'A day in the life' - living with OCD

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Dr Costas Papageorgiou (BSc(Hons), MA, DClinPsychol, PhD, CSci, CPsychol, AFBPsS) from Priory Hospital Altrincham helps to highlight the impact that obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) can have. One of his patients, Mary*, shares her struggle…

Mary’s day usually starts at 5am. She feels exhausted, as she has been worrying most of the night. She gets up quickly to avoid being delayed by her ritual, otherwise she will start to panic that she will be late.

After she has showered, she steps out and carefully switches off the tap. She then stares at the shower head with a deep concentration to ensure it's switched off, and repeats the words “check, check, check”.

After brushing her teeth, she turns off the cold water tap so hard that it's at risk of breaking. She then turns both taps in the 'off' direction just to make sure and follows this by placing her hands under both taps to feel there is no water running and repeats the words “check, check, check”. Mary stares at the taps intensely to be sure the water is definitely switched off.

She then gets a roll of kitchen towel (she goes through four rolls a day). She starts by wiping over the shower door to remove any drops of water. She wipes the shower door over and over again; she knows it looks perfectly clean but she does it just in case she's missed a little mark. She wipes the windowsill and the toothbrush mug, which is never used, as she is too frightened of making a mess.

Mary cleans the soap dish holder and tries to put the liquid soap bottle back on the dish so it sits perfectly straight. Five minutes go by in her attempts to get it straight and she then starts to panic. She thinks to herself “I’m going to be late and my whole day will be ruined”. She finally gets the soap into a position, which although isn’t perfect, will have to do because she has counted to 10. By counting to 10, she believes she can feel comfortable with it in her mind and so can move on to the next thing.

Next, she makes sure the towels are aligned and checks that the floor mats are straight. She thoroughly cleans the sink and taps so that there's not a drop of water or a single mark anywhere. Before leaving the bathroom, Mary repeats the checking of the shower, repeating “check, check, check”, until she feels safe to move out of the door backwards, not turning away until the moment feels right. She then switches off the lights, pausing to check they are all off, saying “check, check, check”, until it feels safe to her. If there's any interruption, she has to start all over again.

This is just the start to Mary’s day; her behaviour continues in a similar pattern throughout the day until she pauses briefly to sleep at 1am.

Are you living with OCD?

Mary has significant symptoms of OCD and, like her, there are millions of people in the world who, knowingly or not, are affected by the different behaviours of OCD. These can include:

  • Fear of harming others
  • Worrying about contamination
  • Having forbidden or perverse sexual thoughts or images
  • Hoarding or collecting things
  • Having the need for order, symmetry or perfection
  • Worrying about a serious disease, despite medical reassurances
  • Compulsively cleaning/washing, checking, repeating or counting things

OCD can be a serious problem, which if left untreated, can lead people to become isolated and trapped. However, OCD can be treated very effectively through psychological and medical therapies.

The first step to recovery is to recognise the presence of OCD. There's a lot of information available online through sites such as OCD action. The next step is to seek professional advice from a GP or OCD specialist so that the appropriate referral can be made.

*Patient’s name has been changed.

This page was reviewed by Dr Costas Papageorgiou (BSc(Hons), MA, DClinPsychol, PhD, CSci, CPsychol, AFBPsS), Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Altrincham

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