Monday, 11 March 2019

OCD IS NOT A SYNONYM FOR 'CLEAN FREAK'

*TRIGGER WARNING: detail about OCD. If you’re the type of person that suffers from any mental health condition that is impulsive or easily triggered… do not stress yourself out trying to read this.*

Hello chicas y chicos,

You’re probably aware from the title of this post that I’m gonna chat to you about mental health shenanigans. I don’t want to make this post about OCD in the ‘I am explaining to you the basics of it’ way. I just want it to be about my experiences and how I am coping. Is that a tad self-centred? Probably. But hopefully, you’ll be somewhat interested too.


Like anxiety, I have dealt with OCD since I was a very young child. My earliest memories of it are when I was in reception (roughly, four years-old) and, at first, they manifested mainly in sensorimotor ways. I had, what my mum called, a ‘nervous’ cough that didn’t go away until I turned sixteen; I would obsessively blink, swallow, and breathe. Basically, I was extremely aware of my ‘senses’. What my mum did not know, and neither did I until this year, is that all of my nervous ticks were actually OCD.

As I got older, these sensory compulsions to blink hard or cough every five seconds became harder to play off as nervous or childish habits. I was self-conscious and embarrassed. My friends in secondary school sometimes giggled about it. And one time, my best friend, who was just as clueless as I was about what was going on and why I was doing these things, even got angry at me. She convinced herself that my cough was deliberate: a rude or condescending gesture towards or even about her. But how could I correct her and articulate what it meant when I didn't even know the answer to that question?

It was mentally draining to control. Having to remember to blink and look in certain directions to satisfy my compulsions, trying to swallow without swallowing the dangly thing at the back of my throat every time, or forcing myself to cough whenever I thought a ‘bad’ thought. A day in the life of me, aged twelve, was more exhausting than my life now (see my previous post!)

By the time I turned fourteen, I’d convinced myself I had a minor form of Tourette's. I knew it. I’d seen a program on TV called Kids with Tourette's, and the way they described their impulsive behaviours and ticks, whether that be clicking, insulting someone, or cursing, was exactly the same as me. It was not something I could just stop doing. I had to do it. Why? The only way I can describe the feeling is if I ask you to imagine the sound of chalk scratching down a blackboard; that unease is what I endured until I fulfilled my impulse by coughing or blinking etc.

I also had rituals that I performed every day, such as running back and forth in my living room ten times when I got home from school or touching all of the corners of my wardrobe before I fell asleep.

I suffered from a sense of ‘evenness’ where I had to touch objects from side-side until my mind was content that they were even/ balanced. I picked the sides of my thumbs until they bled, I still do, and bit the insides of my mouth. I had to have two cysts removed at different times because I had burst the vessels in my mouth. I also struggled with eating a lot, mainly due to fear of contamination. I’d convince myself there was unclean air around my food, or there was bodily odours or fluids in the room that had contaminated it.

And this is why OCD is potentially the more ambiguous and misunderstood mental health disorder. Because there are so many forms of it.

Yes, some people do have to clean everything in sight, or cannot go a day without bleaching the toilet… but the reason why the ‘clean’ stereotype is damaging to people that suffer from OCD is because it does not acknowledge the ‘why’.

If I am going through a rough patch, I will clean my room. Not because I have leisure time and want to rearrange the feng shui so I can create a tidy space where I can feel zen. Not because I like the aesthetic. That is not how OCD works.

I clean because it counters the lack of control I am experiencing mentally; I am able to exert control onto my external environment. Maybe I have to tidy because there are certain clothing materials that I cannot stand to have touching other materials. Perhaps I am convinced that if I leave my wardrobes open at night there is contaminated air that will escape into my room. As with other mental disorders, like eating disorders, OCD is about regaining control.

The main reason is: if I do not submit to the compulsion, regardless of how it manifests, there are mental consequences. I experience bad thoughts and feelings that will not go away.

It’s not that the stereotype is wrong. It’s misrepresented. People with OCD do have rituals such as washing their hands multiple times, cleaning their rooms, and keeping tidy. But that does not mean that they enjoy doing it. I know that when I am dealing with any form of OCD it is a very intense and unpleasant experience for me.

So, if you can take away anything from this, it’s just to be mindful in the way you talk about the disorder. Please stop saying that you wish you had OCD so your home could be immaculate every day. Stop asking people with OCD to clean your room for you. Stop using OCD as a synonym for tidiness. Each time you do, you are reducing a very serious mental health disorder to a desirable attribute. And, more importantly, an attribute that the person is in total control of. When really, as with any other mental disorder, it’s impossible to just ‘stop’ it.

Love, George xxx
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