Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a misunderstood, debilitating, and sometimes dangerous condition shared by millions around the world.
What is OCD?
I’ve been living with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) my whole life. Sometimes strange or annoying, other times debilitating, OCD affects millions worldwide, yet remains misunderstood by society in general. It can be helpful in certain situations, or substantially slow me down in others … It even threatened my life once. Here, I want to share my experience and some of the information I’ve gathered over the years.
OCD is an anxiety disorder, and it comes with a wide range of behaviors, symptoms, and levels of severity. To understand this disorder, you should understand that obsessions are unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, ideas, and sensations that we can’t escape. Compulsions, on the other hand, are the physical manifestations, or necessary rituals designed to relieve the obsessions.
Counting, checking, and straightening are some of the more common symptoms, and I’m personally afflicted with all of them.
“I count… a lot. The steps I take when I walk, how many times I chew my food, how many commercials in each break during a television show. I time everything as well… how long it takes to smoke a cigarette, take a shower, or drive to the gas station and back. Sometimes I get lost amidst the relentless numbers marching through my head. Half the time I don’t even realize I’m doing it, then all of a sudden I can hear… sixty-seven, sixty-eight, sixty-nine, in the back of my mind.”
—Excerpt from, Surviving the Fourth Cycle
OCD or Perfectionist?
My mother labeled me a perfectionist at a young age, based on my constant need to have everything in my room arranged, “just so.” I alphabetized my books and cassettes, and arranged my clothes by style and color, the same amount of space between each hanger. My hands were constantly moving and straightening things out.
The truth is there’s a big difference between being a perfectionist and living with OCD. You might like the things on your shelf arranged a certain way, and everyone feels the need to double check the lock on the front door once in a while, but there’s a lot more to it than that. From obsessive hand washing to persistent and unwanted thoughts, this condition can be disruptive and depressing.
Nathan Daniels vs. The Microwave
I organize my cupboards with labels lined up and facing forward. That’s not too weird, but I’ve had some unique obsessions and compulsions too. For a few years, I had an overwhelming problem with digital microwave timers. If it wasn’t in use, it had to be reset.
Unused time left on that screen was intolerable. If I witnessed someone remove their lunch early and fail to hit the reset button, my mind registered it as a threat and my body would follow suit—trembling, accelerated heart rate, blurred vision, muffled hearing. You get the picture … and no, I’m not exaggerating.
My need to hit that button was as insistent as my need for oxygen.
If I heard someone using it, I would have to stop whatever I was doing to go make sure the time expired. It didn’t matter what I was doing … I could be sick in bed, in the middle of an important conversation, or at the most crucial plot twist in a movie. Once I got it in my head that there might be a few seconds lingering, my irrational but undeniable obsession would demand my full attention.
At that point, I’m incapable of focusing on anything else and I have to go rectify the situation. There were a few times when I couldn’t physically get to the microwave. I remember these as stressful events that resulted in full-blown panic attacks, all because I couldn’t push a button … This is living with OCD.
Is OCD A Life-Threatening Disorder?
You might think experiencing trauma over such things is silly, and I might agree with that, but I want to make it clear that these ailments can also be debilitating and dangerous. When I used to drive more than I can now (I also have Agoraphobia and Social Anxiety Disorder), I developed an obsession with mentally cataloguing every out-of-state license plate that would pass me.
My eyes were drawn to the rear bumper of every vehicle on the highway, while my mind would recite the names of the states I saw on a continuous (and very annoying) loop. In this case, my OCD was creating a dangerous distraction… at sixty miles per hour!
I had a close call with an eighteen-wheeler that was met with an angry symphony of horn blasts and hand gestures from my fellow motorists, but I still couldn’t fight the urge. I started crying, thinking I was going to die because I couldn’t control myself and, still, my mind kept reciting; Ohio, New Hampshire, Maine, New York … Ohio, New Hampshire, Maine, New York. I felt completely insane and I screamed in my mini-van. I weaved in and out of traffic, changing lanes and desperately trying to catalogue the origin of every vehicle on I-95.
