If you’re anything like me then at some point in time you’ve used the expression “I’m a little bit OCD about …”. It’s the classic case of coveting what somebody else has; they have a ‘quirk’ therefore you want one too. It’s something to talk about, something that makes you seem interesting.
For me I have a few ‘quirks’ that I’ve previously been quick to label as “being a bit OCD”. Whenever I wash up, I have to put the plates on the draining board in ascending size order. If someone throws something into the washing up water, whilst I’m in the middle of washing up, I get angry. It might just be a teaspoon, but I don’t like it being in the water unless I was the one who put it there.
I can’t go to bed at night unless it is either exactly :00 past the hour, or failing that :30 past the hour. I might be shattered, but if it’s 11:02 I will stay up for the extra 28 minutes that I could be sleeping in. I don’t know why I do it – it is, after all, completely irrational. I’ll only be more tired, if I wait to go to bed at half past the hour, yet I feel more relaxed, and I’m more likely to get off to sleep quicker if I’ve taken the decision to go to bed at that time. Playlists on my iPod have to be capitalised. I can’t save word documents as random things “skjdfhskdjf.png”. Each file is given a logical title regarding its content. My desktop houses an intricate information web, folders within folders within folders. You click for days to get to the place where you saved “OCD: Channel 4 Documentary – DRAFT.doc”.
I also cannot live with myself knowing that I’ve made a mistake in a notebook. I will deliberately avoid bound notebooks because once I’ve made a mistake I have ruined the entire pad of paper – chances are I will chuck it in a drawer and never write in it again. At least with spiral bound notepads, I can rip the page out if I make a mistake, meticulously copying everything I’ve done already out again. This trait I understand as part of my perfectionism; I hold myself to high standards and every action I do is held to these high standards. A spelling error is a glaring pointer that I am not perfect and the way my mind works is if I can get it out of sight, it’s out of mind. It’s worth the time it takes to rewrite the page, and it gives me immense satisfaction to see a page full of perfectly correct information. When revising for my GCSEs and A levels, if I made an error on a note-card – using the wrong highlighter for a keyword, I would rewrite the entire thing. It would’ve made more sense to use the time to perhaps go through a past paper, or get somebody to test me on the (incorrectly highlighted) flashcards… but my mind wasn’t having that.
These traits are not dissimilar to Jon Richardson’s desire to have an ordered cutlery draw, or crucifix arranged table, when eating dinner in a café. They’re not crippling compulsions that have a major impact on our day to day lives; they’re choices that we make because they make us feel less anxious. They give us a sense of control, over seemingly banal aspects of our existence. For me, the 2012 screened Channel 4 Documentary ‘A Little Bit OCD’ was both eye-opening and reassuring at the same time.
Over the course of ‘A Little Bit OCD’ the viewer meets people from different points along the OCD spectrum. First up is Friday Night Dinner comedian, Tom Rosenthal, who explains his peculiar pavement etiquette: he feels balanced by thinking about what to step on, and how many times.
Jon goes on to explore his relationship with flatmates, past and present. Whilst joking remarks are made about squirting sauce down the sink so the levels in the bottles are the same, and a “ghost” that smooths the margarine over, it’s clear as the documentary progresses that living with clinical OCD is no laughing matter. Speaking to old housemates, including Russell Howard, Jon discloses that, “I used to sleep in the car some nights because I thought ‘they hate me and they know I’m an arsehole about spoons’”. Although its humorous to hear fellow comedians remark “If I left some rice krispies lying about I wouldn’t give a shit!”, the latter half of the documentary turns the serious dial up to full blast.
We meet a 16 year old, whose OCD was triggered after being bullied age six. His mother expresses a desire that OCD does not go on to define him in later life: he is controlled by the number and volume of compulsions he has, Jon astutely observes. In a cruel twist of irony, OCD is anything but tidy. It makes peoples’ lives a mess.
The viewer is confronted by a woman whose innate fear of dust “I know it can’t give me cancer… but if it gets inside me I’ll be dirty forever” leaves her housebound. Her personal relationships are deeply affected, and if she is not able to receive treatment then she will leave her partner, despite being very much in love with him because it’s “not fair”. Whilst it may not be fair to him to have to put up with her spending an entire day making a list, nor is it fair to her to have to feel the need to dust paper. She won’t let Jon into her house because she hasn’t managed to clean in accordance with her carefully penned list – what needs cleaning, and how many times. It’s deeply upsetting to watch.
The emotional crux of the documentary is when Jon meets Joyce: a woman with a hereditary form of OCD that means she’s afraid of contamination coming into her house. She cleans each item of shopping before it is allowed to be put away in cupboards, or the fridge. This is upsetting in itself – that such a large portion of her life is spent performing seemingly irrational tasks – but then it’s disclosed that it prevented her from being able to raise her own son, Martin.
Martin received a double first honours, and went on to study at Oxford where his thesis was halted in its tracks by the onset of OCD. He pinned notes around his flat, trying to use a logical mind to work out where these irrational thoughts were coming from. Unable to sit down, lay down or rest he would do nothing but pace… until finally he drank Yew tree poison as a last resort. His death certificate reads “Cause of death: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” which is a serious moment for the viewer. When Jon learns that he is not in fact clinically a sufferer of ‘OCD’, the viewer experiences a sensation of overwhelming relief as a result of the horrendous debilitation they have seen.
I’m relieved that I don’t have OCD in this extreme form, but I can concur with Jon Richardson when he says at the documentary’s conclusion that he has ‘Obsessive Compulsive Order’. Like Jon, I am a perfectionist who likes to avoid errors and mistakes. I hold myself to high standards. But, similarly, I am not mentally unable to cope with this. I am not housebound, I am not suicidal. And for that, I am incredibly thankful.
I can only applaud Jon and the rest of the team at Channel 4 for a pertinent exposure of a mental illness that is unfairly stigmatised. Perhaps now the emotional implications of the disorder have been shown in such a light you’ll think twice about telling a friend offhand that you’re “a little bit OCD”.