Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

David Beckham on life with OCD: His “tiring” cleaning rituals

By Jessica Migala

Jun 29, 20239 minute read

Reviewed byPatrick McGrath, PhD

When you think of David Beckham, a few things might come to mind: Famous soccer player for Manchester United, husband to “Posh Spice” Victoria Beckham, and dad to four kids, Brooklyn, Romeo, Cruz, and Harper.

But what you might not expect is Beckham’s struggle with obsessive urges to complete compulsive, time-consuming cleaning rituals. He’s opening up about this lesser-known side of himself in a new Netflix documentary, according to a Men’s Health article. “The fact that when everyone’s in bed I then go around, clean the candles, turn the lights on to the right setting, make sure everywhere is tidy… I hate coming down in the morning and there’s cups and plates, and you know, bowls,” he says. In a previous interview more than 15 years ago, Beckham also revealed that he has a compulsion to arrange everything in a straight line or in pairs

If you’ve had similar experiences with the need to complete cleaning rituals, you may have wondered “Do I have OCD?” Here’s what you need to know about the different subtypes of OCD and how they relate to cleaning, how to get help for OCD themes like these, plus other celebrities who’ve opened up about their OCD.

What Is OCD?

OCD stands for obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it’s marked by uncontrollable, repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors (compulsions) done to seek relief from these obsessions. 

These behaviors tend to feel uncontrollable, take up a lot of time during the day, and cause daily problems and distress. About 1.2 percent of US adults have OCD in any given year, and women are over three times as likely to develop OCD compared to men, says the NIMH.

What Types of OCD Could Explain an Obsession with Cleanliness?

Many people like things cleaned “just so.” They can’t go to bed at night unless the dishwasher is filled and running. You wouldn’t find a stray cup in their sink. If you saw their vacuum lines in their carpet, you’d think it was designed that way.

What sets people apart from a “normal” desire or need to clean is if “you don’t actually want to be doing what you’re doing,” says Patrick McGrath, PhD, Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. This is a way of saying that the rituals cause you distress—but you feel compelled to do them anyway, despite their consequences. There may also be a belief that if things are not cleaned in a specific way, you either won’t be able to focus until it’s done or you may believe that something bad will happen as a result. “These are all signs that it may be OCD,” Dr. McGrath says. Often, someone with OCD understands that their thoughts are excessive or not true, and yet they still have a compulsion to perform certain behaviors, like cleaning. “There’s no limit to what people will potentially do to try to achieve cleanliness,” McGrath explains.

The presence of distress, worry, or fear is a common fear for all forms of OCD, but it’s helpful to understand that there are several different subtypes of OCD. While there are many, a couple are more likely to relate to cleaning: 

Contamination OCD

This can involve two different fears: worries that you can become contaminated or that you yourself could contaminate others. For the latter, someone with contamination OCD might clean to ensure that they aren’t carrying germs that they could pass along to someone else. Where does that fear come from? For someone with OCD, their internal dialogue might look something like this: “If I gave you something, you might hate me, and I don’t want that to happen. So, I’m going to do whatever I can to assure that we are all well and safe,” Dr. McGrath explains. 

Though this sounds virtuous, it involves a lot more than covering a cough when you’re in public or washing your hands before preparing food. OCD obsessions and compulsions can take nearly any form, but they all tend to be rooted in fear and doubt, causing significant distress and disruption in everyday life.

Some of the signs and symptoms of contamination OCD may include:

  • Raw, cracked, peeling hands. “People usually wash up past their wrists, so you’ll see rawness and damage to their skin,” Dr. McGrath says. 
  • Spending large amounts of money on cleaning products.
  • Excessive research on the best ways to clean and sanitize.
  • Ruining possessions by cleaning them inappropriately or obsessively. McGrath mentions that he’s treated people who have dumped electronics in alcohol in an effort to make sure they’re clean.
  • A tendency to self-isolate. “It might feel easier to be alone than to go out and risk either being contaminated or contaminating others,” Dr. McGrath explains.
  • Excessive masking or other COVID-19 safety measures. Dr. McGrath points out that in the wake of the pandemic, some people feel the need to wear masks well in excess of any recommendations. 

In recent years, this final group of symptoms has affected many. Some behaviors that people developed early in the COVID-19 pandemic, such as excessive COVID testing or letting packages sit outside for an extended period of time before bringing them in, only get more and more extreme and time-consuming the longer OCD sets in. 

In the case of leaving packages outside, for example, people delay far more than a few hours or a day, says Dr. McGrath—“they might let them sit out for two weeks. If you ask them, the explanation is that they don’t know if the delivery driver had COVID or another illness, so they have to make absolutely sure that whatever germs might be on the package are dead before allowing it in the home.”

