The devastating effects of the widely misunderstood mental illness, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are being exposed this week by charity, OCD Action.
The World Health Organisation classifies OCD as one of the top ten most debilitating illnesses, yet it is often considered a mild, quirky or even amusing affliction.
OCD sufferers worry that people will think they are mad and so do not always seek help. This has led to a lack of public awareness.
“In order to be diagnosed with OCD means that the impact is very great,” says Joel Rose, Director of OCD Action. “You’re spending 5/6/7 hours a day on those compulsions.”
OCD has two parts: Obsessional thoughts and the compulsion to dampen those thoughts.
The compulsion becomes a ritual like hand washing or checking the front door. It can also be a mental routine used to stifle a feeling of anxiety or stop a particular thought.
“People get into a vicious circle, the amount of time they need to spend on the compulsion and the elaborateness of those compulsions has grown,” Joel says.
“It’s not like a psychosis where someone doesn’t know their behaviour is illogical. Someone with OCD knows that standing in front of a door for 5 hours doesn’t make sense but they’re compelled to do it.”
OCD sufferers are often intelligent, creative, caring people and try to protect themselves and their loved ones from presumed harm.
Rose explains that sometimes there is no logical connection between the obsessive thoughts and the compulsive behaviour but only an association such as counting to 30 or their parents will die of a horrible accident.
Barbara Lloyd, 49, from Wirral, who has suffered from OCD since childhood, says that the disorder is not the same as a person who can’t go near a knife because they’ll pick it up and stab someone. “Mine is a fear [about] things I do innocently—if I was to cook I would harm someone with the food or that I would harm me because of not locking the house properly,” she says.
Barbara’s OCD is an all-encompassing version. Compelled to spend up to 7 or 8 hours checking, washing and cleaning, she then has a half an hour ritual checking switches and locks before she can leave the house, “I pull on the back door handle to the point where I think I’m going to pull the handle off.”
She continues, “I would look around the room and check everything is switched off, a rigorous going over, staring at switches and saying ‘off-on, off-on’ and not believing it. During it I feel huge anxiety.”
Barbara used to work as a medical microbiologist at Liverpool University before her worsening condition made her continually late, slow and unable to hold down a responsible position.
“OCD lost me my job, played a part in the demise of my marriage, lost me precious time with my mum and dad, and stops me having people in the house,” Barbara says.
A strategy she employs to help her arrive for important appointments on time is to stay at a hotel the night before because there is “far less to check in a hotel.”
Barbara has tried many different treatments over the years such as different medications and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a talking therapy, but with little success.
CBT aims to train someone to respond differently to the obsessive thought through gradual exposure to what is causing the worry, according to Rose.
Barbara has found most benefit in sharing her experiences with other OCD sufferers at support groups.
“There’s great comfort in feeling that you’re not alone. One of the most thrilling things is finding someone who does things similar to me,” she says.
In spite of her debilitating condition, Barbara shows great humour and insight.
“I laugh about how I spend that many hours working out the bus times I end up not being ready and missing the whole outing.”
It is estimated that 2-3 per cent of the UK population has OCD, according to the OCD Action website. Some celebrity OCD sufferers include footballer David Beckham and Olympian Victoria Pendleton.
OCD week runs from February 18th-24th and the charity is urging those who have been suffering in silence to see their GP or call their helpline for support and advice.