OCD: The misunderstood mental battle


Fear of contamination is a common form of OCD. Source: commons.wikimedia.org
Fear of contamination is a common form of OCD. Source: Supplied

It is a condition with a recognisable name used by many people to explain simple habits, yet for those who suffer from it, life is far from simple.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder affects 2.5-3 percent of the population and is about as common as diabetes and asthma.

However, with the name OCD being used so frequently by those who do not suffer from it, the seriousness of the condition has been drastically minimised.

Clinical psychologist, Dr Emily O’Leary said certain movies depicting the life of an OCD sufferer may contribute to the misrepresentation of the disorder.

Dr Emily O'Leary has been working with OCD sufferers for ten years. Source: Provided
Dr Emily O’Leary has been working with OCD sufferers for ten years. Source: Provided

“While movies like As Good as it Gets have raised the profile of OCD, in some ways it’s always been a bit of a backlash in that it’s been pigeon holed as one type,” she said.

“In terms of why people say ‘I’m a little bit OCD’ is probably for that very reason so they just naturally don’t understand what OCD is and what makes a person OCD.”

For some sufferers, like Sarah* 40, television shows and movies featuring characters with the disorder are not the number one choice.

“I tend not to watch TV shows because it’s generally not accurate at all and it will make light of the condition and it treats it like it’s quirky and it’s no big deal,” she said.

OCD is characterised by intrusive thoughts, images or urges which cause distress and anxiety to the individual.

A person then engages in certain rituals or compulsions to provide some form of short term relief until the next intrusive thought occurs.

Sarah* is a volunteer at Anxiety Recovery Centre Victoria and was diagnosed with OCD when she was 21.

Her fear of contamination meant leaving the house became an impossible task and as a result she became increasingly isolated from her family, friends, and society.

“I actually lost ten years of my life to OCD from not being able to leave the house and that’s purely because of the severity,” she said.

Eventually, Sarah was forced to stop work.

“I wasn’t able to do anything, I was like a prisoner in a tower.”

Dr O’Leary said 85-90 percent of the population will have distressing thoughts but it is how an OCD sufferer responds to these thoughts which sets them aside.

“Let’s say they get a really negative thought, a violent thought or a harming thought, they then sort of blame themselves for having that thought or feel they’re a horrible person,” she said.

“Because of that they feel that it’d be irresponsible to disregard that thought so they grab onto it and they become ‘sticky’ thoughts.”

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is a common treatment for the disorder but treatments can vary depending on the severity of the client.

Common stereotypes surrounding the disorder are a person being overly clean, neat and orderly.

However, hidden away in the mind of sufferers are thoughts which are much more intense such as inappropriate sexual thoughts, harming thoughts or fear of contamination.

Intrusive thoughts can be inappropriately sexual, harmful and make a person fear contamination. Source: Flickr.com
Intrusive thoughts can be sexual, harmful and make a person fear contamination. Source: Flickr

Jodie, 36, was diagnosed with OCD in 2005 and constantly battles violent and intrusive thoughts and resorts to rituals like checking switches to relieve her anxiety.

She said it is incredibly frustrating and upsetting to hear people use the term inappropriately and out of context.

“I was in a place where I no longer knew who I was and questioned my self- identity to the point where I thought ‘I’m the most evil person in the world, I don’t deserve to be alive’,” she said.

“Compare that to someone that needs their shoes in order or their bed made before they can go to work or something like that is extremely frustrating.”

Dr O’Leary said it is a significant health issue and when people say ‘I’m a little bit OCD’ it minimises the problem.

“In some ways it makes it worse for [sufferers] and invalidates that person’s experience of that disorder,” she said.

“I know it doesn’t come from a malicious place but at the same time it’s not helpful to people with OCD.”

For sufferers, Jodie said it is a constant mental battle trying to understand whether the thoughts causing to much anxiety are real or not.

“OCD is taking your greatest fears and putting them right in front of you and no longer knowing where the boundaries of those fears are,” she said.

“Whether it’s germs or harm or whatever it is, it’s the most intense fear you could ever imagine.”


*Name has been changed.

If you or anyone you know needs help, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or visit beyondblue.org.au

1 Comment

  1. Great article! Reminder for all of us to be aware that this is a deeply difficult disorder and not just a casual joke.

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