The 17th February sees the start of OCD Week of Action – a campaign started by charity OCD Action that asks people to commit to one single action that will have a positive impact on those who live with the condition. When I write about my OCD, I generally do it for one main reason: to raise awareness. I’ve been open about my mental health on my blog since the very beginning, and today I’m carrying on that tradition. Most information sources on OCD will tell you the typical signs and symptoms the sufferer will experience, along with the types of compulsive behaviour they may carry out, however most of this isn’t put into context. So, for today’s post, I’ll be putting my own behaviours into context by looking at a typical day from the point of view of my OCD brain.
So, let’s start with a little background knowledge. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) according to mental health charity Mind has 2 main components: obsessions and compulsions.
These are unwanted thoughts, images or urges that will pop up in your mind repeatedly. We all have them occasionally (e.g. did I leave the gas on?), and the majority of us are able to just brush them off. However, in the case of someone with OCD, these thoughts can cause severe anxiety. Typical obsessions might be:
- Intrusive thoughts or images – these could be violent, sexual, religious or blasphemous
- Fear of causing harm or failing to prevent it – this could be worrying that you’re going to lose control and harm someone else, or that you’ve already done so (e.g. running someone over in your car)
- Fear of contamination – this includes the fear of ‘actual’ contamination with dirt and germs, as well as mental contamination where thoughts can cause feelings of ‘dirtiness’
- Worries relating to symmetry and order – fears that something bad could happen if things aren’t a certain way (e.g. clean, symmetrical)
For some, they may just experience one or two of these obsessions, but for others, they can experience a mixture of all of these.
These are the repetitive activities that are carried out to reduce the anxiety that stems from the obsessive thought. Common compulsions can include checking doors are locked, washing your hands, or repeating a phrase in your head. In a lot of cases with OCD, the person carrying out the compulsions knows that they’re irrational, however the only way they can reduce the anxiety is by continuing with them. Sometimes it will feel necessary to repeat the compulsions until the anxiety goes away or until things feel ‘right,’ and this can be really time-consuming, as well as short lived. Types of compulsions could be:
- Rituals – such as hand washing, touching objects in a particular order or arranging them in a certain way
- Checking – this includes checking your body for signs of illness/contamination, checking your memory to make sure you didn’t act on an intrusive thought, or checking doors and windows to make sure they’re locked
- Correcting – this could be counting to a particular number, replacing intrusive thoughts with different images or thoughts, or repeating certain words or phrases in your head or out loud
- Reassurance – repeatedly asking people to tell you things are okay/won’t happen
An additional form of OCD, known as ‘Pure O’ refers to when a person experiences intrusive and distressing thoughts but shows no external compulsions. The person will still experience mental compulsions such as checking bodily sensations, how they feel about a particular thought or repeating phrases or numbers in your head.
Information taken from the Mind website – February 2020.
A Day in the Life
So where does that leave me? If you’re a regular reader of my blog you’ll know that my OCD is mainly focused around contamination. However, a number of obsessions also involve concerns about causing harm to others and failing to prevent it. As for the compulsions that come with it, well, I pretty much have carried out all of the ones mentioned above at some point or another.
An important thing to note is that unfortunately, while I do fit the stereotype that OCD is all about being a germaphobe and needing things clean, in general, OCD is NOT just that. Likewise, saying “I’m a bit OCD about these things” is highly offensive – just because you have to have your DVDs alphabetised or you can’t stand a mess in your house, it does not mean you have OCD. Again, even though my OCD is largely contamination related, I hope by sharing this post I can illustrate exactly how it’s much more than just needing things to be clean, as well as highlighting some of the other symptoms it can cause.
The time it takes me to do a bunch of everyday tasks can be quite shocking. Thankfully with some of these, I’m able to do them in a much quicker time frame thanks to my CBT a few years ago. Unfortunately, for others, I still struggle.
Going to the Toilet
When it comes to going to the toilet, the main reason why it always takes so long is down to the hand washing. Back in the day, I would wash my hands up to 10 times after going to the toilet, which not only meant my hands would get very dry and (on the worst occasions) bloody, but it also meant I spent a fortune on soap. A 500ml bottle would last me all of 3 days. I’m thankfully now down to 3 times but this spikes when I’m tired or stressed, and sometimes my mind will wonder and the next thing I know the sink is full of bubbles and I’ve done it a good 5,6,7,8 times.
