"You're So OCD!"
Living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, otherwise known as OCD, is a mental health condition which affects 12 in every 1,000 people in the UK, yet is relatively misunderstood by the general population. Most people associate OCD with physical repetitive or obsessive behaviours, such as colour coordinating items in a particular order or locking a door numerous times. However, OCD manifests itself in a variety of ways, some of which are invisible to the average person.
I had the pleasure of talking to Serena Conn, a twenty-one year old undergraduate studying Physics, and Jordan Henshaw, a twenty-four year old financial services assistant and freelance translator, about their respective experiences with OCD.
Q. Can you tell me a bit about your experiences of OCD?
Jordan: OCD comes in several forms with respect to the sort of things that you fixate on and certain things that you do. Mine takes lots of different forms, so when I was first diagnosed it was mainly to do with germaphobia and infection and passing on diseases, but as well it played a big part in my academic life. When I was writing essays, they had to be written in a certain way, so using certain words, grammatical structures. The words had to make a certain image, so for example, they couldn’t have too many tall letters
OCD can be split into two types of symptoms. The first is the O, which is obsession. I can be going about my normal life and all of a sudden, something will occur to me as not being quite right and then that will make me uncomfortable inside. Using the essay example, I could be walking around town and I’ll realise that I’ve unconsciously used a certain word to express a certain thing and it doesn’t fit with my pattern of what word I should have used, like it will be the wrong word for some irrational reason. I will then fixate on that until I get home and am able to change it to a more suitable word – which is the second symptom, compulsion .
Compulsions are the physical actions that you take to remedy the obsessions. When you perform the compulsion, it get rids of the obsession for a bit, but then later on my brain will just naturally fixate on something else and then I’ll perform a different compulsion to fix it. It might be changing words, it might be washing something, starting a document again, something like that. So I don’t have a set list of things that I do to remedy my obsessions, it’s just whatever feels right – it’s a really subjective thing.
Serena: I have not been diagnosed with OCD, but I have OCD-like compulsions which stem from anxiety. OCD is regarded as being more severe than what I have, but I still have that compulsion element of OCD. People often don’t think that I have it because they assume that I’m some sort of high functioning super organised freak. My compulsions stem from the fact that something bad will happen as a consequence of not doing certain things. If you take the classic example of saying ‘touch wood’ to make sure something bad doesn’t happen, I touch wood about two-hundred times a day - it’s ridiculous, I know. I can also be really over-organised, I like my spaces to be particularly clean and things have to be in the ‘right’ place, otherwise it doesn’t make sense in my mind
It can be quite draining, to be honest. Your brain runs away with your thoughts and if you don’t control it, you can end up fixating on things all the time. Usually when my anxiety is high, my compulsions follow. An example of this was when COVID-19 became a real threat in the UK, my compulsions were horrendous because everything felt so uncertain. Using my compulsions to control my anxiety is an invincibility wall.
Q. When did you first discover that you had OCD?
Serena: I was always quite a worried child, but I never showed it. I distinctly remember starting the 'touch wood' rituals when I was in my early teens, but I thought that it was completely normal. I knew people who were religious prayed every day and so I considered my rituals to be my own version of praying every day.
Because I was known during my teenage years as the organised, efficient, determined girl that did well at school, no one really questioned my behaviours and nobody thought that there was anything different about me. I began to display extreme organisational behaviours from when I was around thirteen or fourteen. For example, my pencil case had to be ordered in a very particular way - I always had a pencil case with three separate pockets because my stationary had to be organised in a specific way, otherwise I couldn’t function or concentrate at all. But everyone else viewed it as an organisational trait, so I just thought I was a bit of a freak. I thought that being particularly organised and efficient was just a personality trait that I had inherently, I didn’t realise that I was actually displaying compulsive behaviours caused by anxiety.
