What it's like living with OCD during a pandemic
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
Meet Matt Collins. At the age of eight, Matt was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder.
More commonly known as OCD, it is a common mental health condition whereby a person has obsessive behaviours and compulsive thoughts, which can manifest in a number of ways.
It can affect both men and women, as well as children – with many sufferers displaying symptoms during early childhood. According to statistics from OCD UK, OCD affects as many as 12 in every 1,000 people.
A common misconception of OCD however is that it revolves around the need to be clean, tidy and organised.
While that is one example of how obsessive compulsive disorder can manifest itself, it actually extends across a range of broader, less-commonly known symptoms.
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These can often include a person constantly checking to make sure doors are locked, obsessive counting, ordering or arranging, repeating words or thoughts in their head, thinking neutralising thoughts to counteract obsessive thoughts, and avoiding places and situations that could trigger obsessive thoughts.
But what exactly are obsessive thoughts?
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These are defined as intrusive or unwelcome thought patterns that often interrupt a person’s regular inner monologue. Examples include a recurring fear they might set the house on fire by leaving the cooker on, or that they’ll catch an illness.
“I was eight when I first started to notice my compulsions – but my mum and dad noticed them more, as I was quite young,” explains Matt.
It was when Matt found himself in new situations that he would feel especially unsettled, which would then trigger his compulsions - such as making sure lights and taps were turned off, and checking to make sure doors were locked.
“I struggled with going to school, and I also had a massive fear of getting ill all the time. I also struggled with any significant changes in my life. Where I lived, we had a three-tier school system, so I changed school twice and after that I went to college. Each time I did so, I was very unsettled and constantly anxious.”
As the years went on and Matt got older, his OCD prevented him moving away to university – and instead he decided to get his degree at a local college in Bury St Edmunds while still living at home.
“The best way I could describe it is that I have these thoughts and compulsions where I’ve got to do something. For example, I’m quite obsessed with cleaning shoes. I’ll do it, and it will provide a temporary sense of relief for about five minutes. But then I’ve got to do it again, or do something else. It’s a constant cycle of overthinking, and it’s mentally draining.”
Set routines, patterns and rituals are a common need for those with OCD, as a way to help ease compulsions and obsessive thoughts.
“There was one incident a few months ago, when it was about midnight and I couldn’t sleep but I had to check that I’d locked the door at our work unit. I knew I’d done it six hours previously, but it’s things like that where I’ll have to go and check, or else I won’t stop thinking about them.”
15 years on after his diagnosis, and with a global pandemic to also deal with, Matt admits his compulsions have gotten worse over the past 10 months, and have manifested in a number of ways.
“What I think the pandemic has done is reignite the cleanliness side of it. Everywhere you go, and rightly so, there’s hand sanitisers everywhere. It’s become a constant, underlying subconscious reminder that places are dirty. You think you’ve got to use hand gel, so you use it whenever you go to the supermarket, then again when you come in. It plants a seed in your head every time, and it feels like there’s no escaping.
“It’s gotten to the stage where I won’t even touch the taps in my own house. If I go out somewhere in public, I’ll come home and put my clothes in the wash straight away. It’s gotten worse for me, and it’s such a difficult thing to live with – but I know I won’t be alone in that.”
In addition, Matt’s routine-based compulsions have also suffered due to the ongoing lockdown.
“The main thing where I think coronavirus has affected me though is routine. Because it all came out of nowhere, and we were thrown into lockdown, the first few months were alright, but it’s proving really difficult now. I think what I’m struggling with the most is going back to normal, as this now feels like normal for me, and I’ve gotten used to it. It’s going to be a massive change to my routine again, and I feel like I’m going to lose all sense of confidence.”
Matt, who currently treats his OCD with cognitive behavioural therapy, also relies on distractions to prevent himself from focussing on his compulsions.
“I tend to do things like reading or keeping fit so I can keep my mind off it, but what with the weather right now and not being able to go out as normal, it’s proving even more difficult.”
While strides have been made in the last few years when it comes to OCD awareness and understanding, Matt believes there’s still a long way to go.
“Mental health is obviously a huge talking point at the moment, which is great, but I feel OCD is still often forgotten about, or deeply misunderstood. People often hear the term OCD and think it’s about having to be clean and tidy all the time – but that’s not the case at all. I can actually be quite disorganised, as I’ll forget to do other things as I’m so preoccupied with obsessive thoughts.”
For anyone who feels they may relate to what Matt is going through, he says the first step is to confide in someone.
“Before the second lockdown, barely any of my friends knew about my OCD, as I hadn’t told anyone except my family and a few close friends. But I’ve started to be more open about it, and the reactions have surprised me. I was worried what people might think about me, but they’ve been more supportive than I thought.
“As people start to understand more about OCD, there’s a number of charities and services out there who are able to help. Just know that you’re not alone, even if it feels like you might be.”