Living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Episode 1 : The Introduction | 05/01/2009
ANDY BURNFIELD: Hello, and welcome to the first episode of Living with OCD. To start off, let’s do some introductions. My name’s Andy Burnfield, and I’m going to be talking with my wife, Julie…
JULIE BURNFIELD: Hello!
ANDY: …and we’re going to be talking about obsessive compulsive disorder.
ANDY: Let’s get started. Julie, what is obsessive compulsive disorder?
JULIE: Well, that’s kind of hard to explain in a couple words, but I’ll do my best. Obsessive compulsive disorder is actually a mental illness that is classified in the DSM IV (which is the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, which is actually kind of like the governing big book for psychological disorders).
Everybody knows it as OCD; some people think that it’s, you know, anal retentiveness, cleanliness, perfectionism; but really, basically, what it is is there’s two parts of it: the obsessive part and the compulsive part. First part is the obsessive part. What that is is actual thoughts in your head—obsessions in your head.
And then the second part is compulsions. Well, they’re linked together because the obsessions force you to do the compulsions. And if you do not do the compulsions, then the obsessions will never go away. So that’s why people with OCD have a lot of compulsions: because they’re trying to make the obsessions in their head go away and you can’t get any relief from inside your head (so to speak) unless you do the compulsions.
For example, an obsession would be, “Oh, the sink is dirty, I need to clean the sink, I need to clean the sink, it’s going to get dirty if I don’t clean it. Then bugs are gonna come if I don’t clean it. Somebody might come over to my house and see my sink dirty, so I’m going to have to clean it, going to have to clean it, going to have to clean it.” And I would be sitting in my chair, thinking, trying to watch TV or something, just thinking, “My gosh, the sink is dirty, the sink is dirty, the sink is dirty,” and I can’t get that out of my head; I just obsess and obsess and obsess, and so my obsessions cause me to do that compulsion of getting up and going to the sink and doing the compulsion of cleaning the sink. That’s the only way I would get rid of those obsessions in my head. So basically, in a nutshell, that’s kind of an example of what OCD is.
ANDY: So, that’s a pretty good overview of OCD. What would you say your specific symptoms of this disorder, you know, ‘cause I know that it affects a lot of everybody differently, in different ways, and what would you say would be your specific type of OCD?
JULIE: Well, there’s a couple types of OCD. Basically, all my knowledge on OCD comes from—I have a degree in psychology, and from my learnings at college, and then also from my readings of a lot of books on OCD, a lot of general psychology books, and also a lot of self-help books.
There’s a general type of OCD that’s obsessions and compulsions, and there’s another type of OCD that’s called “pure obsession”, which basically means that you just have the obsessions in your head. It’s just thoughts and so forth that don’t actually compel you to do the compulsions.
You can have one sort or you can have maybe a combination of the two. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found that I’ve become more of the pure obsessive type, rather than the obsessive-compulsive type. I still do have some compulsions, but, basically, I think a lot of that for me was cured—some of it was cured—with maturity and kind of “logicalness” that I’ve gained as I’ve grown older.
So my symptoms are basically the obsessive type: over-thinking things, thinking all the time, never being able to shut my brain off. Even when I’m sleeping it’ll take me about an hour before I can work everything out in my head before I’m able to go to sleep because I’m just constantly obsessing about things.
I used to have the compulsions part when I was younger. I used to have a number—most people that have OCD have a number of things, that you have to do a certain thing a number of times in order to feel okay, in order to make that obsession go away. For example, my number used to be seven, so I would have to switch all light switches in my house growing up on and off seven times. If it wasn’t seven times, then I would feel a great anxiousness, I would feel great anxiety, and the only way to relieve that would be do everything seven times.
ANDY: I’ve heard OCD described in different ways as far as rating how bad each person has it and I don’t know, you know I’ve never studied it so I don’t know what the technical terms would be, but you once told me that yours was described in levels by one of the doctors that you had seen. And so I was just, you know, just for the audience, what level, for lack of knowing what to call it, what level of OCD would you say that you have?
JULIE: No, that’s a good question. I went to a number of psychiatrists. Well, excuse me, one psychiatrist. (Basically the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist is a psychiatrist treats you with the medicine for your disorder; the psychologist treats you with the therapy.)
So I decided, back in college, after college actually, after we got married, that we thought it would be a good decision for me to do both—to try some medicine that might alleviate this, and then also to visit a therapist that maybe could help me control some of the symptoms through therapy.
So, I went to a couple. And I remember going to this one doctor (the first two didn’t really work out, I think this was the third psychiatrist, excuse me, psychologist, therapist), and I remember going to his office, and it was all decorated with sail boats, and he had two big armchairs sitting there next to a fire, and it was I guess as comfortable as you can get in a therapist’s office. And I was really nervous. (I hate going to therapists, obviously, I don’t think anybody likes going to them.) But I sat down there, and he did my little intake (you have to fill out a little survey) and then asked me about what I have, and my history, and some of my compulsions, and some of my obsessions and so forth, and then he kind of started to laugh. And I was like, “That’s not what you want to hear from a therapist when you first walk in to his office on your first visit.” And he’s like “Well, I think this is going to be fun.”
