The Institute of Mental Health defines Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as a long-lasting disorder that involves persistent ideas, images and impulses (obsessions) followed by the often repetitive physical or mental steps taken to reduce the anxiety (compulsions). Vivien*, 24, has struggled with OCD since she was a child and says that her symptoms only got worse as she got older.
Read her story.
“For a long time, I didn’t even know that I had OCD because to me, it was the norm. I booked an appointment with a psychologist because I also have depression and anxiety, which I’ve been told is quite common among people who have OCD, and that’s when I discovered that the way I control my surroundings is actually not the norm. During periods of high stress, my OCD intensifies—for example, on good days, I’m able to fight the urge to see if I remembered my keys, but on bad days, I’ll open my bag several times to check if they’re there.
Obsessions and compulsions
One of my main obsessions are germs—I have an irrational fear of them. I can’t even have friends over when my OCD is at a moderately high level because the thought of people tracking their germs into my house can send me over the edge. When I do have friends over, I’ll ask them to wash their feet before they walk around my house.
When my family hosted a small dinner party, I steam-cleaned the couch, cleaned the bathroom with bleach, and wiped down all the surfaces that the guests touched immediately after they left. My bedroom is my safe haven and it’s where I am most particular about germs. I can only touch my bed if I’ve showered beforehand and I’m wearing clean clothes—bedroom contamination is something I fear every day. I have trouble with public surfaces in general. When I move aside so someone else can open the door, people think I’m being rude when all I really want is to avoid touching the doorknob. In planes and restaurants, I can’t sit next to the window and wall because I visualise germs crawling beside me. I love anti-bacterial wipes and hand sanitiser so much that friends and family have actually gifted them to me as birthday presents.
Another obsession I have is the fear of bad things happening to people I love when they’re not with me, or that my actions will indirectly bring harm to them. This fear usually ties in with another compulsion I have: checking behaviour. I repeatedly check that all the doors and windows in my house are locked before I go to bed because I’m scared that someone might break in and harm my family and it would be my fault. Even when I’m already in bed with the lights off, I still make myself get up to check because I won’t be able to fall asleep if I don’t.
What OCD looks like to people who don’t have it
I’ve been labeled as difficult, neurotic and even “princess-y” because of my aversion to germs. People don’t understand that if I touch something that I think is dirty, I won’t be able to touch my phone, my handbag, the clothes I’m wearing or any skin until I wash my hands or use hand sanitizer.
Most of my friends know that I have anxiety and depression, but only my closest friends know that I have OCD as well. I once told a friend that I had OCD and the first thing she said was, “No, you don’t. You’re not that neat and you don’t follow a daily routine.” I didn’t bother explaining myself further.
It can be particularly difficult for me at home because my dad doesn’t understand that these thoughts are out of my control and he’s told me on several occasions that I need to just “relax” or that I’m over-reacting when I clean something. I am extremely paranoid that bugs will infest the house if any trace of food is left out. In an effort to prove me wrong, my dad left food out in the microwave to store for the next day. He forgot about it and the next time he opened the microwave, there were flies inside. After throwing out the food, my dad said that he would clean the microwave after he was done with his work. I really didn’t want to go near the microwave, but the thought of the germs still lurking in there made me claw at my arms. I was in the middle of a panic attack, but I grabbed gloves and cleaning supplies and went to sanitise the microwave. I was crying so hard that I was shaking and my dad told me that I was being dramatic.
Sometimes I try to fight the urges and tell my mind that I’m being irrational to check or clean something multiple times, but most of the time, I just give in to my thoughts because resisting is so debilitating. What people need to understand is that my OCD makes it feel like I don’t have a say in my own thoughts; my obsessions are intrusive and the only way to soothe them is by giving in to my compulsions. It would be nice to chill out and relax, as people often suggest to me, but if I could, I would.
It’s become more common for people to use mental health illnesses to describe some of their day-to-day feelings or habits. In reality, having a bad day once in a while doesn’t mean you’re depressed and being extremely neat doesn’t necessarily mean you have OCD. For individuals that actually live with mental health disorders, throwing these terms around loosely trivializes what they experience on a daily basis.
There are many other ways that OCD can manifest, but if you resonate with some of the symptoms mentioned above, make an appointment to see a mental health professional. It will take time, but it can get better once you and your doctor form a treatment plan.
As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, we are covering various mental health conditions in our stories. Read related stories here:
Text: Claire Soong