Have you wondered why your colleague obsessively scrubs her hand till it’s almost bruised or why your boss always insists on keeping his eclectic collection of pens arranged in a particular order? That’s perhaps because they both suffer from a kind of anxiety disorder that they are either unaware of or choose not to speak about.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or OCD is a chronic, anxiety disorder that is misunderstood and misinterpreted by many. Often, people assume OCD as an issue related to personal hygiene and perfectionism. In reality, however, OCD is much more than washing hands or organising pens in a certain order. It is about the anxiety victims face while curbing intrusive thoughts such as the presence of germs everywhere, or dealing with disarray in everyday life. That is why the roots of OCD go way deeper into the subconscious mind of a person and distort their perception. “What sets apart those who are suffering from an anxiety disorder, of which OCD is one, is another idea, unspoken, but powerful, that lies underneath the surface. It is the idea that danger is lurking everywhere,” writes Dr. Fredric Neuman, Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Centre, on his blog.
The unspoken idea that New York-based psychiatrist Dr. Neuman talks about, is rather elusive in nature. Only people suffering from OCD realise they are going through it. Those witnessing it, perceive it as a personality quirk rather than a disorder. Owing to the low awareness around the disorder, people associate OCD with various commonplace activities, such as cleaning the house till it is spotless. Albert Rothenberg, professor of Psychology at Harvard University explains the difference between “liking” a clean house and obsessive cleanliness. “In the latter, you will have the presence of rigidity, excessive attention to detail, preoccupation with control of disorder and dirt. The latter can be measured by amounts of time spent on cleaning, intolerance of the slightest disarray or disorder, and punitive response to change or interference by others,” says Rothenberg.
Another major misconception around OCD is that it can be tamed by a person suffering from it if he chooses to. How hard is it to control irrational behaviour? Dr. Ashlesha Bagadia, a clinical psychiatrist, dispels the notion that it can be tamed: “There is repetitive behaviour to reduce the anxiety caused by the obsessive thoughts, but the repetitive compulsions don’t reduce the anxiety much, and they can get caught up in a vicious cycle of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviour.” Once anxiety kicks in, it springs compulsive behaviour that fuels the anxiety even further—it becomes a process that runs on itself, making OCD difficult to control.
Take the case of Aditi, a young mother, who had been struggling with OCD for more than five years. Aditi had compulsive cleaning behaviour and contamination phobia. She couldn’t use a washroom if someone had used it before her. She would spend hours cleaning the bathroom or bedroom, even if someone touched an object. Aditi even had to quit her job because of her obsessive compulsions. Her husband supported her, but in his own ways. For the most part, he believed her condition was incurable, and only she could control her OCD through a strong will and determination. However, not everyone can rise above OCD just through willpower. Dr. Bagadia explains, “For people with OCD, they never know when the anxiety will grip them and when they will lose control. They are unhappy about their own condition but feel compelled to act that way anyway. That’s why they are called compulsions.” Aditi’s condition took a turn for the worse when she had her first child.