“I’m a little bit OCD” – Its a sentence many of us use when we’re talking to friends about our need to tidy up and make our homes or schedules neat and tidy.  If I told you I have OCD, you might think I overdo the cleaning and dusting and maybe have a few too many perfect drawers in my kitchen.  Perhaps I like my library of books neatly lined up on the shelf in alphabetical order, or I want everything to look perfect – “I must be a bit OCD”.  But what does OCD really mean?  And is it more than a simple need to be tidy?

What is OCD?

OCD, short for Obsessive Compulsory Disorder, is a mental health condition which takes on many forms.  At its core it’s formed of two halves: thoughts and compulsions.  For people with the condition they suffer terrible repetitive thoughts, which make them anxious and worried about their own safety or someone else’s.  After these never ending and intrusive thoughts, sufferers have compulsions to do things, to perform actions to help alleviate their anxiety and to make things better.  But these actions don’t alleviate their symptoms for long and the same action usually needs to be repeated over and over again until it becomes obsessive and unnatural.

Some OCD sufferers want to keep things in neat rows, some feel the need to count things, while others need to switch lights on and off many times, whatever from it takes one of the most common type of OCD, the type that most people will joke about is to do with cleaning.  It’s more than a simple need to be tidy or a need to wash your hands a lot to feel clean.  For people with this form of OCD, it can be a debilitating illness.

Rather than calling it ‘cleaning OCD’ it’s often referred to as ‘contamination OCD’.  There’s a very real fear that people feel, a fear of being contaminated by germs or dirt.  It’s irrational but that doesn’t stop the mind imagining the worst.  For some they feel as if they will get sick if they touch something unclean, for others they just feel dirty, a disgusting feeling that’s often only remedied by washing their whole bodies and cleaning or getting rid of any dirty objects they touch.  Contamination OCD is one of many forms of OCD and it’s a truly debilitating condition when at it’s worst.  I know it is…because I’ve been there, I have it.

My bubble, my haven

I don’t know what triggered my own OCD to begin, but I do remember when it happened.  It was quite some time ago, I was in college, studying to get into university. I slowly started to develop a need to be extra clean, perhaps it was the very germy atmosphere of my history lessons (I remember someone sneezing right in front of me), or maybe something else related to my diabetes (which I’ll discuss in future) but whatever it was I felt extremely unclean when I came home from college.  It would start with simple things like having a full and long hot bath after every study day, then, over time, it slowly became something more.  I became more and more paranoid about how clean things were and I started to form a bubble around my life.

Inside my bubble I was safe, things were clean and I felt happy.  Outside of my bubble, things were less clean, and somehow that just felt ‘Urgh!’  I never felt terrified of germs, I never felt I would get sick, but I just didn’t want that dirt anywhere near me, and somehow the bubble got more dense and I felt myself getting distant from the things I once loved to do.  Being clean was more important than doing something ‘dirty’, and I nothing in my brain would tell me to think the opposite.  I would spend more and more of my time alone, isolated by my own doing.  It felt good to be clean, to be in my bubble to be safe.

But the bubble isn’t life and I knew that.  I knew that life was passing me by.  I knew that I had to do something to get out of my bubble but doing so was hard.  And although I’m in a better place now, the potential to go back into the bubble is real and sometimes very big!*

Mental torture

The reason OCD can be so painful and so debilitating is the torture it imposes on your mind.  It doesn’t matter what kind of OCD a person has, whether it’s a need to turn light switches on and off, a need to count or touch things, whether it’s a need to eat certain foods or a need to be clean and free from dirt and germs.  The same mental self-torture happens in the mind and every sufferer knows that it’s irrational and wrong.  But the mind is a tricky and powerful organ and it’s so hard to stop worrying and doing compulsive actions.

If you’ve never had any form of OCD then imagine a scenario that could happen to me, and what could happen in my own head:  Imagine getting splashed by some mud.  You’d have an unclean outfit maybe but no big deal right?  But the OCD mind works differently.  First you’d wonder if the mud was contaminated with germs, maybe with faecal bacteria…Then you’d wonder how to remove the mud without touching it…Then you’d try to clean it off but you have no gloves so now you’re worried about touching your outfit at all.  Still you manage to clean it with wipes or a cloth but is the outfit really clean?…Just to be sure you’d take it off (hopefully getting into another outfit) and get rid of it…Washing isn’t enough so you’d throw the outfit away…But now your hands are dirty…You’ve washed them since throwing away the outfit but what if you didn’t wash under each nail?… and then you scratched your nose…Now your nose is dirty with bacteria as well as your fingernails….And what about the new clothes you just put on…Did you make them dirty by touching them with dirty fingernails???…

This is just one example of a scenario featuring someone with OCD, in other cases, people might feel scared that their loved ones will get sick or even die if they don’t do something the right way.

It’s possible to torture yourself into all these imaginary scenarios, the only difference between the mind of someone without this condition and that of someone suffering OCD is that the OCD sufferer really feels the fear of what I’ve just described.  It sounds daft, it sounds stupid but to a sufferer, like me, it is very real!  Of course my rational mind knows it’s ridiculous, and of course I know it’s not going to harm me to be around ‘unclean/germy’ areas.  But the relief of feeing ‘clean’ is still a big reason for the compulsion to clean.

There is hope

OCD is a very complex illness.  People can get better and do, but for many it’s a condition that you have to work at to keep at bay.  Today I am in a better place than I used to be.  I’m better able to function at things.  I’m not as paranoid as I once was…But whenever times are hard, whenever anxiety flares up, whenever life is hard, like it has been these last few months,…there’s always a temptation to return to old habits, and it’s often a mental challenge, a great mental battle to resist them…to not go back there.  Every time I manage to resist I can’t help but feel proud of how I’m coping.  But it doesn’t mean I always cope, and sometimes I don’t and I spend too long thinking, too long doing compulsive acts…Every day a challenge…

So next time you hear someone saying, or indeed you yourself want to utter the words “I’m a little bit OCD”, think about that comment a little more…Are you really OCD?  Or are we as a society a little too flippant in the way we use that term?

* My experience above is a small introduction into what my world of OCD is like.  I didn’t go into much detail, though I may do in future posts depending on how well this one is received.

– This post was inspired and adapted from a previous post I published online in May 2018 (original no longer available online)

Do you have any experience of OCD?  Do you think we overuse the term ‘OCD’?  Are there any other forms of mental health condition you suffer from?  Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