OCD is more than hand-washing and locking doors – this is what life is really like

The horrific part of OCD is that the sufferer knows the rituals make no sense. Its cruelty is that it makes you all too aware of how irrational you are

Lydia Suffield
Thursday 15 October 2020 19:08
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It is estimated that 1.2 per cent of the population in the UK have OCD
It is estimated that 1.2 per cent of the population in the UK have OCD

Start the sentence. Retype the last word. Restart the sentence. Type the first three letters again. Then once more. Then delete the last three letters and type them one more time. Put an extra full stop in – you’ll be able to fix it later, when it’ll feel safe to do so.

That’s how I started typing this article – and that’s not a bad setback, overall, for me. For me, that setback cost about 30 seconds, at most. It would be quicker if I didn’t have to do it, of course, but as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder rituals go, that’s one I like to think I can live with.

Obviously, it’s not the worst.  

OCD rituals aren’t hand-washing, or rather, aren’t just hand-washing – though that was one of my main ones when I was younger. Or checking door locks – though again, that was something I used to do. In fact, that was one of my very first rituals, aged about nine, when I had to explain to my parents that if I didn’t open and close the door 10 times, then, somewhere, a baby would be in pain, and it would be my fault.

OCD rituals, as you will have quickly surmised from the previous sentence, make absolutely no sense. The horrific part of OCD, of course, is that the sufferer knows they make no sense. OCD doesn’t make you think irrationally. Its cruelty is that it makes you all too aware of how irrational you are.  

My OCD, at the minute, runs on numbers. It’s been that way for a few years now. You think something wrong. Something bad, something you don’t mean. Maybe you wish something would happen that you don’t want. Even though you know that whatever force there is out there, if there is even anything, must know you didn’t mean it, it sticks in the back of your mind, a niggle caught in your skull. You should fix it. You should fix it. You really want to leave it to chance? And risk something happening, all because you were too lazy to stop it?

So you craft a version of a sentence correcting the mistaken thought to make up for it. Now, another version. That’s the second version, and that’s a good number, so we’ll go with that one. Think that, and then you’re safe. But maybe it’s not quite good enough, so make up a quick version, a junk version, and then another one, because that’s four. Fourth version’s good. Fourth version’s safe. Usually, you can leave it at four. But sometimes, it doesn’t feel quite right. So maybe try again. 

With my weird framework of patterned thoughts, once it gets past five, it automatically starts over again at one. So maybe that’s actually a better one to go for this time. It’s really the sixth version you’ve come up with, of course, but it counts as one, even though you don’t dare question the rules your own brain has conjured. So maybe the sixth (first) or eighth (third) version. You won’t know until you find the one that feels right. And then be careful not to think anymore, wrench your thoughts away from that, because if you think another version by mistake, that’ll render all that work useless and you’ll have to start all over again.

It’s not always as laboured as that. Anyone who I follow on Twitter has probably squinted at the likes on their tweets, noticing them increase by one, then decrease, increase, then decrease, like a bizarre see-saw. It’s not their fault, of course. Just didn’t feel right until I’d clicked the heart button four times.

And I could leave it, of course I could, but how would you feel if you left it? How would you feel if you left it and then that thing you were dreading, it happened? It happened, and no one would know it was your fault, but you’d know. You’d know who was to blame. All for not clicking a button a few times. How hard is it, really?

Fault. Blame. You’ll notice those words keep cropping up. You’ll often find that someone who has OCD feels the need to take on unnecessary emotional responsibility for other people or disasters.  

Because there could be a baby crying somewhere or there could be a part of you that’s wrong somehow or there could be a tumour growing away inside somebody, and it’s all your fault, just because you were too lazy, too stupid, too selfish to do the damn ritual right.

I don’t mean this to sound like every day is a nightmarish imprisonment inside my own skull. I’ve had therapy, medication, strategies. There are many days when my OCD does recede into the background. It’s there, but in the same way I can hear the traffic on the road outside. It’ll never leave, but it can be turned down.

Scenes on TV depicting OCD as solely hand-washing or door-checking, or, better yet, a suburban mother sorting clothes into neat piles with a bright and cheery “I’m so OCD”, do get on my nerves. Voices like Mara Wilson’s and Lily Bailey’s, books and films such as Kissing Doorknobs, Don’t Think Of A Pink Elephant, and Phoebe In Wonderland, provide a good antidote to the narrower depictions of OCD. But it still grates.

Like the OCD itself, it’s something I can live with. But there’s a reason hand-washing is the default option. Translating the mess of thoughts and rituals and names and bargains that make up OCD to the screen would probably take up as much time as living with them. Even if that’s what it’s really like.

Restart the sentence. Type that last word five times. Click the flashing cursor twice. Feel OK? Feels right. OK. It’s safe. So now, full stop. It’s safe to go back and put in the full stop.

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