8 Common Symptoms of OCD We Don't Talk About
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is not commonly discussed, and when it is, it’s more often than not misrepresented as a synonym for “neatness,” “quirk,” or “preference.” However, OCD is a serious, life-altering mental illness. It’s an illness that can completely take over life, and make its inflicted feel like a prisoner in their own mind and body. And while OCD is misconstrued as the desire for cleanliness, in reality, it is a vastly varied illness that can manifest in many ways, making it difficult to create a succinct list of symptoms. But here are a few of the symptoms I believe stretch across the many types of OCD, and that I have experienced throughout my battle with this debilitating mental illness.
1. Feeling an overwhelming sense of responsibility.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder has taken my innate desire to make others feel safe and happy, and it has cranked it up to an extreme. Every OCD fear that invades my mind, every safety behavior that I perform, from washing, to avoidance behavior, to seeking assurance, is anchored by the belief that I somehow control the fate of those around me. That my actions, my mistakes, can make or break someone else’s happiness.
Not only does OCD make us internalize this crushing sense of responsibility for our actions, but it also often exaggerates a sense of guilt for the simple fact that we have a mental illness, and for the effects that illness has on those around us, as if we somehow have control. Try as I might to remind myself I am not my OCD, I am not my illness, it becomes extremely difficult to separate my identity from the illness and the pain that it causes. OCD distorts my sense of responsibility and even weaponizes it, using my goodwill towards others as a tool to create anxiety, uncertainty, and guilt, all of which fuel my illness in a self-perpetuating cycle.
Of course no one holds that much power over anyone else’s happiness, so OCD is simply setting me up for failure after failure, as all of my efforts to control the future and protect those around me fall short. And while OCD tells me that I will continue to fail, it simultaneously convinces me that it is my duty to keep trying. And the more I try, the worse my OCD gets, the more I feed it. To counteract this cycle, I must do something that is so contrary to my nature and that my OCD will fight against with all its might: Stop taking responsibility for the health and happiness of others. In doing so, I will begin to heal, and with that healing, gain the ability to care for others in a healthy and productive way that does not harm myself in the process.
2. OCD resulting in physical pain.
I believe many of us battling OCD have become very skilled at being uncomfortable. I, for one, have a new baseline of discomfort, one that many would most likely find appalling. Not only mental discomfort — to put it mildly — but physical as well. I am sure this physical pain manifests differently for each of us depending on the type of OCD we endure, but such constant mental distress is bound to have an effect on the body.
I have washed my hands until they were cracked and bleeding; but OCD doesn’t care about your pain, and even though washing my hands again causes searing pain, OCD tells me I must, or I threaten the health and safety of those around me. Once again playing on my sense of responsibility, it convinces me I must sacrifice my own well-being for the sake of others.
I have stood, barefoot on a tiled floor for over 10 hours straight, despite the feeling that each one of the bones in my feet were breaking, my knees felt as though they would buckle, and despite the sensation that my spine was collapsing on itself. All I had to do to stop the pain was to simply sit down. That’s the power OCD can hold over you. I felt like the fate of the world depended on me to keep standing. So I stood. I have sat in one place for hours, in a particularly uncomfortable position, ignoring the feeling of my hips and spine being jammed into place, my tailbone bruising, and my shoulders so stiff I felt like I would be frozen like this forever. Frozen still as if one wrong touch from me and the world would come crumbling down.
And as if my head is protesting the invasion of OCD fears, I get mind-numbing, debilitating headaches that can last for hours. Anxiety, depression, and fear are time-consuming, exhausting emotions that take a toll on your mind. My mind gets tired just like my feet, just like my back, and it hurts.
3. Experiencing suicidal thoughts due to OCD.
OCD is often represented in mainstream media as a little quirk, a preference, someone simply being high maintenance. “I’m a little OCD” rolls off of the tongue as easily as “I like my closet organized by color;” a simple preference, one that if not heeded may cause some small amount of annoyance. Far from it, obsessive-compulsive disorder, as implied by the term itself, is a debilitating disorder. And in no small part due to its misrepresentation, OCD is isolating to those who endure it and the weight of it can feel crushing.
