Today, October 9th, is day 1 of OCD Awareness Week. OCD Awareness Week is an effort that is near and dear to my heart. Many people live with OCD, and don’t know that they have OCD. The statistics on this subject are shocking. Most experts estimate that 1 in 40 Americans have OCD. Only 23% of people with OCD seek mental health treatment. The lag time between when a person starts to experience OCD symptoms and when they receive professional help is a staggering 11 years. Only 14 percent of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder that manifests solely in the form of obtrusive thoughts (“pure obsession”) seek help. When you digest these statistics, something becomes clear: if so many people have OCD but don’t know it or don’t seek treatment, that 1 in 40 figure is probably way higher.
The 14% figure is especially meaningful to me. When I finally sought professional help, when I was 24, my main complaint was that I had a huge, intrusive worry that ate at me every day. At the time, I believed that the voice in my head–we all have one–was accurate as it narrated the outside world for me and scanned for problems. I believed that everything I worried about was true, including this one big scary worry. I wouldn’t have described myself as having OCD; I just thought I had a HUGE problem to deal with.
When I was diagnosed with OCD, it was a huge surprise. I didn’t wash my hands incessantly and I didn’t need my possessions to be lined up symmetrically in my room. When I learned that “obsessive thoughts” was a thing, my OCD diagnosis made much more sense. I also learned that tons of my worries, quirks, and habits–that I thought were totally reasonable–were also manifestations of OCD.
Thus, in honor of OCD Awareness Week, I’m going to describe some manifestations of OCD that people may not think is OCD. The more people are aware of the huge range of ways that OCD can manifest, our collective consciousness will empower people struggling with OCD to identify it and seek help sooner.
This is what OCD looks like: obsessive thinking.
When we think of OCD, we think of someone who repetitively washes their hands and checks things. But often, OCD is invisible to everyone except the person experiencing it. For some people, OCD can manifest itself entirely in threatening thoughts. A person with this kind of OCD (often called “pure O”) spends a ton of time thinking, trying to disprove the thought and wash it away in their head. These obsessive thoughts can be especially frustrating, because they’re usually irrational and thus, they don’t respond to logic. Often, they tend to become inflamed and seem even bigger and more menacing, the more one tries to solve them.
Here are some relatively common obsessive thoughts that someone with OCD may struggle with:
What if I get fired?
What if I blurt out swear words?
What if I throw up right now?
What if I say something that offends the person I’m speaking to?
What if the people around me are all robots?
(After all, do you know with complete certainty that the people in your life aren’t robots? No, you don’t. But that uncertainty wouldn’t bother you if you didn’t grapple with obsessive thoughts/ OCD)
The way to handle obsessive thoughts is to practice total acceptance of the thoughts. Leaning into a barbed-wire worry paradoxically makes it fade away. If you have a tendency to think yourself in circles or worry about things that you don’t sense other people worry about, you may want to poke around this site and learn more about OCD. You can also learn more at the website for the International OCD Foundation.