My new favorite TV character is Mr. Adrian Monk. I mean, the man has classic OCD with a touch of genius. (Unfortunately, genius isn’t a side effect of OCD. It’s just part of Monk’s character.) He counts and touches every sidewalk post he walks by, he can’t stand shaking people’s hands (He has to use a cleansing wipe after each meeting.), and he can barely walk onto a crime scene without starting to automatically straighten things up. If you’ve never seen the show, “Monk,” and you’re curious to see what textbook Obsessive Compulsive Disorder looks like, you should start watching. I guess I personally love the show so much because I have an idea of what poor Monk is going through.
What is it?
The organization, Beyond OCD describes Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as, “characterized by obsessions and compulsions that take up at least an hour a day – but usually longer – and cause significant distress.” OCD is a neurological disorder like Tourette’s. In fact, the two disorders often appear together in individuals. It’s called comorbidity (something I’ll be writing on at a later date). OCD is also a Spectrum Disorder (See my Tourette’s spectrum diagram here.) that differs in severity from patient to patient. I don’t have full OCD, but I’m on the mild end of the spectrum, which means I live with with certain aspects of the disorder.
The two main identifying factors are Obsessions and Compulsions. They’re quite similar, and individuals with OCD often have both. It is possible, however, to have just one. Let’s take a closer look at these two identifiers.
The Center of Disease Control (CDC) defines obsessions as, “thoughts, impulses, or images that occur over and over again. These thoughts, impulses, or images are unwanted. They cause a lot of anxiety or stress.” So when your twelve-year-old tries to wallpaper her room with Justin Bieber posters and can’t seem to talk about anything or anyone else, you can breathe easy. It’s not OCD because she’s choosing to do it (wholeheartedly), and she has no other symptoms besides being boy crazy. True OCD will interrupt life constantly in unpleasant ways because the person feels compelled to think certain thoughts that they have no desire to think.
Some of the most common OCD obsessions are with concepts like cleanliness, safety, and order. If someone with severe OCD is obsessed with cleanliness, it wouldn’t be uncommon for him to wash his hands raw. (My mother had to limit one of her student’s bathroom privileges once because he would go to the bathroom every hour to wash his hands until they bled. His obsession was with clealiness, and his compulsion was repeatedly washing his hands.) Someone with this obsession, would constantly be thinking about germs. He or she would struggle with touching doorknobs, handrails, phones, computer keyboards, toilets, and anything else that could be touched by others and could possibly make him sick.
I struggled more with obsessions when I was about seven or eight than I have at any other time in my life. I still feel the residual affects of my OCD tendencies today, but they’re not nearly as strong as when I was little. Here are some of the obsessions I dealt with as a child.
- The first obsession I can remember was choking. One day, out of the blue, I just knew I was going to choke and die while eating my food. It exasperated my poor mother because I would take an hour to eat a burger, daring to eat nothing larger than a pea. I’m not sure why I suddenly feared choking. I just knew I would choke if I wasn’t careful.
- The next obsession was one of my stranger ones. My mother had warned my little brothers and me (more for them than me, I realized later) about the danger of ingesting fuel or antifreeze. There had been a story on the news of someone who had drunk gasoline, and my mom used the news story as an example of why we should never, ever try that. Little did she know that I would take the warning to extremes. I began to lie awake at night and wonder if perhaps I’d drunk any gasoline. It didn’t matter to me that I didn’t have access to gasoline of any kind, and never in my right mind would I have tasted it if I did. I still spent hours wondering if I had done something ridiculous and impossible for me to do. But it wasn’t ridiculous to me. It was very scary and very real.
- The next obsession was one I’ve never told anyone about before. For a brief time when I was eight, I would lie awake at night and imagine (against my will) images of me doing bad things to myself or my family. Under no circumstances would I ever actually have done them. The images were simply there. It was as if I was strapped down and forced to watch a violent movie repeatedly against my will. I wanted so much to stop having the thoughts. I didn’t want to think about how I could do bad things. I begged God for forgiveness because I was sure the thoughts were my fault. It wasn’t until I was older that I put two and two together, realizing that it wasn’t my fault. The repetitious thoughts were just part of my disorder. And it wasn’t until I started researching recently that I read that those types of thoughts aren’t unique to me. Apparently, according to the OCD Center of LA, it’s common for people with OCD to have, “excessive fears of acting or thinking in a manner that one believe to be sinful, immoral, or sacrilegious.”
OCD Compulsions are similar to obsessions in that they’re obtrussive and unwanted. Compulsions are somewhat similar to tics (from Tourette’s Syndrome), in that they’re repetetive, and are quite easy to confuse if an individual has both. Compulsions, according to Beyond OCD are, “…rituals, in an attempt to relieve the distress caused by the obsessions….Compulsions are frequently overt – something we can see. However, they may also be carried out mentally, such as mental praying or counting. And although we can’t observe them, mental rituals can be every bit as debilitating as those we can see.” There’s an A&E show called “Obsessed” about people with true OCD. Often, the series will show them crying their eyes out as they count the number of times they touch an object or carry out a similar compulsion. (I honestly couldn’t finish a whole episode of this show because it stressed me out. I felt like I was reliving my early years of counting and other compulsions.)
