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No joke: OCD is not a punchline

  • 15 October 2020
‘You’ve got a bit OCD about all this handwashing, haven’t you?’ People say things like this all the time, to mock others’ habits and the routines they follow a little too closely. Usually, it’s not meant to be offensive. Just harmless teasing.

But when I hear someone say something like this, it hurts. Because I actually have OCD.

Obsessive compulsive disorder is a serious disease which interferes with daily functioning and causes significant distress. At its worst, it is totally debilitating. Those who suffer most severely can become housebound or resort to substance abuse as a coping mechanism.

The disorder has two aspects. Obsessions are intrusive, repetitive thoughts. Compulsions are actions which the sufferer cannot help performing over and over again. Often, compulsions are linked to obsessions. If someone worries obsessively about hygiene, they might wash their hands compulsively. If they worry obsessively about their home being burgled, they might check their locks repetitively before leaving home. But it is also possible to have obsessions without associated compulsions. Some people worry obsessively about whether they are acting morally or in accordance with religious beliefs; some have intrusive sexual thoughts that they cannot banish; others worry obsessively that they might lose control of themselves and do something violent.

There are obviously degrees of severity but, when you have strong compulsions, it can feel like you simply have no control over what you are doing. When you have severe obsessions, it can be like you are being suffocated by your own thoughts.

OCD is also relatively common. Around 2 per cent of the population in Australia has the condition. There is some treatment available, mostly in the form of counselling and medication, but it is often therapeutic rather than curative.

'I certainly do think people should stop treating OCD as a joke as soon as they know better. This joke stops being funny when you understand it.'

You might be thinking: if 2 per cent of the population have OCD, why don’t we always see people who cannot stop washing their hands or tidying their workspace? There are a few reasons.

First, for those sufferers who have obsessions and no compulsions, there simply is no visible manifestation of the condition.

Second, many compulsions are easy to hide. If someone saves every file on their computer in three different places before leaving the office each day because they worry obsessively about losing their work, it is not that hard to make sure