I only realised that something was different and wrong mid-way through my first year of university, when I had more exposure to mental health issues. I went to my welfare team at college and they told me to see a GP, which encouraged me to get counselling for the best part of a year. That was when I started turning it around and being able to talk about my mental health openly, previously I didn’t tell anyone that I had compulsions or that I had to do things in a particular order. It's quite nice to be able to open up about it now, as I feel comfortable discussing my compulsive behaviours to my close friends and family.
Jordan: I think I’ve known that something wasn’t quite right for a long time, even before I put the OCD name on it. When I was in Year 7, I used to start worrying over things to do with school work. I went to a school where there was an intense atmosphere surrounding academic competition, so there was a lot of pressure for me to be the best, which is fine in moderation, but I just used to fixate on being the best academically so much that it just suddenly went to a whole other extreme. Then I became paranoid about people accusing me of cheating or under-performing in a test and those sorts of worries went on and developed into other areas like germophobia.
During my teens, it was my initial symptoms mixed with ending puberty, but when it came to my A level exams, I just had a dreadful time with it. When I find that my compulsions aren’t doing anything to fix my obsessions, in my head I get really stressed, I just can’t do anything. Basically when I was doing my revision for my A levels, my head was constantly telling me that my notes weren’t good enough and eventually I gave up and did relaxing things instead. Thankfully, I had a decent enough general knowledge to get through my exams, except for my English Lit exam. I started to write out answers and I kept scrapping them, I did that for the whole two hours until the last fifteen minutes when I realised I had fifteen minutes to write two essays, so I bashed out two essays in fifteen minutes – I still managed to pass somehow –but that was when I realised that something was wrong.
After my A levels, I researched OCD and thought that it applied to my circumstances, but I also thought that because it’s such a subjective mental problem, it was something that I could solve on my own. I tried every which way I could to remediate whatever it was that I had on my own until I came back from year abroad. I became really germophobic and one day it just got too much, so I went to a doctor who proceeded to prescribe me medicine. That’s more or less where I am today, but ever since I’ve started pay more attention to my health and my spiritual bodily needs and living a healthy lifestyle, that’s how I’ve come to improve with it a lot.
Q. How has OCD impacted your daily life?
Jordan: It really impacted on my general daily life. For example, I found that when I was having a shower, I would spend longer in the shower to make sure I was clean and couldn’t pass anything on. I also had a rough time with writing essays at university, so I would spend literally from the moment we got given the title up until the deadline typing them out and not necessarily improving them, but just making them look aesthetic in a way to me. Essentially, I just wasted a lot of time, to be honest.
Serena: My studies have probably benefitted from having anxiety and compulsions because they drive me to do well. I feel that if I don't do well, then something bad will happen, so I have very few concentration issues when studying and can keep working for long hours. In terms of every day impacts, I tend to phase out a lot. My brain goes at literally a zillion miles an hour all the time because my brain is analysing things at a ridiculous speed all the time. This means that during a conversation or a task, I’ll end up focusing on something else and phasing out entirely. For example, if something is worrying me during the day, I’ll phase out and completely miss what someone has said because I'm fixated on the thing that is worrying me.
One trait that comes with OCD, which I don't have very often, is that you can have very strange and intrusive thoughts. For example, I’ll look at a river and imagine it breaking its banks or I’ll have violent thoughts very occasionally, like I’ll see an explosion happening in a building or a fire. It probably stems from anxiety as well, but it’s quite a common trait for people with OCD and it can make me doubt myself and my actions in daily life. For example, I’ll have a dream where I’ve cheated on my boyfriend or he’s cheated on me, which will make me upset or worried about it during the day. Most people with OCD will never act on these intrusive thoughts, but my mind works on possibilities of things happening, so they pop into my head as a possibility.
Q. How do you feel when someone uses the term OCD incorrectly or in casual conversation?
Serena: I sympathise when people say things like, ‘I’m so OCD’ because it’s really hard to describe that feeling. The English language isn’t developed enough to have words that describe symptoms of OCD that people may just have naturally rather than actually having OCD itself, for example extreme tidiness or cleanliness. I think the problem is the lack of understanding surrounding OCD – people don’t always see the full picture. A lot of people probably don’t think I have OCD-like compulsions because I don’t arrange my socks by colour or open and close the windows fifty times. There is so much more to having OCD than the stereotypical behaviours that people usually think of. For example, the intrusive thoughts I mentioned before are so unknown by the majority of people, but they are a common trait for people living with OCD.
