We allegedly live in the golden age of television. It seems there are new TV shows every moment, on every possible subject. We are flooded with information on everything, even things that are traditionally considered ‘taboo’ in our society. A good example of this is mental illness. If you watch enough TV you could probably fake your way through a conversation about the more common mental illnesses. Depression? Describe Dr House in one of his moods. Asperger’s? Abed in Community. PTSD? Name any ex-army character in anything. OCD? Where to start?
When asked what OCD is most people have an answer and can give an example of what they believe is ‘OCD like’ behaviour based off a portrayal they’ve seen on a show or in a movie. But there’s more to obsessive-compulsive behaviour then excessive cleanliness like Monica from Friends or always knocking on a door three times like Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory. And there should be more to our understanding of the condition than the fictionalised and dramatic portrayals we enjoy watching. So, to commemorate Mental Health Awareness Week, let’s shed some light on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and our assumptions about it.
WHAT IS OCD?
That’s easy. OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
The American Psychiatric Association defines OCD as ‘a mental disorder in which people have recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas or sensations that make them feel driven to do something repetitively.’
But what does that mean?
There are two parts to OCD. First, there’s obsession. Do you remember that movie with Beyoncé? Having OCD is like being as fixated as Lisa was with her boss but over things more mundane and less appealing than Idris Elba. The obsessions in OCD can be very unlikely, insignificant or ridiculous, and sometimes people with OCD are fully aware of this but are unable to stop themselves from having the thoughts. They can’t control when these thoughts come, or how often and they can’t stop thinking about it once they fixate. They can’t be logical about it. The thoughts creep up in every area of their lives and affect their work and relationships.
The second part of OCD is the compulsion. The compulsions usually come about as a result of the obsessions. They are actions a person with OCD feels they have to perform as a ‘solution’ to their obsession. This is the part of OCD we usually see represented, the repetitive hand washing or knocking or arrangement of items. Sometimes performing the compulsion brings about some relief from the obsession, but this does not last. Like the obsession, the compulsions may make no sense even to the person performing them but, as is implied by ‘compulsion’, they are absolutely compulsory to the individual. A person with OCD cannot NOT perform that action.
While usually, a person with OCD has one or more obsessions that lead to one or more compulsions, OCD can be having just obsessions or just compulsions.
MORE THAN A QUIRK
When I think of OCD, I typically think of an aunt I have that likes her slippers arranged by the side of her room in a particular manner. However, the difference between OCD and this (and other examples of normal human ‘abnormality’) is in the severity.
Three things to keep in mind about OCD are that it is COMPULSORY, REPETITIVE AND DISTRESSING.
People with OCD cannot help themselves. No matter how inappropriate the time or setting, they have to perform their compulsion. A person with OCD can miss their flight, or an important meeting because they could not leave their house without checking that every window was closed three times. A person with OCD will still nod five times before speaking in a job interview, no matter how much they want not to.
OCD isn’t an occasional or rare occurrence. The unwanted thoughts or actions occur every day, multiple times a day. Your sister might check her doors once at night to make sure she’s safe. A person with OCD will check every door and entrance several times through the night because they are convinced that they’ll be in danger otherwise.
Perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind about OCD is how distressing the condition is. The major problem with portrayals like that of Sheldon Cooper is he is perfectly fine with his behaviour. While it might be a little annoying to others sometimes, it’s for the most part amusing. That makes sense within the context of what is, after all, a comedy. However, in real life people suffering from OCD find the condition debilitating. Their ‘quirks’ cause them significant distress and affect their abilities to function in professional and social settings. Frequently, people with OCD also suffer from mood and anxiety disorders, including depression.
Like most mental illnesses, OCD is manageable. The first and most crucial step is to get diagnosed by a healthcare professional. Unfortunately, this first step is rarely taken.
Once a diagnosis is made, treatment is commenced which includes psychotherapy and drugs. Treatment is usually lifetime but relief from symptoms is possible. However, as with most mental illnesses in this part of the world, OCD is ignored and trivialised. People may suffer for decades without seeking help, needlessly living distressing or difficult lives.
If you or someone you know suspects they may have this disorder, encourage them to seek help and to seek the right help. If you know someone seeking help, be a source of encouragement and show understanding. Most importantly, do not contribute to the burden of mental illness by stigmatising or trivialising this or any other condition.
Article By: Lola Amirah