Sad and Time-Consuming
This disorder can disrupt one’s life substantially. An acquaintance of mine was caught masturbating when he was young. His mother scolded him for being “a dirty little boy,” and she made him wash his hands in burning hot water. As an adult now, this man obsessively and vigorously scrubs his hands for 2-3 hours (30-40 times) collectively, every day!
There’s no joy in this monotonous ritual, and he admits to shedding his own tears over the sink, quite often, as he scrubs away. It’s a frightening feeling, not being able to stop yourself from doing something that you honestly don’t want to do —like being possessed.
Others have severe symptoms that can include obsessive thoughts or ideas about things like religion or sex. These obsessions can manifest themselves physically in the form of various ticks, twitches, trembling, or rituals like excessive praying. Hoarding is also a serious form of OCD.
Who Is Susceptible?
This disorder does not discriminate, and effects men, women, and children of every age and race all over the globe. In my research, I recently found out I’m in some pretty entertaining and successful company.
Billy Bob Thornton was inspired to write his song, Always Counting, based on one of his more prominent symptoms. Cameron Diaz, is a self-admitted “hand washer,” who obsessively cleans the doorknobs in her house until there’s no more paint on them. Alec Baldwin admits to his busy schedule suffering and disruptions in his life, at times, because of his symptoms too.
Even billionaire Donald Trump says he has borderline OCD, and will tell you, teachers have 17,000 germs per square inch on their desk. He refuses to shake their hands and he also won’t push the ground floor button in an elevator, due to excessive germs.
In my opinion, and in my particular case, there are definitely some benefits to having this disorder. I’m an extremely organized and efficient person because I have OCD, which has helped me excel in various inventory, production, and warehousing positions. I’m very reliable too, because once I “program” myself to perform a task, I have to bring it to fruition or suffer emotional and then physical discomfort.
Attention to detail is a respectable trait in the workplace, and there’s something to be said for punctuality too. It’s a rarity for me to be late for anything, and my perpetual conciseness of time is supernatural. If I say I need forty minutes to do something, I’m not guessing; it’s a precise calculation.
I keep a really clean house too, and that’s a good thing, but there’s a trade-off when it comes to doing the dishes. It takes me way too long. Fork tines and slotted spoons or spatulas vex me, so a day’s worth of dishes can take me an hour—wedging the corner of my sponge into every possible space and, of course, counting so every crevice receives equal care.
Living with OCD
My own symptoms range from annoying to strange, but I don’t think they affect the quality of my life in a very negative way (except for almost killing me on the highway that time). If you feel like you might have OCD, you don’t necessarily have to run out and find a psychiatrist. You might not need outside help coping with it at all.
However, if you do think this disorder may be disrupting your life, it might be time to consider some possible treatment options.
Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapy is one approach, which employs exposure and ritual prevention techniques. Medication is another possibility. One of the most effective treatments involves a combination of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors [SSRI’s] along with tricyclic antidepressants. These options can help control your symptoms and make your life more manageable if there’s a legitimate need, but I should state: there is no actual cure for OCD.
How this disorder develops, is still unclear. There’s evidence to suggest it might be hereditary, and more evidence to suggest it may stem from a variation in a glutamine transporter gene.
Personally, I’ve suffered a lot of abuse and experienced several traumatic events in my life. I think, in my particular case, OCD might have developed subconsciously to help me make order out of chaos in trivial ways, because I haven’t been able to do that with crucial thoughts and emotions most of my life.
Final Thoughts on OCD
Living with OCD can be strange, annoying, disruptive, and even dangerous. Though its origins are uncertain, the mental health community is learning more every day. There is no cure, but if your happiness or health, suffer because of these ailments, proper diagnosis and treatment can help.
There is definitely hope, that you can learn to control your symptoms and improve the quality of your life. You should never be ashamed of dealing with any form of mental illness, or be embarrassed to talk about it.
No matter how strange or “crazy” you might think your problem is… you are not alone. Open communication about the things we struggle to understand, and sharing our stories with each other is the best way to raise awareness, fight stigma, and shed that unnecessary loneliness that makes everything so much worse.
Photo credit: Flickr / King Chung Huang