Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a life experience beyond a penchant for neatness, beyond lots of hand washing. It’s a mental health disorder involving racing, obsessive thoughts and repetitive, ritualistic actions taken to counter those thoughts. OCD can be life limiting and debilitating.
Knowing what OCD is, the facts and the symptoms of it, is very helpful. It increases understanding, which leads to healing. Knowing a list of symptoms, though, stops a bit short. It helps us understand the disorder, but it doesn’t help us to fully understand the people living with OCD.
It’s important to humanize OCD and to increase understanding and empathy. To do that, it’s necessary to know not just what OCD is, but what it is like. To develop this understanding, I’ve sought information from people who live with OCD, read their words, and watched vlogs.
Patrick, a man who lives with OCD, shares what it’s like for him:
I’ve found that OCD is a shapeshifting condition– whatever matters to me most in my life will become the target of all my anxious thinking. This makes it especially difficult, because you’re never able to leave it behind. Wherever you go, whatever new things you add to your life, it’ll be there, knocking on your door. It took me a long time to realize that the only way out of this tangled mess was to focus less on the content of the thoughts and more on the patterns they were adhering to. By noticing these patterns and refusing to let them dictate how I would make decisions in my own life, I started to feel a bit more like myself again. But there are still difficult points in every day, especially because a lot of my intrusive thoughts emerge during or after social interaction: did I do something wrong? Did I harm that person somehow? Maybe I should apologize. But no, I must not apologize!
Life with OCD: Common Themes
In gathering information from people like Patrick who live with OCD, themes and patterns emerge that consistently capture what it’s like to live with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
- Thoughts! Thoughts! Thoughts! Intrusive thoughts, thoughts that people neither choose nor want, run incessantly through the mind and have been described as a broken record.
- Constant, unrelenting mental discomfort. Ever-present negative thoughts create urges to do something to get rid of them, and this discomfort won’t up until this something, this compulsion, is acted upon. But relief is temporary at best because of thoughts! Thoughts! Thoughts!
- Lost and wasted time that you can’t get back. Obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions can take hours or longer, robbing people of living life in ways that they’d rather.
- Physical sensations. Many describe a prickly feeling on the skin, a tightness in the body, a vibrating “hum” in the body, or more that accompany the obsessions and/or compulsions.
- Fatigue. Constantly battling overwhelming, negative thoughts and undergoing rituals to try to ward them off is exhausting.
- Lack of control. Overwhelmingly, people who describe what it’s like to live with OCD talk about feeling like they have no control over who they are or what they think or how they live their lives. The thoughts overtake them, making even small daily pleasures that others take for granted, like watching TV or reading, impossible. When the thoughts that run through your mind aren’t your own and won’t go away, it’s not only exhausting but frightening.
- Fear. That feeling of not being in control of the thoughts in your mind? People report that that is scary. Terrifying. Then of course there’s the content of the negative thoughts. The thoughts that come, unbidden, into the mind and stick there, are often disturbing to the person they’re consuming.
Does OCD mean Out of Control for the Duration of Life?
OCD is indeed controlling and life-limiting. It doesn’t have to forever remain that way. YA book author John Green, who lives with OCD, tells us that
It can be difficult to get effective treatment, but there is hope, even in your brain tells you there isn’t. The vast majority of mental illness is treatable, and lots of people with chronic mental health problems have fulfilling and vibrant lives.
One tool that is incredibly helpful in treating OCD is an app called nOCD. It uses ERP, exposure response prevention, to help people regain their control. ERP, along with CBT, are the two therapeutic approaches proven by research to help people with OCD. The app, nOCD is customizable so users can tailor it to their own needs for maximum effectiveness. It’s a great supplement to therapy, and it’s completely free. You can download it here.
OCD robs people of their control over their minds, their actions, their time, and their lives. Happily, OCD is treatable, and people can thrive.
Further reading & sources:
- What OCD is Like (for Me) — a vlog episode by John Green
- 17 Quotes That Prove OCD Is so Much More Than Being Neat
- What OCD Feels Like: Being Absolutely Uncertain
- Here’s What It’s Really Like to Have Obsessive=Compulsive Disorder