If one thing is needed to support people with obsessive compulsive disorder, it’s for the abandonment of selfishness
For so many, this time of year means wonderful celebrations with Diwali, Halloween, Christmas and so on. It can be a beautiful time of year. The leaves are golden and beginning to fall from the trees. Poems have actually been written about the autumn and winter. Yet, certain times of years can trigger episodes of mental ill health. For myself, every autumn means major anxiety and bouts of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
OCD is a condition that’s not really understood, but more than that, it’s a condition people just don’t have the patience for. OCD involves many routines or rituals that a person must do to try to ease anxiety (they really can consist of anything), but when in public, completing these tasks may not be possible or, if they are, they may be treated with impatience and scorn.
It’s often said that OCD isn’t about washing your hands constantly but that’s not entirely true. Great numbers of people won’t experience the compulsion to do this, but thorough hygiene practices are actually often compulsive for those who experience other health conditions and/or experience anxiety around their health. This time of year is rife with germs, the beginning of the winter sickness bug and fluctuating temperatures which means catching viruses is hard to avoid. When you have OCD with a health anxiety, washing hands can be something that is done fifty times a day. It can involve carrying sanitiser, always wearing gloves outside but also needing to moisturise your hands every couple of hours – and still that’s not enough to stop the inevitable cuts and bleeding from dry skin. For some, this seems “manic” (a term I recently heard), but to the person living with OCD it is compulsive. It has to be done, otherwise what will follow will be the worst illness ever experienced. It doesn’t make sense to others but that’s the point of mental health conditions. They can only be completely understood by the person living through it.
There can be many other manifestations. For instance, resisting the compulsion to message everyone constantly because anxiety has spiked and it’s now a time where for some reason there’s the belief that everyone hates you. It’s not being able to answer the phone because you’re convinced it will be someone with terrible news. It is having a panic attack because someone is ten minutes late for a meeting and instead of thinking they’ve gotten lost, they must be dead. It’s having to log off from social media just because people are talking about whether to wash a chicken and it’s sending compulsive tendencies through the roof. It’s the everyday terror that nudes will be leaked, regardless of whether any even exist. It is believing that you’re dragging people down, making life worse for them and that you’re distracting them or ruining wonderful opportunities for them. It’s having rituals that do not make sense to anyone else at all. These rituals can feel so shameful, many people with OCD might never be able to tell anyone about them, in case they’re thought of as “crazy” because the stigma is still so high.
“These rituals can feel so shameful, many people with OCD might never be able to tell anyone about them”
Some days it’s wanting to cry and kick the bin half way across the room because there just doesn’t feel like a way that you can ever feel right again. That’s at the heart of OCD; you just feel wrong, and that now everyone can see it and these compulsive tendencies might be the only way to get redemption. It’s an ongoing battle, and for some, the time of year doesn’t make any difference but they might have different triggers instead.
To support those with OCD, there are several things friends and family can do. Try not to get annoyed if you see compulsive actions (like re-washing your dishes). It might feel rude, but it’s not meant to be. Compulsive tendencies are a sign of stress so either don’t comment, or talk gently through them. Reach out to people you think are acting distant. There’s a chance they might be going through a rough episode and are trying to figure out how to get through it. Support matters. And actually fucking do that because no matter how much we say “let’s make it easier to talk about mental health”, how many people really dedicate the time and energy to send a message and get into that conversation? Yeah, it might be uncomfortable and you might not know what to say but it’s about being there and smashing down any isolation.
Don’t recommend trips to the GP. It’s not as though mental health care is really valued in this country, and people with OCD don’t need lectures about looking after themselves. They can make an appointment when they want. However, we as a society need to stop centering ourselves so that we can truly be there for others and show solidarity. If compulsive tendencies make you uncomfortable, get the fuck over it. It’s a sign of a health condition. Does your impatience really matter more than someone trying to manage their mental health?
OCD doesn’t often make sense, and often not even to the person who has it. It can be managed, but it also should be something that relatives and friends don’t see as something irksome and tiring but as part of their loved one. By accepting it, managing it becomes so much easier but if someone with OCD is made to feel both at war with themselves and everyone around them, that just makes anxiety spiral, and the symptoms worsen. Tough love is bullshit. OCD can be managed, but it cannot be shouted away.