Living with obsessive compulsive disorder

Many people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) can trace some of their anxieties and compulsions back to their childhood.

On average, compulsions start to interfere significantly with a person’s life when they are 17-20 years of age. However, it can be as early as five years of age or as late as 70.

The unwelcome and obsessive fears that threaten to become overwhelming as the condition develops vary from person to person. So too does the compulsive behaviour that the person uses to try to control the fears.

How much impact OCD has on a person’s life depends on:

  • the amount of time spent on a compulsive behaviour or ritual
  • the intensity of the behaviour
  • how much of it happens in their mind rather than in their actions

Rituals that involve checking can affect different people in different ways. For example, when leaving the house, a person with OCD might shut the door behind them and then think about it again and again for much of the day.

Their worry about the door being properly locked is constant, and so is the misery and depression that goes with it. Despite this, some people with OCD are able to hold down demanding jobs.

For others, the behaviour can take up all of their focus. When they try to leave the house they get stuck in the hallway, repeatedly checking the lock. In the most extreme cases, the anxiety and the thought of carrying out these rituals can prevent a person from moving for hours.

Supporting family members with OCD

Naturally, family members of someone who is openly affected by these behaviours will want to help. For a person who has not had mental health training and is unaware of the treatment options, this usually means trying to share the load. For instance, they may take on some of the rituals of a compulsive cleaner or checker.

This might seem the natural thing to do, but the whole family may end up constantly trying to protect the person with OCD from their own fears. However, this is counter-productive because the problem is not resolved and there is no hope of moving on. In this way, the whole family ‘suffers from OCD’.

The best approach is to help the person with OCD to seek treatment and to support them as they change and recover. Once therapy has begun, the contribution and support of a partner is invaluable.

Sometimes, the person with OCD can feel embarrassed or ashamed and they will try to hide their rituals from others. When this involves a physical activity, such as hand washing, the first sign that something is wrong may be the appearance of their hands, or the length of time they spend in the bathroom. Mental rituals are often more difficult to notice.

Fortunately, when someone with OCD decides to get help, a good GP will be able to recognise the signs and seek further advice and support from specialists.

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