I’ve long known that obsessive compulsive disorder was not about being neat and tidy. That the stereotype of an excessively orderly person, or someone obsessed with cleanliness and avoiding germs – is a simplification of one part of this complex set of experiences. But I recently set myself to learning a bit more as a bit of Continuing Professional Development reading – and have been surprised to find myself recognising aspects of myself in the past – and also understanding experiences that other people have shared with me over time.
The concept of my having anything to do with O.C.D. would have my parents rolling in the aisles. Because they probably share that stereotyped understanding that many of us have from media representations. And I am many things, but I am not tidy, orderly, clean, or any of those other words. My messiness has been a source of distress for them for four decades. They worry about it far more than I do.
So what do I mean? What in fact is O.C.D.?
At the core for most, is some kind of intrusive thought. Indeed for some people – intrusive and unpleasant thoughts of one variety or another, are the whole of it. With Rumination O.C.D, sometimes known as “Pure O” – all of the action is in the head, those intrusive thoughts and a person’s mental response to them, which can go round and round and become all consuming.
But many others will develop a response to the thoughts which takes the form of an action. Something they find which temporarily relieves the anxiety caused by the thoughts – and which over time they feel compelled to do, again and again, more and more. This might be washing their hands to avoid contamination by germs, or avoiding touching things, or cleaning, or all of the about. It may be repetitive, ritualised behaviours that have come to “mean” something to the person – i.e., someone worries about their spouse dying, and somehow come to believe that if they never step on a crack in the pavement, and cross every threshold seven times then they will prevent that from happening. Sometimes people become obsessively worried and doubtful and need to check things over and over again, or seek reassurance over again, never trusting their memory.
Simply keeping your kitchen clean and tidy because it’s a good thing to do isn’t O.C.D. Even if you have to have everything just so. But – if you are doing it because it alleviates some other distressing thought – for instance that you might poison your family by accident – and if you clean over and over again, even when it is not necessary, then there might be an issue.
So what have I recognised in myself? Two things. Not really from now – though there is a ghost of it still which could re-emerge to haunt me any time.
Firstly – lets talk about the other end of the scale from that clean and tidy kitchen. Hoarding has been recognised as a kind of O.C.D. – an anxiety related disorder where compulsive behaviours come as a result of underlying trauma of some kind. Part of the reason my parents bewail my scruffiness is that I have so much stuff in my house. Not quite packed to the rafters yet – but in some parts not far off. Some of that is simply because I used to live in a bigger house, and I could do with few more rooms. But when I think back, I can recognise a period of time when my behaviour became problematic.
I have a lot of books. I mean a lot. I have about 8 bookcases, all double stacked, plus cupboards and drawers full of books, piled hither and thither. I love books. But I have come to hate the books in my house. I am a librarian. They are in not a great deal of order beyond fiction / non fiction. I don’t know where anything is. I don’t know what I have anymore. They certainly aren’t decoratively displayed. They even get stood on. I hate it. I’ve had a lot of books for a long time but I used to try to keep on top of them. Get a new bookcase when I needed one. Keep them in order. Set my prized collections apart in some way. But then at some point I went a bit mad with it. Literally.
The more I think about it the more I see it. A long while ago, I had a hypomanic period when I spent a load of money. And part of that was going into bookshops and coming out with bags of lovely books. When I got better, I banned myself from buying new books, except for very occasionally. I have actually stuck to that most of the time. However. A couple of things happened. In my then workplace – we had to move the library. Again. We moved a lot. And each time we had to pare the stock down and get rid of books, which was not pleasant. This time we had to a) get rid of a huge amount of stock, space wise – and b) weren’t given a lot of time to make the decisions about what to get rid of, and what to keep. I was deeply distressed by the amount of really useful and interesting material I saw being marked up for discard. So I took it upon myself to rescue a load of them.
It was probably not in any way insignificant that this coincided with a difficult break up with a long term partner. As well as adding hundreds of books to my shelves from the library – I also started buying from charity shops. Because charity = good, and second hand is not “new books” which were banned. And it didn’t cost as much money… But suddenly it was getting out of hand. So I limited myself again, said, I can only buy books from authors I want to collect. But that started with one or two, then I added another, and another, and another….
Anyway. Time passed, and I gradually stopped. I went through an interesting transition. I love books. I loved books. Books gave me comfort, made me feel safe. I could lose myself in books and forget the mess that was my world. But I had all these books and I wasn’t reading. I didn’t have time, or the ability to concentrate. Books had been my treasures, along with the relics of past relationships and experiences that I had carried from house to house like religious totems, polishing, displaying – each ornament or photo having sacred significance. And yet despite all of that – my relationship had still fallen apart. And while I had a new one, I still grieved for that loss. The person I loved, the life we had thought we might have together. And so all of those material things lost their meaning.
The books on my shelves don’t comfort me any more. They nag at me. They get in the way. They remind me of my inadequacy. I will – sometime soon, try and do something about it. I wish that could be to have a library built, give them the space they need and put them in order, but it can’t be – so I need to cull, and bring them into proportion. Unless we make the decision to pay for proper storage. Meanwhile, I am trying to work my way through the other things I have hoarded, or collected. Another aspect is the perfectionist standards I set for myself in moving house. New home, new town – I was going to be a new person. I was going to be super ethical environmentalist, crafty, gardeny goddess lady. So I started collecting things I thought might be useful. Plastic pots, egg boxes, corks, lids, bits of string, bits of cloth, cardboard, jars. Again. Great if I had the space, and if I ever actually did anything with them. But I don’t. But sometimes it is physically painful to throw things away. Even to put in the recycling, because I am not living up to those stupid perfectionist standards. Did I think that if I met those standards it would stop my relationship breaking down this time? That I have to prove something to be loved? I see this same pattern sometimes in the paralysis I get when shopping, or deciding what to eat. Shopping – what are my priorities? How much does it cost? Is it organic? Free range? Fair trade? Rainforest friendly, Cruelty free, do I know about the ethics of the producer, yes but how many air miles and what about palm oil and but then what about the fat/sugar/additives content, but does it taste nice and does my husband like it and oh I am now having a panic attack and abandon the whole shop. Sometimes we just need to buy something to eat.
The other time is last year and my troubles with health anxiety. Obsessive worrying about my health – be it my heart, my digestion, my hernia, my operation, sepsis, my fall, my leg, tetanus, any of the above and more. Responding to said worries with checking – looking up on the internet, reading everything I can – ostensibly to understand the risk better, but actually fuelling it. Checking the physical area, poking, prodding, testing. Changing my diet, my habits. Asking people, doctors. It took about 6 months, at least, to bring it under control again. Though I still think my leg is broken.
I know people who are troubled with intrusive thoughts that make them think they are bad people, people who struggle with crowded places or public transport for fear of something bad happening. Some of them develop avoidance or safety routines that distract from their anxiety. I know people who compulsively shop online and then find themselves surrounded by boxes of stuff they don’t really want and certainly don’t need – not to mention the credit card bills.
At the root of it all is that anxiety – that fear of some perceived danger – insecurity, loss, trauma. Something we need to work through, and something which we may need help to overcome. Avoidance and distraction and these safety rituals only ever help momentarily, and they can become a bigger problem in themselves if they begin to take over. If this is you – talk to someone. A friend, your GP, contact an organisation who may be able to help you free yourself from its grip.
OCD UK http://www.ocduk.org/
Anxiety UK https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/