Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is more serious than most think as they casually use it as an excuse for being organized or picky, according to senior Caitlin Smith, who was diagnosed with OCD last summer. The disorder, affecting up to 1 in 100 children, according to KidsHealth.org, and 2.2 million adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), is attributed to anxiety that causes “recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions), and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions)” and interferes with normal, daily life, the NIMH said.Common obsessions, or undesired visions that stick in the mind, are those that involve violence or harm occurring to loved ones; compulsions may be anything from checking to ensure that doors are closed to counting words and syllables in phrases, as Smith said she does.
“I have compulsions and obsessions,” Smith said. “My obsessions get really bad [because] I have this thing called ‘Pure O,’ which is basically all mental. A lot of people don’t know I have OCD, because I do it all on the inside. [But,] I count everything on my fingers, and it has to be in fives, because you have five fingers…[Also,] I’ve been known to leave my friends’ houses to go make sure my garage door is shut.
“It was a big red flag to my therapist, because it’s considered OCD when it interferes with everyday life or when it takes up a couple hours in a day. I’ll be at my friend’s house and I’ll make up an excuse and I’ll just leave to make sure the garage door is shut. I worry to the point where I’ll just panic.”
Junior Jessica Davidson, who was diagnosed with OCD when she was five years old, said her compulsions have changed as she has aged. Excessive actions (compulsions) associated with hygiene, she said, triggered the diagnosis; she now worries over situations and things that people have said.
“I’d wash my hands until they were raw, bleeding and cracked,” Davidson said. “I brushed all the enamel off my teeth. I went to the dentist and he was just so shocked. [Now,] I guess [my obsessions and compulsions are] more centered on social situations, everyday things. I have a lot of movies that play in my head, conversations replayed. I still do teeth-brushing a lot. It dust depends on the situation.”
Smith said acting on compulsions, however, does not appease any feelings of anxiety she has. Doing what she thinks she must do, she said, is not a solution; nor is refusing to surrender to the compulsions.
“I feel worse about myself after I do a tic,” Smith said. “I do it so I won’t have a panic attack. I don’t do it out of pleasure. If I tell myself not to do it, I’ll end up doing it more.”
To attempt to temporarily shake obsessions and compulsions from her head, Davidson said she delves into books. She said they allow her to momentarily evade anxiety.
“Reading has always been a big thing for me,” Davidson said. “It takes my mind off of things. OCD makes you terribly self-absorbed: you worry about what other people are thinking and it all comes back to you. Reading makes you not so self-absorbed and it pulls the OCD away a little bit.”
Sometimes, avoiding the effects of OCD isn’t feasible, according to Smith, and this could be detrimental to her academic career, she said.
“There’s been numerous days where I’ve missed school because I get a panic attack,” Smith said. “Or I’ll get migraines. I’ll end up just crying and sobbing because I don’t know what to do with myself. I can’t come to school, because I can’t concentrate on my schoolwork, and my grades suffer because of it.”
Davidson said she is often distracted when working on assignments because of extreme anxiety. This, she said, frequently results in her inability to complete her work.
“Homework is very difficult,” Davidson said. “When I’m away from school and someone’s not teaching the subject, I’ll start to wonder if I’m doing a problem right, and then it’s so crippling that I can’t finish the assignment.”
While OCD can severely harm the ability to focus or accomplish tasks, Smith said she that she can use her counting compulsion to help her recognize good writing.
“It plays to my advantages, but it also is a disadvantage,” Smith said. “My writing was the best ever my junior year, and I play that to my OCD, because it helped me vary my syntax. [Because] I’m constantly surrounded and counting the words, reading and writing come really natural to me. I’ll just be like, ‘That doesn’t sound right. That doesn’t sound good…It doesn’t flow.’ But, I can read a whole two pages of words [and] not understand the meaning, but I can recite three lines word-for-word.”
With time, Smith said she has learned to subdue the negative effects of OCD when she knows she must forsake time spent allowing compulsions to take over to instead accomplish what will benefit her in the future.
“I’m pretty quick with [the counting] because I’ve trained myself for things like the ACT and AP classes [where] you can’t be slow,” Smith said. “I learned to mask the OCD so I could focus on my schoolwork. My OCD is my subconscious.”
After several years of struggling to overcome OCD with multiple medications (to treat both the OCD and the side effects of the various prescriptions), Davidson said she is beginning to experience a life that is less shadowed by the disorder.
“I’m actually much better now,” Davidson said. “At one time, I was probably on six medications. Five months ago, I was taken off all medication, and it made the biggest difference. I feel like a different person. [My OCD is] still present, but it’s not as bad as it used to be — not by any measure. It completely eclipsed everything else in my life. To have that taken away, I’m totally different.”
Though Smith said she could take medication or participate in treatment to suppress her OCD, she said she knows that it will never be completely eradicated.
Published in The Chronicle (page 16) on February 12, 2010.
Published at TheCSPN.com on July 14, 2011.