My dog â€‹â€‹whimpers when I clean its underside. I see that he wants to jump up immediately. “I know it burns, baby,” I say, patting his rash.
I always joke that my rescue dog is a pedigree-flavored plaster special. He needs a special, expensive, high-quality prescription meal, or his skin turns into a red, bumpy mess that oozes and stinks and itches. And then he scratches – a lot.
I adopted him the day before the lockdown in South Africa. Since I was at home all day, I noticed that he often scratched himself. I’m not going to lie: his constant scratching was probably the worst part about having a puppy. Teaching him commands and house training was a lot easier than seeing him irritated and in pain.
Little did I know that taking care of him through his skin condition would help me cope with my own mental state: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
OCD is a heavily misunderstood mental illness.
Many people who can deal with anxiety disorders and clinical depression cannot do the same with OCD.
This is in part because there is so much misinformation about the disease, which is linked to a large amount of misrepresentation in the popular media.
Another reason is that OCD comes in so many ways and it’s difficult to explain “OCD logic”. Even people diagnosed with OCD have difficulty understanding it.
This misunderstanding can be a problem.
Many people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder don’t quite know what is happening to them. This means that they may find it more difficult to seek help. It can also be scary because you don’t fully understand your thoughts or behavior. Also, many people are misdiagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which means they may not get the treatment they need.
Personally, I’ve found that understanding my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder was key to dealing with it.
OCD consists of two parts:
- Obsessions, which are intrusive, unwanted, persistent thoughts
- Compulsions are actions you take to “ease” these thoughts.
Sometimes the compulsion is logical. For example, the obsession could be the persistent thought that you accidentally leave the house unlocked and your compulsion could be to check the locks 10 times.
For some of us, the compulsions are meant to get rid of the thought. For others, it is meant to reduce the chances that your anxiety will actually occur.
For those of us who think that our obsessive thoughts are manifesting our fears, it is both.
In other situations the compulsion seems to be completely independent.
I used to have intrusive thoughts that all of my loved ones would suddenly all die. I was forced to wring my hands. While this seems completely independent, it was what made sense to part of me at the time.
In this way compulsion is like scratching an itch. Even though you know that scratching won’t make the rash go away, you’ll want this temporary relief. There is a part of you who believes that your coercion will “neutralize” or soothe the threat.
And sometimes, scratching makes a rash worse: it opens up your skin, causing more inflammation and redness.
In the same way, indulging in these compulsions doesn’t help. But at this point it feels necessary.
If my dog â€‹â€‹itches, I don’t feel it – I only hear and see the scratching. Likewise, people never see the obsessive thoughts that plague me on a daily basis. You only see the constraints.
It’s easy for me to yell at my dog â€‹â€‹to stop scratching, but it doesn’t help. It’s easy, even for people without Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, to advise people with germophobia, just plain stop Cleaning things excessively, but that doesn’t help.
While it sounds simple in theory, it’s as hard as trying not to scratch yourself after rolling yourself through poison ivy.
And that’s why OCD is so misunderstood: Others only see the tip of the iceberg.
Experiencing your obsessions without engaging in your compulsions is like feeling an itch without being able to scratch it. The compulsions, like the scratches, are irresistible even though you know they won’t cure the underlying problem.
A common therapy for obsessive-compulsive disorder is exposure response prevention (ERP) therapy. With the guidance of a therapist, you will be encouraged to just let your obsessive thoughts pass without engaging in the compulsions. This shows you that if you stop indulging in your compulsions, the world will not actually implode.
And like resisting a good scratch, resisting my compulsions is a difficult task.
Sometimes it takes all of my mental energy. Some days I feel exhausted. I tell myself that I’ll just twist my wrists a little – a little scratch to relieve the incessant itch.
The days when I let myself into my compulsions I feel like a total failure. Because my obsessive-compulsive disorder is so illogical – twist your wrists and your loved ones won’t die – I feel really stupid for doing my compulsions.
And it is during these times that I try to remember my puppy. Yes, scratching increases its itchiness. But that obviously doesn’t make him a bad dog.
Likewise, if I let myself into my compulsions, I’m not necessarily a bad person. I am not a failure or weak. It is a logical response to an itch.
On the surface, ERP teaches you that your compulsions are not necessary to protect yourself. But on a deeper level, ERP required a lot of self-compassion for me.
Being compassionate to my dog â€‹â€‹for his reaction to something that was beyond his control helped me be compassionate to myself for the same.
Caring for an animal can teach you a lot about taking care of yourself.
Finding out my dog’s rash took a lot of experimentation. I tried dozens of new, expensive foods, cleaned his painful looking spots with a light pink detergent, and applied vet recommended lotions to give him some relief. It took a lot of patience – patience I never thought I could muster.
Treating my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has also taken patience. In a world where most of us are so used to instant gratification, it can be extremely frustrating when things don’t work out right away. I feel that way a lot, especially when I bring up my OCD.
A big part of the healing was realizing that “control” isn’t a black and white thing. To some extent, I can control my compulsions, just as you have some control over whether or not you scratch yourself. But that doesn’t mean my condition is my fault, and it doesn’t mean that I am a failure if I put myself into these compulsions.
Understanding my OCD and treating it with kindness rather than fighting myself made all the difference in my healing. Every day I get better and better, just like my four-legged best friend.
Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. As someone with multiple anxiety disorders, she is passionate about using her writing skills to educate and empower readers. She believes that words have the power to change thoughts, hearts and lives.