So most of you know that I have obsessive-compulsive disorder. In the last few weeks I’ve found that there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and frankly, I’m quite tired of it. Therefore, bring on the obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) crash course! I’m going to do a bit of myth busting, and let you know how you can help friends and family with the disorder.
Now, I’m not a professional. This is information I’ve got from the internet. If you have any concerns, you can talk to me and I can refer you to someone, or you can go and see your doctor. Don’t take my words as medical advice.
Out of interest, I searched for the hash tag “OCD” on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Here’s what I found:
Mainstream media doesn’t help. Most television shows that do deal with OCD are very clichéd. Think of Sheldon Cooper, from The Big Bang Theory. He hates being dirty, likes to have his room and unit organised, and likes his life to follow strict routines. Another example is from the high-school sitcom Glee. Emma Pilsbury, the school’s guidance counsellor, can’t stand being dirty, and has to clean her hands frequently.
With examples like these, it’s not surprising that people think that someone is OCD if:
- They like to clean and be clean.
- They like to organise.
- They have routines and patterns they like to keep.
If only it were that simple. Tumblr user Ali summed it up well:
The problem is that the “obsessive” part of the disorder is often forgotten. Some people call it the doubt disorder, as this is the form that most obsessions take. For example, it’s normal to wonder if the front door is locked before going to bed, and to check it. In an OCD sufferer, this fear recurs constantly. Compulsions temporarily settle the worries. In the door scenario, a person with OCD checks the locks for reassurance. If they’re prevented they’ll become very anxious. That’s why it’s “obsessive-compulsive”, not “compulsive-obsessive”, because the obsessions cause the compulsions.
So what is OCD? At base, it is an anxiety disorder. It’s also quite uncommon, with just two per cent of Australians suffering from it4. The obsessions actually cause severe distress that can interfere with everyday life. In fact, the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing showed that OCD affects sufferers’ everyday lives more than the most common anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder5.
Of course, as with most illnesses, obsessive-compulsive disorder manifests differently in each individual. I have the confusingly named “Pure O”, which stands for pure obsession. This form of the disorder is primarily internal, and thoughts usually take a “What if this happens?” or “What if I do or did that?” template. Pure O fears and doubts generally revolve around sexuality, being violent toward a loved one, blasphemy, health, relationships and responsibility6. You know what it’s like to have a song stuck in your head? How it can be really intrusive and frustrating? That’s what it’s like for me, but instead of a song, I worry that I’ll hurt Daryl, or myself. What’s more, usually you’ll forget the song after a while. Pure O thoughts are not like that. They’ll repeat, and repeat, and repeat.
In response to these thoughts, the Pure O person will not wash their hands, or go and check the locks. Our compulsions are not physical. Instead, we sit and think about our fears, or check on ourselves, or avoid certain people or things. For example, shortly after I was diagnosed, I sat on my couch for a fortnight, because I had to convince myself that I wasn’t going to hurt someone.
But now that you understand what OCD really is, you can help. Sufferers feel incredibly hopeless at times, and it doesn’t help when their family or friends don’t give them the support they need. For those of you without OCD, the fears and compulsions will seem completely insane; rest assured that we know this. Mara Wilson, an OCD sufferer says, “People with personality disorders usually think they’re always in the right, and people with psychosis often don’t realize that their delusions are coming from their heads. But one of the defining aspects of OCD is knowing that your thoughts are bizarre and your rituals are senseless.”7
So how can you help your loved one? I have four suggestions.
Encourage them to get help. That’s the biggest thing. Left alone, someone’s OCD will just keep getting worse. There are two good treatments. The first is medication. The second is intensive behavioural therapy, called Exposure and Response Prevention, or ERP. Both are hard, but work best when used together.
Never tell them to just get over it. Because OCD may be caused by physical abnormalities in the brain, the sufferer is incapable of just stopping8. Taking away the object of the obsession doesn’t work either. How would you take a germophobe’s fear away? Sealed them in a sterile room? That’s not much help. The problem is still there, just ignored. The best thing to do is just support them by encouraging them to get help, and not letting them skip out on therapy sessions.
Don’t tell them you know how they feel. You don’t. If you don’t have OCD, you have absolutely no idea how crippling the disorder can be. It may be tempting to say things like this. But it’ll just make it worse.
Keep telling them the Gospel and praying. This is possibly the most important thing you can do. God is ultimately the only one who can get rid of the disorder. Keep reminding them of the hope we have in Jesus’s return, when all illnesses and sadness will be wiped away. And if they aren’t Christian, tell them anyway. Jesus wins all.
I hope this talk has been helpful for you. Go out and correct the misunderstandings you hear, and let OCD sufferers know that you’re there for them. Most of all, I pray that God will use you to give hope to those who don’t have it, and that he’ll remind you of the hope that you do have. Thank you.
 Lamb, Scott. 2013. “Scott Lamb – spent the day colour co-ordinating and sorting my…” Accessed October 24, 2013. https://www.facebook.com/slambit/posts/10201573625716627
 Marie, Liza. 2013. “Liza Marie – Working in a hospital will have you going crazy….I…” Accessed October 24, 2013. https://www.facebook.com/liza.marie.3726/posts/238094276346052
 Ali. 2013. “Ali (:” Accessed October 28, 2013. http://thetruthbehindali.tumblr.com/post/64117086896/yesterday-i-was-told-that-ocd-is-anxiety-on-crack
 Department of Health and Ageing. 2009. “The Mental Health of Australians 2” Accessed October 23, 2013. http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/A24556C814804A99CA257BF0001CAC45/$File/mhaust2.pdf.
 “Pure-O Defined”. Accessed October 24, 2013. http://www.theotherocd.com/#!__defined-and-described
 Wilson, Mara. 2013. “4 Things No One Tells You About Having OCD” Accessed October 22 2013. http://www.cracked.com/blog/4-things-no-one-tells-you-about-having-ocd_p2/
 Better Health Channel. “Obsessive compulsive disorder” Accessed October 24, 2013. http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Obsessive_compulsive_disorder_explained#