And I was like, “What the heck are you talking about? This is not going to be fun, this is going to be agony!”
And he said, “Well,” he said, “OCD is not the most common thing that you see in here, or that I do therapy and help people with, but,” he said, “I have had experience with it in my practice.” And he said, “Out of all the people I’ve had I would have to say you are eight-and-a-half to a nine out of all the people that I’ve counseled.” So, basically, eight-and-a-half to nine on a scale of ten, of the worst.
ANDY: The next question I have is “How would you describe, you know, a lot of our audience member I’m sure—well, I’m very sure—doesn’t have this OCD, at least not to the level that you have, or, you know, people that would actually be classified as having the disorder, would have. And so, I think there’s a lot of people that may be listening that don’t really understand what OCD is. I mean, you talked about technically what it is, and you told a little bit about your experience, but I was wondering if there was a way that you could kind of explain, if somebody were to, like, crawl inside your head, you know, what is it like, like, can you describe what it’s like for you in your mind having OCD to somebody that doesn’t necessarily understand what all it is?
JULIE: Sure. Well, the technical part of it is, if you look at the brain, there has been a lot of studies that show this is actually a disorder that is related directly to different parts of the brain, and also to levels of seratonin, which is a hormone that’s produced In the brain. And people with proper levels of seratonin tend never to suffer from OCD.
The seratonin … basically, what happens is, you have synapses in your brain, and this comes a little bit from part of my masters that I did in neuropsychopharmacology. So I really got into the brain aspect of it, which was really interesting for me.
But, basically, you have synapses in your brain. You have a pre-synapse and a post-synapse, and what happens is, when your brain fires, these synapses connect. And in a normal brain, what would happen is the seratonin would transfer from pre-synapse to the post-synapse. Well, in the brain with a person of OCD, that seratonin does not transfer like it should. So when you look at the map of a brain, and if you would put like, you know, the heat part would be really red showing up in your brain; you can see that most of the people with OCD, they have a very overactive frontal cortex.
And that’s where the problem is, that’s the technical term. Really, for the normal person, what that looks like, inside my head, is that, basically, I feel my brain is extremely overactive; it’s never off—it’s on all the time. And basically, the way that it was put in one of the books I read—which is one of the best books I’ve ever read; it’s called "Brain Lock", and if you ever want to read it, if you have OCD I highly recommend it. It’s the best book I’ve ever read on it, and believe me, I’ve read a lot!
[TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE: More information on the book, "Brain Lock"(by Jeffrey Schwartz and Beverly Beyette), can be found at http://www.coldflyer.com/suggested-reading.]
ANDY: Sorry, I’m going to have to interrupt for just a second. [Pause] Okay, I’m back. Sorry about the interruption there, folks, we had some eager little puppy dogs trying to scratch on the door and get in and join us. So we’re back.
You were just talking about what goes on in your brain, which is fascinating. Could you talk a little bit more maybe about not necessarily technically what happens in your brain? [Julie laughs] Which is interesting, but I want more, you know, explain to me what happens in your mind. Not mechanically, not physically, but what do you go through internally, inside your head, that a normal person wouldn’t? Is there a way that you can explain to me and to the audience what it’s like to have OCD—more than just what happens physically in the brain?
JULIE: Sure. Well, the physical part kind of gives you the background, and then the basic way you would explain it to a normal person who doesn’t want the technical terms is that, like I said before, my brain is “on” all the time. My brain is extremely overactive due to the thoughts that come in my head.
If I have, say, one single thought that comes in my head—“Oh, I ned to go get groceries this week”—anybody normal person could say, “Oh, I need to go get groceries. Ok, that’s fine, I’ll go back to doing whatever I was doing.” If that thought comes in my head, “I need to go get groceries,” well, I can’t get that thought out of my head until everything is done pertaining to that task. I.e., I say to myself, “I’ve got to go get groceries, so, number one, I got to put that on my list.”
(My main compulsion right now is lists. I make a lot and lot of lists. If I don’t have a list, then I’m just going to worry that something is not on that list. If I have a list, then I can relax. For me, the list kind of stops the obsessions in my head, because I’m like, “I don’t have to think about it; it’s on my list.”)
So, my thought is, “Go get groceries, I need to go get groceries.” Well, I’ve got to immediately get up from my chair, get up from whatever I’m doing, I’ve got to immediately go through the whole house, I’ve got to immediately write down everything that I need to buy for groceries, I need to put that on my list, I need to make a grocery list, I need to put “get groceries” on my task list, and then when it’s done, I go back to sitting in my chair—but I don’t stop thinking about it.
I’m like, “Okay, well, what day am I going to go get groceries? Okay, well, I’ll go during my lunch break on Monday. Well, what if I’m busy on Monday at work? So, what if I can’t take a long enough lunch break? What if I don’t have time to go get my groceries on Monday? Well, maybe I could go after work. But then, what if I go after work? Then I won’t be home in time to let the dogs out,” and on and on and on and on and on!
