Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental condition which is much more common than was previously thought. It is an illness which in many cases interferes considerably in the life of the person affected, and causes a great deal of suffering. Unlike physical medical conditions, mental complaints can present very varied symptoms, as Eduardo Keegan, a doctor in Psychology at the University of Buenos Aires and one of the driving forces behind cognitive behavioural therapy in Argentina, explains.
“OCD is best understood as a combination of pathologies which share certain common mechanisms, but can present a wide variety of symptoms and causes of worry. This means that a person may suffer extreme fear if they come into contact with objects, situations or people they perceive as being contaminated, or they may collect things which are of little use to the point that it seriously alters their quality of life, or they may have doubts which lead them to check things over and over again. Those are just three sub-types of OCD,” says Keegan.
It all began...
It was in 2009 that Argentinian singer Ro Vitale realised that the most common tasks such as drinking, sleeping, eating and getting dressed had become an obstacle. Everything made her afraid, because she believed it was contaminated. She stopped going out with friends and making music, and her house became her refuge.
“I was diagnosed with severe OCD five years ago. Before that, I had gone through a long period of confusion, despair and a huge agglomeration of symptoms and I was desperate for a diagnosis and hoped it could be treated. Even the most normal everyday things became terrifying obstacles,” she says in her book ‘TOCada. El Trastorno Obsesivo Compulsivo en primera persona’, a first person account of the disorder published in Spanish by Nuevo Extremo.
Because her condition was so severe, she decided not only to devote her time to her treatment but also to raise awareness of the disorder. She has become the spokeswoman and Spanish outreach ambassador of the International OCD Foundation in Boston, a non profit-making institution which helps people with obsessive compulsive disorders and their families.
The singer collaborates by telling her story to others who suffer from the same condition and making society more aware of the true dimension of OCD. There is still a great deal of confusion about what the term means.
“It is a shame that there is so much confusion caused by people using this term incorrectly... when anyone mentions OCD it has become a general invitation for people to laugh and share superficial anecdotes about separating clothes by colour, putting banknotes in numerical order and insisting on pictures being absolutely straight in the living room. That is not OCD,” she insists.
In her case, as mentioned above, one of the greatest problems she had was her terror of germs, and avoiding places where she thought there might be dirt, which she discovered occurs with many patients.
“One of the major difficulties is touching something which is ‘contaminated’ or which has fallen on the floor, because your hands could ‘contaminate’ the rest of your body or other objects if you make contact with something which causes you so much fear. Because of that, my house turned into absolute chaos. I fantasised continually about clean floors and walls, tiles with no mould and toilets with no limescale, but I couldn’t clean anything that I thought was contaminated... and when there is more dirt, that causes even more anxiety,” she says.
Defecate in the bath
“There was a time, not long ago, when I even defecated in the bath to avoid having any contact with the disgusting toilet. I used to pick up the excrement with paper and put it in the rubbish bags which were all over my room. I couldn’t throw them away because I was afraid that the smell from them was the bodies of people or animals that for some reason were in the bags. I even remember checking through the bags with my hands, sometimes when my therapist was present, to make sure there were no bodies inside,” she says.
Fortunately, that time has passed and after treatment Ro has almost recovered, although there are still some consequences which she has learned to live with. Now, she says, she has physical and emotional tools to combat them.
Her doctor, Fernando García, and her therapist helped her to understand that the intrusions (obessive thoughts) are involuntary and that the compulsions can be moderated and limited to a great extent. She has also been helped by ERP, exposure and response prevention, a therapeutic technique developed by the cognitive-behavioural school which, she says, works very well for OCD.
“The more intensive it is, the better,” she says. “It doesn’t only try to prevent the compulsions and slowly try to reduce intrusions and shake erroneous beliefs, it also leads to a re-learning of behaviours and routines. Over time the effects of the ERP help us to reconfigure our spaces and try new ways of inhabiting our homes and living with our associations.”