCD with people checking many times. There is evidence that the more frequently someone checks something, the less they are able to remember what state it was in (Radomsky, Gilchrist & Dussault, 2006). Researchers tasked healthy individuals with checking whether a virtual ‘hob’ was on, either twice or twenty times. Those who checked the hob twenty times were less certain whether it had been on last time they checked. This shows how compulsions in OCD perpetuate the disorder. They feel like they’re making it better, but actually they’re making it worse.
What can help someone with OCD? There are a number of therapy types, and even medication, that can help. In particular cognitive behavioural therapy is proven to be very effective. It educates sufferers about the disorder, teaches them to recognise obsessive thoughts and change negative compulsive behaviours. Understanding my disorder was the thing that helped me most. I’m now the best I’ve been in years, and I’m glad. There was a stage where I had to tap each of my limbs 16 times before I got into bed. Imagine doing that when you want to sleep over at your boyfriend’s house.
In order to teach myself that my thoughts had no determinative effect on the outside world, every time I had an intrusive thought I would force myself to have another thought – ‘in 10 seconds your hand will explode.’ I would count to 10. My hand never exploded.