When I tell someone I have OCD I am often met with disbelief. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I'm far from the tidiest person. I don't obsessively wash my hands, compulsively clean up after myself/other people. This is part of the problem with the common misperception that OCD is a disorder categorised by cleaning. Whilst it can present that way for some that isn't what this disorder is about.
I've met and spoken with a number of fellow sufferers, only one is a compulsive cleaner. She cleans because she can't escape the thought that if anything in her home is out of place then the rest of her life will fall apart. For me, my experience of OCD is different but it does share some common factors. Namely intrusive thoughts of things going wrong and the compulsion to repeat a behaviour which helps me to feel calmer about this possibility.
It started when I was a kid, after the loss of someone very close to me. Much like any other child faced with death and grief for the first time I was upset and worried. If one person I loved could die, so could another. So could I. In fact anybody could die! It was someone of a revelation and it was an idea which has haunted me ever since. I have been calmly walking into town when suddenly I am plagued with the image of myself being run over, or slipping off the curb and dashing my brains out. This image will not go away, it sticks in my head and it feels so real I have found myself reached up to touch my head and check for blood before now. Or I will struggle to get to sleep at night because I can't get the idea out of my head that someone I love is dead. At times this has gotten so bad I've phoned someone up at four in the morning just to make sure they are OK.
Since this first started happening I've developed little rituals, things I can do to 'banish' the thoughts, or somehow prevent them from happening. I know that there is no way my bizarre little habits can actually stop events occurring, in the same way as I know that I can't cause something to happen simply by thinking about it. Yet I can't stop these thoughts, these fears from happening and I haven't yet been able to fight the compulsions that accompany them.
I have a ritual that involves light switches, which I have to engage in every night and every morning. I have a set of numbers which has to be repeated a set number of times, in a particular order to prevent harm coming to my loved ones when those thoughts occur. Then there is another one where I have to pull at my hair until the thoughts have faded away.
This is what OCD is like, for me. It's not always visible to other people - in fact, quietly tugging at hair is something commonly written off as just a nervous tick, counting happens in my head not aloud, you'd have to be around to witness my light switch ritual in order to know about it. Yet it is always with me, it is something I deal with on a daily basis.
The thoughts aren't always about physical harm or death, I have many more rituals or compulsions than I've listed here but the general theme remains. Each person's experiences of OCD will be different, just as we are all different. Yet there are some commonalities. OCD is often about anxiety, always about compulsive thoughts or behaviours and only sometimes about cleaning.