I’ll never forget the first time I intentionally caused myself physical pain. I had been running around outside on the farm where my family live in a rental home. I was climbing ladders into hay lofts, and got a number of bruises and cuts. One of the cuts scabbed over as it began to heal, eventually turning hard and crusty. As I ran my fingers over it one night, I suddenly felt the need to pick it off, and I did.
The pain was momentarily excruciating, and then settled into a dull, stabbing ache where the wound began bleeding again. The part of me that was mortified at what I had done was soon stomped into submission by another part of me, a part that longed to reproduce that momentary excruciating pain again and again. I was slightly disturbed by this turn of events, and way too embarrassed to tell my mother.
So I didn’t—for about 40 years.
Known as dermatillomania (skin picking), the irrepressible urge to destroy that scab was one of the first manifestations of my OCD. My ex-dermatologist once said, “How long have you been scratching at your skin?”
I replied, “Forty years.”
He said, “Well, stop it.”
I thought, “Really? Is that all it takes, you telling me to stop? Oh, thank you, thank you! I never thought of simply stopping before!” Hence the “ex.”
Along with picking at skin, my experience with OCD includes trichotillomania, or hair pulling. The obsession is thought to stem from a need for perfection, translated to a need for smoothness. Some people pull out the hair on their heads in patches; others, like me, pluck out their eyebrows and eyelashes.
I didn’t even know there was a name for what I was doing until I was 38 years old. When my son was a baby, I looked down as he played with his eyelashes and panicked, afraid I’d given him whatever horrible illness I had. And that’s when I looked it up. I sat at my computer and wept; there were support groups and chat rooms and hundreds of thousands of other people who did what I do to myself.
Not everyone understands OCD. It is an anxiety-based disorder. Simply put, people with OCD have uncontrollable intrusive thoughts (obsessions), which are relieved by performing a ritual of some sort (compulsions). There are many types and manifestations, some of which are more well-known than others. Comedian Howie Mandel, for example, is very open about his fear of germs.
Other obsessions include a need for order, symmetry and precision; a fear of illness or harm coming to oneself or a family member; an aversion to sounds or words that can’t be tolerated; or an attachment to lucky and unlucky numbers. Religious obsessions can also come into play. Some people with OCD have a preoccupation with body waste or household items.
The associated compulsions can include checking and rechecking whether doors are locked or that the oven’s been turned off, repeating rituals such as going through a doorway a certain way, counting, cleaning rituals, ordering and arranging objects alphabetically or by colour, and touching rituals. For instance, with a touching ritual you may have an uncontrollable urge to touch each parking meter in a lot just like the lead character does in the series “Monk.”
Jack Nicholson’s character in 1997’s “As Good As It Gets” had a rechecking compulsion that compelled him to lock and unlock his door a certain number of times. He also couldn’t step on cracks, leading to a humorous yet tellingly sad moment where he is faced with a honeycomb-patterned foyer. Many stars and public figures are open about their OCD, including Justin Timberlake, Leo DiCaprio and David Beckham.
This openness is crucial. The shame associated with OCD can lead many people suffering from the condition to feel like they’re “crazy” or that something is fundamentally wrong with them. It can be paralyzing, and the effects of that shame can endure for a lifetime. OCD simply wasn’t talked about when I was a kid, so you can trust me on this one.
As my experience demonstrates, it can be difficult to distinguish OCD from the quirky obsessive thoughts we all have. Here are some guideposts for how to know when you should ask for help.
How you know you have OCD
Your obsessive thoughts block out all others.
An obsession connected with OCD prevents you from thinking about or concentrating on anything else whatsoever until the thought has been resolved, getting in the way of daily life. Does your fear of germs prevent you from holding hands with your love interest? This obsessiveness crosses a line.
You think the same thing or perform the same behaviour repeatedly.
Are you extremely fastidious about organizing your cabinets? So fastidious that you’ve done it three times since last week? Repeating behaviour unnecessarily is more than a quirk.
You want to end your behaviour, but can’t.
Plucking out your eyebrows and lashes and relentlessly picking scabs are just two examples of behaviour you might wish you could stop but just can’t—and are likely signs of clinical OCD.
What you can do about your OCD
If you recognize some of these compulsions as something you’re experiencing, you should consider getting help. Speaking to someone you love about the process is a good first step. Even looking for online support groups can be helpful, although one-on-one therapy is even more so, and certain medications can help with the intrusive thoughts and compulsions. Personally I’ve done all of these, and while there is no cure for most mental illnesses, they are much more manageable with treatment and the simple knowledge that we’re not alone.
There are millions of people with varying degrees and manifestations of OCD. People who don’t have it may have a hard time understanding it, but really, it doesn’t need to be understood to be accepted. Understanding can come with time. We just need to recognize its manifestations for what they are, and remember that people with OCD don’t want to have it and didn’t choose to have it. They can choose to manage it, however, if they can talk about it openly and honestly.
Maggie Lamond Simone is an award-winning columnist and author. With two titles already to her name, her third book, Body Punishment: OCD, Addiction and Finding the Courage to Heal was released in April, 2015.