Compulsive Behavior—Does It Control Your Life?
“I wake up at 6 o’clock every morning,” says Keith.* “My alarm clock is automatically set for 6 o’clock. I know that it’s set. I never change it. Yet, I have to keep checking it. Each night I look at it at least five times before I go to bed. And the knobs on the stove—I have to make sure that each one is turned off. I can see that they’re off, but I have to go back and look once, twice, three times—just to make sure. Then I have to check the refrigerator door, again and again, to make sure it’s closed. Then there’s the screen door lock, and the two locks on the main door of the house . . .”
KEITH suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), defined as a debilitating condition characterized by uncontrollable thoughts (obsessions) and actions (compulsions).* A person with OCD feels that these obsessions and compulsions are completely involuntary. It is as if they force their way in and take over.
Every human occasionally experiences unwanted thoughts and urges. But with OCD these become so persistent and repetitive that they disrupt normal life and cause severe discomfort, sometimes resulting in depression. “The constant mental battle prompted me to contemplate suicide,” says one sufferer. Consider some symptoms of this baffling malady.
Seeing Is Not Believing
When Bruce drives his car over a bump, a sickening dread overwhelms him. ‘What if I just ran over a pedestrian?’ he asks himself. The feeling grows until he simply must return to the scene of the “crime” and check—not just once but repeatedly! Of course, Bruce does not find an injured pedestrian. Still, he is not sure! So when he gets home, he watches the news for reports of a hit-and-run accident. He even calls the police to “confess.”
Like Bruce, many with OCD are plagued by doubts: ‘Did I hurt someone? Did I turn off the stove when I left the house? Did I lock the door?’ Most people may at times have similar thoughts, but the person with OCD will check and recheck and still not be satisfied. “My checking patients appear to say ‘knowledge comes from the senses only,’” writes Dr. Judith Rapoport. “Hence the door knob must be turned again and again; the light switched on and off, on and off. These acts bring immediate information, yet it doesn’t get through.”
Clean Isn’t Clean Enough
A 14-year-old boy named Charles was obsessed with the fear of being contaminated by germs. His mother had to clean everything he might touch with rubbing alcohol. Furthermore, Charles feared that visitors would bring in contamination from the street.
Fran had fears while washing her clothes. “If clothes touched the side of the washing machine when I was taking them out,” she says, “they had to be washed all over again.”
Like Charles and Fran, many with OCD have obsessions that center on germs and contamination. This may result in excessive showering or hand-washing, sometimes to the point of producing blisters—yet the sufferer still does not feel clean.
Tormented by the Mind
Elaine is plagued by involuntary disrespectful thoughts toward God. “These are things that I could never mean and would rather die than mean,” she says. Yet, the thoughts persist. “Sometimes from fighting this every day, I am literally exhausted at night.”
Steven makes “vows” to God that are motivated by guilt feelings over his faults. “This tendency grieves me because it seems to come against my will,” he says. “Afterward, my conscience stabs me to carry out what I promised. Because of this, I was once compelled to destroy something of great sentimental value.”
Both Elaine and Steven have obsessions that are largely carried out in the mind. Although their symptoms are not readily observable, those with obsessive thoughts are imprisoned in a cycle of guilt and fear.
These are just some of the many symptoms of OCD.* What causes this disorder? How can it be relieved?
Controlling the Uncontrollable
One doctor describes OCD behavior as the result of “a cerebral short circuit” in which sensory information does not register and “the program gets played again and again.” What causes this loop? No one is sure. The neurotransmitter serotonin seems to be involved, but other aspects of the brain are being considered as well. Some say that early life experiences may awaken OCD, perhaps in combination with a genetic predisposition.
Whatever the cause, however, one fact is clear: Simply telling those with OCD to stop washing or to stop checking will likely fail. More than willpower is involved.
Medication has proved helpful to many. Another approach involves exposing the patient to the feared situation and then preventing the usual response. A person with washing rituals, for example, would be required to hold something that is dirty and then refrain from washing. Of course, such treatment does not cure one overnight. But with persistence, some feel that it can provide relief.
Experts have also explored the possibility that, at least in some cases, OCD might be rooted in early life experiences. It has been noted that many mistreated children grow up feeling inherently worthless or dirty, and some of these have subsequently developed compulsive washing rituals.
Relief From Obsessions and Compulsions
If you suffer from OCD, do not feel that you are different or perhaps going insane. “Except for their particular fears,” writes Dr. Lee Baer, “people with OCD remain in touch with reality in all other areas of their lives.” You can be helped! Remember, OCD is a product of imperfection. It is not a sign of moral weakness or spiritual failure! Nor does it indicate God’s disfavor. “Jehovah is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness. For he himself well knows the formation of us, remembering that we are dust.”—Psalm 103:8, 14.
But what if obsessive thoughts seem irreverent or blasphemous? With OCD, repulsive thoughts fuel guilt, and guilt may fuel even more repulsive thoughts. “It makes me very irritable,” says Elaine. “It makes me uptight—thinking all the time that Jehovah may be angry with me.” Some may even feel that their thoughts are tantamount to the unforgivable sin!
However, Jesus’ remarks concerning the unforgivable sin, sin against God’s holy spirit, were clearly not referring to rash, obsessional thoughts. (Matthew 12:31, 32) Jesus directed his comments to the Pharisees. He knew that their attacks were fully intentional. Their deliberate actions came from hearts filled with hatred.
Indeed, concern about one’s having offended God may well be evidence that one has not sinned unforgivably. (Isaiah 66:2) Furthermore, it is reassuring to know that the Creator understands this disorder. He is merciful and “ready to forgive.” (Psalm 86:5; 2 Peter 3:9) Even when our own hearts condemn us, “God is greater than our hearts and knows all things.” (1 John 3:20) He knows the extent to which thoughts and urges result from a disorder over which one has limited control. The OCD sufferer who realizes this can thus refrain from badgering himself with undue guilt.
How thankful we can be that Jehovah promises a new world in which there will be relief from all physical, mental, and emotional afflictions! (Revelation 21:1-4) Meanwhile, those who must endure this disorder can take practical steps to alleviate their suffering.
Some names in this article have been changed.
Awake! does not endorse any particular treatment. Christians having this disorder would want to be careful that any treatment they pursue does not conflict with Bible principles.
A few of the numerous other symptoms involve counting or hoarding or an obsession with symmetry.
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To Provide Support
AS A friend or a family member, you can do much to support a person battling with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
• First, check your own attitude. If you believe that the sufferer is weak, lazy, or stubborn, he or she will invariably perceive this and will not be motivated to improve.
• Talk with the sufferer. Learn what he or she is contending with. Having a confidant who is open and honest is often the sufferer’s first step toward controlling OCD symptoms.—Proverbs 17:17.
• Do not make comparisons. OCD produces overpowering urges that are not like those felt by nonsufferers. It is therefore usually ineffective to relate how you cope with your impulses.—Compare Proverbs 18:13.
• Help the sufferer set and meet realistic goals. Choose a symptom, and outline a series of goals to overcome it. Start with the goal that is least difficult to reach. For example, one goal might be to shower for no longer than a specified amount of time.
• Give commendation for improvement. Praise reinforces right behavior. Every step of progress—no matter how small—is significant.—Proverbs 12:25.
Living with an OCD sufferer can be emotionally draining on family members. Therefore, friends should be understanding and supportive in whatever practical ways they can.—Proverbs 18:24b.
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Excessive washing and checking—two symptoms of OCD