When you have OCD, it can take a lot away from you: obsessions can steal our peace, and compulsions can steal our time, for example. But there are also other hidden costs related to this debilitating disorder. These are the things that people don’t readily speak about, and that many may not even recognize!
In researching this topic, it is not lost on me that I, like many of our members, have experienced losses at the hands of OCD—including things I hadn’t considered before. It was only when I stopped to reflect on my past experiences that I saw the things that OCD tried to take from me.
The excessive costs and excessive waste
OCD is classified as a severe mental illness by the National Advisory Mental Health Council (NAMHC) and one of the top ten of the most disabling illnesses according to the World Health Organization, affecting 2.3% of the population. OCD can cost people affected and their families upwards of tens of thousands of dollars a year.
As shown by the Epidemiological Catchment Area surveys, the economic impact of OCD marked in social and work-related occupational impairment was estimated to be $8.4 billion in 1990. They estimated that the indirect costs of OCD, reflecting lost productivity, were estimated at $6.2 billion, “not including lost opportunities for career advancement and the cost to families and carers over their respective working lifetimes.” The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) in the U.K. referred to one report which estimated that, on average, a person with OCD loses 3 years of income over their lifetime. OCD also costs payers and employers billions annually primarily because OCD is under-represented in healthcare claims, leading to inappropriate care that promotes healthcare system overutilization and, ultimately, extends suffering for people with OCD.
For me, the financial costs of having OCD have always been very high. I couldn’t even begin to put a cost on the number of things I have given away, thrown away, or repurchased. Personally, I have always had concerns about what I considered to be outdated food, or food being in the refrigerator for too long. My family often points out that I am wasteful when it comes to food. It is not my best quality, to be sure, but the truth is that this is part of how OCD affects me. I have always had intrusive thoughts about food going bad and people getting sick if they eat something spoiled.
I know that over the years, I have thrown away many foods because either I thought it looked weird, smelled inexplicably off, or was even a day past its best-of date. The idea that leftovers can last three days seems like too much. On more than one occasion, I have thrown away everything in the freezer, convinced it was freezer-burned because I saw frost on it. If people gave me food, I often would thank them but then throw it away; I couldn’t seem to risk that something could be wrong with it.
I also had obsessions about the colors of my food. There was a time when I could be a quarter of the way into a meal and would have a scary thought that would be tied to a color, and then I had to throw away and avoid all foods with that color. Not to mention my contamination fears: if something became “contaminated” or “dirty” (according to my intrusive thoughts), it had to be thrown out. At my most challenging point with OCD, these obsessions inadvertently led me to lose over 100 lbs.
Then there was the “what if I accidentally poisoned everyone I love most” stage where everything had to be thrown away if I had the slightest thought that I could have had something on my hands that was transferred to the food. For far too many years, I was terrified of poinsettias, of all things. I had heard that they were poisonous and had developed the idea that the dust from these could cause mass casualties. At that time, I was in the trenches of this disorder—I knew it wasn’t logical, and yet the what-ifs were too great.
My contamination obsessions also went beyond food. I cannot begin to tell you how many items in my lifetime I have thrown away or given away due to fears they were contaminated. These were often things I cherished. I tried to keep them at first, but my cleaning rituals became too exhausting to keep up with, so I began to discard items. Thankfully, in my youth, my mother had caught on to this and began regularly going through my garbage and saving items she knew I would later regret having thrown out.
Even after I grew up and was married, I continued to be known as the person who threw everything out. It became sort of a household joke. No one knew the reasons why; they assumed it was because I was a minimalist or liked things tidy. In reality, it had nothing to do with those things and everything to do with OCD.
One time I was cleaning my 12 year old’s bedroom while he was at school, and I came across several items where he had written: “do not throw away Mom.” That broke my heart. It made me recognize how much I had let OCD control my life and, by extension, the lives of the people I cared for the most.
The financial cost of reassurance seeking
The financial costs from OCD go beyond waste. I have worked with many members who experienced compulsive spending related to OCD. This often occurs when they are in the middle of their day-to-day shopping and an intrusive thought or image comes into their mind. They may then purchase the items connected to that thought; for example, one member would have a recurring thought about canned goods becoming unsealed and would have to buy every can that she saw whenever she had this thought. She feared that if she left the can available for others to purchase, she would be irresponsible because someone else may buy it and would unknowingly eat food that was somehow tampered with. She believed if this happened, it would be her fault. The idea that something could potentially be tainted and someone else might get sick because of her was too great. You can imagine how expensive her grocery shopping trips could be!
