TW - knives, contamination
The kitchen is a cherished space for many of us. Last year in particular it became a place of entertainment and exploration during periods of lockdown. People relished the chance to try a new recipe with a loved one, a joyous creative outlet to alleviate some of the boredom. Our social media channels were flooded with images of ‘home happy hours’, baking triumphs and general kitchen merriment. Yet, for some people with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), the experience of the kitchen can be an entirely different one.
OCD affects around 1-2% of the population. The mental health disorder is categorised by obsessions and compulsions – obsessions; unwanted thoughts or images repeatedly entering a person’s mind, causing significant anxiety, and compulsions; physical behaviours or mental acts, which are carried out repeatedly, to try to address or ‘make right’ the intrusive thought.
I was diagnosed with OCD at the age of fourteen so I am all-too-familiar with the stressful consequences the condition can have on daily life. Yet it’s a far cry from the insulting and misleading stereotype you often see in mainstream media, of those who like things excessively clean or tidy. The fact of the matter is, the condition is far more complex than that, and different subsets of the condition affect people in a large variety of ways.
Intolerance to uncertainty is a common characteristic of a person with OCD. We tend to hold negative beliefs about not knowing, with absolute certainty, the outcome of an event. So it comes as no surprise that in 2020, with the mass disruption caused by the pandemic, 70% of those with OCD diagnoses said that their mental health suffered, due to triggers such as difficulties getting food and supplies.
Unfortunately, the kitchen can be one of the most triggering rooms in the house for someone with OCD. I have a type of OCD known as Checking OCD. This means that during difficult periods with the condition, I could get stuck in the kitchen for over an hour, repeatedly carrying out a set of checks to ensure everything was switched off so that I would not cause harm to anyone I loved. The list was always the same; the same items checked in the same order (whether they had been used or not). I would have to repeat the parts of this list over and over again until it felt ‘right’. If I felt even slightly distracted, I couldn’t consider it ‘done’ properly and would have to begin again.
And I’m not alone. For people with OCD, kitchen rituals can be debilitating. I spoke to three other people with OCD to find out about their relationship with the kitchen, and how living with OCD affects this much-loved space.
Harm OCD is when the sufferer has constant intrusive thoughts that they will cause harm to themselves or others. While you may have once in your life experienced a random, harmful thought, they’re often fleeting and won’t impact your daily life. For someone with Harm OCD however, these thoughts become frequent and intrusive, and they often partake in other compulsions and/or rituals to decrease these thoughts.
Jenny, aged 36, has struggled with this subset of OCD since the age of 16, and it would cause her to have harmful thoughts that she would hurt the person closest to her.
“I used to think I would stab my husband with a kitchen knife. I would be preparing meat on the chopping board and would have a sudden thought that I would hurt him. It got so bad that I could no longer face going into the kitchen. I tried to avoid all food preparation completely as I was so worried I might actually act on these thoughts one day.
I spent years having thoughts like this, but I couldn’t explain it to anyone, as I thought they would think I was evil. The kitchen became a horrible place for me until I was finally able to open up and seek therapy. Now, I am better equipped to recognise it as an intrusive thought and not something I would ever do.”
As mentioned before, at some point in our lives, everyone will have some form of intrusive thought, but people with OCD place much more importance on what these thoughts mean about them as a person. Other types of kitchen related Harm OCD include the fear of scalding a loved one with hot water or burning them on an appliance. OCD can take the very worst things we can imagine and make sufferers feel they will inflict this on someone they love.
Magical Thinking OCD is when a person believes that their thoughts could actually cause real-life events to occur. For example, a person with this type of OCD may worry that if they think about a car crash, they could make one happen in the real world unless they can rectify the thought in some way. Ryan, aged 20, was diagnosed with OCD four years ago.
“When my OCD gets really bad, I can get trapped in a routine that I am unable to break. I use a lot of olive oil and salad dressings in my cooking, but when my OCD is bad, I have to dress my salads in a ritualised way. My magic number is four – this means I have to do everything in fours, as it is my ‘good’ number. I would have to put the oil on in four shakes, then put it down, then the vinegar, then put that down, then any other dressing with four shakes too. If I feel interrupted, I am then nervous that I haven’t done it properly and have to try again, obviously worrying I am going to ruin my food with so much liquid.
