“It’s my OCD.” I hear that on and off from friends and patients who half-jokingly use the term to describe overly careful behavior (such as double-checking to make sure the stove is off) but don’t actually have obsessive-compulsive disorder. True OCD can be a devastating disease. Patients have intrusive, uncontrollable thoughts and severe anxiety centered around the need to perform repetitive rituals. They can be physical such as hand washing or mental such as counting. The behavior significantly interferes with normal daily activities and persists despite most patients being painfully aware that the obsessions or compulsions are not reasonable.
OCD affects 2-3 percent of the world’s population. We’ve seen characters with the disorder portrayed in television (e.g., Tony Shalhoub’s Adrian Monk) and in film (e.g., Jack Nicholson’s Melvin Udall in “As Good As It Gets.”) Yet it’s still associated with stigma, shame, and an alarming level of ignorance by many health professionals. On average, people look for help for more than nine years and visit three to four doctors before receiving the proper diagnosis. In an excellent review article on the subject, Dr. Michael A. Jenike, offers three helpful screening questions: “Do you have repetitive thoughts that make you anxious and that you cannot get rid of regardless of how hard you try?” “Do you keep things extremely clean or wash your hands frequently?” And “Do you check things to excess?” He suggests that answering “yes” to any of these questions should prompt an evaluation for possible OCD. Of course, these are just screening questions and keeping a spotless kitchen doesn’t mean you have a disorder.
For this week’s CBS Doc Dot Com, I interviewed Jeff Bell, KCBS radio broadcaster and author of Rewind, Replay, Repeat: A Memoir of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and When In Doubt, Make Belief: Life Lessons from OCD. He poignantly told me about the mental anguish associated with his illness, how it threatened to sabotage his career and personal life. His OCD focused on a fear of unintentionally harming others. He found himself unable to drive a car because every time he hit a bump he was afraid he had run somebody over; each time, he needed to get out and check. Even walking to work presented a challenge. He explained that a twig on the sidewalk could stop him in his tracks and fill him with what he knew were irrational thoughts but was powerless to control. Maybe somebody would be harmed by the twig if he didn’t move it. But if he did move it then maybe somebody would be harmed who wouldn’t have if he had just left it alone.
Jeff Bell sought treatment and turned his life around. His message is that others can do the same. Highly successful approaches including cognitive-behavioral therapies and medication can help the majority of patients. But only those who ask for help.
Resources for OCD include: The Obsessive Compulsive Foundation, The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, and The New England Journal of Medicine.