My attention was recently drawn to an opinion piece penned by a psychiatrist and academic at Stanford University in California, who was commenting on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and COVID-19. His article suggested that now may be a 'good time' to have OCD.
This was shocking to read.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
As a mental health professional, he should have an understanding of what living with OCD is like. My initial reaction was anger, soon followed by the feeling of despairing sadness.
"Living through the coronavirus pandemic is scary enough without having an illness that takes advantage of it, that thrives on it".
The implications of his words range from the obvious surface level misuse of the term to the more subtle. Yes, he has used the term incorrectly, making it sound like a desirable thing rather than a life-limiting illness. However, this statement also offers up the idea that OCD is simply about cleanliness and being alert to germs. This is known as contamination OCD.
OCD, as mentioned, stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Obsessions are the thoughts which often repeat in a person’s mind, relating to many kinds of intrusive thoughts. These might be that family members will die or that you are unclean. Compulsions, often called rituals, are actions the individual with OCD will complete in an attempt to ease the thoughts. This could be through hoarding, cleaning, checking objects, tapping things, and lots more. There is also a type of OCD known as Pure O - only obsessions without corresponding compulsions.
More than contamination fears
OCD is definitely not only about contamination. Many, like myself, have a variety of obsessions and compulsions. I sometimes worry about cleaning but also about death or illness of others, or that I will accidentally hurt someone. My rituals are rarely logical. If I feel unclean, I might wash my hands. Sometimes I think I have a bomb so I check the contents of my bag repeatedly. But often there is no link between the obsession and the compulsion: things such as tapping objects a certain number of times or walking in a particular way.
OCD carries little to no logic. For me, it is based on fear. My obsessions are terrifying and my compulsions act as a way to soothe that fear.
Terms like that of the psychiatrist, saying that OCD is a positive thing, are often thrown around casually. During the coronavirus pandemic this has been even more noticeable. After all, a lot of people think OCD is only about cleaning, so if we’re having to clean a lot, non-sufferers might think that OCD is wanting to clean. In reality, I want to clean about the same amount as I want to have any other difficulty - very little indeed.
"I would dream about my obsessions"
In the past, OCD has dominated my routine from the moment I wake up until I fall asleep. Sometimes, I would dream about my obsessions. There really was no rest.
Before coronavirus I was less likely to be seen washing my hands for 15 minutes, or tapping for half an hour. I had a better grip on my illness and was able to remind myself that the thoughts were irrational.
But now, with the virus, my OCD has become worse again. The very real threat of getting sick is something that OCD twists. In my mind, I could get sick so I should wash my hands more, and I should protect others from getting sick by tapping objects.
At the moment my thoughts are often overwhelming. I was recently sitting in my garden when my obsessive thoughts, seemingly randomly, began focusing on my grandmother dying. With OCD, it’s not just an abstract possibility, it’s a certainty.
I ended up crying, struggling to breathe, and hitting my phone against the bench repeatedly - a compulsive action to ease the thoughts.
It is an illness
I desperately wish I did not have OCD, but I have to accept that I do in order to deal with it. OCD is not a desirable thing to have. It is an illness. Nobody wants to be ill and I am no exception. OCD is an incredibly powerful illness which impacts how my mind works, disrupts logic, and generally decreases my day-to-day functioning. It feels debilitating.
There is no ‘good time’ to have this illness. Not at all. But now? Now is a particularly bad time for it. Living through the coronavirus pandemic is scary enough without having an illness that takes advantage of it, that thrives on it.
When the virus is controlled and freedoms in society are regained, most people’s anxiety will gradually decrease as life gets back to normal. It's likely that mine will not. In fact, I will probably have to work incredibly hard to get back to where I was a few months ago.
OCD is not desirable, and you definitely should not claim that it is. By doing this, you are both treating people with OCD as unimportant - as though it’s normal - and also validating the "truth" of their obsessions. If everyone says this is how they think, whether they understand what OCD means or not, it could come across as though their obsessions are accurate and logical. Making OCD sound "normal" and desirable helps the illness to thrive, and makes it harder people with it to cope.
- See more: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in a pandemic
- See more: Saying 'no': Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and how I (almost) freed myself
There is no way of avoiding the fact that fear is thriving now. But that fear has roots in logic. Fear can be healthy and keep you safe. OCD causes extreme and illogical anxiety that can put you in harm's way. This is a unique difficulty.
It is not to be desired. It is not a good thing. It is painful.
Please, don’t make out that it’s anything other than this.
The World Health Organisation advises people experiencing anxiety related to Coronavirus to put a daily limit on their consumption of news related to the pandemic.