It took me quite some time to acknowledge the reality of my own suicidal thoughts. I was afraid to admit them for many reasons. I thought if I didn’t, they wouldn’t become reality. I thought if I did, I would be laughed at because, “What’s the big deal? So I’ve got OCD,” so many think they’re “a little OCD.”
This is not an easy subject to approach, but it’s important to acknowledge the reality of living with a mental illness. Battling OCD can feel endless; it’s hard, it’s terrifying, and it’s exhausting. I often feel as if I am left trying to hold the world together, all the while I am unraveling. It feels desperate. And on top of the fact that OCD can be a life-threatening illness in and of itself, the simple fact it is so misunderstood can leave us feeling even more alone, unsure of how to ask for help.
Unlike what I was led to believe while growing up, that OCD is no big deal, in reality it takes up so much of your life. The distress is relentless, and it is no small feat to overcome it, but it can be done. I for one am learning not to be ashamed of my suicidal thoughts, but instead to be proud of overcoming them. Even so, they are often a reality of living with a mental illness, and I think it is about time that we acknowledge them. Acknowledge them for what they are — another battle we must fight, not a dirty little secret. Acknowledge that we are not something to be hidden, we are something to be proud of.
4. Realizing how much time has been lost.
OCD is a time-consuming disorder. The severity of a person’s OCD is often measured by how many hours per day that obsessive thoughts consume them, and how many hours per day they perform safety behaviors (or compulsions). Even if all I do one day is sit, I will look up at the clock and realize hours have passed since I thought of anything other than the last trigger that consumed my mind. In my five years of battling this illness, I can look back and recognize the months of time I have lost to OCD. The time I wasn’t fully present for my life. The time OCD and its fears consumed me so greatly I missed out on the gatherings, the laughs, the hobbies. I can feel my 20s flying by while I play a game of catch up. OCD and OCD treatment take time. A lot of time.
5. Losing relationships because of OCD.
While OCD consumes your time, it can also consume a little bit of you. You spend your energy every day fighting this battle, and you have less and less left over to share. The longer I’ve been in this fight, the more I have seen a growing distance between me and all of those I care about. Different things feed that distance. OCD is confusing even from the inside, so it can seem absolutely foreign to those on the outside. I have less to give, and I have withdrawn from the life I used to live due to fear. With that impossible sense of responsibility that OCD hands you, it convinces you to keep your distance, convinces you that mistakes and misfortune follow you like a shadow.
Unlike time, these losses are not permanent, those who love you will be waiting for you to come back to them. It just takes more time and a lot of willpower.
6. Feeling a loss of independence or sense of self.
Think about a moment when you have been terrified; how did you get through it? When we’re scared, it’s often instinct to reach out to someone we trust to help us through it. So when you’re living with OCD, living with constant fear, you can become incredibly codependent. A very common safety behavior across the varied types of OCD is that of seeking assurance. OCD can convince our minds that we can no longer determine right from wrong, safe from danger, and therefore we can come to depend on someone else to determine that for us by seeking their assurance. With the constant fear, the need for assurance, and the fact that compulsions can be so incredibly debilitating, it can feel as though your independence and the things that made you who you are, are being swept away.
Before being diagnosed with OCD, I was my own person. A complete person with hobbies, jobs, friends, school, a career plan. But not too long ago, I was lucky if I made it out of the house at least once a week. And those short excursions out into the world took a lot of effort and a lot of help from my partner, often resulting in an incredible amount of distress on both our parts. Before being diagnosed with OCD, I was a partner. I was an equal in a relationship; I could support as much as I was supported. But there was a long period of time where that relationship transformed into one between caretaker and patient, rather than one between loving partners. I had lost the independence required to create an equal partnership.
The simple truth is that OCD can consume you at times, and when it does it can feel like you completely lose yourself. That’s the battle we face, finding our way out of OCD’s shadow. We may never be able to completely get rid of OCD, but we can make it just that, a shadow.
