If someone asked me to describe what OCD was, before suffering from it, I’d probably say it’s someone who cleans a lot, likes to have things sitting a certain way, or someone who maybe does things repetitively for fear of harm coming to them or someone they know. I will also hold my hands up and admit that I’ve used the old, “Oh that’s/you’re so OCD” line one too many times. While the examples I gave above are indeed types of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, it’s only the tip of the iceberg on what is an incredibly debilitating and often embarrassing condition. I’m going to focus on my own branch of OCD in this post, although I should point out that it’s a very varied illness with different classifications.
My OCD came about as the result of rape and physical assault. This will not have been the sole catalyst for the disorder, as although trauma plays a huge role in it and why it has manifested in the way it does, I had been dealing with underlying anxiety issues for a while before this. This is most likely where the link of the behaviour has formed.
My classification is Contamination, and more accurately – Mental Contamination. This area relates to the feeling of being “contaminated” by particular triggers such as people, places and certain items. For me, I feel shamefully unclean most of, if not all, the time and it’s difficult to put in to words just how strong this feeling is. The condition is cyclical in nature, and a vicious cycle at that. For example, I will be triggered by something, I will use compulsive measures to counteract the obsession which give relief for a very brief period only then to start all over again.
So, what are my triggers? In truth, my OCD seems to go hand-in-hand with my PTSD diagnosis which is pretty fucking annoying, as for the moment I have very little control over the latter. When I experience flashbacks or nightmares, I feel so strongly that the event is happening again that I instantly need to clean myself, no matter the time. I am also triggered by physical contact, which naturally is incredibly limiting to my social interactions with people. This is where typical “avoidance” behaviour kicks in, and I find myself trying to remove myself from the possibility altogether – y’know, in like a “Oh, Mon Dieu, don’t look at me” kind of way. I think, weirdly, this is the only time in my life that I could ever be glad of suffering from Agoraphobia as the thought of being in public with the possibility of being touched at any time makes my skin crawl and my stomach turn.
My compulsions vary depending on just how strong the trigger is. For example, flashbacks cause unlimited washing which tends to be fairly extreme in nature, not only down to the amount of attempts (14 is the current record in our kitchen blackboard, booya), but also by water temperature and products used to make myself feel “clean”. Unfortunately, it seems to be male contact that warrants a stronger response than female which I feel incredibly guilty about. I don’t negative feelings towards men, as what happened is not a reflection on men overall but merely a reflection on an individual. This also triggers washing. Female contact, however, is more bearable but tends to result in scratching/itching or scrubbing at my skin. These experiences of contact have all been through friends, and I can’t say whether I would react this way to family. Thankfully I’m also single – can you imagine how much of a nightmare I would be?! Fuck that.
The thing is, I know what I’m doing is futile and I shouldn’t be reacting the way I am and that’s the most infuriating part of it. I know it’s wrong, but I can’t stop myself. Effed up, eh? It causes damage to me physically – my skin condition is very bad to the point I need to do research on buying a vat of moisturiser to dunk myself in (like a biscuit in a cup of tea) due to looking like a lizard Queen, and I also cut myself/leave marks by excessive scrubbing and scratching. My behaviour is embarrassing to say the least, and I’m ashamed of what I do and how I react. Anyone who has seen the behaviour has initially been taken aback at the extremity of it, but I cannot thank my housemates and friends for their gentle approach and making sure they don’t do anything to warrant any compulsions. I have said to them, and I will reiterate again for any that read this (hello, you nosy munchkins), my reaction isn’t a reflection on you as a person; I don’t think you are dirty* or there is anything “wrong” with you – it’s just how I’m processing what has happened.
I’ve been working on this with my therapist, by a combination of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). I find it difficult, especially when my other issues interact with it and I’m still coming to terms with them and trying to deal with them separately. It takes a lot of work and practice in my own time, and it requires patience which is something I do tend to lack. ERP is a method that essentially makes me confront my obsession in order to gradually stop the compulsions. A few weeks ago, my therapist asked my housemate (male) to hug me for ten seconds. Ten seconds doesn’t sound too bad, right? I despair. That was ten seconds of increasingly itchy, OCD nightmare, Dante’s Inferno levels of straight-up HELL.You know when you see pictures of toddlers desperately trying to hug cats, and the cat has that intense look of “kill me now”? You get the picture. I spent those entire ten seconds staring at my therapist over my housemate’s shoulder with a look so piercing (whilst silently shedding a single tear) I’m pretty sure I saw into her soul.
Again, I don’t look forward to dealing with this. It kind of feels like I come up against walls all the time, and unfortunately I seem to be putting them there myself. My only resolve in this, is that I try to look at it with as much humour as I can. I think if I don’t, I would cry continuously at the completely limiting nature of it. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder really is shit, and it’s so much more than cleaning or flicking light switches on and off seventeen times in case your entire family die. It can control every aspect of your daily life; consumes your time, your effort and your self esteem. Maybe try and think differently the next time you go to call something or someone OCD – I know I will.
*To be fair, some of you could do with taking some tips from me. Mingaaaz.