When my son Dan was suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) so severe he couldn’t eat, or move from a specific chair for hours, or interact with his friends, we were frightened and confused.
Not knowing where to turn, we connected with a close friend of ours who is a clinical psychologist. One of the first questions he asked was, “Does Dan realize how irrational his behavior is?” When I asked Dan if he really believed someone he loved would be harmed if he moved from his chair before midnight, or if he had something to eat, he answered, “I know it makes no sense, but it could happen.” He needed to be sure all would be well, and this unattainable need for certainty is what fuels the fire of OCD. He knew his thoughts and behaviors were illogical, he just couldn’t stop them.
Since becoming an advocate for OCD awareness, I’ve been told repeatedly by sufferers that, for them, this is the worst part of obsessive-compulsive disorder. You know you are thinking and acting in an irrational manner but you are not an irrational person. “It would be better if I didn’t realize how illogical my thoughts and behaviors are,” one sufferer said. “I’d rather be oblivious than tormented.”
In Life In Rewind, a book by Terry Weible Murphy, we read about Ed Zine’s amazing recovery from severe OCD. Ed has this to say about his disorder:
It [OCD] is ruthless in its attack. When it hits you, it will not stop. We know that we are acting crazy, but we also know that we are not crazy. And while the outside world tries to take care of us, and reassure us, OCD spits in their faces and tries to change, dictate, and control the ones who bring us love and reassurance.
We can feel his anguish here, as OCD takes total control of his life. But still, isn’t insight a good thing? Isn’t it easier to undergo treatment and recover if you know your disorder makes no sense? Unfortunately, not always. For one thing, because those with OCD don’t want to be perceived as “crazy,” they often go to lengths to hide their obsessions and compulsions, even from those closest to them. They might also avoid or, at the very least, delay treatment because they feel shame and embarrassment. How can they willingly share things they know are “ridiculous” with a therapist? This awareness of how their thoughts and behaviors likely appear to others, indeed how they even appear to themselves, can be torturous.
For non-sufferers, I think it’s easy to understand why someone with OCD would try to hide their disorder. After all, regardless of whether we have obsessive-compulsive disorder, we can all relate to not wanting to embarrass ourselves. What might be harder for a non-sufferer to understand is, if sufferers know their behavior makes no sense, why don’t they just stop? This question, of course, is a lot more complicated, and is what makes OCD a disorder to begin with. It is just one of the many reasons why it is of the utmost importance for those with OCD to find a therapist who specializes in treating the disorder. A competent health care provider will help patients understand their OCD at a higher level, thereby allowing them to use the insightfulness that is characteristic of this disorder to their own advantage.
For those of us who care about someone with OCD, we need to continue to educate ourselves and others as to what OCD is and is not. We need to persist in raising awareness of this insidious disorder. I think this advocacy is just as important for sufferers as it is for non-sufferers. Some of the most emotional interactions I’ve had with those who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder have been when they talk about the moment they realized they are not alone:
“I never imagined there were other people out there who regularly turn their cars around to make sure they haven’t hit anyone.”
“I never realized others agonized over their house burning down because they might have left the stove on.”
“I thought I was the only one who was obsessed with the big garbage can outside harboring a deadly virus.”
It is a powerful revelation to see one’s thoughts and actions as symptoms of a real illness, not just some random illogical behavior. People with OCD may often feel alone, but they are not. We need to get the word out that this is not an uncommon disorder, and those who suffer from it have no reason to feel shame or embarrassment.
They just happen to be rational people with an irrational disorder.