This is a common trick OCD plays, no matter what theme a person experiences: the idea that they are responsible for another person’s well-being. This sense of responsibility can be draining. The member in the example above had to be constantly reassured that she would not be to blame for something terrible happening to anyone by purchasing all possible items that she felt had been potentially tampered with.
There was another woman I worked with who would not feel uneasy unless she purchased everything that she touched, for fear of accidentally passing along germs that might make someone else sick if they bought the items instead. Although she attempted to avoid most things when she went into a store, she was naturally unable to avoid every single thing and found herself accidentally brushing up against items and having to buy them. She had several piles of clothing and items with the tags still on them when we met for therapy the first time. She reported that she couldn’t bring herself to return the items due to her thoughts. Purchasing these items reassured her that no one else would have them, so no one else would be contaminated with whatever germs she may have unintentionally left on the items.
Another member spent over $1000 to reroute her return from a vacation because on the trip home, she felt anxiety about an item she had seen at her previous location, hundreds of miles away. She feared that she may have somehow touched that specific item and may have contaminated it, which meant someone else would get ahold of it and therefore could potentially become ill. She was compelled to go and either purchase the item or dispose of it entirely. So, while her plane was mid-route to a layover, she ordered new plane tickets to return to the previous airport so that she could check to see if this item was still there.
This member felt unable to resist the urge to go back and check, and the cost was tremendous—not only financially, but emotionally. This reroute had added an extra 12 hours to an already long trip. She ended up exhausted. There was also the toll on her relationship, as she had to convince her partner that they needed to do all of this. Their weekend had to be completely reconfigured because of her intrusive thoughts and OCD’s demands.
The impact on relationships
As shown in the example above, what OCD costs us is not only financial; the toll it takes on our relationships can also be substantial. Many of my members have spoken to me about relationships with partners that ended because of OCD. I have worked with many families who have been significantly impacted when a member of the family has OCD. This often disrupts the entire family, changing their dynamics.
OCD will often silently sneak in and wreak havoc on friendships, too. I have had members tell me that they are constantly seeking reassurance from their friends. A woman I worked with in the past would constantly text her friends to ask what exactly she had said in social situations to ensure she did not offend anyone. She worried that her friends would become annoyed or overwhelmed with her frequent reassurance-seeking efforts.
The unhelpful and unsuccessful treatments—then finally finding life-changing therapy
Anyone who has had OCD can probably attest that the cost of unhelpful, unsuccessful treatments is abundant. Honestly, I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many providers I had seen before getting effective treatment through exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy.
The total cost was not only financial; there was also a profound emotional price. The loss of hope each time that I didn’t see change cannot ever be given a price tag. There was a physical toll as well. My body changed as anxiety ravaged it: the fluctuating weight gain and loss, the lack of nutrition from my diet due to tormenting thoughts—all of these things played a significant role in what OCD cost me, personally.
The good news is that once I found effective treatment, I not only gained many things back, but I also gained even more than OCD took. I have my freedom back. I no longer feel compelled to throw out food for fear that it’s contaminated. And I can now go into stores and not have to repurchase items because I had thrown them away. I don’t spend nearly as much as I used to on cleaning supplies and laundry soaps. Though I may still splurge on fabric softener or fancy laundry products, it’s not because OCD tells me to, it’s because I like their scents and choose to.
OCD no longer dictates what I need to do. ERP taught me that I can tolerate anxiety and discomfort and helped me learn how to sit with the feelings that intrusive thoughts caused me without doing compulsions. I learned that compulsions only brought temporary relief and caused intrusive thoughts to show up more and more. I was teaching my brain that there was a real danger when in fact there was not.
Today, I am so much better than I could have ever imagined. If you would have told me 20 years ago that I would be enjoying the life I have today, I would have never believed you. If you would have told me that my life would not be consumed with the torment that OCD regularly caused me before, I would have never believed you. And yet, here I am.
It is so difficult to put into words the growth that I have had in my own life as a result of effective treatment. I often say that I am 95% better— meaning I still use ERP daily to make choices to be in recovery. The most important thing I’d like you to take away from this article is that there is hope. There is always hope, no matter how dark it may seem at the moment. No matter how much pain and suffering you are in due to this debilitating disorder, it can get better. You can live a life you may have not even dreamed of living. I know because that is my story.
If you’re struggling with OCD and are ready to regain your life, NOCD can help. Our licensed therapists deeply understand OCD and are specialty-trained in treating OCD with ERP. We work side-by-side with the OCD experts and researchers who designed some of the world’s top OCD treatment programs – and that means the best care for our members. You can book a free 15-minute call with our team to get matched with one and get started with OCD treatment.
Stay tuned for my follow-up article, “How Therapy Helped Me Gain Back All That OCD Tried To Take” (most importantly, my hope).