The main problem with this habit is when I use public toilets – often people will come in and go into a cubicle while I’m washing my hands, and I’ll still be doing it when they come out. It makes for some rather awkward encounters I can tell you. Hence why I try to avoid them where at all possible – the comfort of my own bathroom is somewhere I won’t be judged.
Door handles are also a thing when it comes to toilets too. My own bathroom door handle is fine. However, anyone elses – nah. Public toilets can definitely sod off. Even at my friends’ houses – my friends, who know my situation and will often inform me they’ve gone round with the Dettol wipes – I ain’t touching that door handle hun. It does however mean that I’ve become rather skilled in opening doors using my foot, my elbow, pretty much anything that isn’t my hand. It’s all down to the fact I’m well aware there are people in the world who don’t wash their hands after using the toilet. I’ve seen many anxiety provoking statistics that not only anger me but make me feel physically sick. To quote Eric from Sex Education:
Pretty Much Anything That’s Touched by the General Public
I’m a nightmare on public transport, at buffets, and pretty much anything anywhere that requires you to use a touch screen or to use a communal pen. It’s exhausting. Touching hand rails on buses is a complete no go without a generous squirt of hand sanitiser afterwards, handing over money gets me feeling anxious AF, and touching door handles in public places gives me heart palpitations. Thankfully, if I’ve got my anti-viral hand sanitiser on me, these days I can usually get by, although if I’m going to be eating, I sometimes can’t shake that uneasy feeling unless I’ve physically washed my hands. For some reason though, I can’t bring myself to touch the button on a pedestrian crossing – even with using hand gel. I have no idea why it seems to be my kryptonite, but I guess it’s down to the fact that literally everyone touches it (I know, it’s pretty much the same for everything else I’ve mentioned but that’s irrationality for you). The main downside? I’ve spent a lot of time standing at crossings looking like a complete twat because I refuse to press the button.
It’s common knowledge that I’m not a fan of kids. My reasoning largely stems from the fact they’re generally loud and annoying, but sometimes I think I could warm to them if it weren’t for my irrational fear that every child is a walking ball of germs. They don’t cover their mouths when they cough, they pick stuff up off the floor and they’re often leaking out of some sort of orifice. I just can’t deal. I remember being asked to clean the toys in the waiting area toy box at my last job (what a fantastic job to give your staff member who you are fully aware has OCD), and no matter how many times I washed my hands afterwards, they just did not feel clean. To me, that box was not just a selection of toys, it was a selection of all the classic childhood illnesses – common colds, stomach bugs, conjunctivitis, you name it.
Side note – please don’t @ me. This is not an attack on anyone’s parenting skills or your individual child!
Obviously this affects things majorly when it comes to the future, and ironically if I had a pound for every single person that’s told me “yeah, but all of that won’t bother you when you have your own kid,” I probably would have enough money to pay for a shit hot therapist to sort me out once and for all. Also – you do not know how my brain works. My child would never get to experience all of those germ inducing things that are a key part of childhood, like a trip to soft play or being able to sit on one of those rip off rides at the supermarket. Obviously, I’m fully aware that there are some absolute legends out there with the same mental health issues as me that have kids and manage to set aside their fears, and I fully take my hat off to them. I’m just saying that for me, I don’t think I can do it – not yet anyway.
Using My Phone
I mentioned before that in the past I broke 2 phones through excessively wiping them down with anti-bac wipes. For me, the simple act of just getting your phone out and using it when you’re in public was dramatic AF. In the past I missed calls, didn’t answer texts and just generally made life difficult for myself, because having to Dettol it would not only damage it, it was just extra effort I didn’t need. Even if I had hand sanitiser to use, that would not be enough to kill the germs before touching my phone. Thankfully, I’m now at the point where I can use my phone in public, provided I’ve used hand sanitiser. It makes things a bit difficult if my phone’s ringing, but generally, it took me a bloody long time to get to that point so I’ll quite happily take it. I’ll still Dettol it now and again, but only if I feel I need to.
