How To Understand Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

I hesitate to tell this story because it might seem unkind.  But it is true, and is an apt illustration of obsessive compulsive disorder in the real world, so here goes..... 

When I was in college, a friend of mine worked in an office in a beautiful old Victorian house in the center of town.  There were several different offices within the building and one of them housed a psychiatrist.  One afternoon when I stopped by to pick up my friend after work, we observed from her second floor window a woman in a car in the parking lot exhibiting unusual behavior.  The woman repeatedly backed her car up and made right-hand turns in a convoluted effort to exit, when there was a clear path out of the parking lot that would have required only a single left-hand turn.  

We watched her for quite some time.  My friend recognized her as a client of the psychiatrist's and......eventually we realized that the client was either not willing or able to take a left-hand turn.  It was quite sad, really, to see that she was trapped and unable to execute the one simple move that could have gotten her out of the lot quite easily.  It made me think that her experience in the parking lot was probably a good analogy for obsessive compulsive disorder itself.  Since then, I've had the chance to learn more about obsessive compulsive disorder.  Here are some facts to help you better understand this disease:

  1. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a neurological disorder.  Recurring unwelcome thoughts comprise the obsessive component of the disorder;  the compulsions are repetitive behaviors that the sufferer feels driven either to perform or, as was the case with the woman in the parking lot, to avoid. 
  2. Compulsions most often include behaviors such as hand washing, cleaning, counting, touching, arranging or hoarding.  These repetitive behaviors offer a temporary sort of relief from the obsession but over the long haul, constitute an obsession in and of themselves.
  3. The degree of disability caused by obsessive compulsive disorder can range from mild to extreme.  In other words, it can range from someone who feels compelled to check that the door is locked twenty to thirty times per day to someone who is incapacitated to the degree that employment is impossible and hospitalization is required.
  4. Obsessive compulsive disorder can and should be treated.  ocFoundation has excellent resources at its web site for finding both therapists and support groups for this disease. 
  5. Treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder usually includes both therapy and medication.  The therapy is typically cognitive-behavior therapy and the medication, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.  If not treated, obsessive compulsive disorder can either wax and wane or can progressively worsen.
  6. The sufferer of obsessive compulsive disorder is usually acutely aware of her repetitive behaviors and yet still feels compelled to perform them.  Because she realizes that her behaviors might be identified as "crazy," the sufferer of this disease hides her compulsions from others, adding a layer of secrecy and shame to an already-challenging existence.  This is also a reason that obsessive compulsive behavior is believed to be under-reported by its sufferers.

The woman in the parking lot never did find her way out of the lot in the forty-five minutes that we watched. I suppose she waited there until enough cars exited that she could work her way out via right-hand turns. My friend and I were long since gone, blessed to be out living lives full of left-hand turns and other uncertainties.  I hope that if you know someone who you believe may suffer from this disease, you will help her to locate the treatment that can help to make her life navigable.  


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