Discovering Strength in Disorder: Lessons from a Medical Student with OCD
I live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
My disorder, along with many other mental health disorders, is a hot topic of discussion in the world of medicine these days, and while I’m inspired by the progress that has been made, I know firsthand that there is still much work to be done in order to “normalize” the stress and anxiety of living with a mental health disorder in the modern world.
For many people, the term OCD conjures images of people obsessively washing their hands or frantically organizing their belongings. Those people are not wrong. However, many fail to understand the many forms that the disorder can take on. Although my OCD is fairly well managed, I still deal with it every day, and it is a constant, often intrusive, part of my daily life.
The “obsessive” part of OCD has to do with intrusive thoughts. These thoughts can range from thoughts of dirtiness or not being pure to irrational fears. For me, they usually take form in uncomfortable images of bad things happening to my family or friends.
I have a hard time reading the newspaper. I can barely watch the news on television. I actively try to avoid bad news, because when I hear about sad things happening to people I can’t avoid the thought of those same things happening to someone I love. As those thoughts rush in, the next letter kicks in: compulsion.
Compulsions are performed by OCD patients to “neutralize” the obsessive thoughts in order to feel less anxious. They come in many strange forms, from washing hands multiple times to flicking light switches on and off. My compulsions have changed throughout the years, but they have ranged from light flickering to toilet flushing. These days, my compulsions are mainly going through a series of “neutralizing” thoughts, which help me reassure myself that the obsessive thoughts are nothing more than thoughts, and those thoughts do not have power over me.
Keep in mind this piece of information I always like to include when discussing this topic: there is also something called OCPD, which can often be confused with OCD. Those suffering from OCPD, or obsessive compulsive personality disorder, are often categorized by their urges to organize things just right or check to make sure they locked the door. When people say, “Oh I’m so OCD about my notes,” I try to correct them. It is more proper to say “I’m so OCPD about my notes.”
People who are OCPD feel like they need to perform certain tasks, but they don’t live in the fear that a consequence will occur due to their lack of performing the compulsion. The difference is that if I do step on a crack, I might actually feel like I’ll break my mother’s back. I rationally know this to not be true, but it subconsciously feels real. OCD sufferers feel an overwhelming need to perform the compulsion in order to ease the high anxiety that these thoughts induce.
A huge part of mental health care is empathy and giving people the tools that they can use during even the most challenging times. As a future health care provider, I plan to use my experiences as a mental health patient to help others. Additionally, thanks to my experiences with OCD, I plan to offer plenty of relatable public education on the topic in an effort to further de-stigmatize mental health problems and help create environments where it is okay to be vulnerable.
There is a long way to go in the world of mental health issues. As providers, we can be resources for our patients and their families.
Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd year (OMS II)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences