Living with OCD—It Is Not About Being Clean
"Oh yeah, I'm OCD when it comes to my shoes."
I started a new job a couple of weeks ago, and already two of my new colleagues have told me they “are” OCD. One of them "is" OCD when it comes to his shoes; he likes buying expensive, quality trainers and keeping them clean. The other "is" OCD when it comes to being early; he likes to arrive to everything whether it’s work, appointments, social events, about an hour early. He thinks tardiness is extremely rude and can’t stand people who don’t care enough to be on time.
Throughout my life, I have meant too many people to count who describe themselves as OCD when what they mean is, “I like something done a certain way.” All I really hear when people say things like this to me is, “I use a mental health condition which ruins some people’s lives to explain something which is actually pretty normal.” It both infuriates and upsets me.
Many people think OCD is liking things clean, liking things to be 'lined up’ or constantly checking things like locks and electrical items before they leave the home. They will double check that they have their keys twice and say, “I’m a bit OCD when it comes to leaving the house, I always worry I’ll forget my keys.” Everybody does. Everybody worries about forgetting something like keys. Everybody will double check on some days, if not all. It’s normal. It’s common. It is not OCD.
OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The victim will often have an intrusive/pervasive thought or worry that bothers them near enough constantly. For example, they might consistently worry they will get sick. This worry isn’t the kind of worry you might feel when somebody coughs next to you on a bus, it’s the kind of worry that can fill you with dread, occupy your mind all day and physical exhaust you. To get rid of this thought, they might be preoccupied with hygiene and cleanliness. They might wash their hands 100 times a day, resulting in dry, peeling skin. They might vacuum seven times a day, taking up a good two hours of their time. They might use anti-bacterial wipes on everything in their house five times a day, costing a lot of money. They might avoid touching other people, touching what other people have touched, avoiding restaurants because they don’t know how clean it is, they may even isolate themselves from the outside world completely because they can’t trust that they won’t catch any germs. Completing the rituals of cleaning consistently usually reduces the anxiety caused by their worries, but this is only temporary. Two hours later, the toilet will have been used and it will need cleaning again. In almost all OCD cases, the victim knows that they are being over concerned. They know their worries are not logical. They know that what they are doing to get rid of the anxieties is damaging to themselves and maybe others, but the distress caused by not completing these rituals is too much. It is not worth it.
I have OCD. I can trace my current rituals and distresses back to around five years ago, but it was only recently that I can find things from before that that were a character of OCD as well.
When I was a child, I can remember holding my breath for 10 seconds for every family member I wanted to save. This fear of my family dying mostly came to me whilst I was in bed at night, and it would come out of nowhere! If I ignored it, I felt like it would be my fault if they died. So I would hold my breath for 10 seconds and count, then think, “Okay, that’s Mum saved,” then hold my breath for another 10 seconds to save my Dad, then my brother, then my Nan, then my Grandad, then my other grandparents, then my great-grandparents, then all of my cousins (so glad I had a massive family!) and so on, until eventually I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt guilty if I forgot anybody, so I would always end it with a final 10 second breath hold for “everybody else in the world.” I don’t know exactly when this stopped or started, but I don’t remember doing it past the age of 13.
Nowadays, my fears are very real. Anybody who knows me will know that my sisters are my sole reason for living. Everything is for them. I feel like their third parent; I helped raise them, I understand them, I never thought I could love and care about anything this way. But I do. And I would die a thousand times for them. Because of various family circumstances I worried about their safety and wellbeing. I always worried, but the worry became stronger when I went to University. I moved 100 miles away from my home city to study Childhood and Youth so that when I came back I could be an even better ‘extra parent’ to them. I did well at University, considering various things that happened whilst I was there. I was pleased to finish with a 2:1.