So that’s a handful of the contamination related stuff. Let’s move on to safety. I often worry about leaving things or doing things that will cause harm to someone else. The most common one I still struggle with to this day? Candles. I bloody love a Yankee Candle, but blowing it out before I go to bed often brings with it a load of hassle, in that I’ll constantly be doubting whether or not I blew it out properly, leading to fears I’ll burn the house down and kill us all. For that reason, once I’ve blown the candle out, I need to physically touch the wick to make sure. It’s stupid, but it really reinforces the fact I’ve blown it out. Again, sometimes when I’m stressed, I’ll continue to doubt myself as I go up to bed, sometimes to the point where I need to go down and check repeatedly. I have a fair few of these sorts of behaviours – and a lot of them will also relate to causing harm to Tilly. For example, if I leave a glass of water on the table, I worry somehow it’ll fall off and water will get into nearby electrical socket, potentially causing a fire, or electrocuting Tilly if she’s nearby. The same goes with making sure that cupboards are shut so she can’t get in and ingest any cleaning products, keeping flowers out of the way so she can’t eat them, the list is endless.
Leaving the House
Back when my OCD was at its worst, leaving the house was incredibly time consuming. It would mean checking that electrical stuff was switched off at the wall, like the toaster or the kettle. It would mean repeatedly pushing the fridge door to make sure it was shut so that food didn’t go off and make us sick, making sure taps were off, cupboards were shut, you name it. Then it would come to lock the door. At my worst, I would check the door up to 10 times, sometimes more, and I would pull on the handle to make sure it was fully shut, at one point even giving myself a blister on my hand from pulling it so much. I would sometimes turn around and drive back home because my brain would convince me that I didn’t even lock it at all (obviously I had), and I made myself late for work on more occasions than I can count. Again, I’m much better now, although I still have to check three times that it’s locked, and on days where me and Liam are leaving the house together, I get him to lock it because it’s just easier than fighting that battle, even though these days it’s a slightly easier one to win.
Driving used to bring with it a whole array of different anxieties – and it still does at times. I’ve mentioned before about the stupidly long process it took me to pass my driving test, and I think that’s the main reason for feeling so protective over my driving licence. In the early stages of me passing my test, if I drove past a speed camera or a police car, I’d convince myself that I’d been caught speeding and that my licence would be taken away (in the UK if you get more than 6 points on your licence in the first 2 years of having it, it’s taken off you and you have to go back and do the whole process of learning to drive again). Once those 2 years passed, it got a little bit more sinister. If I drove past a cyclist or a small child, I’d torture myself over whether or not I’d hit them, if I was parking and got a bit too close to another car, I’d convince myself I’d hit it. The amount of times I ended up turning around and driving back to a place just to check I hadn’t hit anyone or crashed into someone’s car was shocking. I also had issues with things that making sure the car was locked, checking it as repeatedly as I would my front door, and making sure I’d put the handbrake on properly, that I’d turned my lights off, that I hadn’t parked on double yellows – pretty much anything.
You’ve probably seen by now that a number of my rituals involve having a rule of three as such. Since entering recovery with my OCD, the rule of three seems to be a happy medium for me. I’m not recovered to the point where I can just do certain things once, but compared to what I used to be like, the rule of three is fine. Another rule I have is the ‘touch wood’ one. If I have an unpleasant thought or I think of something that could go wrong, I’ll touch wood. It’s basically a way of saying “it won’t happen *touch wood*” – I recognise that it’s incredibly irrational, but as I mentioned earlier, having these rituals are a way of making me feel safe and calm for a few moments. I usually do it three times, and on occasions where there’s no wood around, I’ll touch my head. I definitely get a few weird looks here and there. I’m aware it just exacerbates things in the long term, and I hope that one day I can stop it.
I’m aware that a lot of the time these thoughts pop up as a result of my OCD, but it’s a very manipulative illness, in that it has the power to convince you that these thoughts aren’t occurring as a result of OCD, and that you’re dealing with a genuine threat. It’s an illness full of buts and what ifs, and it’s a complete asshole.
Apologies – this ended up being quite a long post. I hope it’s given you a little insight into what it’s like living with OCD on a daily basis. This week, in the spirit of OCD Week of Action, why not reach out to a loved one with OCD? Check in on them, ask them how they’re doing. Or, why not educate yourself further? OCD Action has some great resources and is full of information on the condition, so check out their website if you’d like to learn more.