Where are the Obsessions?

close-up of womanIt seems to me that OCD has become the mental illness du jour. Every day new celebrities announce they have the disorder and it seems to be popping up on prime time television shows as well. After all, it does make for good TV with lots of “interesting” rituals to focus on. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is being talked about more than ever.

While I believe the attention given to OCD is mostly a good thing, I feel that the disorder is still very much misunderstood. The general public isn’t getting it, and I’ve been wondering why. Is it just the misrepresentation of the disorder, or is it more?

I thought back to when my son Dan first told me he had OCD. I knew as much about it at the time as most people who had no direct experience with it. As I’ve shamefully admitted before, my initial response was, “Really? But you never even wash your hands!”

Aha. What I was focusing on, and what I think those who know little about OCD pay attention to, are the “compulsions” part of the disorder. In many cases, this is the concrete part of OCD; the stuff you can actually see. (I say “in many cases,” because sometimes, as in Dan’s OCD, compulsions are not visible. This is sometimes referred to as Pure O.) Washing hands, picking up twigs, tapping the wall, checking the stove, flicking the light switch on and off. This is where OCD gets its “cute and quirky” reputation, from these observable compulsions. So an outsider looking in might think,”Sure, it stinks that he has to check his stove twenty times before he leaves the house, but it’s not really a big deal.”

Of course, those of us who know more about OCD realize these noticeable compulsions are only part of the story. It is the obsessions, the crippling fears that drive those with OCD to perform compulsions, that are the source of their suffering. The torment that those with OCD feel varies but it can be so bad that it has the potential to totally disable them. And while we can educate people about obsessions and even give them lists of common ones, you still can’t see them. If you have a loved one with OCD or are a professional who works with OCD sufferers, then you have likely witnessed the devastating effects of the disorder. The general public has not, as those with OCD are adept at hiding their pain.

As we continue to advocate for OCD awareness, I think it’s our responsibility to differentiate between what OCD really is as opposed to the preconceived notions of the general public. Only then can we hope to enlighten others who might then think twice about saying “I’m so OCD.

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35 Responses to Where are the Obsessions?

  1. Nancy says:

    I once wrote that OCD had made my child a liar. There was so much going either unsaid or things were being passed off as nothing at. One of the biggest battles has been to maintain the openness that allows us to discuss it without having to spend lots if time on digging things out.

  2. yes the disorder is very clearly misunderstood – the real fears that drive the compulsions. I think the general public has no real idea just what devastation it has on the family unit. Here in Australia, there is a long way to go in bringing about an awareness of OCD and obtaining effective therapy. Like yourself Janet I’m very passionate in changing this. Since commencing a support group for carers, its so humbling speaking to other carers who have said they had given up and I am the first person who they have spoken to who really understands the complexity of emotions living with this disorder. It saddens me deeply to hear some of their stories and the lack of assistance. I am endeavouring to provide as much information and education on the disorder via my website and facebook, so hopefully it will help to make a difference here in Australia.

    • Thanks for commenting Janis, and it sounds as if you are already making a difference in Australia. Good for you! I think every country in the world still has a long way to go when it comes to understanding and treating OCD!

  3. Ruby Tuesday says:

    I love your take. Until I put two and two together (on my own, but that’s the way I work best when it comes to my mental illness) and realized that OCD is an anxiety disorder, I had no idea I was suffering from it (this is the point where I talked with my therapist a bit).

    Now granted, I had pretty much every anxiety disorder in the book running wild, so it’s impossible to definitively tease out exactly which part OCD played then. But it was an absolute light-bulb moment, and it helped — still helps — that I understand it and what motivates it for me. It can actually be quite helpful in keeping my other disorders in check, because it seems the first thing that springs up when I get anxious are the behaviors. Well, I know the thoughts precede them, but my unconscious mind is something we’re not getting into here. 🙂

    In any case, I think that’s a component of the perception that is majorly lacking, the understanding that OCD is born of very deep anxiety. Which you said differently (better), but it really resonated with me, Janet.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, Ruby, and I think that is so interesting that at times the behaviors emerge for you before your obsessions. I wonder if that is common for others? OCD can be so complicated (but I don’t have to tell YOU that :). Thanks again for the comment……you are always in my thoughts!

  4. Cassie says:

    Grey’s Anatomy is one of my favorite shows, and one of the main characters has developed OCD. They have a great opportunity to educate the public with this storyline, but so far all they’ve done is drop the ball. The character who has it is a surgeon, and they basically had a therapist follow her around for one episode and point out her compulsions, basically just kind of bullying her. Then, at the end of the episode, she realized that nothing was working and took a large dose of fluoxetine. The thing had to be at least 100 milligrams, when you’re actually supposed to go up to that gradually. Then, in the next episode, she’s all back to normal.

    If only recovering from OCD were really as simple as popping a pill…ugh – love the show but am completely disappointed in them right now.

    • I don’t watch the show Cassie, but from what you describe, they, as you say, dropped the ball. What a shame. They could have really educated people. It’s so frustrating! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Blake’s first comments to me that really indicated that he had OCD were, “Mommy, there are thoughts in my head that won’t go away. Please help me make them go away.” He was 6 years old. I was so ignorant that I didn’t even think OCD until he started handwashing a few months later. And here, I was a child psychologist. I should have known better! (Slaps hand to forehead).

    • Ah, the ‘ol “I should have known better.” Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it Angie? But I think you make a great point. Until there was that concrete evidence staring you in the face, OCD just didn’t “register.” Thanks for sharing!

  6. Great post, absolutely! It took me a while to explain to my dad about the obsessions needing to be linked to a high level of anxiety , it’s not just an “obsession” as some may call it about anything at all, which may not have any anxiety linked at all.

    • Thanks for commenting. That’s a hard thing to do, isn’t it? To explain about obsessions? My guess is you can never really convey the depth of your suffering just by telling someone how obsessions make you feel……but it’s definitely a step in the right direction, and helps to increase understanding of what OCD really is.

  7. the intensity is not udnerstood by those who have never experienced the total terror or simply the all consuming nature the ocd creates around a formed obsession. Any thoughts linked to it can become almighty enemies. the more you fight with a compulsion, the worse it actually gets. when you have ocd, calming the compulsions is just the beginning. its a start though and opens you up to reclaiming your life, after you deal with the obsessions.

    People will not undersand even many councellours and therapists out there are just catching up to how bad it actually feels to have ocd.

    Thanks for this article. a sufferer of constant obsessions once, i certainly have tried to explain things like this before.

  8. Over and over and over, the compulsions are all that people know of OCD. You and I will keep doing our best to make them aware of the agonizing obsessions!

  9. Great post and insight, Janet! I agree that the general public focuses on what they can see–the compulsions–and know little about the pain behind the actions. It was the obsession about fire that kept me turning the stove on and off and on and off until I beat the walls with my hands in frustration, trying to beat the fear and anxiety away. It wasn’t the motion of turning the stove buttons that was killing me–it was the overwhelming fear. There is still so much hidden about OCD.

  10. PurplesShade says:

    Funny that I’d never heard that term “pure-o” before.
    I called them “thought compulsions”, and my OCD group therapist think called them ‘mental obsessions’.

    But then I wonder, if back in 2001/02 they simply didn’t know about as much of this?

    That my compulsions were all in my head actually wasn’t the thing that made me feel the most out of place with other OCD people I had met/read about.
    No the thing which made me feel apart was the lack of relief.
    My OCD was like a form of self harm, following through the compulsion didn’t provide me relief from anxiety, it made me feel worse and more anxious.
    The worst OCD compulsions I ever experienced were directly related to my obsessions.

    They were also situational, and in specific situations I would be compelled to not stop thinking the things I hated and didn’t believe and wanted to stop thinking about (Harm-OCD, and/or about my worst fears/anxieties/memories) over, and over.
    I was compelled to keep thinking until I felt overwhelmed and awful.
    When I felt terrible enough was ‘able’ to stop, if I started to feel better, I would ‘have to’ THINK THOSE THOUGHTS AGAIN. Cyclically thinking them, until I was exhausted or out of the situation.

    Since at least some of the situations were things I was determined not to avoid, like riding in cars. Or could not avoid, like being alone in the dark. I was determined to not be trapped with my OCD.
    I think that also set me apart from the other people I had/have met with OCD.
    My first “real” persistent (and noticeable to *me*) obsession/compulsions were so painful and unwanted that I was desperate to get rid of them.

    • Thank you so much for sharing, PurplesShade. Your comment not only shows how tormenting OCD can be, but also how complicated it can be. And it’s so individual. I am so glad you were determined not to be trapped by your OCD and hope you continue to do well.

  11. 71 & Sunny says:

    Absolutely! I always stress to people when trying to explain OCD that contamination compulsions are only a tiny part of the illness for SOME sufferers. I try to explain the core fear of uncertainty (often combined with an almost pathological perfectionism) that tortures and destroys people’s lives. I agree that the real truth about OCD is just not getting out and it frustrates me. Even people around me who know I have OCD still say, “I’m so OCD.” I don’t understand how they can’t figure out that it is hurtful to say that, but oh well. What can you do?

    • I agree it is so very frustrating, Sunny. I have had similar experiences where I’ve tried to explain OCD to people and they still go ahead and say, “I think I’m a little OCD.” Aargh! I guess we have to just keep doing our best!

  12. bethwindler says:

    I have to chime in, too, and say I really appreciate this post. I never engaged in most of those well-known OCD behaviors, and it was hard to explain to loved ones that what was most debilitating to me were the ruminative thoughts. Worrying so much about certain things that I convinced myself that they were reality–that’s what really knocked me off my feet. (Although this is not to discount any of the suffering those who do wash their hands or toggle the light switch feel.)

    • Thank you for sharing, Beth. I can relate as my son’s compulsions were also mostly mental, and at first it was difficult for me to understand where all his anxiety was coming from. Of course the more I learned about OCD, the more it made sense…….well as much sense as OCD makes! 🙂 Hope you are doing well.

  13. nrkellner says:

    I think this is such an important post that it should be shared beyond your regular community of readers. I would like to post a link to it, if it is okay with you. I hear “I’m OCD” so often, and while I try to explain the reality of the illness, I rarely get through to people. It is not that they are not open to understanding, but it just isn’t within their realm of comprehension.

  14. Abigail says:

    I think your post is very insightful. It is that panicky fear that turns it into OCD. And that can be hard to see from the outside.

    I’ll agree with Ruby that sometimes I recognize the outward symptoms of OCD before I recognize the inner fears in myself. The fears kind of creep up on me without my noticing them growing until suddenly I realize that I’m in a compulsion about an obsession (my compulsions are usually the invisible ones where I go over and over things in my mind; the repetition and anxiety finally can clue me in that it is just the OCD monster). It is funny that ERP is trying to habituate us to our obsessive fears, but we have an unhealthy habituation to having constant fears such that I don’t even realize that my OCD is growing sometimes. I think it is just part of life until I finally realize it is just OCD, something I don’t have to put up with.

    • Thanks for sharing, Abigail. I guess the important thing is that you eventually realize you are dealing with OCD, and as you say, you know you”don’t have to put up with it.” Thank goodness for that ! 🙂

  15. Sami Clara says:

    I just blogged about this tonight. Had an appointment with a psychiatrist this morning, as my therapist wanted to try me on medication for OCD. His response was: “You do not wash your hands obsessively, you don’t check the locks excessively; you DON’T have OCD.”

    It concerns me that we expect the media to treat people suffering from OCD differently, when the psychiatrists can’t even get it right.

    Needless to say, I came away feeling completely broken and disheartened.

    I finally thought I’d reached some understanding with my ‘illness’. An illness that I’d kept a secret since I was 14 (I’m 28 now), and finally… I was getting somewhere; a therapist diagnosing me with OCD… telling me that in fact, I’m not going crazy, and help IS available…

    All hope removed by a lazy, uneducated and ignorant psychiatrist who is STILL teaching patients that OCD is a “cleanliness” problem.

    Great post by the way. Sorry for my rambling!

    • Thank you so much for sharing, Sami Clara. You’re not rambling! It is so frustrating to hear stories such as yours, and unfortunately they are not uncommon. Please don’t lose hope, as OCD is indeed treatable, and the front line treatment is Exposure and Response PRevention (ERP) therapy. Good luck as you move forward……..sometimes the hardest part of treatment is finding competent health care providers!

  16. Most of my family think that i’m just being to lenient with my daughter, not making her eat her fruit and vegetables (that’s her fear). They don”t see it as a big deal at all. My daughter has brownie camp in a few weeks, and tho the leaders know she has ocd, (or they should, since i put it on her medical sheet), they were discussing the fruits and veggies the girls liked, so they could buy some that most agreed on. I didn’t say anything at the time, but i’m not sure how to handle this. My daughter thinks she should just not go, even tho she was looking forward to it. I too, am back to seeing a therapist, b’/c OCD got away from me again. I want to get a job, but am not sure how i will do with ocd, or do the meds make me too tired to do a 40 hour work week? Life was weirdly anxious before i knew i had ocd, but i still did stuff; now i’m not sure if i can do what needs to be done without either having ocd get in the way or just having no energy for work and family and ocd.

    • Hi Karin, Thank you for sharing and you bring up a very interesting and important topic: how much should those with OCD “give in” while trying to continue on and live their lives? How much time should be spent fighting OCD versus living life and doing what you want to do, even if OCD is still a big part of your life? This topic is addressed in detail in my book, as it was a big issue for Dan and our family. I assume your daughter also is seeing a therapist? Hopefully he or she can help your daughter come up with a plan of attack so that she can go on her trip; avoidance is rarely, if ever, the answer. Good luck as you both move forward in tackling your OCD.

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