OCD Is Not a Personality Trait

Source: Chemistry World

This article is part of a series for Mental Health Awareness Week.

By Catherine Nixon

OCD is a mental illness that I have suffered with, and have shared my life with, since I was 7 years old; so for the last 15 years and counting.  

My OCD has always manifested itself in the fear of contamination and in checking and avoidance behaviours. However, it’s very important to note that this is not the only way that OCD can affect a sufferer. 

I have a vivid memory of washing my hands for longer than all the other kids at school. It didn’t stop there. Over the next couple of years, I developed obsessions over toilets, bins and red berries (random, right) on trees. I had an irrational fear that if I didn’t wash my hands or if I went too close to something I would get ill and die. I would wash my hands lots, open doors with my feet, hold saliva in my mouth in fear of swallowing it in an attempt to temper these fears.

Over the years OCD has manifested in various different obsessions. I was given a break for a few years, but when I was 16 it resurfaced; a lot stronger. It quickly became uncontrollable and disabling. In a matter of months, CAMHs deemed me not ill enough for their services and then too ill for their services. I received treatment from an inpatient unit which enabled me to somewhat get my life back on track. 

More importantly, I began to learn the importance of talking about our mental health and why we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. I also no longer felt alone in the fact that my brain was a bit strange sometimes. 

This was a MASSIVE learning curve.  

There was a massive delay in accessing help getting treatment and a diagnosis, because I truly thought I did not have OCD. I did not meet society’s stereotype that OCD is all about being tidy and having everything in a neat order – it is for some people, but not always. I was only offered help when things were too far gone. 

People use it often as a personality trait, and to explain how they like something. Only sufferers and people close around them know the full truth. It was only at the most severe stages – where it became disabling and I couldn’t carry out easy tasks – that my OCD became even the tiniest bit visible to anyone other than my family. OCD is not something that can be easily noticed by other people and, in a lot of cases, is very much invisible to people around them. 

When I try to resist the thoughts and compulsions or can’t carry them out, I often feel physically frozen and trapped whilst my head is screaming at me:

“I’m in danger”

“Something bad is going to happen” 

“I need to stay safe and be in control”

Sometimes I will uncontrollably cry or shut down in silence.

I sometimes find it hard to explain what it is that goes on in my head on a daily basis because the thoughts and behaviours are irrational. I find that they don’t make sense when you try to explain it to someone, but it makes perfect sense in my head. 

I have taken medication for years (it really helps stabilise everything so I can engage in therapy) and undergone therapy with multiple therapists and services. It’s not a quick fix solution by any means, as OCD has a tendency to creep back very quickly; sometimes without realising. 

OCD clings onto any uncertainty and risk, and blows it up to the point it’s easier to just avoid many situations to stop myself from spending large parts of my day doing the compulsions that I feel forced to do. It’s exhausting, and you feel like you are in a tank filling up with water, quickly restricting what you are able to do without feeling the anxiety. You doubt everything you have or haven’t done or haven’t done enough. 

Aside from this, I’m incredibly lucky to have amazing friends and family around me who I rant to and would do anything to try and help, even if it’s out of their hands. 

OCD is not about being “clean and tidy”, but a vicious and often disabling cycle of irrational fears, obsessions, and thoughts that lead you into thinking that the only way of preventing something bad from happening is to do a certain behaviour. 

OCD recovery requires you to internally accept that you will feel so anxious for a while. You have to put yourself in situations that make you feel horrible and be comfortable with that anxious feeling  (doesn’t that sound nice) which eventually subsides. It is possible to get your life back, with a lot of hard work. 

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