When I first started to teach, I worked with a child who was a perfectionist, she was also extremely intelligent. Her writing style was mature and imaginative, her use of language skilled and precise. The stories that she wrote were dramatic and intricate, characters were brought to life in vivid landscapes and I loved teaching her because she contributed so much to my lessons; she was positively brimming with ideas.
However, even though she presented as such an able child, I knew that something wasn’t quite right. Pages were regularly torn out of exercise books by her, because she perceived that her work was not perfect. Frequently she tried to sneak her exercise book home with her, to avoid handing it in. Not handing it in would mean that I did not see the perceived flaws in her work; flaws that were not actually there. The book would return to my desk the following day, with all the offending pages removed and the work lost. Usually something unrelated to the topic was presented instead, typed and perfect.
Even before I understood what was happening to her, I tried to work with her on the notion of perfectionism. I discovered that she did not like the way that her writing looked; to her it was hideous as she felt uncomfortable when she looked at it. To me her handwriting was beautiful, full of flourishes and intricate swirls. We began to just write a paragraph at a time and I would mark it straight away, praising her on her presentation and content. She would redraft that one paragraph for me at my desk and I would mark it once again. We gradually increased the number of paragraphs that she would write using this method. Then I began to collect her book in at the end of the lesson, so that she could not take it home and rip out any of the pages. I could see the evident discomfort on her face when I did this. However, in English at least, she began to live with the uncomfortable feelings that she had about her work not being perfect. Sometime later, she was diagnosed with OCD. Unbeknown to me, I had actually been completing exposure work with her; a vital element of treatment for OCD.
The difference between OCD and having perfectionistic tendencies, is that you do do not enjoy having OCD. It is distressing, time consuming and humiliating. For my student leaving her work in my room, with its perceived flaws, was utterly intolerable and she thought about it endlessly. Her thoughts were in a never ending cycle, she was caught in an OCD loop. Many people are not diagnosed in childhood, because they hide their OCD from the world. However, in some cases, as with the girl that I taught, it becomes impossible to hide it any longer. This is because having OCD interferes with daily life, in a significant way.
OCD comes in many different guises. It wears lots of different hats, sometimes all at once. If you can’t find an example of a child’s symptoms on the following checklist,http://www.ocduk.org/types-ocd, they may still have OCD. However, as disparate as the types of OCD seem, sufferers do share some similarities:
- Extreme anxiety and fear.
- Doubting their own thoughts.
- Panicking as a result.
I’ll let Laura from OCDNI tell you more:
There is a very active and compassionate OCD community on Twitter and Facebook. When I asked recently what school was like for those with OCD, the response was overwhelming. The comments were as varied as the symptoms of OCD, but it was both humbling and enlightening, as a teacher, to read about their experiences. I hope that what follows helps you to understand just some of the daily difficulties that a child with OCD faces.
One of the most significant things that I read about was the sheer exhaustion of having OCD.
“With regards to revision, it was extremely difficult, my concentration levels dropped from about two hours to around twenty minutes, before I was mentally tired and needed a break.”
“I couldn’t concentrate whatsoever.”
This occurs because of the overthinking people with OCD can do. It may also be because they are having repetitive, intrusive and disturbing thoughts on continual loop:
“I always feel terrible for teens with OCD in that regard, having to hide sexual intrusive thoughts.”
A child with OCD is facing a battle in their head every day:
” I worried about using contaminated books and papers. I also worried about contaminating them myself.”
Taken to extremes:
“I’d also not turn in assignments, because of the fear of the teacher contaminating my paper.”
Some were unable to use toilet or canteen facilities at school, for fear of contamination. Bags and equipment had to be kept off the floor at all costs and if they were contaminated then they might have to be scrubbed with bleach or even destroyed. Shoes were replaced at huge expense because of dog faeces:
“Towards the end I was turning up with different shoes, several sizes too big.”
Behaviours that were seen as quirks by others led to bullying and intimidation, which frequently led to fights:
“It made me an easy target.”
“I would often self harm to punish myself for all of the guilt and shame I felt.”
Girls with OCD might also have another co-morbid condition like anorexia; needing to strive for perfection at all costs. All of my respondents commented on feelings of despair in some form:
“I’m left with an enormous amount of anxiety and depression, which takes away my motivation and ability to think coherently.”
So imagine a day where you are late to school because of checking compulsions. Then on arrival you have to hide your thoughts, can’t concentrate and are frightened of contamination, or your loved ones being hurt if you don’t complete a ritual. Think about what it must be like to fail exams or to drop out of courses, because you are too exhausted to complete them. Not to mention the guilt that you feel, because you are having such a detrimental affect on your family and friends. In addition, you have to avoid your triggers at all costs to avoid having a panic attack. Life is slow and depressing at times, yet this is your childhood when you should feel happy and safe.
That’s OCD and what it’s like to be caught in an OCD Loop.