Why do you want a label?

Sometimes, people dismiss psychiatric and neurological diagnoses as “labels”. This is curious. Conditions pertaining to parts of the body are rarely, if ever, dismissed as such. Since when are stomach cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure ever called labels?

But labels, or, to use the proper term, diagnoses, can be enormously helpful.

Firstly, labels are useful for treatment. If you have Borderline Personality Disorder, but don’t have the official diagnosis, then it’s unlikely you’d be referred for Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, and unlikely that you’d get your condition under control. The case is the same for OCD and Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy, depression and cognitive behavioural therapy, and just about every other psychiatric and neurological condition out there. When diagnosed with OCD, therapists taught me more about the condition, and after a while, I knew which thoughts were part of my illness and which thoughts were part of me. I was given the right medication, and with it, managed to get the incessant, intrusive thoughts somewhat under control.

Secondly, labels are helpful on an emotional level. The relief I felt when I was diagnosed with OCD was enormous. I had known for quite a while that I had the condition, but when I was officially bestowed with it by a psychiatrist, quite suddenly, I knew I wasn’t the only one who was plagued by intrusive thoughts and ruminations. Now I can connect with other people who happen to also be autistic, obsessive, compulsive and/or Tourettic, without feeling guilty that I do not have the official paperwork to back up my suspicions.

On a day to day basis, people don’t tend to announce their medical conditions. But online, some wonderful people decide to open up. I don’t have any real-life friends with autism or OCD or Tourette’s. But the fact that I can share similar experiences with people across the globe makes me feel less alone, and that, I would argue, can only be a good thing.

What it feels like to live with OCD

grayscale photography of boy and girl on swing

For as long as I can remember, I have had obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Going to bed as a little girl was a time-consuming ordeal. I would be tucked in by my mum and dad, and upon them leaving me to head off into the land of nod, I would get up again, close the door just so, turn the CD player on and off 17 times and check under my bed 17 times. I would meticulously line up my toys so each of them had an equal amount of space, and then eventually go to sleep, much later than my parents ever realised.

OCD wasn’t just there in the night, of course. It followed me around in the day, too. Every time I would walk into a room, I would check the corner for spiders, check under the table for spiders, check under the seats for spiders. It wasn’t that I was a crippling arachnophobe, it was more that spiders were wrong, weren’t meant to be there, had to be removed.

OCD wasn’t just there when I was a child, either. It followed me into adulthood, taking a more pernicious form; I found myself losing control of my thoughts entirely, my mind being completely absorbed by my obsessions, even if the compulsions had calmed down a little.

For me, OCD feels like you’re not in control of your brain. Intrusive thoughts – vivid, visual images of the most horrendous things – plague me on a daily basis. I pick up a knife to chop an onion and see myself stabbing someone. I pick up a cup of tea and see myself throwing it on someone. I stand on the Tube platform and see myself pushing someone onto the tracks.

The questions I ask myself whilst thinking these thoughts do not help matters at all: What kind of person could conjure up such ideas? What if I did act upon these images? What if these things are what I subconsciously want to do? The questions only lead me around in circles, and fuel the intrusive thoughts until they return with a dizzying ferocity.

Ruminations over past events play in my mind so loudly it’s almost as though they’re audible. A constant soundtrack to my days, it’s as though I’m listening to the same song on repeat for years, only the song is a hellish event from my past and it accompanies me from the second I open my eyes to the second I finally manage to close them at night.

The questions I ask myself during my ruminations are not helpful: What if I said something differently? What if I did something differently? What if it had never happened at all? The questions only lead me around in circles, and fuel more ruminations.

Right now, my OCD is just about under control. Yes, thoughts still intrude. Yes, I still ruminate. But the intrusions and ruminations are muted somehow. I am on 150mg of sertraline and have educated myself on unhelpful thought patterns.

For now, I am just grateful for the quieter spell, but nevertheless irritated when people laugh off OCD as a personality quirk, when it’s dismissed as something everyone “is a little bit of,” when it’s aligned with being meticulous, organised, a perfectionist – qualities anyone could put down on a CV, rather than what it is: a horrible condition that requires treatment, support and empathy.

These misconceptions about OCD need to change. It’s about time OCD was taken seriously, because what it is, is no fun at all.

