The never ending quest of the author is to imagine a character so real, they jump off the page and grab your reader, so they fall seamlessly in line. Living, breathing, even thinking like your character. We strive for diversity. We may often try to add a little of this type of character or a little of that type, and what ends of happening is that we often only touch the surface and fail to delve deeper. So today folks, I want to help with that. Let’s focus on a character type I see popping up a lot lately, but I feel were not given the care and attention they need.
The Character with OCD.
Back in the day, I worked at a nursing home. I had a patient that would sit in the living room and pick her nose hairs out. One. By. One. At first, I dismissed her as crazy. I mean, who just sits there and pick nose hairs out all day, knowing that just one, hurts like hell? Anyhoo…I happened to pass her one day and noticed, not only was she crying, but she always was convulsing.
Now, as the trained medical professional I was (not really, I was just a caretaker), I immediately thought something was terribly wrong and I sprung into action, ready to save my patient by any means necessary. I had my walkie-talkie out (yes, people still use those) my fingers poised on the back-up button, and another flush on her pulse. She was so startled, she looked at me all wide-eyed and flustered, when suddenly, she began to laugh.
Why was she laughing? Clearly, her condition was more dire than I thought. She’s lost all mental faculties. I was flustered. Shaken. Scuuurd! I demanded to know what was so funny. Chuckling again, she looked at me and pat my hand (not with the nose hairs hand thank goodness) and smiled.
“Clearly,” she said, “you’re new here. I’m OCD silly.”
I was puzzled. Perplexed. Scuuuurd! I mean. OCD people wash their hands, count things over and over again and flip light switches, right? Right? Not pick nose hairs! I fell back on my butt and stared at her. She smiled. “Go ahead.” she said, “ask away.”
And boy, did I ask! I asked and asked and asked and asked. It was probably one of the most eye opening experiences I’ve ever had. I thought OCD people were crazy, mentally deranged, even. But this sweet little old lady was as calm as a cucumber, mellow yellow. She was perfectly rational. She could speak in and form complete sentences, all grammar and sentence structure in tact. Yet, she had this serious problem.
I’ll never forget that day. It opened my eyes about so many things. Mental illness being one of them. Often we think of psychopaths and deranged killers when we think of mental illness, but this calm, sweet little lady, opened my eyes. While, I have been blessed not to have experienced this (yet, since most cases develop in young adulthood) I have learned how to bring these experiences to life in the form of my characters.
So, here I am to share a few pointers with you.
WHAT IS OCD?
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. As its name describes, it is a chronic disorder that is characterized by obsessions and compulsions. Those obsessions, the National Institute of Mental Health states are uncontrollable, upsetting and recurring thoughts, while the compulsions are irresistible behavioral urges, often resulting from the obsessions. For example, if a person’s OCD is linked to cleanliness, an obsessive fear of germs and contamination could lead a person to compulsively wash themselves. The symptoms can be debilitating, the NIMH says: “These symptoms can interfere with all aspects of life, such as work, school, and personal relationships.”
KEEP IN MIND
As with most conditions, nothing starts all of a sudden. It is a build up that occurs over a period of time. The same is true with OCD. One does not simply become OCD “overnight.” Neither should your character. Again. This is if you wish to really delve into the character and show a progression over time.
As I stated before, with anything there is a cause. Consider this;
- what is the cause of your character’s anxiety?
- Were they physically, emotionally, psychologically abused?
- Were they made to feel lacking in any area of their life?
- Did they have healthy outlets to vent their frustrations?
Your character may develop obsessive thoughts linked to the source of their problem. For example, remember my story above? Well, as I talked to her, she told me of the thoughts that plagued her. How they invaded her mind to the point that she literally could not dismiss them or even tuck them away until later. She thought about it every single second of every single day. It hindered her life.
While your character’s obsessiveness may not be as severe; it is necessary to understand that that they are persistent and unwanted, and cause anxiety or some level of distress. Obsessions include (but not limited to) aggressive thoughts about harming other people, unwanted sexual images that are unpleasant or otherwise taboo, fears about doing something inappropriate in public, or needing things to be perfectly symmetrical.
My patient had obsessive thoughts of harming others. She had these thoughts for several years before her compulsion began.
Your character’s compulsion should not be just something that they do because they “cannot” help themselves. According to the Mayo Clinic, the compulsions people with OCD perform are in response to the disturbing obsessions as a way to relieve the anxiety coming from them or prevent something bad from happening. The problem though, comes in when, engaging in the compulsions brings no pleasure and may offer only a temporary relief from anxiety.
Common compulsions involve washing and cleaning (this is probably the most well-known of the group) but can also be repeatedly double-checking things, such as a doorknob to make sure it is locked or a stove to make sure it is off. Other compulsions are counting, repeating words or phrases either silently or out loud, or arranging things in a certain way. While everyone will occasionally double-check things or have their own rituals or habits, people with OCD cannot control their behaviors, even if they identify that they are excessive and do not want to do them.
For my patient, it was the picking of nose hairs. For her, picking her nose hairs meant that she wouldn’t harm other people. In her mind, the pain inflicted upon herself served as a deterrent to the thoughts. In her rationale, once pain is inflicted, the only thing you can think of in that moment is the pain, and all other thoughts become unimportant as it becomes your singular focus. Once the pain dissipates, what then?
The thoughts come back. You do it again. Relief. The thoughts come back. It is a vicious cycle.
Did you know that OCD patients sometimes develop tics (much like patients of Tourette’s Syndrome)? The NIMH says there are motor tics – “sudden, brief, repetitive movements, such as eye blinking and other eye movements, facial grimacing, shoulder shrugging, and head or shoulder jerking,” and vocal tics – repeated throat-clearing, sniffing or grunting.
- What are some ways your character may exhibit some of the above?
- Have they developed a well coordinated effort to hide it?
- How do they cope?
OCD vs. OCD TENDENCIES
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is not that rare: one in 40 people are diagnosed with the condition at some point in their lives; however, just because your character exhibits some of the above mentioned traits, does not mean that they are in fact, OCD, in a clinical sense. One of the biggest differences between a personal quirk and a mental illness is the amount it disrupts your life. While most people occasionally have some obsessive thoughts and behaviors, people with OCD typically experience them for more than an hour every day. And while they often know their thoughts are irrational, they are afraid that somehow they might be true. The same goes for the behaviors — they might know they don’t make sense (like my patient) but they are powerless to stop them.
Also, keep in my mind that the intensity and frequency fluctuates over time. These are often change depending upon certain triggers and stressors. Your character may even experience obsessive thoughts or compulsions and never exhibit them at the same time. Or they may have one and not the other. It is important to figure out your character’s specifics beforehand.
Can you think of anything else concerning OCD? I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line in the comments below or connect with me on any of my social media, links below. Until next time G-Nation. Genesys Out!