Here’s a story of Ahmad. But it may as well be a story of John, Chen, Alejandro or Kofi. It’s a story of obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD, a mental health condition that impacts millions of people worldwide.
I wake up with deep unease. I can’t shake the fact that something will go wrong.
My palms and feet sweaty and my throat dries up. I notice my heart beating faster as I witness the bounding pulse in my throat.
Why do I feel this way? It’s only eight in the morning.
Hmm.. Let’s see what was I worried about last night? I spend a few minutes wondering what it could be that is bothering me. Aha! Now I remember, I was at the barber last week. I’m not sure that he changed the blade that he uses to shave. What if he didn’t actually change the blade? I mean, I asked him, but I'm not entirely sure. Maybe he just say ‘yea, yea’ but perhaps that was just to appease me. After all, I don’t remember him tearing the wrapper which is usually done to prepare a new blade for a shave. Did he change it? Maybe I should go back to the barber shop today and just ask the dude again. Or better yet, why don’t I go to the barbershop, sit back and observe the general protocol of the barbers and see if they actually do follow health protocols? What do I expect to see? I mean it’s Pakistan, after all. It’s not like they went to trade school to get certified.
Hmm… Maybe I should google the consequences of being shaved with a dirty blade. ‘Hey Google, what are the chances of getting HIV from a barber shop?’ I breeze through the search results, the first five links suggest that it is very difficult to catch HIV from the barber shop. That’s good news! But that doesn’t mean it's impossible. Let me keep going. Oh no, I see an article that says someone got HIV from a barbershop. But the link isn’t opening. What the hell! I need to know. So, basically, it is possible to get HIV from a barbershop. Shit.
Why didn’t I pay more attention at the barbershop? Okay, what will people think if I get HIV? Will they think that I had sex with prostitutes? Will they think I do heroin? Will refuse to shake my hand? Will they tell me to bugger off? Will I never have an intimate life partner? Will I be fired from my job because my boss doesn’t want me to spread this contagious disease? Do I need to tell everyone? Aren’t there some countries I can’t travel to if I have HIV? There we go. I no longer have a job. I no longer have anyone who cares about me. I am no longer able to travel. What’s the point of living then?
Damn it, I'm getting late for work. I better get ready. Let’s see, how about I put on a black shirt because it looks trim and neat on me. I put it on. Weird, it doesn’t seem to be working on me today. I look fat in this shirt. How about I put on the new navy blue shirt aunty got me, it’s an extra large so it should be fine. I look in the mirror. Damn it. I think I’m bloated because this doesn’t work for me either. Or maybe I’m not bloated. Maybe I need to accept the fact that I am fat and I need to do something about it. I step on the weighing scale, 182 pounds. I know that there was a time when I weighed 162 pounds. Is it the sugar that’s making me fat? Hmmm, maybe I should switch to fruit. ‘Hey Google, does fruit contain sugar?’ Seems like it does have something called ‘natural sugar’. ‘Hey Google.. What is this natural sugar?’ Okay, so they process differently in the body. Hmmm. Wait, hold on what time is it? Damn, I'm late again.
I rush to the car and begin driving. Man, what is my boss going to think of me? I am always late. At this rate, I'll be out of a job soon. If I'm out of a job soon, who will want to marry me? Will I die alone? Oh… speaking of death, I might be dying of HIV. I almost forgot that I was worried about this. I can already imagine the painful horrible death that will come my way. I will be hopeless in a hospital. I’m still so young! So much of my life will be taken away from me. I’ll be like Freddy Mercury, that dude died of AIDS, right? Wait what’s the difference between HIV and AIDS? I better google that when I get to work.
I am at a car signal, it says there are 18 seconds left till the light turns green. Perfect! Let me google the difference. Okay, so AIDS is like HIV on steroids. Oh brilliant, it says that it takes years for HIV to turn to AIDS. Woooh! I can breathe again. I may not be dying after all. But maybe nobody will want to be with me because I have this horrid disease. I will die alone. But you know what, maybe I can get around that. I’ll just find someone who has HIV too.
HONK HONK. Oh shit, I need to keep driving.
I park outside the office. I’m 19 minutes late. The boss is going to throw it at me again. I step into the office and check in with the attendant.
‘Hey, how’s it going bud?’ I ask.
‘Good sir, I am well today, and how are you.’
‘Oh I'm just fine, thanks, is my boss in yet.’
‘No sir, he hasn’t arrived, he is on a field visit today.’
‘Great! Thank you!’
I smile and walk away from the attendant and start walking towards my office. I feel great, I'm not going to die! Also, my boss isn’t here to remind me that I am chronically late.
I get to my desk and open up my emails. I am confident that I will get all the day’s most important tasks out of the way. I see a friendly coworker, Ali, and I holler ‘Hey yo Ali, how you doing, bud?’.
Ali responds ‘Not too shabby champ, how are you? You seem exhausted.’
I respond truthfully, ‘oh man, I was just worried that last week the barber used a dirty blade at the barber shop and maybe I caught HIV and that I was going to die.’
Ali bursts out laughing.
‘Are you serious bro, where did you come up with that story? You are nuts!’
‘I know, I'm crazy, but turns out it’s not that easy to get HIV from a barbershop.’ I respond in relief.
‘Yea, plus it’s not HIV that's an epidemic here. It’s Hepatitis C bro. My cousin had that shit. It was no good bro.’
‘I guess I was worried about the wrong thing then.’
‘Facts. Alright, I’ll catch up with you later. I gotta head back to work.’
We fist bump and head back to our duties. I open an email and begin to respond back to a client. I begin typing but suddenly a feeling of unease consumes me. My palms are sweating. What’s going on? Didn’t I just deal with this? Why is it back? I have an insatiable urge to google again. I know I won't be able to get back to work unless I know what this Hepatitis C thing is capable of. ‘Hey google, how likely is it that I get hepatitis C from a barber shop’...
Ahmad is a fictional character. But his experience is real for the millions of people who struggle with OCD. The truth is that this mental health condition is often viewed as a quirky personality trait to organize, clean or count numbers. The reality is that it is a far more aggravating condition. Debilitating anxiety and the need to take action to reduce this anxiety consumes the lives of many people living with OCD. This takes away their time from family, friends, work and more importantly, the joy of everyday life. In Ahmed’s case, it is the compulsion to google symptoms in the hope that having more knowledge would somehow reduce the anxiety. The paradox is that the more he knows, the more paranoid he gets. This often leaves those who struggle with OCD in a loop. In hope of relief, they may take action that may not be beneficial for them.
In addition to living in loops, there may be shame that arises in people who have OCD. Often, they are able to recognize that their brand of fear may not be entirely rational. Yet, the compulsion is strong enough to reel them back into familiar behaviour. In Ahmed’s case he acknowledges this when he says ‘I know, I’m crazy.’ This shame may hold back people struggling with OCD from sharing their thoughts with those around them. This makes OCD a particularly silent struggle. It may seem like no one else is able to understand you.
If you suspect that you or a loved one may have OCD, I advise seeing a mental health professional. You do not have to do this alone. It can get better. Your pain may be invisible to those around you but it is as real as any pain that can be seen with naked eye.
I wish ease to all those struggling with OCD right now.