22 February 2016

Little Miss Responsible

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder tend to feel an exaggerated sense of responsibility for ensuring harm doesn't occur to others. It's this that drives many compulsions, such as cleaning obsessively to eradicate germs or repeatedly checking that doors and windows are secure.

My own compulsions are less focussed: I don't order my belongings to prevent something bad happening, but to alleviate the anxiety that disorder provokes in me. I do, however, carry a sense of heightened responsibility out into the wider world. 

I once walked past a man lying on the pavement in my local high street, apparently fast asleep. Not an uncommon sight in London, but when I got home I began to fret. It was a very hot day and he wasn't wearing a shirt; he could easily suffer sunburn or heatstroke. What if he died and I could have prevented it? My anxiety drove me to call the emergency services and they despatched someone to check on him.

On a number of occasions, I've gone up to a child on their own and asked if they were all right. The idea that a youngster might be abducted and killed is far more worrying than the risk that I might, myself, be mistaken for an abductor.

While many people might walk on by in these situations, most would probably consider it reasonable for a community-spirited individual to intervene. However, I take this kind of intervention to a whole new - and possibly less reasonable - level.

I'm the sort of person who points out to a fellow driver that one of their headlights has blown...because they might have an accident and hurt somebody.

Or who tells a complete stranger that their shoelaces are undone...because they might fall over and break their arm.

Or who sees a letter left on the doorstep of a shop and wonders whether they should take it inside...because it might be important and its loss could have dire consequences.

Tackling OCD is all about learning to handle life's uncertainties, the constant 'what ifs' that can cause almost intolerable anxiety if you dwell on them. By interfering in others' lives, I'm trying to control some of those 'what ifs', even though they don't directly affect me. 

In Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, authors Dr David Veale and Rob Willson talk about the need 'to assume an appropriate, flexible and non-extreme level of social responsibility'.

In extreme cases, OCD sufferers may, for example, retrace car journeys to be sure that they haven't knocked anybody over en route, or obsessively check the news for reports of accidents to reassure themselves.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/
Veale and Willson go on to say 'The balance to strike is attending to the protection of others on the one hand, while on the other allowing yourself the usual rights to a life that is not plagued by anxiety and guilt.'

My approach is probably a little off balance, compared to most, but so far not to a detrimental extreme: for now, at least, my interventions still qualify as helpful, rather than obsessive.

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