In October, UK charities such as OCD-UK rallied to highlight OCD Awareness Week and shed light on the disorder that affects around 2.3% of the world’s population.
Rated within the top ten of the world’s most debilitating illnesses by the World Health Organisation (WHO), startling statistics show that less than 10% of those affected are receiving appropriate treatment. Even more worrying are the persistent public perceptions of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which minimalise its severity and alienate sufferers.
“I’m so OCD!” is a phrase we commonly hear from people who like to categorise their tinned foods in a certain way or insist on keeping a clean house, and television shows such as “Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners” depict a cringe-worthy distortion of the illness. The key difference between these examples and really dealing with OCD is that if you enjoy these compulsions, it certainly isn’t OCD.
While obsessive cleaning and organising is the seemingly “traditional” form of the disorder, a huge number of the population experience what is known as Pure-Obsessional OCD, or “Pure-O”. This involves persistent and unwanted intrusive thoughts and fears that the sufferer has to escape from via their compulsions: rationalising, obsessive ruminations, repeated checking.
The most common themes of these obsessional fears are ones which society deems the most taboo – fears of being a rapist, a murderer or a paedophile are common.
Fear of being incestuous, fear of committing a crime and having forgotten or “blacked out”, false memories, fear of harming those you love…no subject is off limits for OCD. In the early 1900’s, OCD was usually mistaken for “demonic possession”.
Of course, these thoughts are always at odds with the person’s identity, hence why they are so feared. There has never been a recorded case of an OCD sufferer’s thoughts having any real validity, and research has even proved that they are the least likely among the population to act on the content of such thoughts due to their intense fear of the subject matter.
They are irrational, they are lies. Yet, terrifyingly, the afflicted person is often so inundated with these horrifying “What If?” thoughts and images that they may begin to believe they are real or true. They will spend endless hours trying to mentally disprove them and reduce intense anxiety. Ironically, the more one attempts to neutralise such thoughts, the worse and more powerful they become.
Recently I read an article posted by The Daily Mail and UNILAD on Facebook which talked about a young woman’s experience with sexually intrusive OCD thoughts. The title read: “Woman reveals pornographic visions caused by a rare strand of OCD”.
I was shocked by the amount of comments making light of this girl’s problem, many saying she was simply “just thinking like a man” or that “every man in the world must have OCD then”. It was a dangerous misinterpretation of the disorder, implying that these visions were wanted in some way or were enjoyable.
Many professionals use the “polar bear” analogy when describing the nature of these thoughts: Try and not think of a polar bear, no matter what. Of course, what’s the first image that comes to mind? A polar bear. Intrusive thoughts work much the same way.
This “strand” of OCD is also far from rare. In fact, I have met and conversed with more people with Pure-O than I have with “traditional” OCD.
As a sufferer of Pure-O from childhood, I have more experience with the disorder than I’d like to. It has lead to multiple hospitalisations, loss of jobs, quality of life, and has almost cost me my life more than once. It is not a matter of being paranoid, or of simply “getting over it”.
It is walking down the street consumed with intense fear, believing you are an evil person who deserves to die the most horrible of deaths. It is waking up almost unable to breathe with anxiety as your mind bombards you with the most repulsive of thoughts.
It is becoming dissociated with the word around you to the point where you lose your identity and become a walking corpse. It is being trapped in a nightmare that plays on repeat every single day of your life. And it is not something to be taken lightly.
Thankfully, there are ways of managing OCD. But the most important part of beginning to treat it is understanding the nature of the beast. Current waiting lists in the UK for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the primary treatment process for those who suffer from OCD, is anything from six months to two years.
Alarmingly, suicide rates are rising as people wait to be treated. This is why it is crucial to spread awareness on the issue so people know they are not alone. It is imperative that information reaches those who are affected so that they can learn coping mechanisms, begin talking more openly about their illness and build a support system.
For anybody experiencing symptoms, the first point of contact should be your local GP, who can refer you to appropriate psychiatric services. OCD-UK has a wealth of information on this and all other aspects of the disorder, as well as providing support and advice to those who need it.
While I am aware that this may be something I will always personally struggle with, I can tell you that my quality of life has greatly improved since seeking help and educating myself on the subject. Make your treatment and recovery a full-time job. It will be the hardest thing you ever do, but it will be worth it ten times over.
I am now writing a book on Pure-Obsessional OCD, have developed a writing career from scratch and am able to function relatively well on a daily basis. There will always be a risk of relapse but, like anything else, we deal with things if and when the time comes.
The most important thing to remember is that there is hope even in the darkest of times. And that, more than anything else, you are not your thoughts.
For more information on OCD awareness week, help and support, see www.ocduk.org or check out their Facebook page.