What’s it like to have OCD?
You’re a twelve-year-old kid and you’ve just gotten home from a tiring day at school. You just want to fly through your homework and go spend time with your friends, but your mom reminds you that you still have to clean your room. You’re not going to convince her, so you’ll do it as quickly as possible. You start to tidy things up, but then a thought pops into your head: My sister is going to die unless I do this right.
The thought terrifies you. Your head starts to spin: Oh no, this means I really have to get this right, or she’s going to die and it’ll be my fault. This is why I always tell mom I can’t clean my room, but she doesn’t get it. Your stomach feels sick, you’re getting dizzy, and you feel like you just have to tell someone about the thought. But it’s a crazy thought, and you know it, so you don’t tell anyone. You put everything back on the floor and try again. You fold your green shirt, and then the blue one, and finally the red. You think: If I don’t get this right in the next two tries she’s going to die. So you start over again, completely panicked.
This isn’t an extreme case meant to shock you. It’s adapted from a real patient’s story, and it’s typical of the condition. In this case, the first intrusive thought is My sister is going to die unless I do this right. The obsessions come next: Oh god, this means I really do have to get this right… The bodily distress coincides with the obsessions, and the two build on one another to become seemingly unbearable. Then, to protect the sister and get rid of distress, the compulsion: folding things in a specific way. Although the logic of our world doesn’t suggest any connection between folding clothes and a sister’s wellbeing, the logic of this person’s mind tells them it does. We’ll look at all of these symptoms in depth in the next section.
Instead of focusing on school, work, family, friends, health, or recreation, people with OCD end up spending their time and energy on compulsions. Most of them know this behavior is illogical, but this doesn’t convince their brain that it can take a break and stop seeking certainty all the time. That’s why explaining to someone with OCD that their actions are irrational probably isn’t doing them any good. They already know this; in fact, their frustration at the impossibility of controlling their thoughts and compulsions despite knowing that they are irrational is itself a source of suffering.
OCD can wreak havoc on every part of someone’s life. It doesn’t help that the people around them misunderstand their symptoms, calling them control freaks, neat freaks, obsessive, “sort of OCD,” or whatever else. As it turns out, people with OCD don’t really want control (in the form of neatness, or cleanliness, or whatever else). They feel like they need control because their mind is constantly telling them things aren’t alright, and because lacking control leads to overwhelming distress.
In some cases, OCD symptoms can become so severe that people consider suicide. If you ever consider suicide, please call your local emergency number or go directly to a hospital. In the United States, you can also call the Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.