I think the casualisation of using the term ‘OCD’ can also affect how quickly people with OCD seek help. Growing up, I always thought ‘You’re so OCD’ meant that I was just a bit organised, but I was actually having compulsions and thoughts that people didn't have. The casual nature of the term ‘OCD’ in every day conversation prevented me from getting the help I needed sooner. I think that’s where the problem stems from - people living with OCD don’t feel like they are different.
If you do end up using the term ‘OCD’ incorrectly, then don't be afraid to retract your comment. Being open and honest to retracting comments and being understanding of other people’s situations is all that anyone can ask for. I personally think that sometimes things can become a bit too political in terms of language, so you don’t think about every single word you say. But if you use a phrase like, ‘You’re so OCD’, maybe just retract your comment and say ‘You’re so organised’ instead. If you openly admit that you’ve said something wrong, it means much more than leaving it or stumbling over it.
Jordan: I’d like to emphasise that I can only speak for myself, so we will have different feelings towards the issue. You could say that casual remarks about OCD can retract from the seriousness of it, but that doesn’t really bother me that much. The common example is when people say, ‘Oh that’s so OCD’ and it’s happened to me as well. For example, one time I was eating ribs with a knife and fork, which isn’t an OCD compulsion of mine, it’s just because I hate having sticky fingers. My aunt said to me, ‘That’s obsessive compulsive that is’ - well, it’s not. It’s just like you wearing clothes in public is just something you do because it’s just right for you.
When people say things like that, it really depends on the context as to whether it’s an issue or not. If it’s something that isn’t said maliciously, then I’m fine with it, it doesn’t affect me that much. It’s more when those things are done maliciously or when those things are done which ignore how big of a problem it can be to me. So, if it’s said flippantly, ‘Oh stop being so OCD, get over yourself’, that’s when I have an issue with it. If you brush OCD off with the wrong intentions, that’s when it’s problematic.
Sometimes, it can be helpful when people point out my OCD to me because I don’t always recognise what I’m doing. But as well, when you make something seem like a smaller issue than it actually, I can understand how other people with OCD can feel uncomfortable about that. When you’re taking away the seriousness of OCD by banalizing it – making it so common place or mundane that it loses its seriousness - I think that’s dangerous.
Q. What steps have you taken to help yourself live with OCD?
Jordan: I’ve dealt with it by recognising that what I was doing was a symptom of the illness, it wasn’t an absolutely necessary thing to do. Sometimes that’s enough for me, so I can think, ‘This is just the illness talking, I don’t need to do this’ and then I just stop. But sometimes it’s not enough, usually where it’s more entrenched in me, like academics. What I’ve done really this year is take time to discover different ways that I can go about doing academic things that aren’t as triggering. At university, I couldn’t take reading notes because I’d be obsessed with how neat they were or how they were worded, but this year I’ve tried lots of different ways of doing it and I’ve found a way that doesn’t trigger me as much and it’s worked really well. Recovering, if that’s the right word, or getting better, has been more about finding different ways of doing things. Finding different ways that are better for my body as well, because I find that when I’m looking at screen constantly, drinking a lot of caffeine or if I haven’t been outside, that triggers it or makes it worse.
Being diagnosed with OCD is only half of the battle, learning to manage is equally as important. It’s important to remember that the period where you’re learning to deal and live with a mental health condition isn’t always linear, it’s not always a downhill battle – sometimes it can be uphill. Some days, no matter how much I try to make a day good by altering my habits and doing things that would normally improve my mental health condition, it just doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s okay to just say that you need a ‘me’ day and return to the status quo. Equally, there are days where I do really well, where my OCD just isn’t much of a factor.