An example of one of my childhood compulsions started with a line in our hallway carpet. Without realizing it, I started form a ritual, where I had to jump over that line more than twice before I could go down the hallway. To me it felt like something bad was going to happen if I didn’t. There was no consequence that I knew of for stepping on the line, but jumping over it felt safer for some reason. Other common compulsion examples would be checking the doors to make sure they’re locked a specific number of times, or touching an item a certain number of times at a certain time of day. Another compulsion that I had was ending my prayers with, “In Jesus’s name, Amen,” three times. There’s nothing in the Bible that requires three “amens,” but I whenever I tried to finish a prayer, it felt like my first two attempts at ending it weren’t heartfelt, and I had to get to three for my prayer to be done.
My compulsions are often right in line with my tics, so to me, it feels like the two often cross over. As I said, my OCD isn’t the full disorder, it’s a very mild version. Unfortunately for me, the TS and the OCD tendencies manifested at about the same time, so it felt like a double-whammy.While my compulsions were more physically stressful, my obsesssions were more distracting, and caused me an angst that I’m thankful I can better understand now.
The most important thing to remember about people living with OCD is that the intrusive thoughts and impulses aren’t desired. You don’t want to feel or think the way you do, but what you want doesn’t matter. I like to describe it like PMS for women. During a woman’s “time of the month,” she’s suddenly assaulted by her emotions. She can feel angry or sad for no apparent reason. She knows in her mind there’s no reason to be angry or sad (And she probably doesn’t want to be.), but that doesn’t change the way she feels. Someone with OCD might know it’s unreasonable to fear touching doorknobs, and he probably knows it’s not necessary to count the number of times he touches an object or checks the doors; still, that doesn’t diminish the fact that he feels something bad will happen if he doesn’t. What people with OCD do want is to be treated with grace when they need to it and with normalcy the rest of the time.
Now that I’m older, my OCD tendencies have manifested in other ways. These are mostly through perfection and order. For example, I took a history class this summer that was required for me to get my teaching license transferred to my new state. I told my husband before it started that I wans’t going to obsess over the class; I was just going to get it done. “Just getting it done” meant over twelve hours of work a week spent on a class I was only required to pass. I’m perfectionistic with my coupon system (something else I’ll be blogging on later). Finally, there’s my schedule. I found an app for my iPad that color-coordinates my calendar and has an attached to-do list. The image below is an example of how I plan my life. I feel compelled often to add things to my calendar that don’t even need to be there (i.e., church. We’re going whether it’s on my calendar or not.) Still, I sometimes feel anxious if I don’t write every single thing down that I can think of.
My symptoms aren’t severe enough to be classified with the full disorder, but it means I have the genetic tendency, enough to have certain parts of the disorder show up in my life
So how does one deal with OCD?
- Prayer – As always, my first response is prayer, asking God to help me to see the truth and to give me peace in my fears and in my stress. Prayer doesn’t need an appointment, prescription, and it’s free because of Christ. I’ve prayed for clarity of mind many, many times in my life, trying to see through the pointless rituals I felt like I had to complete over and over again. While God’s response has often been, “Wait,” He has never let the fear or the anxiety continue to consume me, and He has been with me through it all.
- Self-talk – I use self-talk to really think about the obsessions and compulsions I have. Sometimes, this means physically stopping whatever I’m doing (usually a compulsion) and asking myself, “Is this really worth it?” I know many people have compulsions that are much stronger than mine, and that they’re much harder to break. I can tell you that on occasion, however, I have begun overcoming certain compulsions by physically stopping and evaulating the situation before plunging head-on. This was how I broke my “line jumping” obsession when I was eight. It took a few weeks before I was able to fully stop, but the need to jump that line eventually did go away.
- Therapies – There are a number of therapies, the most common being a form of psychotherapy, something we’ll be discussing at a later time. According to the OCD Center of LA, Cognitive Behavior Therapy is the most successful of the therapies developed to treat OCD.
- Medicines – Kids Health says that OCD, generally inherited genetically, is caused by a blockage of the chemical, Serotonin in the brain. There are medicines (generally antidepressants) that are often used to treat OCD by trying to bring more chemical balance to the brain, according to Beyond OCD. Doctors and patients must be very careful, however, with dosages because the right dosage and prescription can be wonderful, but an inappropriate prescription or dosage can cause a lot of harm.
*Note: The picture of Monk and the screen shot of the Obsessed TV Show aren’t mine. I linked them each to their sources so you can follow them if you want to. Also, if you’d like more information about neurological disorders, education, and encouragement, subscribe to my weekly newsletter. Thanks for reading!