One way to explain obsessive-compulsive disorder involves a comparison to the old Roman Polanski film “Chinatown”, starring Jack Nicholson. Nicholson plays a detective investigating a suspicious California land developer (played by the director John Huston).
As in many detective thrillers, the closer he gets to the truth, the more chaos ensues. He uncovers an incestuous relationship, innocent characters are murdered, and in the final scene, his friend declares his efforts to make the situation right a lost cause, a tragedy (“It’s Chinatown, Jake”).
Thankfully, I don’t view obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as negatively as the “Chinatown” plot. However, there are parallels.
I was diagnosed with OCD when I was fifteen. I have survived many obstacles and hurdles that life and OCD have presented me with in order to throw me off the path of recovery. OCD is analogous to the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain in the film of the same name. It is an illusionist. The average time for OCD to be correctly diagnosed in most people with OCD is 10 (yes, 10) years. I was fortunate enough to have a diagnosis early in my life.
In the beginning, OCD had the upper hand. It has been called “the great pretender” due to its ability to mimic other disorders such as schizophrenia.
I was an overachiever during my teenage years. I was on the honor roll and played three sports without the knowledge of what I was up against and without a complete awareness of what I was suffering from. On a social level, I was successful mainly in my senior year in going on a few dates without having a serious relationship. OCD also had a role in alienating me from my friends.
I received a scholarship for academic achievement and was accepted at the University of Connecticut. Around the same time, I got two jobs but quit both of them. This was probably due to the lack of awareness of the complexity and nature of the problem I was up against. I also didn’t know that the economy was going to tank and things were going to get more complicated.
Five years later, I was able to complete my undergraduate degree (by a hair). Ten years later, this is the only thing I have to show for success as recognized by society. I am still looking for work. I have been unemployed for 10 years, with the exception of a two-day retail job at a pet supply store in Alabama that was too much for me to take.
In 2005, when I was 25, I was told that I had severe OCD. Probably the most amazing thing is that my doctor seemed to have seen the exact form of what I have, probably due to his experience at a prestigious New York hospital. He knew it was severe. I had to be put on an antipsychotic drug called Abilify. This is a common decision for OCD sufferers in which multiple trials of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) don’t do the trick. The Abilify seemed to work.
I have since been through behavior therapy, which can be traumatic. During this process, I learned that the more aware you are of the many ways in which OCD sabotages you, the better you get. This was a major turning point because it put the last 12 years of my life into perspective. I also learned that you don’t want to try to figure everything out when it comes to OCD (so I shouldn’t even be writing this article).
From my research on OCD I have slowly come to the conclusion that not much progress has been made recently, probably due to a lack of funding of OCD-specific studies. OCD is the most neglected of the five most prominent mental illnesses as far as research goes. Behavior therapy and medications are the standard. Becoming a “fully functioning” individual remains elusive.
When I look back on my 32 years of life, I realize that OCD has been ahead of me most of the steps along the way, similar to Nicholson’s predicament in “Chinatown.” It has thrown me off my career path and has sabotaged early attempts to get help from good doctors.
I remain hopeful that treatments will be refined and OCD sufferers will be able to live more productive lives. According to doctors I talk to, there are probably multiple causes and there will probably be no magic pill. Over time, I have learned not to dwell on my failures and try to figure them out but rather to come to terms with them and move on.