Do you ever find yourself struggling with unwanted and intrusive thoughts? Do you find that there are times when you need to repeat things over and over? Perhaps it is going back just one more time to check that the door is really locked. Or perhaps you worry if you don’t do something in a particular way that some bad luck might come to you or someone you love. Most of us can identify with having moments like these, but for those of us with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) these intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviours (compulsions) become a significant part of daily life. They cause ongoing distress, frustration and/or anxiety, and affect daily functioning.
OCD was once thought to be very rare but in fact it is a relatively common mental disorder. We don’t have specific research in South Africa exploring the numbers in our country, but research elsewhere in the world suggests that 2-3% of us will experience OCD at some point in our lives. Obsessions and compulsions often centre around four themes: fears of contamination, responsibility for harm or mistakes, concerns about incompleteness/symmetry, and taboo thoughts. This means that the obsessions and compulsions of OCD can manifest very differently amongst those of us experiencing the disorder.
One individual may find that their obsessions and compulsions centre around contamination. As a result they may spend a lot of time in washing and cleaning compulsions or in avoiding contaminants. Another individual may have obsessions and compulsions centring around taboo thoughts. As a result they may spend a lot of time worrying about these thoughts and perhaps praying or performing some other ‘mental ritual’ to try and neutralise, or rid themselves, of these thoughts. Individuals concerned with responsibility for harm or mistakes may find themselves retracing their routes home just to make sure they haven’t knocked over a pedestrian on their drive home. Very often individuals find that they have obsessions and compulsions that cover a wide, or mixed, range of themes. Regardless of their nature, these obsessions and compulsions are experienced as unpleasant and unwanted. Extreme and recurring doubt can also be a common feature of OCD. Individuals can be plagued by the question, “What if…?”. For example, “What if I knocked someone over? That’s ridiculous. I know I didn’t knock someone over. But what if I did? Perhaps I should check and make sure? No, there is no need. But what if…?”
Janine Blignaut, who is doing a research study on obsessive-compulsive disorder, says, “OCD can be very difficult to live with and is often a secretive disorder. People worry about telling others about their obsessions and compulsions, because they know their thoughts and behaviours don’t fully make sense. There isn’t a lot of research in South Africa exploring what the experience of living with OCD is like. My research is interested in people’s stories and exploring how they feel and think about their obsessions and compulsions and how it affects their lives in different ways. I’d also like to focus on the South African context. So my research is interested in how people manage their OCD. Have they sought any treatment and if so, what type of treatment?”
Finally, if you or a loved one has OCD or any other mental illness and are seeking information on mental illness, or need a referral to a mental health professional or support group, you can call The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG). Their toll free number is 0800 21 2223. You can also visit their website: www.sadag.org. Their website includes information on various forms of mental illness, including a guide on OCD.