Thursday, 14 March 2013

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

This will not be an easy post to write as it brings up so many horrible memories. But I have wanted to write about it so many times too. To show that people aren't alone, can resonate and seek help. This is a long post but I need to write about it. 

When I was 17 I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). You can read more about it here. But in a nutshell it's a mental disorder where people develop an obsession with something unpleasant and form a compulsive behaviour, normally in the form of rituals, to prevent the obsession from happening. It can range from very mild to very extreme. I think I was in the middle when suffering from it badly but once I sought help and counselling I would say I have a mild form now. 

I remember first hearing about OCD when I was 15. There was an article about a man who had to have six pieces of every food item in his fridge and they had to be in symmetrical rows. Plus, he had an obsession about angles and the symmetry of his furniture in all his rooms. He did all this tp prevent people close to him from dying. I will be honest when I read it I thought 'what a freak!'

Little did I know that something very similar would happen to me the following summer. In the summer of 2005 I was revising for my GCSE exams. I was SO nervous because I had to pass Mathematics and Math is my worst subject. I had spent the 3 months previous every Friday after school with my tutor doing extra Math classes. I did every Math test for 16 year olds Google could offer. If I didn't pass I could not get onto my college class and without a pass in Math you can't get onto a degree in nursing. I had to pass. 

When the night before my exam rolled around (16th June 2005 to be exact) I felt okay. I was nervous but felt like I had crammed enough. Then during that night my sister, brother and Mum came down with a sickness bug. I FREAKED! All I could think about was how I could not get ill before this exam. I had worked too hard for it and I did not sleep a wink. My exam was in the afternoon and that morning I spent half of it washing my hands vigorously, washed my hair twice and locked myself in my room when I wasn't in the bathroom. I remember looking up on the internet about how fresh air made people feel better so I had my windows wide open. No germs were getting near me!

As I typed that last paragraph I just realise just how insane and over paranoid I was being. On the way to my exam I bought some hand sanitiser just to minimise the risk. Just before I went in for the exam I started feeling really sick. Instead of associating it with butterflies in my tummy I made myself think that I had the stomach bug. I remember panicking and crying so much that a friend of mine gave me a mint to suck on to take my mind off it. It helped - or I made myself think it helped. 

After the exam I went back to the shop I bought the hand sanitiser at and paid for a whole bag of mints. The exam went much better than I expected but I still had to make my way back to an infected house. I still had some exams left and I did not want to get ill. 

And so the rituals began.

I washed my hands so many times. I washed them 2-3 times after using the toilet, touching a towel anyone had used and cutlery they may have touched. I had it in my head that if I did this then I would not get sick. 

Even once my exams were over and my siblings were better I still carried on. As I put it in my head that the reason why I did not get ill was because I stuck to my rituals.

I felt under control but then I started more obsessive things.

The light switch was one. I remember about a month after my exams ended I flicked off the switch to go to bed. But I didn't flick the switch off very well so I flicked it off again. And again. And again. Until I reasoned with myself that if I turned it on/off 10 times then it felt 'right'.

Then a couple of weeks later my Dad came down with a sickness bug. I went into panic mode. So I started washing my hands 3-4 times to make them extra clean and I had to have my window wide open at night to let the fresh air in. As remember that article I read about people feeling better with fresh air? I still lived by that! By now it was late summer and I was chilly at night but I did not care. I could not get sick. 

I really start to sound delusional now, but I really thought at the time that if I stuck to these rituals then I would be okay. 



The last ritual tipped me over the edge. And I guess this is where my Mum had found me out so to speak. At this point I had started college and passed my Math exam. I remember coming home from my first day and my Mum saying that the neighbours opposite had forgotten to shut their door properly. So it was open whilst they were at work all day. At the time when she said it did not mean anything.

But the next day when I left my house to walk to the bus stop it meant a lot. I walked back to my house three times to double check that I had closed the door properly. I had missed my bus to college but every time I left my road I just had this feeling that I had to double check again. Even though I knew it was closed I just had this sense of urgency to keep checking. I remember when I was at college I was worried that the door was not shut right and my concentration span was down to zero. I worried all the way home if we had been burgled because I had not shut the door correctly. 

So everyday:
  • I washed my hands 4-5 times after using the toilet (sometimes more in public toilets). Used hand sanitiser after touching door handles other people had used. And I had my own towels to wash with at home.
  • I slept with the window wide open to allow the "fresh/clean" air to get in.
  • Turned on/off light switches a minimum of ten times.
  • Checked my front door was locked several times. (only my house not others)
I did this everyday, twenty four seven for about 5 months. Then just after my 17th birthday my Mum came into my room very worried. She said a neighbour of ours had come to our front door because every morning (apart from weekends) she would see me walk up and down the road 3-4 times. She was concerned if I was safe to walk to the bus stop and if I was trying to boycott going to college. 

Also, my Mum said she could hear me every night turning off my light switch lots of times. Also, by this point I had started asking my family to turn off light switches and close doors because it saved me having to do my rituals. I was getting so tired of doing them but I knew that if I stopped then it be just my luck I would get sick or my house would be burgled. My hands were so cracked and sore from the amount of times I washed them and I was easily going through a bottle of hand sanitiser a week. 

I broke down and voiced it all to my Mum. It was the first time in my life that my Mum had cried with me. I felt so CRAZY explaining all this stuff to her that she did not understand. I felt a little relief but mainly mortification that I had been 'found out.' My Mum booked me an urgent Drs appointment for the next day and having to voice it all over again was even more upsetting. I honestly felt like a lunatic! It all started off because my sibling got a sickness bug and I escalated to the point I felt so suffocated in my life. In fact, it was taking over my life. But I did feel better there was a diagnosis for it. I had OCD and when I researched more about it I didn't feel like such a crazy person. I was not alone and it felt so good to know that.

I started seeing a counsellor the following week and I saw her for a couple of months. Instead of curing the problem we looked at ways I could minimise my compulsive behaviour. So my Mum always turned off my light switch at night so I didn't have to. I was allowed to have my window open but my Mum would close it when she went to bed. I asked other people to open doors for me so I didn't have to touch door handles. My Mum drove me to the bus stop in the morning and ensured that someone else closed and locked the front door so it wasn't my responsibility to. I still washed my hands a silly amount and used hand sanitiser but it was progress!

The main thing was I wasn't developing new rituals. I was getting better at making my current ones more liveable. Once it was all out in the open it was so good to not be secretive. When I was going through my really bad phase I found it hard work to be obsessive without other people realising. It was exhausting! My counsellor said it would take a couple of years to overcome OCD or lose some of my compulsions.

She was right. Now...
  • I wash my hands like normal people. Just once with antibacterial hand wash. It took 4 years to whittle it down but I now have nice and normal looking hands. 
  • I only use hand sanitiser at work and I HATE using the stuff but for infection control purposes at work I do. 
  • I still have to wash using my own towel.
  • I still have my window open at night but in the winter it's open just a little bit. I don't think I will ever grow out of this one.
  • I turn off lights twice now. I am happy that it's gone from 10 on/off switches to just two. Again, I think it will stay like this.
  • With doors I try to make sure I am the first out the door so I don't need to be the one to lock/shut it. But when I leave for work I can't work around this so I just shut the door and don't look back. By the time I reach work it's out of my mind because work is so busy I have no time to think about a door I shut. 
Since I was diagnosed I think there has been a lot more talk around the subject of OCD. Instead of it being something they steer clear of talking it's talked about more openly. Even some celebrities have revealed their OCD-ness, like David Beckham said he has to have food stacked/lined perfectly in cupboards and fridges. I have seen programmes on extreme cases of OCD which are so sad to watch but I 'get' it and what they're going through.

I think everyone has something they are a little OCD about. But I let it go too far to the point it was affecting my daily life and thinking processes. I will always have OCD on certain things but it is so much more controllable now. 


2 comments:

learningfromsophie.com said...

Thank you for sharing this. I have some similar things due to my emetophobia - using my own hand towel and using antibacterial gel after being on bus or touching a wheelie bin. I don't like touching anything in public toilets. I also obsessively check cooking utensils, pots, cutlery, plates etc to check they are clean, and like to use a new tea towel to dry things as I don't trust others to have the same food hygiene standards as myself.

I too have addressed some things so they are limiting - like I don't have to make sure I'm in the aisle seat of a cinema if I've done my best to check that there is unlikely to be any scenes that I can't handle. It also really helps I have my own tiny bathroom! I also make my friends aware of my fear, and they are superbly understanding (mainly because most of them have discovered I'm really not joking when someone has pretended to be sick or something) and very supportive and protective. I really appreciate that.

Janet said...

What a brave post! And you're right - I think we all suffer a little from this. I know that I am obssesive about doing my filing every day and making sure that everything is up to date. Just in case something happens and I can't be at the office - it's an obsession with me. I cannot leave anything undone! Just in case ....
You are a special young lady and I have learnt so much from you! Lots of love from a stormy, chilly Johannesburg tonight xx

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