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Wrestling the OCD demons


Danielle de Wolfe
04 November 2010

The time is 11am. Having got into the office at 9.30am, checked your desk is arranged exactly as it should be, before tidying it and arranging it again from scratch, then doing a modicum of work (everyone else is on Facebook anyway), you pop to the gents. Tearing off three sheets of toilet roll and wrapping it around your fingers, you shut and lock the cubicle door. You pull the door to make sure it’s shut. Then again. And again. You do this for around a minute and a half, giving the impression you’re a lunatic trying to escape from a lavatorial cell. Then, the door shut, you face the germs.

Myself, I wash my hands up to 50 times a day, and that's a marked improvement. To be honest, I still find it weird that people find this weird. Of course I wash my hands 50 times a day. What do you mean, you don't? How dirty are you?

Not at all dirty is, of course, the answer to that. But an obsession not too distant from a pathological fear of germs means I feel the need to keep washing my hands even if I've not touched anything since the last time.

I don't want to make myself or other people ill by contaminating my hands. Ironically, I was told some years back that keeping obsessively clean as a child actually made me more susceptible to illness, as you need exposure to germs to build up your natural immunity. Oh, how I laughed.

Still, I'm lucky: my afflictions are comparatively mild. Like an amateurish Rain Man I count pretty much everything, most notably my own words when I am talking, and make sure they are in multiples of three. I also have to touch things in a symmetrical pattern, turn in certain directions and obsess over minor details. Intensely checking my covering letters, reading them over and over again until my brain was no longer processing the words, a single job application often used to take me two days.

Many other people with OCD have it so much worse. I spoke to one sufferer, whom we'll call John, who explained to me his "worst ever episode", back in 1995 when he was 25.

"I was literally moving from the chair to the bed, and from the bed to the chair. I was hand washing two to three hundred times a day. I was having constant panic attacks. I went from being 16 stone to having a 20-inch waist in about six months. I was told I'd either end up in a hospital or dead."

When you hear that, it becomes much easier to see why the World Health Organization includes OCD in its ten most incapacitating illnesses. It becomes easier, too, to see how it might be hard to 'come out' with OCD.

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