Symptoms of OCD?

by stuart miles

by stuart miles

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.

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12 Responses to Symptoms of OCD?

  1. victoria says:

    So what should you have said? I need to know how not to enable.
    Thank you

    • Hi Victoria, I’m not a therapist, and your question is a great one to ask a specialist. In Dan’s case, I would usually say something as direct as, “That’s your OCD talking Dan and I’m not going to respond to it,” or if we really wanted to get into the ERP therapy, I’d say something such as, “Yeah, you did spend a lot of money.” Again, I recommend speaking with an expert who is familiar with your situation. Good luck!

  2. G says:

    The timing on this was perfect as it pointed out a symptom that I didn’t know was a symptom. Will be talking to the treatment team. Thanks.

  3. 71 & Sunny says:

    Ah yes, not wanting to have the responsibility for making decisions. This was a big one for me. I still cringe a little sometimes when I have to take responsibility and make important decisions that involve other people. I just have to make the best decision that I can at the time. Ugh and live with the uncertainty that I maybe made a mistake that could impact others. Not fun, but necessary if I’m going to live normally.

    • Sunny, your last sentence says it all in reference to making decisions and living with the uncertainty that brings: “Not fun, but necessary if I’m going to live normally.” So true!

  4. Steering clear of responsibility in making decisions, continuous apologizing–oh, yes, I did all that, and it took me years to see those as signs of OCD. I had some of the “classic” signs, so I didn’t delve deeper to see other things that were hurting me. Thanks for this, Janet. It’s a great educational piece!

  5. It’s amazing how much of OCD is not what people usually think of when they think of OCD. So many mental health professionals miss these symptoms, too. Thank you for educating us all!

    • I agree, Angie. And sometimes those with OCD don’t realize it either. I’ve gotten lots of emails from people with OCD who never realized their apologizing was a compulsion. That’s why it’s so great to share. We all can learn a lot!

  6. Leah says:

    My son repeatedly feels the need to write things down all the time. He won’t show me what he is writing and refuses to seek help. He gets angry if I talk to him about it and says its better if I ignore it. Is this case or how to I not enable this situation. It takes up a lot of his time and I just don’t know what to do to help him. Thank ou or any help you can give us.

    • Hi Leah, I’m sorry your son isn’t willing to seek help at this point. I know that’s a tough situation. My suggestion would be for you, yourself, to connect with a therapist who specializes in treating OCD so that he/she can help you figure out the best ways to help your son, without enabling him. A therapist could give you practical suggestions (such as not adapting your schedule at all to accommodate your son’s writing) as well as give you suggestions to hopefully help your son see the benefits of fighting his OCD. Good luck as you move forward and please keep me posted!

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