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What you can do to help someone living with OCD

An illustration of two people sitting around the acronym OCD

Tips & tricks by Claire McGowan

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can be challenging for both the person living with it and their loved ones. Claire McGowan, who has lived with OCD for most of her life, shares some valuable tips on how to support someone with the condition.

The other day, I ended up checking that my door was definitely locked, 64 times. I know myself that this is ridiculous, but on this particular day, every time I pushed the door, my brain kept urging me to check, ‘is it really locked or are you not pushing hard enough?’ The idea of someone breaking into where my boyfriend and I live scares me, and often I get images or thoughts about what would happen if it really wasn’t locked. Here’s another truth, before the I checked the door was shut, I definitely checked all the taps were off, the oven and hobs were off (even if I haven’t used them since the night before), and that the windows were shut (even if we do live on a second floor and someone would literally have to get a ladder or be Spiderman to get inside).

Having had OCD diagnosis since eighteen, I really thought I would’ve known everything about my experience by now, but it turns out I’m still learning. For instance, I never used to compulsively check that taps were off until an incident at a former work place where someone left a tap running and it flooded the changing room. Ever since then, I have felt the need to check, I worry about damage that could be done to our flat and the flat below us if I hadn’t turned it off. It’s as though my brain worries I haven’t thought about every little thing, and in turn I begin to worry and check more things.

I think the worst thing is knowing that my thinking is rather irrational, but I get so anxious about not doing any of these things that I have to do them. Ironically, checking all these things are normal, but the amount of times I am checking them, it is not.

That is a little snippet into my daily life of living with OCD. But there is much more.

What is OCD?

OCD is a mental health condition in which an individual suffers with obsessive and intrusive thoughts. Often these thoughts are distressing which then leads to the individual to act on rituals or compulsions that they believe will prevent harm or worry. While rituals and compulsions some bring relief, the relief doesn’t last long, as an obsession can easily be triggered, and thus the cycle continues.

There are many different symptoms of OCD, such as checking, contamination, hoarding and ruminations. It all depends on the person, on their beliefs, and what is important to the person. If you are worried about harming someone, you may go to great lengths to ensure that it doesn’t happen. Sometimes it can be logical, for instance, I worry about contamination and wash my hands more often, this is logical thinking. However, sometimes it can be completely unrelated, like rewinding something, not because of something I missed, but because it didn’t feel right to continue watching or listening without rewinding to a specific moment.

What can you do?

  • Educate Yourself

Firstly, the most important thing you can do to support someone with OCD is to understand it. Over the years, media portrayal of OCD has led to misconceptions about what OCD actually is. For instance, while it can include things being tidy, clean and neat, that is not all it is. It is also important that it is understood that OCD is not a ‘quirk’, it isn’t cute or funny or a personality trait. No one is ‘a little bit OCD’,’ (even grammatically it doesn’t make sense to say you are ‘a little Obsessive Compulsive Disorder’).

What you can do: There are plenty of resources that can be found online about what OCD is. The more we learn and can educate ourselves, the more you make someone who has OCD feel more comfortable about opening up about what they are feeling and experiencing.

*please see bottom of page for a couple of examples.

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  • Understand rituals

Some days, I only check the door if the door is locked twice. These days I feel calmer, I am at ease. Other days, it is more, and on these days to be extra sure, I also take photographs as proof, sometimes even videos. Some days, I am in more of a rush and it feels worse which then in turn makes me late. Some days it can make me want to procrastinate more, because I feel so tired from my obsessive worries and over thinking. Some days I worry my neighbours are watching me and must think I am very strange. Or worse, they may think I’m trying to break into my flat, which is pretty ironic when that is the exact opposite of what I am trying to do.

What you can do: There are good and bad days, and realising when someone is having a particularly bad day can help. If this is the case, just encouraging them to understand that everything is okay and asking what you can do to help can be enough.

  • Understand that compulsions can be physical and mental

I am always worrying about bad things happening to the people I really care about. I am always trying to erase it from my mind because it makes me worry I am a bad person. It has taken a lot of encouragement from people to understand I am not a bad person. Sometimes it can be painting a red X through the bad image I had in my head, or a ban sign. Sometimes I counteract bad thoughts by picturing a happy memory of someone I care about, and I paint a tick sign and the word safe next to them.

I rewind songs because a lyric triggers something and I feel like I have to rewind it to untrigger it. Logically, this doesn’t make much sense on the outside, but it does for me. I want everyone to be safe, and I really don’t want anyone I care about to get hurt. I don’t want anyone to get hurt period. Sometimes I avoid watching things because I can sense it could overwhelm my anxiety and OCD so I avoid it.

Sometimes this makes me feel a bit spaced out or I am unable to concentrate because I’m so focused on doing the mental compulsion, or I feel mentally maybe even physically fatigued. I don’t ever want anyone to think I am ignoring them, sometimes it’s hard that’s all.

What you can do: Take the time to make sure they are okay, and if they are able to explain what is happening, allow them to tell you in their own time. Equally, if they don’t feel like talking about it, tell them that’s okay and remind them that you are always there for them. Sometimes I also find distractions can help – my partner always suggests watching something or listening to something together which I really appreciate because it shows he understands what I need or what could help, and cares about my well-being.

  • Be patient and keep an open mind

I am very lucky that I have an amazing family, boyfriend and great friends who understand what my OCD entails. It is different for everyone. For someone who has OCD I get frustrated because it can be so time consuming and make me late to things, which then in turn makes me panic.

What you can do: Try to not get annoyed with someone who has OCD. It is a mentally draining and debilitating disorder that can play our worst nightmares on repeat, make us doubt ourselves, make us anxious, and at times make us feel isolated. I find it very challenging to explain my compulsions, largely because I understand they are sometimes very illogical and explaining them out loud is very challenging. It might not make sense to you, but it is very real to them and telling them that their thoughts are silly or don’t make sense will only prevent them from sharing anything with you in future.

Get them to find examples

One thing that has really helped me open up about my OCD is examples. The first example I ever saw was Neil Hilborn’s poem ‘OCD.’ I have shown this poem to so many people because I finally found something that made me think I understand this, this is very similar to what I go through. I don’t know the full reason behind all his compulsions (everyone has different reasons), but his line ‘when you have obsessive compulsive disorder you don’t really get quiet moments’ is something I resonate with massively. I understand there will be reasons behind his compulsions, I understand that it can cause frustration because of how time-consuming it can be, and most importantly I know how it can affect the people around you.

What have I learnt?

The awareness of OCD has increased since I had my diagnosis. I kept very quiet about it at first because I didn’t know anyone else who had it. There is still a long way to go.

I used to get frustrated with TV shows that misrepresented OCD, but I’ve come to realise that perhaps because of the time period or the lack of awareness, is why it has been portrayed in that way. All we can do now is ensure that OCD is educated in the right way.

I have learnt that talking can help, but only when I am ready to talk about it. It’s not an easy thing to talk about, I’ve always feared it will make people see that I am a bad person or people will think differently of me because of it. Actually, if people are willing to take the time to listen and encourage you to open up (if comfortable) then it really can help. Talking to other people or reading their stories is also helpful, it doesn’t make me feel like I am experiencing this alone.


Further info on OCD:


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