I Don’t Have OCD! I Just Obsess Constantly in a Way I Cannot Control….
A frontier psychiatrists short!
OCD—It’s not just hand washing. It’s awful.
People can not-stop-thinking-about-it. This is more than just “being contaminated and washing your hands.” It’s thoughts like: “what if I killed someone? What if I am a secret serial killer?” Or even “I might rape that child…what if I’m a pedophile?!”— psychopath serial killers or pedophiles don’t worry about those things. They are, in a way, free of doubt. They may have other problems, but they know for sure who they murdered and that they are sexually attracted to kids. They are not in doubt. OCDBrain is in the worry and doubt checking game like most people check their phones:
Imagine if every time you checked your phone it wasn’t to see if you missed a text…
It was to make sure you hadn’t murdered someone. That’s crazy Of course you didn’t. BING. Let me check one more time. Phew. I guess I di—BING—maybe one more che—BING—I could go back home to double ch—BING. 8, 10, 22, All Hours of the day. Every day. All day Nearly all the—BING—time. BING. BING. Wait, did I miss a message? I’ll just casually ch—BING
And, perhaps, the most horrifying version of this is for people with “Harm OCD”, where sufferers become obsessed with suicide. Or, with the worry that they might complete suicide. Horrible images barge into your head, unbidden:
“hang yourself, there is rope, do it, hang yourself hang yourself hang hang HANG.”
“if you’re not careful enough…”
“how can you be so sure you won’t stab yourself in the neck with that pen? Maybe you should just go to the hospital, just in case you might?”
Even if you didn’t personally want to die at all, and you like your life otherwise, these sorts of thoughts-you-can’t-shake-for-hours are profoundly disturbing. The “compulsive” symptoms are not the real story of OCD. Other people can see them, so they get a spotlight. They are a way to reduce the distress of thinking about awful things, if only for a few seconds. This is what coping looks like when you brain has a horror show on repeat. Obsessions, they are the core. People regularly suffer for years and have no idea this is not what other people are also doing in their heads too. They can be in their 60s before they timidly admit “I know it sounds crazy BUT…” to their psychiatrist. And maybe that is a yearinto treatment. Or more. Or never. Who wants to admit to thinking about hurting children? Thought crimes aren’t real…except to people with OCDbrain quietly condemning them for their evil, criminal, secret psychopath thoughts.
No wonder 14% of people with OCD will attempt suicide at least once. And Death-to-suicide rates in OCD are shown to range from 0.7% to 1.4%
This compares horrifically to other illness in terms of suicide risk (we measure these in “per 100,000”). The Base Rate in the population, per the World Health Organization is 10.7/100,000.
OCD, in these terms, has a completed suicide rate of 700-1400/100,000.
To compare, In Depression, it’s 214/100,000. Borderline Personality Disorder is a leader at around 5000/100,000 and schizophrenia at between 5000-14000/100,000. In bipolar disorder, in a 20 year follow up by Jamison and Goodwin, it was 9800/100,000. Eating disorders are higher still.
Yes, you read that correctly. OCD is more lethal in amount of death due to suicide than Major Depression. It’s also more common, and they both suck. But still. It’s almost an order of magnitude more lethal. (Reference here, in body text, because this is such a major claim: The Epidemiology of Suicide by Silke Bachmann, Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018 Jul; 15(7): 1425.)
The Most Annoying Symptom“Reassurance seeking”—checking with other people over and over—is a compulsion. For realZ. “Did I offend you? Are you sure? Totally sure? But like…really? …cause….are you sure?” That is OCD till proven otherwise…it’s turns out. In the milieu of a psychiatrists office, when someone says, laughing, “I’m kind of OCD about that” it’s because they (very often) absolutely have actual OCD. That is the “kind of” problem that is among the most common thing I see in 60,000+ hours of clinical practice.
Thanks for reading this short—from the frontier!
—O. Scott Muir, M.D.