Obsession—the word conjures up images of people who are fastidious and neat, having everything arranged in picture perfect order. But what happens when someone is ‘obsessed’ with a new song, about doing their hair meticulously for hours or perhaps even getting ready for the gym by following a painstaking routine? Though being obsessed usually doesn’t create problems in daily living [it could even be pleasurable to some extent], when an obsession goes overboard, life can become miserable.
If you find yourself checking and re-checking whether the front door is locked, sweeping and re-sweeping an already clean floor or if you have a strong urge to perform certain rituals repeatedly, then your obsession might be out of control.
Obsession out of hand
Take the case of Raju, a software engineer from Bangalore. He is scrupulous about hygiene. To make sure that his environment is clean, he uses a cleansing swipe each time he touches the elevator button, cleans his keyboard by rubbing alcohol and a micro-fibre cloth every hour, washes his hands every 30 minutes with antiseptic soap and vacuums his seat four times a day. He gets his car washed twice a day with an extra-deep cleaning wash on the weekends at the local car care centre. His parents tried in vain to talk him out of his fixation for hygiene. They thought marriage would change him and so got him married. His wife was shocked on their wedding night when he asked her to bathe thrice in hot water with antiseptic soap. He forced his wife to do the household chores with unrealistic hygiene standards. Predictably, four months into marriage she packed her bags and left.
On the professional front, one unfortunate day he ran out of swipes. In a fit of rage he flung his laptop out of his office window. Regrettably, Raju refuses to get help.
Types of OCD
Do you know someone like Raju? If so, this person might have an anxiety-based disorder called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder [OCD]. People suffering from OCD are preoccupied with a topic, an idea or even a person. ‘Obsessions’ are recurrent and persist in the form of thoughts, impulse, or images at various time intervals. These are triggered by inappropriate stimuli that cause heightened distress. These recurring thoughts, impulses or images are not simply excessive worries about real-life problems, and they will not just go away; besides, they are severe enough to debilitate someone. The person even recognises that these thoughts, impulses or images are a figment of their mind.
OCD can manifest at any age. It usually appears between the ages of eight to 12 or during late teens and early adulthood. The exact cause for OCD is not known.
The most common types of obsessions are:
- Fear of contamination: The worry is that something which is contaminated may cause illness and ultimately death to oneself or a loved one. Such people could brush their teeth excessively due to fear of leaving a minuscule amount of germs and therefore getting mouth disease; or they might clean their kitchen and bathroom repeatedly due to the fear of germs being spread to family.
- Fear of causing harm: The anxiety in this case is of carrying out violent acts against loved ones or others. Obsessive thoughts include violently harming children or loved ones using sharp objects like knives or causing self-harm by jumping in front of a train or a fast-moving bus. While these people might not display ritualistic behaviour, they repeatedly go through the day’s events to check if they have done something to cause harm.
- Excessive concern with symmetry: People with this obsessive fear do anything to ensure everything feels ‘just right’ to prevent discomfort. They have everything neat and in place at all times. For instance, they might have their canned food facing forward or have their clothes hanging in order of colour.
- Unwanted thoughts related to religious beliefs: These people believe that their sins will never be forgiven by God and they will go to hell. To avoid this, they touch or kiss religious objects repeatedly. They also fear becoming a paedophile or a homosexual.
- Excessive accumulation of generic things: Hoarders fear that something bad will happen if they throw anything away. They compulsively hoard things that they don’t need or use. They might, for example, collect woollen clothes and cartons.
American actor Jack Nicholson won an Oscar for his brilliant portrayal of Melvin, a novelist who suffers from OCD, in the 1997 film As good as it gets.
How to treat OCD
Despite the perils of a disorder like obsession, help is available. With treatment and a good support system, you can break free of the unwanted thoughts and irrational urges and take back control of life. The following strategies can be used:
- Psychological intervention or psychotherapy
Behaviour therapy has a lot to offer to individuals with this disorder. Systematic desensitisation techniques involve gradually exposing the patient to ever-increasing anxiety-provoking stimuli.
Cognitive-behavioural therapy, which may have some effectiveness for people who suffer from OCD include saturation and thought-stopping. Through saturation, the patient is directed to do nothing but think of one obsessive thought, which worries them. After concentrating on this one thought for a number of days, the obsession can lose some of its strength. Through thought-stopping, the individual learns how to halt obsessive thoughts by identifying the thoughts and then averting it by doing an opposite, incompatible response.
Certain medication has proven to be effective in combating this disorder. However precaution must be taken to prevent an overdose.
- Social support
Active participation by friends or family in the recovery of an OCD patient is essential. Family members and friends can help by ensuring that medication is taken at the appropriate time, attending follow-up sessions with the patient’s therapist to monitor progress and providing constant motivation at each stage.
In another true story, Radha, a 35-year-old entrepreneur, married with seven-year-old twins was diagnosed with OCD. Prior to being diagnosed, she ran a thriving chain of designer boutiques. Unfortunately her personal and professional life was hanging by a thread.
Radha was obsessed with perfection. She wanted all the clothes in her boutique to be crease free and arranged symmetrically at all times. Employees had to be impeccably dressed and cash in the registers had to arranged denomination-wise. The display lights, carpets and windows had to be cleaned till they shone. She would fire employees instantly if they didn’t comply with her norms. At home, her kids were petrified of her. She would beat them up mercilessly if they left their toys strewn on the floor. She expected them to arrange their school books according to colour or height. She would even hit her husband if he didn’t place his shoes, laptop, clothes and other items in their allocated places.
As things started to get worse, her husband, with the help of her parents, arranged for her to visit a clinical psychologist. But with a lot of support from her family, she met a psychiatrist and a psychologist. Her psychiatrist started her on medication. Her family asked her employees to monitor whether she was taking her medications on time and also requested them to act normal and not to treat her as an ill person. Her siblings made sure she went for her psychotherapy sessions. Her friends would speak to her every week to motivate her on her progress. In a couple of months she began to change; the change was gradual but positive.
Today, Radha is back to being the loving wife, doting mother, happy employer and OCD-free person that she used to be.
All of us have a few harmless obsessions. It’s only when these spin beyond our control and get into endless loops of behaviours that it can be labelled as OCD. Anyone can get OCD irrespective of age, gender, education or socio-economic status.
People who have OCD are suffering and need to be encouraged to seek professional help so that their obsession can be brought under control.
This was first published in the March 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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