However, my fear of something happening to them grew. The constant worry of something bad happening and being 100 miles away and unable to help them made me feel sick to think about. All day, every day, I felt sick inside. Most people worry a little about their kids, but logic reassures them. Logic did not reassure me. If they didn’t text me goodnight, I would wonder why? I would convince myself something bad happened. Some nights I would ring my Mum to ask if they were okay, but if she was already in bed, it meant I had to worry all night until they finally texted me the next morning, and I would feel marginally better.
The last three years have consisted of a blinking ritual with a prayer in my head. It is complex to describe, but I will try. When a worrying thought comes to me about my sisters, I find something to look at which is blank. For example, a wall that is one colour and one texture, the sky which is just blue, a plain kitchen appliance. As long as it is one colour, clear and one texture. Wooden objects don’t work because they have streaks of different shades. A carpet doesn’t work because it’s not a smooth texture. Texture is also why stone/brick walls, sofas, bags etc. don’t work. It has to be something smooth, clear, one texture. I’ll look at this blank canvas and imagine my sisters names side by side, and I’ll say, “God, please keep BLAH and BLAH safe, healthy and happy,” in my head, and imagine the words ‘safe,’ ‘healthy,’ and ‘happy’ appearing underneath their names. I do this breathing out and blink my eyes with every word, until I eventually get to ‘happy.’ This is the important one. I have to keep blinking on ‘happy’ until I get it right. I can’t just blink on happy and stop and carry on with life, I have to say it right in my head and blink it right as well. This means I can sit there and blink at a wall a good few dozen times. Once I have done it right, I could go 30 seconds or 30 minutes before I do it again. I would say I do this at least 50 times a day, depending on how life is at the time. If somebody walks in the way of my gaze though during this, I have to start again. If what I’m looking at moves, I have to start again. If I blink wrong or imagine a different word, I have to start again. It’s exhausting. I absolute must do it before I go to sleep, I close my eyes on the last ‘happy’ and don’t open my eyes again until the morning. If I accidentally open them I have to do it again or I can’t sleep.
I know. I know it’s ridiculous. I know that the safety of my sisters does not depend on whether or not I blink at a wall! Anybody who knows me will know I am a rational and logical person. I am fully aware that what I am doing is ridiculous. But, to me, it is not worth the risk of not doing it. If somebody turned up at your house right now and said, “Eat this cake or your Mum WILL die,” (assuming you like your Mum) would you not eat it? They know all about her, her name, where she lives, your name etc. so why would you risk not eating it? Even if you know that it’s probably not going to happen.
The fact that I complete my OCD ritual so many times a day saddens me. I look crazy. I know I do. I try my best to hide it, and look away from people as though I’m just glancing around the room, so people don’t know. I hate myself for it. I hate myself for it because it’s not me. I know it’s stupid! I know I am an intelligent person. I hate knowing that people are looking at me like, “What the fuck is she doing?” I hate the fact that when I do say to people, “I have OCD,” they assume I like fucking cleaning! I hate the fact that people tell me they have OCD, not even thinking about the fact that I actually do have OCD and it is not funny, quirky, easy, entertaining, or an excuse for anything.
Living with OCD is exhausting. I feel mentally tired on my bad days. I physically hurt after holding my breath and controlling my breathing for three minutes straight. I feel embarrassed when I’ve completed my ritual seven times in a row because I just couldn’t get it right! I don’t know if I want people to know or not. I spent years not telling anybody, because I didn’t realise it was really there until it was unbearable. Now, I’m too scared to tell people because it’s been too long. I feel like everybody will say, “Well I don’t think it’s OCD,” “I’ve never seen you do that,” or, “Yeah. I get OCD too.” Or even worse, I’m worried they will say, “Yeah! I noticed you do that!” or, “Lol, yeah, you do look crazy when you just blink into space.” I don’t even know what kind of response I want! The only thing I know I do want, is for people to understand that OCD is a serious condition, and it’s tiring, upsetting, and stressful. It is not ‘liking things clean’ or an excuse you can just decide to use for your behaviours.