The World Health Organisation lists obsessive-compulsive disorder as one of the top ten causes of disability, and yet still some people think it's some funny quirk or personality defect.
OCD is an illness which can seriously affect the quality of a person's life. It's like having that feeling you'd get if you accidentally stepped out in front of a bus, only on repeat for at least 12 hours a day, often more. Your fight or flight response is being triggered all the time, and will react to an incident 100 times faster than any rational thought processing.
My experience with OCD has centred around fears of harm coming to myself and to those around me. The obsessions usually escalate from something that may seem reasonable, like worrying about contracting HIV, which soon becomes so warped that it is unrecognizable as a rational fear.
My fear of HIV/AIDS, a common symptom of OCD, didn't just mean I swore off ever having unprotected sex. It led to an avoidance of walking outside in thin soles (in case I stepped on a used needle), to making sure my razor was always in exactly the same place when I got home (convinced that someone could have broken into my house and cut themselves with it) and even avoiding hearing or reading the name (thinking that this put me at risk).
I wasn't being ignorant - I hated that my behaviour was in line with the stigma surrounding the virus. I know that HIV can't survive long outside the human body, and I definitely know that you can't get it from hearing it said aloud.
But when my OCD was at its worst, this knowledge didn't stop the thoughts from dominating my life and everything I did. If I wasn't carrying out a compulsion, I was alert so I could avoid any "dangerous" situations, ready to protect myself from both the thoughts and whatever they compelled me to believe.
The obsessions soon included other STDs, and next thing I knew I was avoiding germs at all costs. I washed my hands until they bled about 50 times a day and still feel uncomfortable eating in restaurants. It didn't matter how well I knew someone, the idea of coming into contact with their germs was unthinkable.
My fear of germs then became fear of any kind of contamination - anything which could be unsafe to ingest created distress. The combination of this phobia of germs and phobia of anything potentially toxic is what really made life unliveable. My family would rush around using plenty of disinfectant hoping this would stop me panicking, but this would spark another terrible fear. In my mind nothing could be safe if it wasn't clean, but nothing could be safe if it was.
I became uncomfortable drinking water that came from the tap or from plastic bottles, convinced it had been contaminated at the source. I became scared of eating as my thoughts fixated on the tiny chance that my food was unsafe: "what if a poisonous leaf was accidentally mixed in with this bag of spinach? What if the previous tenants had once spilt nail varnish remover all over the kitchen counter? What if shards of broken glass had gotten in my food? What if someone had purposefully poisoned my meal?"
I compulsively asked for reassurance again and again from my family, who usually thought my questions were completely bizarre, but the thoughts just became more and more illogical (and more compelling): "if I sleep in the same room as a packet of pain-killers or a bottle of (sealed) nail varnish remover, something terrible will happen".
I kept close tabs on every single thing I owned and put them in specific places based on where they had been and what they had touched, remembering which required hand washing after touching them. To someone else my room would have looked like a disorganised mess. All this to avoid being up late at night, having nowhere that felt "safe" enough to sleep.
Even when I was at my lowest point, my queries that I might have a mental illness weren't taken seriously. This is because not enough people know what OCD is, or how severe it can be.
Four years later, I am still trying to get better. Although symptoms will never fully go away, people around me understanding can help me engage with treatments and prevent OCD from disrupting my life. I hope that sharing what I went through will encourage people to respect how terrifyingly debilitating any type of OCD can be, because mine is just one of millions of experiences.Suggest a correction