In the article ‘Finding the D in the OCD’, I spoke of how the disordered component in OCD is the compulsive interpretation and reaction to intrusive thoughts. This is what keeps the illness going, and although if feels as if the intrusive thought is what is wrong and what is hurting, it is actually this reaction. It is this reaction that CBT targets, but it’s not an easy thing to challenge. Do not underestimate how strong the disordered compulsion is. Just think about the word: compulsion. Something that you are compelled to do, that you have to do. In her book ‘Am I Normal Yet?’ Holly Bourne equates it to the physical urge to urinate. It is a deep and irresistible urge, which takes over and can’t just be ignored. It is not something that you choose to do, mistakenly, for the best. It is not a habitual peculiarity that becomes irritating and difficult to break. It was no irritating peculiarity which influenced a couple of (admittedly half-arsed, but nonetheless despairingly intentioned) suicide attempts in my early twenties.
It is not easy to explain how much these disordered interpretations and reactions feel a part of you; how undeniable the unsettled, distorted state of mind and self-perception feels, as most people have probably never experienced anything like it. Hmm, apart from… most people probably have experienced something like it.
As I also mentioned before, everybody has thousands of thoughts passing through their minds a day, and some of those thoughts will be weird or unpleasant, incongruent and unwanted. Let’s just pluck a few examples out the air:
You’re waiting for a train and among myriad thoughts passing through the background scenery of your mind, this one pops up: ‘what if I jump in front of the train?’
You’re eating your tea/dinner/supper (all regional interpretations catered for here) and for no good reason as you stab your fork into some carrots you have the mental image of a rabbit, doing a poo, on your plate. Eurgh!
You are walking past a playground when you find a dropped hat. You pick it up, thinking maybe to hand it in somewhere, then out of nowhere think – ‘what if the child who dropped this has been kidnapped and murdered?! What if everyone thinks I’ve done that? I’ve got the hat!!’
Think, just for a moment. These are just a few examples I’ve made up, out of near infinite possibilities of potential thoughts. Just think – you’ll find your own examples that all of you will have at some time experienced. Many of which, you shall have forgotten.
Likewise, everybody experiences unpleasant emotional reactions to thoughts or external events. Everybody gets trapped in worry-loops about something in particular, sometimes rational, but unaided by the worry, sometimes thoroughly irrational. In relation to thee examples of unwanted thoughts above, consider these reactions:
While you may think a surprised ‘blimey’ on the train station platform, and take a step back, you may also inspect the thought – ‘why did I think that? Can I control urges to jump? I’m not suicidal – am I?’
Where one person may well laugh at the idea of a rabbit doing a poo (each to their own), another may feel sickened, disgusted. Put off their tea, or even for a while put off carrots.
You may shrug at the thought of being accused of kidnap and murder (unlikely), and carry on; or you may drop the hat, then worry for the next twenty minutes that your DNA is on it. Or that if you told someone about the thought, they’d wonder why you were hanging around playgrounds.
Also everybody sometimes employs some personal set of rules to manage how comfortable they feel about something. You knock one had as you walking through the shop, you feel like knocking the other one, to balance it out. You have in your kitchen a hand towel (for drying hands only), a tea-towel (for drying dishes only) and a dish cloth (for wiping down the work surface only). And you do not mix them up!! You get fidgety and irritated when someone visits and uses the wrong one for the wrong thing.
Again, look through your own life, and you’ll find some of your own examples, at some point, somewhere.
So… does this mean that OCD actually affects everybody? Aha, thanks for asking: No! Absolutely not. The often casually banded phrases of ‘I’m a little bit OCD’, and ‘everybody’s a bit OCD aren’t they?’ are part of the harmful myths to which I’ve referred before, which perpetuate a misunderstanding and belittling of a very serious illness, that affects between 1%-2% of the population of the UK and USA (OCDUK.org figures).
You may be thinking ‘OK Baz, fair enough mate, but, um, you do appear to have just slightly contradicted yourself by saying everyone experiences these thoughts and reactions, but it’s wrong to say everyone is a bit OCD…’ Yeah, don’t worry, there’s no contradiction.
What I’ve intended to demonstrate here is that these odd, unwanted thoughts, these anxious interpretations of things, weirdly disproportionate emotional reactions, ways of maintaining our own mental comfort or order are totally normal. It is all part of normal human cognition, emotion and behaviour, and very valuable it is too, even when sometimes confusing or worrying. But just as everybody sneezes and coughs, it doesn’t mean that they have a cold. Just as when people have colds, it doesn’t mean they have pneumonia; or it doesn’t mean they have a serious, chronic and potentially terminal health condition.
What I am getting at here is that OCD, however it may appear, is not weird. There is a disordered severity to what otherwise could be a normal reaction, to a thought, resulting in attention assigning wrongly significant interpretations to thoughts and behaviours. In themselves, the processes involved are normal. Not everyone has it, but as with all mental illness, OCD is normal human thoughts and behaviours becoming unhealthily detrimental.
Realising this is very important to understanding, accepting, and dealing with mental health. And it is important for everyone. Because, just as with physical health, while not everyone has a mental illness, everyone has mental health. This health is on a spectrum, not fixed in one place. Mental health can move up and down this spectrum, changing to more or less well, for everybody. So understanding it, is important for us all.
Thanks for reading. The next article shall be about an important feminist issue in film and culture – and a social campaign that I am going to attempt to start! I shall return to the continuing narrative regarding OCD and mental health in the article after that.