7. Experiencing a poor quality of life as a result of mental illness.
Anxiety and depression greatly affect a person’s quality of life, and when you add debilitating obsessive thoughts and compulsions, your world can become very small. My OCD has visibly hurt my quality of life, from mental and physical health, to outward appearance, to social engagement. People will see these changes in their lives differently depending on their depression or their type of OCD, but no matter your battle, there is no denying the draining effects that mental illness has on a person’s life.
Many people who suffer from depression and/or OCD will find themselves unable to gather the willpower to perform basic self-care, such as brushing teeth, brushing hair, showering, doing laundry. In my case, this manifests as showering a harmful amount, unable to keep up on laundry, and a difficult time feeding myself. OCD affects all of these tasks in different ways, but each barrier I run into can be traced back to OCD compulsions, fear, and avoidance. I have showered until my skin was raw, gone long periods of time without eating, subsisted on two hours of sleep per night due to avoidance and anxiety. And when I do eat, junk food is easier and faster than healthy food, and when I do sleep, I sleep too much. This all takes a toll on the body, it feeds the exhaustion which then continues the cycle. And it’s certainly a hard cycle to break.
You’ll often find yourself feeling sick, tired, undesirable, and you’re left with an unkempt and uncomfortable home. But due to your illness it can feel like you have no way out. Because the way out is going to the doctor, but that means leaving your house. The way out is taking your medication, but that’s simply another task you must add to the list of tasks you are too depressed to perform. There are an overwhelming number of barriers to improving your quality of life. You’ll most likely need help digging your way out of this hole you’ve moved into, which will add to your sense of dependence, but I am living proof that it can be done.
8. Feeling angry at OCD.
OCD is incredibly debilitating and life-altering, so it follows many feel a fair amount of anger. I went from being an independent, determined, intelligent person — a hardworking person, trudging her way through grad school — to a person so drained by fear and anxiety, that I couldn’t hold down a job and I relied on someone else to help me get through every single day. My challenges used to be passing vet med exams and studying until the sun came up; I liked those challenges. Then my challenges became getting out of bed, eating, surviving. And I’m angry about that. Incredibly angry. I often find myself thinking it’s unfair, and I’m confused as to what exactly happened to get me from there to here. I’m angry that I feel so much responsibility, sometimes wanting nothing more than to not care. I’m angry that I hurt all the time, and that my mental illness just makes that worse. I’m so incredibly angry that I allow suicidal thoughts to enter my mind, and I’m angry about the guilt that follows those thoughts. I’m angry that I feel as though I’m missing out on my 20s because of this illness, and that I have distanced myself from those I care about. And I’m angry this illness not only seeps into every aspect of my life, but my partner’s as well.
And the hardest thing about that anger is I don’t know where to place it. We’re told that we are not our OCD, we are even told to try to imagine our OCD as a separate being, even give it a name. But whoever my OCD is, it lives within me, I’ve been hosting it, listening to it, inviting it into our home. So most of this anger just gets placed back onto me. One more thing that weighs heavily on my shoulders.
It’s valid to feel angry. You’re right, it’s not fair, and OCD is one of the most effective bullies you will ever encounter. So be angry at it. Let that anger drive your path forward, instead of letting that anger weigh you down.
I’m sure this list could go on and on, and each person with OCD would describe their symptoms a little differently. But I hope it gives you a little insight into what OCD really is, and what it looks like for me. I hope it makes you pause and I hope it makes you question. I hope it makes you look more critically at the way the media represents OCD and mental illnesses in general.
These days, each one of these symptoms is affecting me less and less as I start to come out on top of this battle. But there’s always the possibility and the fearful anticipation of another trigger. I come across them daily, but am better able to forge on. It’s not always easy, some days are better than others, some days are a little step backward. But my hope for anyone out there in the midst of their own battle, is that some day those little steps backward are easier to overcome, that they don’t make you feel defeated. Because they will happen, but they don’t make you a failure. They make you a warrior.
A version of this article was originally published on the author’s blog Obsessive Compulsive Diary.
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