People love to mess with me.
As soon as people find out that if you touch my right arm, I have to touch my left arm in the same place, they immediately start poking me.
If I step on a crack in the sidewalk, I have to step on another one with my opposite foot.
Sounds pretty normal, right? We all have our little tics and rituals. Tennis players have a pre-game regime, touching specific parts of their face; soccer moms checking to make sure the door is locked 7 times before leaving; others have to make sure the volume control is on an even number, or a multiple of 5.
There are times, however, when these rituals take over a person’s life. They become obsessions or compulsions. They begin to interfere with a person’s daily life, affecting their work, their relationships, etc.
It becomes Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Do not confuse OCD with personality quirks. Someone who is a clean freak or perfectionist does not suffer from OCD, nor does a person who organizes their books by color or height. OCD is not a daily routine, such as brushing your teeth before bed, checking to see if the stove is off, or religious practices.
Someone with OCD might rub their hands raw from over-washing, or check their locks 15 times before leaving their house, or develop trichotillomania (chronic hair pulling).
Performing these compulsions is not pleasurable, one does not get a sense of satisfaction from completing it. Instead, they only experience a temporary relief from the anxiety, and then the compulsion manifests itself again.
People diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder might suffer from other personality disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa, social anxiety disorder, and so on. Between 1 in 100 people are estimated to suffer from OCD, about 2-3 million people in the United States. People of all ages are affected, though most symptoms usually manifest in the late teens.
A person is considered to be OCD if these rituals consume at least one hour of their day, they find the repetitions and compulsions distressing, and if it interferes with a person’s daily life (work, relationships, school, etc.).
As OCD is a disorder, and not a disease, and as such, there is no cure for it. There are, however, many options in keeping the symptoms under control, so that a person may function normally. Treatments usually includes counseling (such as exposure and response prevention) and medication (such as Prozac or Zoloft). Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is used with particularly severe cases, or psychosurgery.
Recently, after switching my medication regime, I started having these compulsions and they quickly grew in intensity. They started off pretty minor – I would have to flip my pillow every time I lifted my head, even it was for a few seconds, or I would feel a constant urge to cross my toes. Then it started escalating, getting to the point where I would have to complete a complex ritual of clenching, unclenching, squeezing and blinking in order to get some relief.
It would last all of 30 seconds, and then I would have to start all over again. If I tried ignoring it, the pressure and anxiety would increase until I couldn’t think straight. In the course of a 5 minute conversation, I might give into my compulsions 7 to 12 times.
I asked a couple people if they experienced the same thing I did, they said to some degree – they always check the locks, they have to go up the stairs in a specific pattern, but that’s it. When I asked someone at work, they could see when the compulsions hit, and the stress it was causing, that it was causing me physical pain from repeating the same motions 300 times (or more) a day. She sent me home so I could make an appointment with my doctor.
Thankfully, my psychiatrist was able to see me an hour and a half after I left work. I spoke with him about how long it has been going on, how it’s been escalating, what has been going on in my life. We determined was one of my medications that was exacerbating it, along with some ongoing stress in my life.
We made the decision to stop taking that medication, and until the medication is completely out of my system, taking mini doses of Xanax (0.25 mg), to relieve some of the anxiety around the compulsions. Even though I already have a prescription filled for Xanax (0.5 mg), the doctor wanted me to save those for a panic attack (which occurs every so often), and just take a therapeutic dose for a week.
We also discussed counseling and therapy options for me – someone to help me cope with the compulsions, how to control them so they don’t control me. When I told him I didn’t quite have the money at the time for that, he recommended a few books for me to read to at least understand where OCD comes from, and basic coping mechanisms until I could see someone.
He gave me one example – if someone touches my right knee, instead of immediately touching my left, wait 5 seconds. Next time it happens, wait 10 seconds. Then after that, 20 seconds. And so on, so I can get in the habit of controlling the urge, not the urge controlling me.
I have only suffered for this for two weeks, and already it is unbearable. I cannot imagine living with this every day for years. If you feel you are obsessive compulsive, or your rituals are controlling your life, PLEASE see a psychiatrist; if diagnosed, they can help with a medicine regime to counter the physical side affects of OCD while recommending a therapist or counsellor to discuss the mental aspect, the compulsive need to do something over and over and over and over again.
If a loved one has been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, do NOT mock them, tell them it is all in their head or brush it off. Do not tell them that everyone has these urges, and they’ll be fine, that they don’t need to take medication for it.
That’s bullshit. You will only harm those you love – you will make them feel worse about their condition, doubt themselves and their sanity even more, and push them away from you.
I’m lucky, the more serious symptoms should resolve themselves within a week’s time, and my body can heal from the physical damage I’ve caused. My normal symptoms of OCD (outside of this episode) are relatively mild, but my doctor is concerned because I spend enough time each day worrying about it or giving into the rituals. I cannot imagine spending every day, year after year, going through this, and being in a society where people don’t take it seriously.
Please don’t call me a pill-popper because I’m taking Xanax to control my anxiety about this. I am well aware of how addictive Xanax is, and how overprescribed it is. Aside from this incident, I only take it when I have a panic attack, and sometimes, not even then.
I realize this is a long rant, and one without pretty pictures or witty commentary. But I have spent a good portion of my day feeling like I’m losing my mind (before I found out what caused it), and anxiety/fear of the doctor institutionalizing me, since it’s gotten to the point where I am causing myself physical harm.
Since I have previously been involuntary institutionalized for a prior suicide attempt, and it could happen again if my state finds me a danger to myself or others, I was understandably worried.
“the person is ‘mentally ill and either (i) dangerous to self…or dangerous to others…or (ii) in need of treatment in order to prevent further disability to self…” [source]
Sources (with links)
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- National Institute of Mental Health
- Beyond OCD (1; 2 & 3)
- Mayo Clinic
- Designed Thinking
- OCD Foundation
- Additional reading: 20 Celebs with OCD & 7 Famous People with OCD