Learning to live with an obsessive compulsive disorder

Living with OCD

Have you watched Jack Nicholson on As Good As It Gets? He won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of a person with a few quirks, some which I still remember to this day. OCD awareness week is also held in October, and we wanted to show you all a close look at what it’s like to live with this disorder.

First, a disclaimer. I want to make it clear that I have very mild OCD, my symptoms peak at 17 out of 40 on the Yale-Brown scale which is in the moderate range. This means that even at its most severe my OCD only ranks as moderate. Therefore, my experience is going to be very different from someone with more severe symptoms. If you feel you may have a form of anxiety disorder or OCD I strongly encourage you to get in touch with a mental health professional, either through your doctor or an appropriate organisation.

Okay, now that that is out of the way I want to share with you what my personal experience of this illness is.

Imagine a hamster ball

I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at 16 so I’ve had plenty of time to learn to live with it. My symptons are mild enough that I can manage my condition without medication and I am no longer in therapy. Instead, I have established a lifestyle which, while not terribly exciting, does allow me to be happy, and minimises anxiety-inducing encounters.

disney-bolt-rhino-hamsterFor me, managing my OCD is about routines, and control of my personal space. The best way I can describe it is to imagine one of those plastic balls you put a hamster in so it can safely run around and then picture it rolling around on a track.

That’s how I manage my life, by being in control of what’s in my hamster ball and keeping it running on the same track. Of course, I do allow additions to it or even changes to the track, but it takes me time to adjust to even the idea of changes.

OCD has a stereotype of people who are obsessively clean and while that is certainly a common compulsion, what is less well known is that people with OCD can also be prone to hoarding.

For example, I save the tags from clothes I buy, sorted into bags from their respective shops. It’s not a disruptive enough compulsion to have a major negative impact, but I do experience anxiety symptoms if, for example, the assistant removes the tags before wrapping my shopping. I do also, in common with many OCD sufferers, wash my hands often. Sometimes for no particular reason my hands will suddenly feel dirty and I will have to go and wash them.

I’m also very particular about what kind of lotions I can use on my hands. Anything I can’t rub in completely is a no go. I also can’t stand the feeling of hand sanitiser gels on my hands, so I will go out of my way to wash them properly rather than use the gel.

Textures… :S!

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, my sense of touch is where I feel the impact of having OCD the most. Different textures can trigger anxiety symptoms for me, things that are sticky trigger the worst symptoms, and I generally avoid touching things as much as I can (unless they’ve been admitted to my hamster ball).

I don’t like having other people touch me, either, and avoid contact with anyone but those I am most comfortable with. It can take me a year of knowing someone to get to a point where I’m comfortable enough with them to hug them. I love when the weather is cold enough for me to wear gloves, because that layer of protection reduces my overall levels of anxiety quite a bit.

Another way texture impacts my life is in what I eat. I find that a lot of food textures, or rather texture combinations, make certain foods impossible for me to eat. This includes things like sandwiches, as I struggle with the combination of the bread and filling textures. I also keep different foods separate on my plate, even if they were cooked together, I have to separate them before I can eat them. Also, I have to be careful about going out to restaurants and often check menus online to work out what I can have beforehand. It requires a little extra effort but the end result is a really nice meal out I can actually enjoy!

Yes, the rituals are true

One of the other classic symptoms of OCD is performing what are known as rituals, usually multiple times. I don’t have many rituals in this category, my symptoms tend more towards patterns and routines, but those rituals I do have, I do in threes. If I don’t perform the ritual three times I can feel the knots of anxiety tightening. Thankfully three is quite a low number and there are a lot of tasks that can be performed three times without impacting your life or indeed most people noticing.

This is by no means a comprehensive look at what life with OCD can be like, and it’s certainly not even a glimpse of what someone with severe symptoms can go through, but I do hope it opens your eyes to the little ways this illness can impact everyday life, even for someone with very mild symptoms.

– Catherine


2 thoughts on “Learning to live with an obsessive compulsive disorder

  1. Hi Maaike!

    I can answer some of your questions….

    Firstly, we don’t know for certain if it is generic or not. Studies have shown that parents with OCD have a higher chance of producing a child with OCD, but it is nurture or nature? And how do you explain someone like me, with no evidence of it in the family before?

    My OCD gets worse when my overall anxiety level increases. So it can be lots of things, really. Being in crowds for an extended period, is one. I’m an introvert as well, so when I run out of people-energy my anxiety level starts to rise, it’s one of the reasons I’m a terrible traveller and mostly avoid doing it. Places that aren’t clean. Invasion of the hamster ball, I rarely let people into my house, I don’t like people touching things on my desk at work and having someone else sit in my chair is a huge no. In those cases I clean away the anxiety symptoms, classic OCD stuff. If I can stay calm and relaxed it’s harder to trigger the OCD, or is just cope with it better. Increased stress or unhappiness will increase my anxiety generally as well as my sensitivity to triggers.

    I find the biggest help others can give, at least in my case, is respect the hamster ball. Respect my personal space, don’t touch me without invitation, don’t touch my things without permission. If you live with someone who has OCD, be tidy, clean up after yourself. If they are on aversion therapy, things will likely be different, but if you can help minimise their personal triggers you’ll both be happier. I used to live with someone who was the worst possible housemate for an OCD sufferer, messy, would forget to bathe, couldn’t clean up after herself, left dirty dishes around. I kept having to make rules about which plates, which set of cutlery, which glasses she could use, which chairs she could sit in, just to be able to cope. It was awful. I live alone now and am vastly happier, and my anxiety and OCD have calmed down, too.

    Living alone has been brilliant for me as I have full control of my space, I keep my house clean and I know if there’s a mess, I made it! Having that calmness and level of control and a safe space to withdraw to has made a world of difference. It might not work for everyone, but it definitely works for me. And the hamster ball, it IS a fun concept, I use it as a fun way of explaining. But it’s not a fixed thing, my house is in my hamster ball, so is my desk at work, so is my picnic blanket, so is my Mum and my bed at her house, and, of course, so is Chloe. My dog is like an extension of myself and my kid and there is basically nothing she can do to trigger my OCD, weirdly enough (although the fleas really put that theory to the test, never scrubbed the house so hard and so regularly in my life and it made me more sensitive to other triggers, but I still hugged her).

    Hope that helps!


  2. Hi Catherine, first of all, thank you for sharing your story on here. I’ve heard about the fact that it’s something that people can have in many different ranges and that it expresses itself in many different forms. I hope you don’t mind I still have some questions left after reading this.

    I was wondering whether this is a genetic disorder, passed on from generation to generation, or is it something else that causes it?
    And you told us that even at its most severe, your OCD is still rated as moderate. I was wondering if there’s something that triggers your OCD? Or, let’s put it differently, why is your OCD worse at times? Is there something specific in your case that worsens it (like stress or nerves for example? )?
    And finally a question that is maybe useful also for others who have, or think they have OCD or anxiety, and their surroundings: besides therapy and professional help, is there anything people around you (like friends or family) can do to help you? What do you feel is the best way they can support you?

    Okay, this is almost starting to sound like an interrogation, and that’s absolutely not what I was aiming for! ;) I hope you can answer these questions, but I would totally understand if you’d rather not.

    I’m glad to hear you’ve created this ‘hamster ball’ (but I’m sure that picture looks much cuter and funnier than reality is for you), a way to manage your daily routines. I hope you’ll get better and better at this and that you feel better as well.

    Take care! x Maaike

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