Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
People with obsessive-compulsive disorder suffer intensely from anxious thoughts or rituals that they feel they can't control. They may be plagued by persistent, unwelcome thoughts or images, or by the urgent need to engage in certain rituals.
They may be obsessed with germs or dirt, so they wash their hands over and over. They may be filled with doubt and feel the need to check things repeatedly. They might be preoccupied by thoughts of violence and fear that they will harm people close to you. They may spend long periods of time touching things or counting. They may be preoccupied by order or symmetry. They may have persistent thoughts of performing sexual acts that are repugnant to them. Or, they may be troubled by thoughts that are against their religious beliefs.
The following are typical examples of OCD:
Troubled by repeated thoughts that she may have contaminated herself by touching doorknobs and other "dirty" objects, a teenage girl spends hours every day washing her hands. Her hands are red and raw, and she has little time for social activities.
A middle-aged man is tormented by the notion that he may injure others through carelessness. He has difficulty leaving his home because he must first go through a lengthy ritual of checking and rechecking the gas jets and water faucets to make certain that they are turned off.
Several times a day, a young mother is seized by the fearful thought that she is going to harm her child. However hard she tries, she cannot get rid of this painful and worrisome idea. She even refuses to touch the kitchen knives and other sharp objects because she is afraid that she may use them as weapons.
Typical Day in the Life of an OCD-Sufferer
"I couldn't do anything without rituals. They transcended every aspect of my life. Counting was big for me. When I set my alarm at night, I had to set it to a number that wouldn't add up to a "bad" number. If my sister was 33 and I was 24, I couldn't leave the TV on Channel 33 or 24. I would wash my hair three times as opposed to once because three was a good luck number and one wasn't."
"It took me longer to read because I'd count the lines in a paragraph. If I was writing a term paper, I couldn't have a certain number of words on a line if it added up to a bad number. I was always worried that if I didn't do something, my parents were going to die. Or I would worry about harming my parents, which was completely irrational. I couldn't wear anything that said Boston because my parents were from Boston. I couldn't write the word
'death' because I was worried that something bad would happen."
"Getting dressed in the morning was tough because I had a routine, and if I deviated from that routine, I'd have to get dressed again. I knew the rituals didn't make sense, but I couldn't seem to overcome them until I had therapy."
The disturbing thoughts or images are called
obsessions, and the rituals that are performed to try to prevent or dispel them are called
compulsions. The rituals are often performed in hope of preventing obsessive thoughts or making them go away. Performing these rituals, however, provides only temporary relief, and not performing them markedly increases anxiety.
A lot of healthy people can identify with having some of the symptoms of OCD, such as checking the stove several times before leaving the house. But the disorder is diagnosed only when such activities consume at least an hour a day, are very distressing, and interfere with daily life.
Most adults with this condition recognize that what they're doing is senseless, but they can't stop it. Some people, though, particularly children with OCD, may not realize that their behavior is out of the ordinary.
Left untreated, obsessions and the need to perform rituals can take over a person's life. OCD is often a chronic, relapsing illness. In addition, depression or other anxiety disorders may accompany OCD. Some people with OCD have eating disorders. They may also avoid situations in which they might have to confront their obsessions. Or they may try unsuccessfully to use alcohol or drugs to calm themselves. If OCD grows severe enough, it can keep someone from holding down a job or from carrying out normal responsibilities at home, but more often it doesn't develop to those extremes.
Effective treatments are available to help people with OCD.
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