Where a normal person could go, “I need to get groceries, I’ll make my list right before I go,” I start thinking about it, like, a week to ten days in advance. And I can’t get it out of my head. I have to think about every tiny little thing that has to do with it, and until it’s, quote unquote, “solved”, or “satisfied” in my head; until I have thought about every single aspect of it and thought through every tiny little thing; then I can’t relax, and then I have this feeling of anxiety building up, building up, building up in me until I can put it to rest, and I can know I’ve covered the bases—I’ve looked through the house, I’ve asked Andy if he needs anything, I know when I’m going to do it, I know when I’m going to go, I know how long it’s going to take me, I know what I’ll do when I get home, I know I can unpack the groceries at this time.
It’s just over-thinking, overanalyzing, and just the thought of “you can’t get it out of your brain unless it’s fully covered”, because if it’s not fully covered and fully taken care of, then you’re anxious because it might not turn out right. And I think a lot of people with OCD, that is the core issue that it gets back to.
Where it is with me for sure, the core issue is, “If I can’t take care of this properly, and I can’t do it perfectly, and I can’t think about everything that’s involved in it (because if I forget something, it all comes back to “well, maybe I’m not good enough then”) if I can’t do it right, and if I can’t cover all the aspects of it, then it must come back and reflect on me badly. And that’s, I think, well, like I said before, the core issue for me of, “this has to be done right, this has to be done perfectly, or else I’m not good enough and then, ultimately, I’ve failed.”
ANDY: No, that’s interesting. I didn’t realize that came into play. I mean I witness everything else that you talk about—you’re thinking about it constantly, and asking me over and over for my opinions or for what I need at the store, or those kinds of things—but I didn’t realize that it ultimately came down to if you can’t get it out of your head, if you can’t fulfill your compulsion, then you think poorly of yourself. So that’s very interesting to me.
JULIE: And excuse me if I repeat myself, because that’s another part of OCD—and I found myself doing it when I was talking there last—is that I tend to say things over and over. Like Andy said, I tend to ask him things numerous times.
Sometimes I catch myself doing it, and then sometimes I don’t even realize it. Like, I’m sure in that last part when I talked I said the same thing at least three to four different times. But in my mind, even in my speech, that was being obsessive about my speech and making sure my point got through to make sure everything was complete and everything was done properly.
ANDY: So, obsessive compulsive disorder has two parts, right?
ANDY: You have the obsession, and then you have the compulsion…
ANDY: …and in your scenario you were just talking about the shopping. Which part would be which? I mean, it’s seems somewhat obvious to me, but I’ve lived with this, you know, with you, for quite a while. So is it an easy classification, or does it kind of all blend together, or what do you think about that?
JULIE: Well, just in my saying what I was saying in the last question, I kind of came to a self-realization, because I didn’t really realize that lately all the lists I’ve been making are actually my compulsion. So I just kind of thought about that for the first time, and it kind of just like sunk in that that’s actually what it was. Because, in my mind, it was that I’m just obsessing about things—so I’ll just make a list, be organized, and then that’ll take care of it. I won’t have to worry about it, I won’t have to think about it.
When I really analyze that, really, the thoughts about the groceries, the thoughts about the food, when I’m going to do it, how long it’ll take—those are obviously the obsessions, but then making the list, writing all that stuff down and going around the house looking for what we need—that’s really the compulsion, because that’s what makes me feel better. When I have the grocery list made, I feel better. And when I have the list of groceries on my phone, I feel better.
ANDY: Okay, thank you. Well, we’ve actually gone our allotted time for the show.
ANDY: We’ve hit a little over fifteen minutes, I believe, once it’s edited down, and that’s kind of the target that I was going for.
JULIE: I was worried we weren’t going to have enough time.
ANDY: Yeah, we just answered five of the questions that I have almost a full page of, so…
ANDY: …I hope everybody’s enjoyed this. I think it’s pretty obvious where we’re going with this show. My thinking is, I was looking around on iTunes and around the web, and there’s really nobody talking, you know, there’s a lot of professionals, in the media and things, talking about OCD, but there’s really nobody out there just kind of saying what it’s like to live with this disorder. You know, not from a professional point of view, not from a doctor speaking on the media, but just somebody talking about it.
And I think there’s a lot of people very interested in this subject. I think there’s a lot of people out there dealing with—whether it’s a partner with OCD or with it themselves—and I just kind of wanted to throw this out there and see if people would enjoy this. And I really feel like we’ve got a good show going, and the next episode, join us, we’ll probably be talking about, well, my plan is to talk a little bit more about Julie’s early childhood and kind of see how this kind of manifested itself when she was younger and kind of dig in a little bit. So…
JULIE: Yeah, it starts early.
ANDY: So join us again next time, and thanks for listening!
JULIE: See you later!
Living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder