OCD is a complex disorder that can be traumatic for thoes living with the disorder. For Inform, Josh Abbey describes his experience with OCD and what helped him.
I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and an extremely messy room. Indeed, it’s so messy, people have refused to believe I have OCD. The preconception of OCD I’ve encountered says this is a contradiction. When people flippantly say “I’m so OCD” it is because something is not as tidy or clean as it should be. Not because they have had to flick the light switch 50 times before leaving the house.
The other misconceptions I’ve encountered are that OCD is somehow convenient or brings the sufferer some special edge or advantage in life. Instead, my experience of OCD has been traumatic, distressing, inconvenient and mundanely repetitive. Fortunately, it has greatly improved. The briefest catalogue of one part of my day – travelling to uni in the morning – conveys the nature of OCD.
OCD is defined by obsessive unwanted and distressing thoughts and/or compulsions (rituals) which the sufferer does in the belief they will alleviate the obsessions. The OCD from which I suffer is best explained as an extreme aversion to “feeling dirty”. Being dirty may be what drives this feeling but being dirty is not necessary for “feeling dirty”. At its worst, I used four bars of soap in one shower in the desire to “feel” clean enough. At times I showered so long the hot water run out, and I sat in the shower for an hour waiting for the hot water to return.
Almost any common surface—door handles, lift buttons, toilet surfaces, the floor and chair seats—were avoided for fear of “contamination”. I never feared the consequences of contamination such as getting sick, but merely the feeling of being unclean in itself. Yet, I lived in constant apprehension of contamination and rarely left the house.
Pursuit of “safe zones”
My OCD has never really made my morning routine inconvenient or distressing. Mostly because I wouldn’t go to sleep unless everything was as it had to be and I had established my home as a “safe zone” where I believed I could have refuge from contamination. I had entangled my parents in maintaining this safe zone, demanding they abide by my standards.
Whilst this may seem helpful, it only fed my OCD. This is what is known as enabling, helping one with their rituals or facilitating them. Instead, the pursuit of a clean refuge simply made it harder to maintain this safe zone, and the zone kept shrinking. As hard and callous as this may sound, the best advice I can give is never embrace such a strategy. This is far easier said than done. Both my parents and I suffered great anguish in their attempts to not enable me. In the short term, it seemed to help. But in the long term my OCD only got worse, and when I reflect on my OCD it is at those points where I established safe zones that it began to get much worse.
Rituals and the nature of OCD
Travelling to uni poses the first major hurdle of the day because it involves leaving my safe zone. The cleanliness of the family car which I use is not a level of cleanliness I am comfortable with for the rest of the day. I will drive with disposable gloves on, taking care not to touch anything that I don’t want to get dirty. I won’t drive without gloves and wash my hands when I get to uni because hand washing is a major hassle which poses an unacceptable risk of getting dirty in the process. After parking, I’ll put the car keys in a snap-lock bag, so they don’t contaminate me during the day.
Public transport is much less of a hassle as I can more easily maintain the level of cleanliness I’m happy with. But to be contaminated on public transport would be far more traumatic than in the car. To stay uncontaminated when I touch on my Myki, I take care that the card does not touch the machine, and I will use my pockets or sleeve to push any buttons or open any doors I absolutely must.
What I’ve described here, a desire to avoid any common surfaces and a strict process of cleaning should I become contaminated captures most of the nature of my OCD. Every ritual is a rigorous procedure, the result of obsessive thinking about how to avoid contamination, and the distress and inconvenience that comes from it. The rituals outlined here are just a fraction of what my rituals were at their worst.
Seeking treatment improved my OCD
For a long time, I didn’t see my OCD as a problem. Probably because then it had not consumed my life. If there was one piece of advice I would offer, it would be to seek treatment early. Often people have flippantly said, “just don’t do the ritual.” I wish it were that simple. At its worst, the thought of just not doing the ritual, of sitting with my contamination seemed the most dangerous thing I could do.
Fortunately, my OCD has greatly improved. I can’t point to one thing as the principal source of this change. But the following have been constants throughout my improvement: seeking treatment, undertaking exposure therapy—whether formally or simply by forcing myself to do things I wished to do despite the difficulty, taking my medication, not being enabled, challenging myself, and being helped by friends and family in this challenge. From my story, I hope readers will understand that my experience of OCD has been traumatic, mundane, inconvenient and distressing. It certainly has not given me superpowers or some edge.
Josh Abbey has suffered from OCD for 7 years. He is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne, majoring in History and Philosophy, and will graduate at the end of the year. He plans to undertake postgraduate study next year and hopes to one day earn a living from his pen. In the meantime he enjoys riding his bicycle and reading William Hazlitt.