Serena: My first step was getting in touch with my student welfare team at college, who then encouraged me to speak to a GP. I was very fortunate that my family could pay for a counsellor instead of joining the eight month NHS waiting list for counselling, so I did that for about a year. I don’t tend to talk about myself or my feelings, I’ve been known to be called a robot, so counselling was really helpful because it really opened me up to understanding my needs and being able to accept them, both good and bad.
I used to do journaling and I didn’t personally find it that helpful, but I know it works for some people. Meditation has also helped a lot - I don’t do it every day, but when I’m feeling particularly anxious or if I notice that my compulsions are particularly high, I’ll practice meditation. And if I do notice that my compulsions are high, I try and reflect on why I’m feeling particularly anxious, as that helps me calm down. I also try to keep myself in spaces that are positive, whether that is trying to surround myself with people that understand me or trying to decrease negative stuff on social media, for example, I don’t use Twitter because I know there’s so much more negativity and fake news on Twitter than any other social media platform.
Just accepting that my compulsions are actually a good thing, that they do actually calm me down, has reduced the number of times that I do things significantly. I realised that if I actually use my compulsions, I’ll feel less anxious – so if I just do it once and accept that I’ve done it once and that’s fine, then my anxiety falls. Accepting that I have compulsions was a big part of my recovery, if that's the right term to use.
Q. In your opinion, what is the best way to help someone who is dealing with OCD?
Serena: If you want to physically help someone dealing with OCD, be respectful if they are organising something or if they’ve just cleaned. For example, sometimes I wake up at 8am in the morning and I have to do a two-hour spring clean of the whole house because it makes me feel better. If I just tell my housemates, ‘Okay I’ve done this clean, can you keep it clean for a while because it’ll make me feel better’ then they understand that. If you want to physically help, that’s a great thing.
Everyone says it, but being able to listen and talk to someone can be really helpful because if you say you’re there for someone, then they might come to you to talk to you about what they are dealing with. If you have someone in your close circle that has any kind of mental health issues, then doing a bit of research to understand what it’s about can be useful. With a lot of mental health conditions, particularly things that are unseen like OCD, understanding where it comes from, what different symptoms you might have or different problems that might arise because of it can be really important. For example, if I phase out during a conversation, my friends are able to join the dots. The more knowledge you have, the better you are equipped to be able to help your friend or family member.
It’s important to educate people on what OCD is, which brings it back to normalising mental health in a good way. If mental health issues are more normalised in society, then we can talk about things much more openly and be more engaged in these subjects, which will make anyone who has these problems feel more comfortable in their social circles.
Jordan: When someone does tell you that they have OCD, listen to it well and treat it with the respect that it merits. At the end of the day, it is a disorder. The word disorder stems from the Latin, ‘to besiege’ so if you view OCD in that lens, it’s like a war in the mind. If someone tells you that they have OCD, you need to treat it with the gravitas that it deserves and respond accordingly. Additionally, try not to write someone off when they tell you that they have a mental condition that hasn’t been officially diagnosed yet.
As well, it’s okay to be critical about the person’s condition. Speaking from personal experience, at first I didn’t want to speak to anyone about it outside of my immediate family because I still thought that it was a problem that I could solve, but sometimes just speaking to people helps to resolve a problem. After seeing that nothing had changed in the days after I told them about my OCD, my parents suggested that I should see a doctor, which triggered the improvement in my symptoms and my general condition. I think there needs to be some awareness of just because a person has OCD, it doesn’t necessarily mean they know best. Sometimes they need outside perspectives in order to make the right decision.
After speaking to Serena and Jordan about their respective experiences of OCD, I am beginning to understand how varied the condition can be depending on the individual. Before this conversation, I was not aware of the intrusive thoughts that can occur with OCD and I had not really considered the positive aspects of having OCD, such as studying well or being intensely focused on specific tasks. This entire conversation was incredibly insightful and eye-opening and I’d like to thank both Serena and Jordan for being so open about their experiences with OCD.
If you would like to find out more about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, take a look at the pages below. You will also be able to find support tools on all of these websites: