For those who think they, or a loved one, might be suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, it is easy to go online and find a list of typical symptoms.
In some cases, people’s obsessions and compulsions might be quite obvious and they will present with a “classic case” of OCD. Sufferers who fear contamination (obsession) and wash their hands until they bleed (compulsion) are a good example.
But it is not always that easy to figure out if you or someone you care about has the disorder. Some symptoms of OCD may not seem like symptoms of anything at all. For example, at least a year before we knew my son Dan had OCD, he stopped choosing what clothes to wear in the morning. “Just pick out anything for me; I don’t care what,” he’d say. While I may have thought this behavior was a little odd for a teenager, it never once crossed my mind that Dan was consciously avoiding making decisions. I now know that this is not an uncommon symptom of OCD. If Dan didn’t have to decide what to wear, or what movie to go to with friends, or give his opinion on anything, then he would not be responsible for anything bad that might happen as a result of his decision. As I’ve said before, while intellectually Dan knew his thinking made no sense, there was always doubt, another mainstay of OCD; “What if I wear my blue shirt and then someone I love dies?”
Reassurance seeking, such as asking “Are you sure everything is okay?” is a common compulsion in OCD. As a matter of fact, when Dan entered his residential treatment program, cell phone use was discouraged because so many clients would continually call home for reassurance. I told Dan’s social worker that he never asked for reassurance, and that was true. But what he did do was routinely apologize for things most people would never apologize for. He’d say things such as “I’m sorry I spent so much money at the supermarket,” (when he actually hadn’t) and I’d answer, “You didn’t spend that much; you have to eat.” Now it is easy for me to see that Dan’s apologies were a form of reassurance seeking and my responses to him were classic enabling.
Of course a lot of people avoid making decisions, and I’m sure just as many are always saying they’re sorry. I am in no way suggesting they all have OCD. What I am saying is that OCD can manifest itself in countless ways; no two OCD sufferers will have exactly the same symptoms. Couple that with the knowledge that there are still lots of therapists out there who are not that familiar with OCD symptoms and treatment, and you may have the makings of a difficult diagnosis.
And so this is just one more reason to continue to advocate for OCD awareness. The more knowledgeable we all are about the signs and symptoms of OCD, the better position we will be in to fight the disorder head on.