OCD: it’s like having a bully inside your head

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is suffered by up to 3 per cent of the population. It is often made fun of, but the dark thought processes behind the ‘doubting disease’ can be traumatising, even life-destroying

‘If someone believes that their parents or children will die if they don’t perform the ritual, it becomes highly distressing.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘If someone believes that their parents or children will die if they don’t perform the ritual, it becomes highly distressing.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Fri, Apr 25, 2014, 01:00

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) makes the feeling of uncertainty intolerable. For most people, fears or doubts tend to drift in and out of our lives. We learn to put them into context, dismiss them as inconsequential and move on.

However, for those with OCD – between 2 and 3 per cent of the population – these unwelcome thoughts can become all- consuming, repeating in the brain like a record stuck on the same line of a song.

In Ireland, the disorder is the third most common concern reported to St Patrick’s mental-health support services, after depression and anxiety, while the World Health Organisation lists it as one of the 10 most debilitating illnesses. Yet it takes an average of nine years for someone with OCD to be diagnosed correctly.

One reason is that the disorder is not always outwardly evident, as sufferers often keep the thoughts they grapple with a secret. But for some people, such as 26-year-old David Bass, the havoc OCD causes can be impossible to hide. At its worst, the condition’s ability to instil doubt has caused him to contact the police and confess to crimes he hasn’t committed.

When Bass was 13, the sight of a friend vomiting in school triggered a fear of getting sick, causing him to open doors with his feet and wash his hands so excessively that they would bleed. His OCD has appeared intermittently over the years, varying from a need for orderliness to the fear that he has knocked someone down while driving, both of which are common symptoms.

Nicknamed “the doubting disease”, the disorder is associated with hyperactivity in the part of the brain responsible for regulating distress. It also sets off compulsive behaviour, such as repeatedly checking locks and switches, which temporarily quells this sense of alarm.

“The compulsions give you a quick fix,” says Bass. “It makes you feel like you’re doing something about it, like you’re maintaining control over the problem. But that’s a trap, because it just feeds into a vicious cycle: the more you do the rituals, the more you need to do them and the worry just continues.”

Gradual recovery

In 2010, Bass began interviewing film stars as a presenter for ITV A t the Movies when he developed a fear of sweating that kept him awake at night. Two years later, his OCD required hospitalisation, and he has been slowly working towards stability ever since. “Whatever positivity or success you have in your life, OCD will throw a spanner in the works,” he says. “Once you think you’re over one thing, it will throw up something else. Some people say, ‘It’s mind over matter; just ignore it.’ But the more you try to fight it, the more power it gains. There’s no logic that can convince you otherwise.”

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