OCD: Easy to laugh at, hard to live with

Nine myths about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Nine myths about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

By Lily Bailey

It's OK to say 'I'm a bit OCD'

Wrong. Even if you do suffer from OCD, no-one is an illness, be it a whole one or a bit of one.

You can happily say how OCD you are while puffing up your pillows and making your bed look nice

Nope. OCD is a disorder. It is not about order that results in pleasure. It is about order that causes devastating pain. If you're saying 'I'm so OCD' with more enthusiasm than a One Direction fan on Twitter, you're probably not a sufferer.

Someone with OCD would never have a messy room

Actually, someone with OCD might make a useless cleaner. My desk, for instance, is a haven for dirty mugs. The media commonly portrays OCD as a disorder of cleanliness, when in fact a fear of contamination is just one of many forms the illness takes. While some sufferers may obsessively clean their house, others will have very different symptoms. Obsessive hoarding is also a form of OCD, so the sufferer in question may well have a much more disorganised and cluttered house than you.

It would be really obvious if someone had OCD, because they would always be avoiding stepping on pavement cracks and checking they turned the stove off

Although some types of OCD are easily visible because of physical symptoms, many are not. OCD tends to be a very secretive disorder. The average sufferer conceals their illness (or at least tries to), and takes 12 years to ask for help. Friends and family of the sufferer often admit they had no idea. Do you think they would be able to hide it for so long if it was always immediately obvious?

By way of example, lots of people with OCD have a form known as 'Pure O', meaning that their compulsions are purely mental and impossible to see as an outsider.

OCD isn't particularly serious

When I was first diagnosed, one of the first things I did was tell a close friend. Her response? "I'm sorry to hear you're sick, but I'm just so glad it's nothing really bad." It wasn't meant to hurt me. She was expressing relief because she thought OCD was "much better than muscular dystrophy".

Her relief was misguided. It's not particularly constructive to start comparing 'how bad' one illness is relative to another, but we should remember that the World Health Organisation ranked OCD as among the top ten most disabling illnesses, in terms of quality of life and loss of earnings. Sufferers often become housebound, and cease to be able to live anything resembling a normal life. At my worst, I spent every waking moment embroiled in mental routines. Tragically, some people with OCD will end up attempting or committing suicide. In light of these facts, playing down the severity of OCD by comparing it to a 'worse' physical illness is senseless.

If you meet someone with OCD, the best thing to do is help then within their routines

When faced with someone who has OCD, the natural instinct tends to be to want to help. It's incredibly difficult for friends and family to watch as a loved one works themselves into a state because of their compulsions. The temptation is to reassure them they have not done anything wrong, and to offer to be the one who checks things are switched off.

Although reassurance can be a wonderful thing in day to day life, it is not a good way of dealing with a person's compulsions. OCD is a monster that needs to be confronted rather than collaborated with. Offering to help someone by checking something merely endorses the sufferer's notion that it is sensible to follow the demands of their compulsions.

Want to know how to respond in more constructive way? Aside from doing a degree in psychotherapy, this is a good start.

People with OCD lack will power

This mistake is often made by people who know a little bit about OCD, but not the whole shebang. Once someone understands that any form of the disorder ultimately takes the form of someone being unable to stop complying with routines, rituals and thoughts that govern their life, the next thing that comes out their mouth tends to be "well why don't you just stop doing it?"

We're already using all our will power trying to fight the disorder. OCD is a serious and very real disorder. For a sufferer, the routines will probably have been a part of their life for so long that trying to break that pattern is like conquering a fiercely set-in addiction. Chipping away at the illness will take time. Those around the sufferer need to appreciate a disorder cannot just be 'snapped out of', just as someone with anorexia can't immediately be a healthy weight the minute they try to recover. Be patient and considerate.

We can joke about OCD

OCD is often the brunt of jokes and offensive products. When sufferers complain, they are accused of having a sense of humour failure. Several weeks ago I was dubbed "the most humourless lump of socialist turd on the whole of Twitter".

Before joining in with the hilarity, ask yourself whether you would be laughing if the subject of the joke was a physical illness.  You wouldn't say 'I'm a bit paralysed because sometimes I lie in bed all day', so why are you claiming to be 'a bit OCD about my wardrobe?'

OCD can be useful
"Thing is," a friend of mine confided in me last week, "I think you guys have got it right. This whole Ebola thing has made me realise I would probably be better off I had OCD, because I'd be washing all the time and less likely to catch it when it does hit the UK."

Her attitude is not unusual. Sufferers themselves often maintain that there is logic and use to their rituals. They will tell you they will never be burgled, because their front-door is definitely 110% locked.

In fact, OCD is never useful. Personal hygiene? Great. Checking the door once? By all means. But when the checks go from healthy to destructive – that's when there's a problem. It's better to get burgled once than jeopardise your life with chronic OCD. Or put it this way: one could spend their whole life trying to avoid getting sick by sticking to strict contamination rituals without acknowledging an uncomfortable truth – they've been ill all along.

In the UK, around 1.2% of people are said to suffer from OCD, although the actual figure is thought to be higher because many are too embarrassed to talk about it. Dispelling the basic misconceptions around OCD is the first step in the long road to helping sufferers feel they can be open about their disorder and seek the help they need.

Lily Bailey is editor of Essential Surrey & TheRichmondMag online. She writes extensively about mental health issues. You can follow her on Twitter or visit her blog, Sugar Rush.  

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