Living with OCD

There’s a type of anxiety disorder called
obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD

Why do I feel so bad?

Even though OCD is usually portrayed as simple perfectionism or germaphobia in TV shows and movies, it’s actually a debilitating and usually chronic mental disorder.

To get an idea of the kind of thoughts that bother people with OCD, imagine yourself in a situation that really matters to you. Maybe you’re in an interview for your dream job, or meeting your infant nephew for the first time. Now imagine the very worst, most disturbing, outcomes your mind could come up with. You get a phone call during the interview and find out you’ve got terminal cancer, you go crazy while meeting your nephew and stab him to death. For most of us, these things seem funny because they’re just ridiculous thoughts we can shrug off. But, for people with OCD, these things feel like real possibilities.

As you might guess, these thoughts make people feel deeply uncertain about some of the most important aspects of their lives. Unable to feel like their thoughts are just thoughts, people with OCD develop a strong distress response– their mind and body go on high alert. Tolerating distress is extremely difficult, so people feel the need to do something about the thoughts. Sometimes it’s about making sure the thoughts don’t come true, and other times it’s about escaping the pain of having these thoughts.

If all of this sounds familiar to you: it might be hard to believe right now, but these thoughts don’t have to bother you anywhere near as much as they do right now. You can develop a different relationship with your own thoughts, so that you’re able to do the things you want in life. Learning about OCD is a good first step in getting better, so follow along here.

What’s it like to have OCD?

You’re a twelve-year-old kid and you’ve just gotten home
from a tiring day at school. You just want to fly through
your homework and go on a bike ride with your friends,
but your mom reminds you that you still have to clean
your room, so you’ll do it as quickly as possible. You
begin to pick things up, and this thought pops into your
head: My sister is going to die unless I do this right.

The thought terrifies you. You start to think: Oh god, this
means I really do have to get this right or she’s going to
die, and it’s going to be my fault, and this is why I always
tell mom I can’t clean my room, because I don’t want to
be responsible for this. Your stomach feels sick, you’re
getting dizzy, and you feel like you just have to tell
someone about the thought. But it’s a crazy thought, and
you know it, so you don’t tell anyone. You put everything
back on the floor and try again. You fold your green shirt,
and then the blue one, and finally the red. You think: If I
don’t get this right in the next two tries she’s going to
die. So you start over again, completely panicked.

This isn’t an extreme case meant to shock you. It’s adapted from a real OCD patient’s story. In this case, the first intrusive thought is My sister is going to die unless I do this
right. The obsessions come next: Oh god, this means I really do have to get this right… The bodily distress coincides with the obsessions, and the two build on one another to become seemingly unbearable. Then, to protect the sister and get rid of the distress, the compulsion: folding things in a specific way. Although the logic of our world doesn’t suggest any connection between folding clothes and a sister’s wellbeing, the logic of this person’s mind tells them it does.

Instead of focusing on school, work, family, friends, health, or recreation, people with OCD end up spending their time and energy on compulsions. Most people know their behavior is illogical, but this doesn’t convince their brain that it can take a break and
stop seeking certainty all the time. That’s why explaining to someone with OCD that their actions are irrational probably isn’t doing them any good.

OCD can wreak havoc on every part of someone’s life. It doesn’t help that the people around them misunderstand their symptoms, calling them control freaks, obsessive, neat freaks, or whatever else. As it turns out, people with OCD don’t really want control
(in the form of neatness, or cleanliness, or whatever else). They feel like they need control because their mind is constantly telling them things aren’t alright, in very big ways.

For a small number of people, OCD symptoms become so severe that suicide is a risk. If you ever consider suicide, call your local suicide hotline or emergency number right away. In the United States, this number is 1-800-273-8255.


These resources were developed with:

Michael A. Jenike, MD

Founder, OCD Institute at McLean Hospital
Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

Christopher Pittenger, MD, PhD

Director, Yale OCD Research Clinic
Associate Professor of Psychiatry and in the
Child Study Center, Yale School of Medicine