Everyone has a story to tell. As a psychologist working with patients with OCD, this is mine.
Xian Wan has been blessed with many great things — beauty, intelligence, and a supportive cast of friends and family. However, after her second year of university, she noticed herself withdrawing, worrying obsessively about getting infected with HIV/AIDS, and fearing she would lose everything. Spending time with her friends and family members felt more like an obligation than a way to enjoy herself. As these shifts took place, she unknowingly had gained an unwelcome soulmate – OCD.
“Is that my blood? What if they are HIV-positive? What if I catch it?” Xiao Wan was not able to make these naggy and irrational thoughts go away. “I saw HIV everywhere. It was lurking on toothbrushes, handbags, towels, taps, toilet bowls, cups, and phones”. To ensure she would not catch HIV, she started to wash her hands excessively.
She also started to clean her cups and phones incessantly, checking for red stains on chairs, toilet seats, and just about everything else imaginable. She even used to call the 24-hr AIDS helpline “many times a day”.
Xiao Wan’s rational self knew these fears were ridiculous. However, the overwhelming terror of the possibility of being infected with HIV was so intense that she could not take any risk, however small.
Xiao Wan’s case provides a glimpse inside the mind of somebody suffering from OCD; a condition where a person has intrusive thoughts, images, or urges, causing a great deal of distress. This leads him or her to act compulsively or have thoughts meant to counteract the distress.
In Singapore, OCD is the third most common mental health condition, affecting 1 in 28 people. Individuals suffering from this condition spend a lot of time and energy obsessing over and doing compulsions, often finding their lives completely turned upside down. Xian Wan told me that OCD seemed to promise her security, certainty, and immunity. In reality, she realised that all it had brought was more pain, suffering, and destruction.
Due to the embarrassment they feel, many people suffering from OCD have managed to live with and hide their symptoms for several years. Most of them come to seek help only after hitting rock bottom or when their life has begun to spiral out of control.
When Xiao Wan found she could barely enjoy anything in life — tormented and trapped by the frightening obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours — she knew she needed help. With the support of her parents, she eventually sought it and engaged in intensive treatments, including both pharmacological intervention and Exposure and Response Prevention (ExRP), which is specifically designed for OCD.
This evidence-based therapy requires the person with OCD to confront his or her fears and then to refrain from ritualizing in response to them. Extinction of the distress or anxiety is achieved after learning to consistently approach the triggers (“Exposure”) without performing rituals (“Response Prevention”). At the same time, the individual would learn that his or her feared consequences may be unfounded.
Treatment practices for OCD can be overwhelming. But, when the exposure is done gradually, creatively, and with flexibility, patients with OCD do get better. Family involvement and support are integral to the success of their loved one’s journey to recovery.
There is, however, a caveat to this picture of OCD treatment and recovery: The lives of individuals with OCD do not change immediately after completion of the treatment. Much like other medical conditions, recovery can be slow and difficult; but that is part of the healing process, and is what may make it worth achieving.
After overcoming their OCD, almost all of my patients reported feeling a sense of liberation.
They say that you are never the same person you were before you walk into the storm. I fully concur with this saying. I have seen how persevering through treatment — along with support from family, friends, and community — has changed many of my patients.
After overcoming their OCD, almost all of my patients reported feeling a sense of liberation. They laugh more often and give more thought to those around them, their own lives, and their interests. But most significantly, with increased confidence and a sense of unshakeable purpose, they start to have dreams and aspirations — some of them even hope to dedicate a part of their lives to building a supportive OCD community.
Today, Xiao Wan is happily married and is enjoying her work, as well as her role as a mother immensely. While she still experiences intrusive thoughts, they do not bother her as much as before. She thanked me for improving a life which she once thought was not worth living.
To all the people struggling with OCD, there is help out there. Treatment, support, and information are readily available. You are not alone. Never give up. OCD is treatable and it can get better. As a psychologist, I can tell you with conviction in my heart that life is indeed worth living.
Confronting and challenging those nagging mental noises can make you feel like breaking down, but if you pull yourself back up again, FORCE yourself to move forward and NEVER lose hope, you are winning.
If you are in need of help and support, please contact
- Institute of Mental Health – Please contact 6389 2200 to make an appointment
The article is contributed by Clarity Singapore, with insights from Dr. Jackki Yim and Dr. Elna Yadin who are Clinical Psychologists on the advisory panel for OCD Network Sg.
Learn more about OCD and ExRP therapy
- International OCD Foundation: What is OCD?
- Treating OCD using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP)
Header image hand-drawn by Artist, Ms. Tan Wan Ning, a patient in recovery from OCD.
Images by Freepik.