For someone who quite truthfully does not suffer from OCD, I tend to know a lot about it. I have no less than four first degree relatives affected with this disorder. My sister, my husband, and two of my children all suffer from OCD. I use the terms “suffer” and “sufferer” quite literally here. When left uncontrolled, OCD symptoms can take over a person’s life. However, many OCD sufferers are better equipped to handle life than the average person. The disease is well-know but little understood, and education is key to successful management.
So, what is OCD?
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD is a relatively common disorder affecting both adults and children. In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic, it is diagnosed as often as asthma and Type II diabetes. About 1 in 50 adults suffer from OCD, or about 2% of the population. The disease is less common in children. OCD is often co-morbid with other disorders, especially ADHD and other attentional / neurological issues. However, for as common as the disease is, there is little clear information about who is at risk for OCD and who isn’t. In general, a relative of an OCD sufferer is more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder, as is someone who feels a greater degree of stress. There is some evidence that head injuries can also lead to OCD, but according to the Mayo Clinic, this needs further study. OCD is almost exclusively seen in people with above-average intelligence. In addition, OCD sufferers will avoid risks, pay close attention to detail, plan carefully, and take more than their share of responsibility. All of these traits lead to many OCD sufferers being highly successful in life. To read more about these traits, visit the Yale Child Study Center’s article at: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
The link to the “Type A” personality
Type A personality, a phrase originally coined in the 1950s by Jacob Goldsmith, was a type of person who tends to be high strung and organized. According to the original research, these “Type A’s” were more likely to suffer from heart disease and other complications. This research has been mostly debunked since the 1950s, but the lexicon and the stereotypes (think, A for anal-retentive) remain. In fact, the term obsessive-compulsive has been used to describe a personality type, rather than a disorder, for decades. The link between Type A personality and OCD is debated; many people who were thought to be “classic Type As” were more likely undiagnosed OCD sufferers. My sister is a case in point. She is organized, a perfectionist, and a worrier. This also makes her an extremely successful, productive business owner and parent. As a child, I used to rearrange the pictures my sister had set out just to annoy her. It wasn’t until adulthood that I understood I was causing her stress to do this. To be honest, even if I had known, I would most likely have still done it. I was a rather vindictive child, and I was jealous of my sister’s neat room and nearly perfect grades.
How does OCD affect our lives?
OCD is primarily an anxiety disorder, with unreasonable thoughts and fears. The main symptoms of OCD are broken into obsessions and compulsions. An example of a common obsession OCD sufferers exhibit is a fascination with cleanliness, orderliness, or perfection. An example of a compulsion is frequent hand washing or checking and rechecking something (such as whether a door is locked or a stove is turned off).
The disease can be broken down into two subgroups, both a classic case and a “Pure-O”, where the sufferer has only the obsessions without the compulsions. The main factor in these types is the anxiety a person feels. The “Pure-O” will often avoid situations where their obsessions or anxiety will be triggered; for example, my eldest son is of the “Pure-O” type and does not like movie theaters where he will be exposed to loud noises. The time we tried to bring him to a 4-D movie playing at the Nickelodeon Hotel is surely memorable not only to us, but to the other people in the theater at the time. If you’re reading this, and you were there, I apologize. Profusely.
My other three OCD sufferers are the classic type. Both my younger son and my sisters are “cleaners”. Their personal spaces are meticulously organized and they find it hard to function in a messy space. I can always tell when my five-year-old has had a tough day at school. I will come home to find something lined up in an unusual way. One day every pair of shoes our family owned was lined toe-to-heel around the house. Another time, he took every spoon out of the drawer and made lines across the kitchen floor. The lines are straight enough to be measured with a ruler. My husband is a “checker”. He will check that the alarm clock is turned on-repeatedly. He will check that the mail has actually gone down the mail chute, or that the door is locked. We have been twenty miles away from home, and have had to rush back to check if the stove was turned off. In this case, the compulsion saved us-the stove was on, and it could have been really bad if we’d left it that way all day.
How is OCD managed?
OCD is generally treated through behavioral therapy and medications. Therapy, especially ritual exposure and prevention, is useful in allowing OCD sufferers to control their compulsions rather than the other way around. Medications are generally used to quell the anxiety, and therefore are anti-depressants like Paxil and Zoloft.
For information about OCD and managing the disease, see the Mayo Clinic’s page here: mayoclinic.com
Some people, like my sister, are never treated and turn their obsessions and compulsions into a positive. My husband’s OCD does not really affect his life; he seems to have a relatively minor case of it, or her has learned to deal with it. My eldest son has had some therapy for his OCD, as well as a cycle of some mild anti-anxiety medication (Remeron). He hasn’t really needed either the medication or the therapy lately, but it is good to know where to go if we need to. The disease does seem to go through cycles, especially for the “Pure-O” types.
As for my little guy, it is really too early to tell. He also has epilepsy; many medications are out of the question. Besides, he seems to be handling it well. I appreciate the heads up I get of his compulsions, and the lining up of toys, spoons, and shoes seems to calm any anxiety he feels. A funny incident occurred when he was only a little over two, and looking back may be the first outward expression of one of his compulsions. We were on vacation, and my husband had taken my younger son to the pool. When my oldest son, my daughter, and I arrived, we saw that my little guy had taken all the chairs from around the pool and arranged them into four perfectly straight diagonal lines. He was mad because my husband told him he had to wait to get into the pool. When we arrived, he was happily sitting on the ground, waiting. It seems he was able to cope, even at age two.
OCD is truly a blessing and a curse. While the symptoms can get in the way sometimes, the benefits mean that many OCD sufferers go on to lead better-than-average lives because of the very things that make them so unique.