This post was originally published on the International OCD Foundation blog

 

Things People Actually Have Said to Me About My OCD, Autism, Tourette’s and Depression

assorted medication tables and capsules

  • That a vitamin could cure my depression
  • That I couldn’t be autistic because I was in a relationship
  • That I couldn’t be autistic because I used to work in a bar
  • That I couldn’t have Tourette’s because I used to work in a bar
  • That I was ‘putting on’ my Tourette’s because I had read about it somewhere and was imitating its symptoms
  • That my OCD was a ‘good thing’
  • That everyone is a little bit OCD
  • That everyone is a little bit autistic
  • That everyone gets depression
  • That if I really understood my Tourette’s I would be able to control it
  • That I should just “think the bad word in my head” instead of saying it out loud
  • That I should just ‘calm down’ when having a literal tic attack
  • That my depression was ‘all in my head’
  • That I didn’t deserve my depression 

We Are Next

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The other week, I was lucky enough to speak on We Are Next – a podcast targeted at students trying to get into the advertising world and junior talent. I spoke about the difficulties applying and interviewing when you have the added bonuses of autism and Tourette’s. You can listen to the podcast here.

Pros and Cons of Having Tourette’s

Pros:

  • Sometimes, it’s funny.

Cons:

  • It hurts.
  • It’s embarrassing.
  • It’s exhausting to be ticcing all the time.
  • It can be harder to get or keep a job.
  • You probably have another condition like OCD, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, depression, anxiety, or all five. All of these comorbid conditions can make life harder to live.
  • People laugh at people with Tourette’s.
  • People stare at people with Tourette’s.
  • People don’t really know what Tourette’s is, meaning that those with the condition have to constantly explain what it is.
  • People think Tourette’s is just about swearing, so if you’re one of the 75 – 90 percent of people with Tourette’s who don’t swear, people accuse you of not having the condition.
  • Tics which are rude or offensive can put you in danger of angering or offending someone.
  • People think people with Tourette’s are just pretending, that they are just saying what they want to say and then acting as though it was a tic.
  • People with Tourette’s have to put up with being the centre of attention.
  • Tourette’s is an incurable, chronic condition.

OCD Is A Mess

assorted-type hand tool lot

The other night I was having a drink with a friend when she used one of my favourite phrases: “I’m a bit OCD.”

Of course, the friend didn’t mean she had a mild case of obsessive compulsive disorder. Instead, she was talking about how she organised her handbag, about how particular she was about it, and how thorough she liked to be.

I let the comment slide, because, in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t really matter. But although the comment didn’t offend me, it did annoy me. My friend is an actual therapist, and she really should have known better.

The term “a bit OCD” is both frustrating and frustratingly familiar. Often, people think it’s OK to use mental health terms in everyday language, and often proclaiming themselves to be “so OCD”, “depressed”, or “having a panic attack”. This shouldn’t be a problem, but it is. Especially when terms like “OCD” come to mean something quite different from their medical meanings.

OCD is everyday language has come to mean “perfectionist”, “particular” or “organised”. But OCD in its true sense is a mess. Below is a guide to the difference between OCD and perfectionism:

  • People will OCD can ruminate over the same thing for hours, weeks, months, or years. These thoughts can centre on anything and be immensely frustrating. Perfectionists don’t do this.
  • People with OCD experience excessive vivid, intrusive thoughts often depicting frightening situations which will never happen. Perfectionists don’t have this.
  • People with OCD can sometimes be hoarders. Their homes will be full of things they do not need and yet cannot let go of. Perfectionists don’t have this.
  • OCD can cause those with it to act out pointless, lengthy rituals by which they check that everything is safe (that they didn’t leave the cooker on, that when they hit that bump in the road it wasn’t actually a person, that the taps aren’t still running and the door really is shut). The person with OCD will know that these time-consuming rituals are irrational, however, they have to act upon them even if they cause them distress. Perfectionists, on the other hand, like things to be in straight lines, in the right order, so they are neat and tidy and look nice.
  • OCD can lead to severe depression. Perfectionism can lead to severe tidiness.
  • OCD is a mental illness which can ruin your life. Perfectionism is a personality trait to put on your CV or covering letter.