13 January 2014

If in doubt

On occasion, in the past, I've had cause to doubt that I suffer from OCD. 

Media coverage of the condition contributed to this, as articles and television programmes tend to focus on its more extreme manifestations. This is understandable from an editorial point of view, as such cases present more of a hook to readers and viewers. It is also, of course, important to show the devastating impact it can have.

I've reached a different point on the OCD scale, though, so seeing others in a worse predicament can make me feel something of a fraud; as if I no longer have a claim to the condition.

This is, I appreciate, ridiculous. It's like saying that because I only get occasional, mild eczema, I don't suffer from eczema at all. Any illness can present differently in different people, and can also vary in severity from day to day.

However, my uncertainty over whether I even had OCD was mainly due to the difficulty I had in pinpointing the exact nature of my obsessions.

Image courtesy of Jeroen van Oostrom/
Many can be concisely expressed, and it's clear how compulsions have developed out of them. For example, somebody might have an obsessive fear of becoming sick, which leads to them constantly cleaning their home or washing their hands.

Compulsions usually arise out of a desire to prevent some kind of harm, either to the individual concerned or a third party. 

So what is the obsession that drives my compulsive ordering? What harm could possibly be averted by ensuring my possessions are positioned with military precision?

In Overcoming Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, David Veale and Rob Willson explain, 'Sometimes it is difficult to work out how the content of your obsession relates to what is important in your life. It may just be self-preservation and not losing control or going crazy.'* 

Some sufferers, they say, become 'so good at OCD that [they] never get sufficiently anxious to acknowledge explicitly what is [their] fear.'*

It took me a long time to realise that my compulsions were about reducing my anxiety at living in an unpredictable world, where accident, illness or disaster can strike at any moment.

Sorting my glasses by size, or turning the labels on tins to face the same way, is not, of course, going to prevent me from being in the middle of a motorway pile-up, developing cancer, or falling victim to a terrorist attack.

As I've mentioned previously, though, ordering creates an illusion of control that helps to allay the anxiety of an inevitably precarious existence. The harm that I'm trying to prevent, therefore, is actually to my own mental well-being. It's ironic, then, that my efforts have only made things worse.

One thing I can now be certain of is that I do have OCD. And, for any sufferer, acknowledging that is the first step to dealing with it.

* * *

*p59, Overcoming Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, David Veale & Rob Willson


Tina Fariss Barbour said...

For a long time, I didn't know what the obsessions were behind my compulsions either. I didn't realize that they were just as harmful as the compulsions were. I think a lot of my praying compulsions and counting were a way for me to try to control an uncontrollable world, like your ordering.

Great post, Helen. I hope you have a great day!

Helen Barbour said...

Hi Tina, thanks for your comment and positive feedback. It's always interesting to hear about others' experiences of OCD and I'm sure being aware of why we do what we do can only be a good thing in terms of overcoming the condition.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Helen. From what I understand sometimes the obsessions that lead to compulsions can be very vague, such as a "feeling that something terrible will happen," or a feeling that things are just "not right," with no specifics. Either way, it's still OCD. Thanks for bringing awareness to this part of the disorder.

Helen Barbour said...

Thanks, ocdtalk. It can be easy to feel a fraud when your experience doesn't match up to the textbook descriptions, but OCD manifests in so many different ways that each person's experience of it is unique.