"I'm a little bit OCD" has become the go-to phrase to explain why our desk is so tidy or what makes us so keen to de-grossify our best mate's really rank bathroom. But alphabetising your book collection or scrubbing under your fingernails doesn't mean you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
OCD isn't a love of neatness or a cute personality quirk. It's a real mental illness which needs to be treated with as much respect and concern as depression or anxiety.
Symptoms include suffering extreme ‘intrusive thoughts’. These affect sufferers' day-to-day lives significantly and can even render them unable to leave the house or have sex.
Technically, everyone experiences intrusive thoughts. These are just random things which can pop into your head at any time, good and bad. The difference between someone who has OCD and someone who doesn't is how we process these thoughts.
Someone who doesn't have OCD might think 'Did I switch the oven off last night?'. After a quick mental backtrack, they'll either remember the answer to this question or have a quick look at the oven and leave it at that. If someone with OCD has this thought, they might check the oven a hundred times just to be sure and end up being late to work. Actions like checking, which sufferers do to relieve their anxiety, are the compulsion part of OCD.
Contrary to the stereotypes surrounding OCD, it's a hugely varied and often totally debilitating condition. We spoke to mental health charity OCD-UK to find out what symptoms OCD sufferers really experience, and why it’s so much more than just colour-coding your lecture notes.
1 Fear of being a paedophile
OCD can make someone afraid that they are sexually attracted to children when they aren't. People often experience these fears despite loving children or having their own kids. Someone who has this obsession may avoid places where they're likely to come into contact with children like parks and shopping centres.
2 Fear of being a different sexuality
Even while in a committed and loving relationship, OCD can still cause someone to obsessively worry that they are actually a different sexuality. For example, a sufferer might have intrusive thoughts that they are actually gay and don't really love their partner of the opposite sex. They may try and test these obsessions by watching gay porn or agonising over whether they are attracted to friends. Sufferers may also experience unwanted mental sexual images.
3 Relationship OCD
OCD often attacks the things that the sufferer cares about most and the condition causes many people to worry obsessively about their relationships. They may feel they need to seek constant reassurance from their partner about whether they still love them or might bombard their bf/gf with hundreds of texts.
4 Fear of sexual contact
Obsessions with cleanliness don't just apply to having a germ-free kitchen or washing your hands. Some sufferers experience such a strong fear of contamination from sexual fluids that they avoid sex altogether.
5 Violent intrusive thoughts
OCD can cause people to worry obsessively that they will perform acts of violence, even though there is absolutely no actual risk of this happening whatsoever. They may worry about doing things like poisoning someone, pushing someone in front of a train or stabbing a family member with a kitchen knife (these are just common examples, thoughts can be as varied as the sufferer's imagination). People may avoid situations which they perceive as 'dangerous'. For example, they might lock away kitchen knives or avoid cooking for their family and friends.
6 Fear of blaspheming
Again, OCD often centres on something the sufferer really cares about. Religious people may become terrified that they are going to blaspheme or commit an act which goes against their beliefs. They may also experience unwanted mental images (e.g. of Satan).
7 Obsession with illness
Some sufferers become obsessed with the idea that may have, or may end up developing, cancer and other diseases, even if they aren't showing any symptoms. This is sometimes triggered by the death of someone close to them.
8 Fear of running someone over
This can cause someone to drive the same route repeatedly just to check that they haven't run anyone over. Sufferers may avoid driving altogether.
People may become unable to throw away possessions, even when they run out of space. This can be because they believe throwing away their junk may harm someone (e.g. bin people cutting themselves on sharp edges), because the person affords the items emotional significance or because past deprivation has made them fear being without certain objects in future.
Not all OCD sufferers will experience these particular thoughts and fears. Although it's a cliche, concerns around hygiene and contamination are very prevalent forms of the condition, along with needing to arrange and sort objects in a certain way.
It is estimated that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder affects around 750,000 people in the UK. For more OCD information and support check out these awesome organisations:
Phone: 0845 120 3778 or 0345 120 3778
Phone: 0300 123 3393
Phone: 0845 390 6232
NHS Choices - For more information on symptoms and treatment.
If you are experiencing OCD symptoms, you can also talk about this with your GP.