Geeks Vs Loneliness: a few words about OCD

Luftmentsch takes over the Geeks Vs Loneliness column to tell us about obsessive compulsive disorder...

Welome to Geeks Vs Loneliness, our little part of the site where we talk about issues affecting a few, some, or many of us. We don’t have anything close to a magic wand, or miracle answers. But hopefully, we have a few bits and bobs that may be of use to you, or someone you know.

This week, we’re handing over to Luftmentsch, who approached us wanting to write a piece about OCD. We’re very glad that he did…

When people think of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), they probably think of people washing their hands endlessly from fear of contamination or compulsively counting things or checking the door is locked numerous times.

While these are indeed forms of OCD, in reality, OCD covers many other forms of behaviour. What they all have in common is the involuntary and distressing nature of the obsessions and compulsions (if someone enjoys their obsession or compulsion, it is not OCD).

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OCD lives in the world of doubt, in the realm of uncertainty, in those horrible words, “But what if…?”  Of course, nothing in life is ever completely certain.  I might make a point of concentrating on locking my door, focusing on the event to remember it clearly later, but perhaps my memory is simply imagination, “remembering” what I would have liked to have happened, or what happened yesterday. Even if I write myself a note saying I have locked the door, perhaps I made a mistake, thinking I had locked the door when I had not done so. This leads to a quest for reassurance that can never be satisfied and only fuels the OCD further. So I go back to check the door is locked, but come to doubt that memory too and go back there and check again and again…

I think there is a sense in which OCD is an autoimmune disease of the mind.  The immune system is vital for an organism’s life, but with an autoimmune disease it attacks the body itself, so too OCD takes vital thought processes – our internal guards against inappropriate or reckless behaviour – and turns them against us, making us fearful of very safe behaviours.

I’ve been suffering from OCD for well over a year now (in addition to clinical depression going back many years – the two tend to fuel each other). I should probably say that, strictly speaking, I have never had an official diagnosis of OCD, my psychiatrist (when I had one) speaking only of “OCD symptoms”, which rather confused me (if it looks like a duck and goes “quack”, surely it’s a duck?). I certainly feel like I have OCD, regardless of whether I have that written on an official bit of paper.

My OCD can be described in two phrases, “pure O” and “scrupulosity.”  Pure O (obsession) involves obsessive thoughts without compulsive actions. These can vary widely from person to person. Some people might have disturbing violent or sexual thoughts; religious people might have unwanted blasphemous thoughts and so on. While there is no physical compulsion, the thoughts lead on to obsessive thinking, wondering what the thoughts mean.  “If I had a thought of hurting someone, does that mean I really want to hurt them? Am I really a psychopath?”

An unending search for definitive “proof” that the obsessive person is not really dangerous ensues – unending because, as I said above, no definitive proof is possible. The reality is that pure O is characterized by the disturbing nature of the thoughts – the fact that the person finds them so disturbing is the proof that they are unlikely to act on them. But this is not usually strong enough proof in the midst of obsessive thinking.

The other aspect of my OCD is scrupulosity. Basically, scrupulosity is religious or ethical OCD, where a person worries that they may be infringing their religious or moral code. In my case this mostly takes the form of worrying that I have broken the Jewish dietary laws and obsessively checking with my rabbi or in books to see that what I have done is OK. I’m usually reluctant to mention this aspect in public, because I get frightened by the reaction I might get – I fear people will say, “Well, if you belong to such a legalistic religion, what do you expect?” Actually, Judaism brings much joy and meaning into my life. Research shows that religion does not cause OCD, it merely determines the form it will take. If I was not worrying about religious food laws, I would probably be worrying obsessively about food hygiene. The OCD just finds the most painful (because most heartfelt) area to attack.

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To try and end on a positive note, lately I feel there has been a slight change for the better. Not in my obsessions and behaviours, which remain difficult, but in the negative self-perceptions that I feel underlie them. I have begun to feel that I may not be such a bad person, may even be a moderately good person. I realise that I care about Jewish ritual law and also about Jewish ethical law (I don’t want to be a religious bigot who cares about God, but not about people) and that this puts me on the right track. Occasionally and for short periods I can even feel that I am a good person. This is an improvement and perhaps I will be able to build on it until I can trust my own judgment about things without obsessing and engaging in checking behaviours.

Thanks for reading.