“It certainly sounds like OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) to me." The psychiatrist smiled at me reassuringly and handed me a booklet called “Managing obsessive compulsive disorder.”
I had thought that getting that validation from the professional I had been referred to for a mental health assessment would finally put my mind at rest. That it would be the final answer I needed, to put this latest obsession to bed.
But OCD doesn't work like that.
It has to be the only illness where one of the symptoms is to doubt you have it. It can make you doubt your sexuality, your morality, your religion, whether you are a good person or not. It can make you doubt that you've turned off the oven or locked the door, or that you've driven somewhere without running people down in the road. It can even make you doubt that you even have OCD.
Think about it. The person who thinks they will hurt their child is doubting their OCD. If they didn't, they would know the fears are being caused by their OCD and could safely ignore them. The person who washes their hands is doubting their OCD. If they didn't, they would realise that it's the disorder making them think they need to wash their hands over and over again or they will get sick, and they could ignore those urges. But the OCD causes them to doubt that their OCD is responsible for these thoughts and feelings. It's no wonder that the French name for obsessive compulsive disorder translates as 'the doubting disease'.
For some people, me included, the doubt of the OCD can itself become a primary obsession. It becomes so scary because if you can't prove you have OCD, maybe this means you're actually gay, or a child molester, or a horrible person who wants to kill their husband. Maybe it does mean you left the front door open and someone will come and steal all your possessions. Maybe it does mean that you don't love your wife and that you should break up with her. The stakes are high.
As soon as I thought I might have OCD, the anxiety crept in. Every time I told someone I had it, I'd feel anxiety. What if I was lying? What if I had misled the professionals? Maybe there was nothing actually wrong with me. What if I'd left out the one crucial thing that I could have said and the psychiatrist would then have said “oh, well in that case you definitely don't have OCD!” I HAD to know for sure. But I could never BE sure.
The problem is that people with OCD can't deal with uncertainty. No one can ever have one hundred percent certainty over most things. For most people, that is okay. Reasonable certainty is enough. But not for the OCD sufferer. The doubt infects them like a virus. Who can say for sure that their hands are one hundred percent clean and they don't have nasty germs that they might pass on to other people? Who can say for sure that they aren't actually a paedophile and might abuse their children? The fact that these things are possible, even if it is only the slightest possibility, perhaps only a one tenth of a percent chance, is enough for them to have to take evasive action. Because they are afraid of the consequences.
No one could tell me with one hundred percent certainty that I had OCD. So many people said it sounded like OCD to them. But that wasn't good enough. That small niggle of doubt wormed itself into my brain and took root there. My sole purpose in life became to prove to myself once and for all that I definitely had OCD. When it was at its worse, the uncertainty felt so intolerable that I felt like I would rather die than experience it for a moment longer.
As well as reassurance-seeking, Googling was a major compulsion for me. I would sometimes spend hours obsessively Googling pages and forums about OCD, trying to find the one website that would answer my question for sure. The thing is, almost anything can be an obsession or compulsion. There are almost limitless combinations. I couldn’t find most of mine by Googling. But that didn’t stop me trying again and again. My concern was that if my particular symptoms weren’t listed anywhere, that meant it wasn’t OCD and that I didn’t have it. When I read about other people’s OCD, it made me really anxious because I felt like I was a fraud. That they really had OCD and I didn’t, but I was going around telling people I had it. And that made me feel really guilty. I needed endless amounts of reassurance, from anyone I could get it from.
I spent a lot of time on a particular OCD forum where I was told multiple times that they were sure I had OCD, but that reassurance would only be fleeting and then I would start to doubt again and I’d soon be back with yet another post. My posts at this time would usually either be a straight question asking whether they thought I had OCD, or I’d try and be a bit more subtle by asking about another obsession I had and asking whether it sounded like OCD.
The moderators soon became wise to my ways and refused to directly tell me if they thought I had OCD; totally the right thing to do, because it didn’t help me in the long run. But this would make me worry that they thought I didn’t have it, and I’d then want to do more compulsions. Occasionally, I’d ask about a particular symptom and someone would say that didn’t sound like OCD. To me, this response meant that I didn’t have OCD at all and that threw me into a panic and further attempts to try and prove the existence of my OCD.
I even had trouble going to my OCD support group as I felt like I didn't belong there. When they discussed symptoms I didn't have, I'd panic. These people obviously had OCD and were suffering, but I was just pretending! I was a fraud and I was wasting people’s time.
I constantly wished that I had more “traditional” OCD symptoms so that at least I could be sure that I had OCD. I hoped that I would wake up one day and suddenly have intrusive thoughts about my hands not being clean enough or about harming someone. I read a book about OCD and all the examples were the more common ones. I felt anxious the whole time I was reading the book. I tried to relate my symptoms to the examples but I felt like I was being deceitful.
The symptoms I had seemed so different to those that other people had. Websites and forums were full of people worrying about germs or that they might be gay. Mine were different. I became obsessed mostly with rules. For example, when I was younger I had read that women should have no more than seventy grams of fat a day and that more people were becoming obese. I worried about becoming fat and decided that seventy grams of fat would actually make me fat so I could have no more than thirty-five grams a day. More recently there were other rules, mostly connected to a worry of being fat. I’d time two and a half hours of exercise a week and five hours, twenty minutes of walking a week. I’d start a stopwatch and if I stopped exercising or walking even for a few seconds I’d have to stop the stopwatch. My life became a neverending pattern of timing and measuring things and freaking out if I didn’t do the “right” amount.
I also had trouble at work as I kept thinking I was going to get fired and avoiding doing my work in case I ran out and they decided they didn’t need me there anymore. Once again, I had trouble accepting this as OCD as I could find no evidence of this particular set of obsessions and compulsions on any website or in any book.
My worry that I might have OCD was actually not that different from my rules. I had read that to have OCD you had to spend at least an hour a day on obsessions and compulsions. Some days I would be fairly calm and then suddenly I’d remember that and panic that I hadn’t spent an hour that day worrying. Of course, this then set off the anxiety and the attempts to prove that I did have OCD, meaning that I’d then spend at least an hour on them after all. Therefore, once again proving that I had OCD. But I felt like I was making myself do this just to prove it, and worried that meant I was faking it.
I thought that I didn’t have intrusive thoughts, and that therefore it wasn’t OCD. I couldn’t recognise myself in the descriptions of these that I read about. But of course I had intrusive thoughts. “You’re going to get fat.” “You’re going to get fired.” “You don’t have OCD.” These were intrusive thoughts that made me anxious and I tried to alleviate the anxiety by doing compulsions.
I've thankfully managed to get over this obsession. By telling myself that I do have OCD and refusing to get into mental debates with myself about it, not Googling symptoms and not asking for reassurance that I have it. As with any OCD, the solution (alongside cognitive behavioural therapy) is to resist the compulsions. That's the only way past it. I was spending so long trying to prove to myself that I had OCD that all my mental energy was going into that and not into getting better. I had to do something. I had to take that leap of faith.
Part of recovery from the disorder involves accepting that you do have OCD and that the danger your brain is telling you is there is false, that the compulsions are part of that and are not actually keeping you safe, no matter how strongly your brain is telling you they are necessary. No one can say with one hundred percent certainty that I have OCD. It's not like a physical illness that medical tests can prove. No matter how many people say I have it, there is the tiniest chance that they could all be wrong. What if that tiny chance is actually the correct one? Recovering means learning to accept that ambiguity.