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It's not just being a quirky "neat freak". This is what OCD really looks like.

Writer Rose Bretécher was plagued by constant sexual thoughts. Some days, she was unable to think about anything else.

“It was thousands of times a day,” she told The Guardian. “I had mental images of people having sex… of random flashes of penises, tits, vaginas, the works.

“The more I tried to get them out of my head the worse they became.”

She felt like she was going mad.

Bretécher, it was later discovered, was suffering from what the World Health Organisation has listed as one of the 10 most debilitating illnesses.

People who live with the condition have a 40 per cent chance of experiencing depression at some point in their lives, an over 60 per cent chance of experiencing suicidal ideation, and 25 per cent will make an attempt on their own life.

Bretécher was suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

LISTEN: Lily Bailey speaks to Mia Freedman about what it’s like to live with OCD on No Filter. Post continues below. 

She did not have the impulse to wash her hands 100 times a day, or check if the door was locked 47 times at night. Her work desk wasn’t immaculate. If you’d met her, you’d have had no idea she was living with OCD.

Our representation of OCD in popular culture is overly simplified and reductive. The characterisation of the quirky OCD “neat freak” who is a die hard germaphobe, has infiltrated our cultural lexicon.

Most have heard offhanded (not to mention grammatically incorrect) remarks along the lines of, “I’m so OCD!” or “Omg, your room is ridiculous, you’re OCD,” which perpetuates the myth that the disorder simply means excessively tidy or ordered.

Just as you wouldn’t say “Oh, I have a sore arm, I’m such an amputee!” or “I didn’t get out of bed today, I’m such a cancer patient,” the same jump shouldn’t be made between tidiness and a debilitating illness.

mental health day
Image via Getty.
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The fact is, everyone to some extent engages in obsessive behaviours.

If I step on one crack on the side walk with my left foot, I make sure to do the same with my right. Sometimes, I have bizarre impulsive thoughts that I ruminate on probably longer than I should. Some mornings I put on deodorant twice, out of fear I haven't already done it.

But I do not have OCD.

The reason, overwhelmingly, is because these behaviours do not cause me distress. They do not take up a significant portion of my day, or interfere with my work or relationships.

The actual symptoms of OCD are as follows:

  • Religious/moral issues: A compulsion to pray numerous times a day (in a way that interferes with your day to day life) or obsessive thoughts about being a bad person.
  • Safety and checking: Obsessive concerns about you or someone else being hurt, which manifests in repeatedly checking locked doors, stoves, ovens etc.
  • Harm: Persistent unwanted thoughts of hurting someone, or thoughts that you might be harmed.
  • Sexual: Obsessing over sexual thoughts, or having a sense of disgust regarding sexual activity.
  • Hygiene: Washing hands or clothes excessively, showering several times a day or excessively brushing teeth. Relief is felt in the short term, but soon there is a desire to repeat the action. A fear of contamination.
  • Cleaning: Frequently rearranging things, a need to have certain objects in a particular way.
  • Fear of losing things: A preoccupation with losing things that you might need.
  • Superstitions: An excessive investment in something that is considered lucky or unlucky. This may manifest in a fear of a certain colour or word.
  • Excessive rumination: There is a strand of OCD that does not manifest in behaviours, but only in thoughts. Those thoughts might be violent or sexual in nature and are highly distressing.
Image via Getty.

This list is not at all exhaustive, but gives some sense of the most common experiences of those with OCD. More people suffer from OCD than Coeliac disease, approximately one in every hundred Australians.

If left untreated, the long term effects of OCD can be poor quality of life, inability to hold down a job or maintain friendships, depression, constant anxiety and an increased risk of substance abuse.

There are multiple treatment options, with different methods working for different people.

For those of us who do not suffer from OCD, the least we can do is refrain from using the term flippantly and irresponsibly. Knowledge is power - and with a greater understanding of the disease, hopefully more sufferers will be able to seek the help they need.

You can listen to the full episode of No Filter, here. 

If any of these symptoms are familiar to you, please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

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