Mental illnesses are complex, and are extremely variable in their presentation. In a woman, depression often comes out as tearfulness. In a man, the same depression might cause uncontrollable anger. To aid in the diagnosis of mental illness, physicians and mental health professionals rely on patterns, or rules-of-thumb, to aid their clinical skills. People tend to fall into patterns, or groups, though this isn’t always the case. The following describes four common subgroups of OCD, but rest assured these descriptions will not perfectly capture everyone suffering from the illness.
Sometimes, OCD can be obvious. Other times, it is more nuanced. This is the case with obsessional doubt, one of the most common, but under-recognized, subtypes of OCD.
So what makes doubt obsessional? To understand that, we need to remember what makes an obsession an obsession. An obsessional thought is unwanted, and comes about seemingly out of our control. This is called an intrusive thought. Obsessional thoughts occur over and over again, and won’t go away. Importantly, obsessional thoughts consume a significant amount of time, and result in a functional impact. Remember, if it’s not causing you problems, it’s not a disease!
Taken all together, obsessional doubt occurs when someone repeatedly doubts they have remembered something. Obsessional doubt is also often coupled with compulsions, to relieve the anxiety associated with the doubt. Compulsions in doubt-based OCD tend to complement the doubt, and therefore the compulsions tend to be reassurance-based. Now I know this sounds underwhelming, but trust me, it can be debilitating. The following are some examples of people I have met (with their stories altered, of course) with obsessional doubt.
Richard was a 27 year old man living in Toronto. He was getting ready to go out on a date one evening and found himself very anxious. He was getting ready to head out, and had the sense he had forgotten to turn off the stove. He checked the stove and realized it was off. He did this two hundred and twenty two times, for good luck. Before he knew it, he had missed his date.
Dema was a 29 year old female admitted to an inpatient psychiatric ward for severe OCD. During rounds one morning, the word “complete,” was mentioned. Dema fixated on the word and became unable to answer any other questions. She repeatedly asked I repeat the word, “complete,” so that she could ensure she had heard me pronounce it correctly.
Mohammad was a 17 year old young man. He presented to my office one day complaining of difficulties studying. He found himself unable to move beyond the first few pages of his notes, as he felt he had to perfectly memorize everything if he were to succeed. He reflected on a similar incident a year prior, where he developed a fear he would forget his memories with a family member. He would repeatedly look at pictures of the memories he had, to ensure they were real memories. This would take hours a day.
These are real examples of OCD at it’s strongest. Fortunately, most of the people in the above example recovered reasonably well. Why share this? OCD remains one of the most under-recognized mental illnesses, and hopefully this helps dispel some of the myths.
Editor’s note: Read about what OCD isn’t!
Stay tuned for OCD – What to do about it, and the remainder of the, “four kinds,” series.
Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.