Melvin Udall in As Good as It Gets. Adrian Monk in Monk. Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the Red Dragon series. The list of TV and film characters rendered particularly memorable by their peculiar quirks, mannerisms, and tics, is long. In reality, the number of people suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), is legion. According to BeyondOCD.org, in the U.S., about 1 in 40 adults and 1 in 100 children have OCD.
Even though I chuckled along (albeit uncomfortably) with everyone else as Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) brought his own plastic tableware to restaurants to avoid using theirs, and see-sawed down sidewalks so as not to step on cracks, I know how unfunny OCD is. I know, because I’ve been afflicted with it all my life.
Once believed to be rare, OCD is a type of anxiety disorder and recent years have reflected that more people have OCD than previously estimated. An equal opportunity punisher, all ages, races, genders, and ethnic groups are affected.
Although people have no problem talking about their bouts with depression, OCD is a very different story. When one has OCD, it is difficult to speak openly about it because the condition, or rather, the way in which it manifests itself, is, well…embarrassing. Think about the humiliation of admitting to someone that you have to walk in and out of a doorway a very specific number of times or some calamity will occur. Now, imagine having to deal with such thoughts multiple times on a daily basis.
To break it down as simply as possible, OCD is a disorder, normally long-lasting, in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions), and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the need to repeat over and over.
As a sufferer, I can attest to the fact that OCD is mentally, and often physically, exhausting. The random thoughts that other people can easily dismiss get stuck in my brain, where they fester until I perform whatever behavior I’ve ascertained is necessary to dispel them.
Let’s say that, every morning, on your way to work, you worry about whether or not you turned off the coffee pot. That is not OCD. On the flip side, if, before leaving the house, you have to turn the power switch on that pot off and on sixteen times before you go, or you are CERTAIN that your house will burn down and kill all your pets, you could indeed have OCD. I mean, you’re so agitated that you’re breaking a sweat. THAT is OCD.
Unfortunately, researchers have yet to unearth any definitive causes for this condition. There are several theories, however. Among them:
- OCD is due to genetic and hereditary factors (about 25% of sufferers have an immediate family member with the disorder
- Chemical, structural and functional abnormalities are the cause
The chemical culprit is believed to be a mutation of the human serotonin transporter gene (hSERT). Those with severe OCD symptoms may have a second variation in the same gene. Another theory is that a negative life experience, like a childhood trauma is at the root of OCD.
Everyone has intrusive thoughts. However, people with OCD believe these thoughts to be of great importance, personally significant, character-revealing, or having catastrophic consequences. Yeah. Not fun. That last bit, especially, I am well-versed in.
Speaking of “trauma,” when I was a kid, I was literally traumatized by the thought of losing my mom. To a degree that was entirely abnormal. In order to tamp down these compulsions, I would perform behaviors of my own design — whatever made me feel better — such as kissing her goodbye a specific number of times before going off to school.
Something else that I would do — and this is where it gets even weirder — before I could go to sleep at night, I would slip out of my bedroom, tiptoe into my younger brother’s, and pat him on the head, again, a specific number of times. It didn’t matter if he was asleep or awake. I HAD TO DO IT. I know I scared the hell out of him on more than one occasion.
My family knew about this. Pretty much my whole family. That’s because my Mom would bring it up on festive occasions, like holiday dinners, and everyone would have a good laugh over it while I cringed in shame. I can’t really blame her. In those days, people didn’t know anything about the disorder. They just thought I was “eccentric.” Nah. “Weird Sherry,” is more like it.
As you may have guessed, numbers are a big deal for those living with OCD. Here’s an example: My household consists of five “beings.” My husband, myself and our three cats. So, the number five is of great significance to me. When I go to the grocery store, I’ll buy bananas in bunches of five, five cans of garbanzo beans…like that. If I don’t, I obsess over the fact that I may have doomed one of us. Can you understand how mentally debilitating this can be?
Clutter is a problem for me and for many other sufferers. It makes us nervous…unable to get things done. As I hoard bath and body products, this may seem counterproductive, but it is an organized hoard. Everything in its place.
Adding to the enormous emotional/physical baggage that is OCD, is the fact that many of us self-medicate with alcohol and/or drugs. That said, approved treatment is available, in the form of Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). These drugs directly affect serotonin, a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, in the brain. Those SSRIs that are FDA-approved and shown to be effective are:
Through the years, I’ve had a go at both Zoloft and Paxil. In brief, they didn’t agree with me and so I’ve chosen to battle OCD on my own. Keep in mind that someone else may have an entirely different experience.
I would be remiss if I didn’t add that Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is an alternative treatment for OCD that uses two scientifically-based techniques to change the sufferer’s behavior and thoughts: Exposure and response prevention (ERP) and cognitive therapy. Most CBT treatment is conducted in a specially trained therapist’s office once a week, with exercises that must be performed at home. I can’t attest to the efficacy of CBT as I haven’t yet tried it. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you why.
There are categories to OCD worth nothing, especially if you believe you, or someone you love may be afflicted.
- Washers, the most common. They are afraid of germs and contamination and will wash their hands over and over again, until they’re literally, raw.
- Checkers, who repeatedly check things (above-mentioned coffee pot, locked door, etc.)
- Doubters and “sinners” who believe that if everything isn’t done just so, something terrible will happen.
- Counters and arrangers are obsessed with order and symmetry and are superstitious about numbers, colors, and arrangements.
- Hoarders, who may suffer from other maladies, like PTSD, who fear that something bad will happen if they throw anything away.
As if the above wasn’t disturbing enough when you break down the categories into common obsessive thoughts, this is where things really get freaky, and damned unpleasant. According to Everyday Health, the following OCD red flags should not be taken lightly:
- Fear of losing control. Acting on an impulse to harm oneself or others, of violent or horrific images in one’s mind, of blurting out obscenities (as in a board meeting), of stealing things.
- Contamination. Body fluids, dirt, germs, environmental contaminants, etc.
- Harm. Fear of a calamitous event, such as a fire or burglary, fear of harming others because of not being sufficiently careful, like dropping something that another person could slip-on.
- Perfectionism. Concern that everything must be even and exact, inability to decide whether to keep or discard things, a fear of losing things.
- Unwanted sexual thoughts. Having images that are forbidden or perverse, thoughts involving aggressive sexual behaviors toward others.
- Religious Obsessions. Concern with offending God or being blasphemous, as well as excessive concern about morality.
- Additional Obsessions: Fear of illness and disease, superstitious ideas about unlucky numbers and/or colors.
As I said, not fun. And certainly, not funny. I hope that if you experience any of the above…if you can relate in any way, that you’ll get the help you need and deserve. OCD is not your fault. What it is: An extremely unpleasant chemical inbalance.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue on as I have. Like someone struggling with alcoholism or a similar disease, I’ll just take it one day at a time.