By Evanna Kelly
Disclaimer: the following article talks about a variety of possibly triggering mental health issues that may cause discomfort or stress.
Uh oh … did I turn the stove off?
I bet you can remember at least a hand-full of times when this thought has popped into your mind when leaving the house. Perhaps you think back, “I remember turning it off” you assure yourself and off you go.
Alternatively, perhaps you unlock the house go back in and check. Yep – that’s that, the stove’s off. You’ve answered your question and off you go.
Imagine going back into the house checking, going back out, locking the door but still not being sure.
I’ll just check once more time to be sure. So again, you check, come back out, lock the door. Arrrggghh, I’m still just not sure if the stove is off.
I’m running late, you think, but if I don’t check the house might burn down, someone might get hurt or die and it would all be my fault!
Your mind is racing, you start to sweat, your heart rate is speeding … but still you’re not sure. So you check again, again, again, again.
Before you know it you’re caught up in the all-too-familiar torture of a compulsion. Imagine living your life with a never-ending doubt …
Not only with everyday tasks but with bigger uncertainties like questioning your own ethics, intentions and memories. A constant unquenchable thirst for certainty. Black and white. Right and wrong.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is also known as the Doubter’s Disease. A fitting title if you ask me!
OCD can look like many things: checking rituals, extreme guilt, repetitive movements, constantly seeking reassurance, compulsive behaviour, panic attacks, hoarding. And that’s just scratching the surface.
As a 13-year-old OCD was once described to me like this:
Imagine that in everyone’s mind there is a big fishing net. Imagine this fishing net is like any regular fishing net, there is a cross stitching of many tiny holes in which random thoughts sometimes fall through, into the clear ocean of our consciousness.
They hang around for a while, we think “oh that’s a strange thought, isn’t it?”, but naturally they are now in the ocean of the mind so after some time they start to dissolve and wash away.
In contrast, when someone suffers with OCD unfortunately this fishing net in your head has big holes in it. Because of these holes many, many thoughts are continually falling through. Instead of falling into the natural ocean of your mind they fall into a tacky, sticky, messy ocean of gummy glue!
Each of the thoughts that falls sticks. They aren’t going anywhere. They stay there. They just keep sticking to this glue in your mind.
This illness cruelly tortures the mind from the inside of your gut out until the person is often in complete agony – disorientated, distressed and unsure of their own reality.
That’s the obsession part.
The compulsion part is the need to complete rituals (physical, mental, spiritual) in the hope of getting rid of these irrational or intrusive thoughts – e.g., if I do said thing, then said thing won’t happen. Usually, it isn’t something helpful like some stereotypes will lead you to believe but a completely ridiculous idea that has little to no truth at all.
This, of course, in turn is feeding the monster that is OCD, giving it power over your mind, making it stronger and encouraging it to bite you again and again. Resulting in horrible intrusive thoughts that keep coming back. Sometimes the thoughts come in the form of doubting an old memory, visually seeing an image of the thought in your mind or recalling a strange dream and not being sure if it was, in fact, just a dream.
I recall periods in between intrusive thoughts where I was just waiting to be bitten again and pulled back into the horrible cycle. Or even being afraid to watch films or TV shows in case it gave me a new irrational fear or worry to latch on to.
Commonly OCD goes for what you value the most. And it often targets people with strong morals and high expectations for themselves and the way in which they live their lives.
It is currently estimated that 1 in 40 people in the world suffer with this anxiety disorder (2.5% of the US population is more than 8.3 million people). It is now well known that obsessive compulsive disorder is often hereditary.
Unfortunately, an OCD diagnosis also greatly increases your chances of other mental health issues, in particular depression, generalised anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse and bipolar.
There are also many OCD-related disorders that commonly accompany this disease such as skin picking (excoriation disorder), body dysmorphia and body-focused repetitive behaviour disorder.
This illness, like many, comes in a huge variety of forms and types, each with their own focused forms of torture. For example: contamination OCD, hoarding OCD and harm OCD.
As a young teenager I began to become unwell and was soon diagnosed with OCD. In the beginning it would start in the morning; I would wake crying, distressed and just knowing I didn’t feel right. Something was wrong and I knew I didn’t like the way it made me feel. But I couldn’t understand it properly.
I was extremely fortunate to grow up in a generation and family in which supported me in seeking treatment regularly. I had access to education and support about the illness. This helped me hugely to understand that I wasn’t alone and that there was a label for the way I was feeling.
I personally believe that sometimes the scariest part in the beginning of a mental health crisis journey (no matter your age) can be feeling like you’re completely crazy and there is nothing that anyone can do to help you, let alone find out what it is that is happening to you.
Throughout my own rough ride with this cruel disease, I have been through many challenging times that were unpleasant to say the least. Reflecting on my teen years, I still managed to flourish in many aspects of my life regardless.
In these teen years I did my best to be open with my family, friends and teachers at school. My naïve mindset at the time was that I was so lucky to have had these issues come into my life so early which meant I could deal with them so they would be cured before I wasted too much of my life dealing with it.
One thing I now know for sure is there is no “just dealing” with these issues. I am now of the more realistic mindset that OCD and all its quirks are most likely with me for the rest of my journey in this life. Management and treatment are now my most valuable resources.
As with anyone in most circumstances, I have phases of easier times and phases of harder times.
As an 18-year-old in a new city where I knew almost no one and a stressful, high-pressure job as an apprentice chef in a two-hat restaurant, my openness began to evaporate. I, like many young people, wanted to be taken seriously and of course exposing myself as having a mental illness was certainty not the way to get where I was hell bent on going. I hid my behaviours at all costs.
I became very private about my struggles as I knew it would be received as a impediment that I would be judged on unreasonably and it would stop me from achieving my goals.
I worked daily in a tough, working-class industry. A male ego-dominated, overworked, hot, chaotic environment where they just wanted to squeeze as much out of you for as little cost to them as possible. I of course began to see my health, especially my mental health, come crashing down.
I was always hesitant but for me medication, therapy, self-care, adapting an openness for talking about mental health, as well as opting for a less stressful job, has made the world of difference in managing my own health.
It can be a draining process continually working out what helps and hinders.
My advice to anyone else going through a mental health journey is that no two people are the same. And you also are not the same person, with the same needs, at any two times in your life.
I don’t have the answer to treating obsessive compulsive disorder in my own life left alone others. I sure wouldn’t ever wish this upon anyone, it does however make for some interesting stories!
But these simple pieces of advice that I received have continued to act as a glimmer of refuge in hard times
- The old saying that “This too shall pass”
- Move your body. Go for a walk, it will help
If you or anyone in your life is suffering with OCD or other mental health issues the following services are here to help in Australia:
Mental Health Line – 1800 011 511
Lifeline 24hr crisis line: 13 11 14
In case of an emergency, or if your fear for your own safety or others’, dial 000 for an ambulance/the police. Or present to your local hospital’s Emergency ward.
Feature image: OCD often targets people with strong morals and high expectations for themselves. Picture: Evanna Kelly