Writing this chapter has been the most challenging of all because to write about obsessive-compulsive disorder when you suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder is very triggering!
I have suffered from OCD since my early childhood and have come to learn that it has been at the centre of many of the issues and much of the distress I’ve experienced in my life. I’ve tried to figure out when and how it started, but it has been hard to pinpoint. I was clinically diagnosed with it only at the age of twenty-nine when the psychiatrist my GP had sent me to did a full evaluation of me. I remember reading his report and being like, ‘I already knew I had OCD! Why the fuck have I paid money to come to you to tell me something that I already knew!’ But since then I’ve realised that my understanding of OCD only scratched the surface.
Until I started working with my therapist, I had an idea of what I thought it was, but not what it actually is. I most certainly wouldn’t have categorised it or even thought of it as a mental disorder. I know I’m not alone in saying this because OCD is often one of the most misunderstood mental conditions there is and the term is terribly misused. How many times do you hear someone throwing around a statement like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so OCD!’ Most of the time the person saying that doesn’t actually have a clue what OCD is. A reason for this lack of understanding is that OCD doesn’t get the attention it deserves as a mental disorder. The severity of it and the distress it causes is rarely appreciated by those who don’t suffer it.
I found the best description of the condition in a very good book my therapist gave me. The Mindfulness Workbook for OCD defines it as: ‘…A psychiatric and psychological mental health issue … An obsession is an unwanted, intrusive thought. This type of thought may present itself as an idea, image, impulse, urge, memory, or other internal information, and you experience it as unwanted and distressing. A compulsion is a behaviour designed to reduce or avoid the discomfort that comes from your experience of an obsession. This behaviour may be physical, such as washing or checking, or mental, such as reviewing or neutralising … Disorder describes something that’s not contained or not as stable as it should be. It’s out of order: disordered.’
Basically, if you’re an OCD sufferer, you have an obsessive thought that can cause you great discomfort. You then feel compelled to carry out a compulsion in order to neutralise the pain. So far this might not sound all that troubling: you have a thought, do something about it. The difference though, between someone with OCD and someone without it, is not simply the thought, but the consequences you believe will follow if you don’t engage in a compulsion. Everyone has distressing thoughts, but people without OCD are able to let the distressing thoughts go, whereas, for those with OCD, the thought registers more on their mind’s radar, making them feel like they have to do something about it.
You might be a little surprised to read this because there seems to be a common belief that OCD is really just about being neat and tidy and about things being straight and in order. I probably was guilty of thinking this myself at first. Now, after researching the disorder, I’ve come to learn the full nature of the illness and how many different types of OCD there actually are. Yes, being neat and tidy is a part of OCD, but it’s only one part and is known as ‘Just Right OCD’. There are other forms of OCD, such as ‘Responsibility Checking OCD’, which could involve the compulsive checking of things over and over, such as whether you locked your door. ‘Harm OCD’, which deals with intrusive thoughts of a violent nature and the fears associated with that. And ‘Scrupulosity OCD’, which primarily focuses on a fear of God and religion. I have at one point or another dealt with issues that fall into each of these categories. At the time though, I was totally unaware that the behaviour I was engaging in was because of OCD.
Some people suffer just one aspect of OCD and not another. Or different things at different times. For me, ‘Just Right OCD’ was a big issue growing up. I suffered ‘Harm OCD’ after nights out drinking. And ‘Scrupulosity OCD’ (which I didn’t even know was a word until I started doing work on it) has probably been the most distressing of all the OCDs
I’ve dealt with.
One Sunday at boarding school, we had the day off to go home. My best friend Ed and I decided to go to London for the day. Ed was a playful guy like me and he knew I was very ‘superstitious’, so he decided to fuck with me. He told me that if I stood on a crack on the street, something bad would happen. For the rest of the day, I literally tiptoed around the streets of London like I was some sort of fucking ballerina out of the Bolshoi ballet, trying to avoid stepping on cracks in order to avoid getting ‘bad luck’. Now that the idea was in my head, this behaviour continued back at school. I walked around Wellington trying my hardest not to step on cracks. It got so bad that I would turn up late to class because a walk that should’ve taken me two minutes took ten.
It wasn’t just what other people told me though. It was also what I’d tell myself. If my mind came up with a scenario where I could potentially get ‘bad luck’, I would come up with behaviour I thought I had to do to avoid it. Most of the time, though, there was absolutely no correlation between the behaviour and what I was trying to avoid getting bad luck for.
The fear of ‘bad luck’ plagued my whole time at boarding school. My compulsions not only got in the way of my own happiness and peace, but they also got in the way of my studies and they got in the way of the other kids’ peace because my behaviour was a disturbance to them. To give you an example of this, in our boarding house, our bedrooms lined both sides of a corridor. One of my compulsions would be to open and shut my door over and over again before I went to sleep, otherwise, I thought I would get ‘bad luck’ the next day. And the number of times I would have to open and shut it would always have to be an even number.
For example, it could never be twenty-five times, it would have to be twenty-four, or twenty-six (yes, it could be that many!). Except it couldn’t be twenty-six because half of twenty-six is thirteen and that was an unlucky number. That’s how my mind operated. Obviously, the sound of this opening and closing door was a disturbance and there’d be cries of ‘Sid, just shut up and go to sleep’ from the kids in the other bedrooms. It really irritated them and quite rightly so. But my mind wouldn’t let me rest until I had done it a certain number of times… It was only many years later that I came to learn that the reason I was having these thoughts and engaging in this kind of behaviour was because I was suffering from OCD. The thoughts about getting ‘bad luck’ were obsessions; the behaviours I came up with in response to the obsessions were compulsions.
And because it was getting in the way of my wellbeing, it was a disorder. Looking back, I wish I’d known that I was suffering from OCD because maybe I would have been able to get the help that I needed, not only to save me the anguish at the time but also to save me from the mental distress that I would continue to suffer post-school because of it.
Excerpted with permission from 'If I'm Honest: A Memoir of My Mental Health Journey' by Sidhartha Mallya (Westland Publications)