It can make me feel very anxious. Sometimes I’ll walk away with my salad, sit down to eat, but I’m too uneasy that I didn’t do it the right amount of times, and have to go back into the kitchen and try again. Otherwise, I worry something bad might happen. This is just one tiny ritual of many in my day – I have to do so many things like this, both in the kitchen and out. I know that realistically I can’t control things with my thoughts, but I worry what will happen if I don’t do it, just in case.”
Contamination OCD plays on “the fear of becoming personally contaminated through one’s own actions, being contaminated by others, contaminating others, or different combinations of any of these.” Sufferers will go to extreme lengths to try and prevent this happening or to offset it when they feel it has occurred. Laura, aged 40, has struggled with Contamination OCD from the age of 26.
“Food preparation can be very difficult for me. Nothing is ever clean enough and I worry I could contaminate myself or my loved ones. For years, I was so worried about dirt and mud on fruit and vegetables that I’d avoid the kitchen altogether. I would just miss meals when I was on my own. I couldn’t face the thought of getting stuck in the kitchen, repeatedly scrubbing and peeling everything for hours on end. One of the main reasons I became a vegetarian is because I was so worried about contamination from meat. I didn’t want to poison anyone.
With cognitive behavioural therapy and medication, I have it a little more under control now. The OCD is always there but will flare up and down depending on how stressed or anxious I am. For me, the pandemic has made things worse, as there are now two layers of contamination to deal with. I am always asking my husband to reassure me I have cleaned everything properly, or to do it instead of me, so I don’t have to worry.
I have been having regular therapy sessions through the pandemic though, and the regular check-ins have helped to ensure I don’t spiral too much. As things hopefully return to some sense of normality next year, I am hopeful I will be able to adjust and challenge my compulsions even more.”
Jenny, Ryan and Laura show that the condition is a complex one and so far removed from the “I like things organised” rhetoric so often used by people who have no concept of the debilitating condition. And these three examples don’t even begin to scratch the surface of how OCD can manifest, not only in the kitchen but across all areas of a person’s life.
There are infinite types.
These rituals are tiring, relentless and disturbing for sufferers. However, the overwhelmingly positive news is that OCD is, for most people, treatable. Both therapeutic and medicinal treatments have been proven to help sufferers get their lives back on track.
Fiona Challacombe is a clinical lecturer in perinatal psychology at King’s College London and leads a sub-service for parents with anxiety disorders such as OCD at CADAT, Maudsley NHS Trust.
“We have so much evidence that with help people really can recover from OCD,” she says. “It is a treatable problem and not something that people need to live with. Talking therapy (cognitive-behavioural therapy) and medication can be highly effective.”
Fiona’s Tips for Helping a Loved One with OCD:
Find out as much as you can about the problem, how it gets people stuck in doing things they know on one level aren’t helpful. A shared understanding will help you help your loved one and can make it easier to empathise with how difficult it is to be stuck in the grip of OCD.
Talk with them about seeking help, and if they are in therapy, how you might best help them fight their OCD.
Talk about ways you might be able to offer encouragement and support instead of reassurance if that is a big part of the OCD.
Think together about setting goals that you both want, to reclaim life back from the problem and how you can get fun back into life in small or bigger ways.
Try and protect some time and conversation from OCD; make it an OCD-free zone.
Look after yourself and take time out where you need it, or get professional help if you think it could be of use.
As someone with OCD, I think it’s also important that the narrative around this condition opens up more than ever before. So many people struggle silently and in shame when they have done nothing wrong. It is so important that sufferers do not feel stigmatised in sharing their ‘darkest’ thoughts. These thoughts are not representative of who they are.
Even in researching this piece, I can see the online conversations becoming more nuanced, and that the general public are getting a more accurate representation of what it feels like to live with this condition. This is largely down to the work of charitable organisations such as OCD Action and OCD UK, who work tirelessly to challenge stereotypes. It is also thanks to some incredibly bold sufferers who are sharing their deepest difficulties online. In doing so, they are removing the stigma for others.
If we can create a safer space for people to recognise the breadth of this condition and that they may be suffering with it, they may be able to seek help earlier and without fear of stigmatisation. That way, we can offer people the best chance of living the happiest life with their OCD under control. Who knows, maybe they will even fall in love with the kitchen again.
If you think you might be struggling with OCD, please contact your GP who will be able to refer you to local support services. For more information, you can also visit: OCD Action, OCD UK, NHS, Mind, Samaritans
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.
** Fiona Challacombe is patron of the charity Maternal OCD. Her research has looked at the impact of perinatal OCD on mothers and children. She is co-author of the self-help book ‘Break Free from OCD: Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder with CBT’.