Do these symptoms sound familiar? Learn how you can overcome them.

At NOCD, we know how overwhelming contamination OCD symptoms can be—especially after a global pandemic. You’re not on your own, and you can talk to a specialist who has experience treating contamination OCD.

Learn more

“Just Right” or Perfectionism OCD

Just right and perfectionism describe a similar type of OCD where things should be not only clean, but also in the exact right spot, says Dr. McGrath. This is something David Beckham has elaborated more on in past interviews, according to the Men’s Health article, when he described his compulsions further: “I’ll go into a hotel room. Before I can relax I have to move all the leaflets and all the books and put them in a drawer. Everything has to be perfect.”

You may suspect that you have this type of “just right” OCD if, again, it’s causing problems in your life. For example, says Dr. McGrath, this may look like working in an office and noticing that your stapler or another supply has been moved. “Now, it throws you off for the day. You might not be able to do other things and complete your work because you can’t get the thought out of your head that something isn’t in the right place,” he explains.

In OCD, you may make the link between something being out of place and something bad happening as a result. “There does not have to be a logical link between the thing and the consequences,” says Dr. McGrath. For example: You noticed that your chair was out of place at your desk this morning and you got a call that your brother was in the hospital. Both of those things did not have to do with one another, but you may become focused on placing your chair in the right spot to ensure that your family stays safe—the behavior placates your anxiety, and as such you feel as if it actually kept you and others safe.

Adding a layer of complication is that these thoughts and behaviors tend to apply only to the person going through them. It may be fine if someone else has a messy house or desk, but there’s something unique—or special—about your situation. People with OCD may feel as if “the rules of the world apply differently to them as opposed to others,” Dr. McGrath says.

How to Get Help for OCD

One of the challenges of living with OCD is the outside perception that you can simply stop these repetitive behaviors or thoughts. But for many people, that doesn’t feel like a real option. “If you believe that what you’re doing is actually going to potentially save someone’s life or your own, you won’t stop. Every time you do the repetitive behavior and the bad thing doesn’t happen, you’ve further convinced yourself that those two things are connected with each other,” says McGrath. 

ERP, or exposure and response prevention therapy, is the cornerstone of OCD treatment. In ERP, you work with a therapist to confront your intrusive thoughts or urges and then consciously make the choice not to engage in compulsions. “Compulsions are the food for OCD,” says Dr. McGrath—so when you consistently stop the compulsive behavior, you starve the OCD. “That’s the way to really address this. If your goal is to feel better long-term, you will have to give up your safety behavior,” he explains. 

A compulsive need to clean or arrange things “just so” is one of many types of safety behaviors, says Dr. McGrath. Others include avoidance, reassurance-seeking, distraction, and even substance use. For ERP to be successful, it’s necessary to identify and resist all forms of compulsions, so OCD fears aren’t continually reinforced

At first, this type of treatment can be highly uncomfortable, but you will learn over time that the feelings that arise as a result of an obsessive thought are not a threat to you—and you can handle them. Exposure exercises are done under the guidance of your clinician, of course, who will walk you through every step of the process. “You’re asking people to purposefully be in discomfort. I’ll ask you to do something that you’re totally afraid of, but my goal is to get you so excited about the progress you can make, you’ll actually look forward to the experience,” Dr. McGrath says. Facing your fears through ERP can help put you on the path of “living the life you want to live—and not the life your OCD wants you to live.” 

Access therapy that’s designed for OCD

ERP has allowed thousands of people who struggled with contamination OCD regain their lives. I encourage you to learn about accessing ERP therapy with NOCD.

Learn about ERP with NOCD

Other Celebs Who’ve Opened Up About OCD

It’s not just David Beckham who has been living with OCD—as more and more people work to bring mental health topics into the public conversation, several other celebrities have talked about their OCD as well:

Amanda Seyfried

After a breakout role in Mean Girls, Seyfried was diagnosed with OCD. After she recognized the source of her anxiety her “whole life changed. It was so empowering,” she told Net-a-Porter. She’s on medication and feeling “fine,” she told the fashion outlet.

Lena Dunham

Best known for Girls, Lena was diagnosed with OCD when she was 9 years old: “I am a writer, director, an actor and I have obsessive compulsive disorder and a generalized anxiety disorder that often leads to dissociative anxiety,” she told PEOPLE as part of a past campaign with the Child Mind Institute.

Howie Mandel

The actor, TV host, and podcaster talked to Parade about the inaccuracies surrounding OCD, especially when it comes to cleaning and perfectionism: “I can tell you that there isn’t a day that goes by [without] someone [approaching] me and [going], “I’m a little OCD. I’m like you! I like everything organized…For those people, I really want to tell them that they probably don’t have OCD. If you really know what OCD is, you know it is debilitating.”

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