FORCE OF HABIT: Members of the OCD support group look towards a more hopeful future
In this column we profile unusual groups. This week, Ketan Tanna meets a group of people who meet to collectively combat a sapping mental disorder
All the time I wanted to be clean. My obsession with cleanliness went to such an extreme that not only did I bathe innumerable times a day, I began using washing powder to do it. Iâ€™d brush my teeth with it as well. I refused to touch anyone in my house, including my mother,â€™â€™ says Nagma. Ten others in the room look on agape as the 20-year-old candidly recounts how her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) almost cost her her sanity.
In a room on the first floor of a building near Lalbaug police chowki, Mumbaiâ€™s first OCD support group is in session. Victims of the disorder meet on the first Saturday of every month and share their experiences and progress reports.
Nagma was labelled mad by her family who could not understand her obsessive need to be clean. Her illness brought the Khajuraho denizen to Mumbai in search of a solution. Doing the rounds of the psychiatry units of public hospitals did not really help, but a chance meeting with someone who knew of the OCD support group has brought a semblance of hope into her life. Though she acknowledges that she still has a problem, it is under control. â€œNow I wash myself only three to four times a day,â€ she says cheerfully.
As Nagma talks, the others nod in agreement, and then embark on their own OCD tales. Twenty-two-year-old Vishal, a serious-looking bespectacled youngster from a small town in Maharashtra, reveals unhesitantly that his OCD revolves around masturbation and sexual thoughts that almost ruined his life. â€œMy OCD started acting up when I enrolled in engineering college,â€™â€™ he says. â€œMy parents could not comprehend what was happening to me. Both, my studies and my health suffered.â€™â€™ It was only after Vishal came to Mumbai, consulted doctors and enrolled in the OCD support group that things began to change. Itâ€™s been a few months since he has begun dealing with his OCD, and there has been a decline in the potency of the medicines he takes.
Vishalâ€™s problem evokes much sympathy from the parents of 15-year-old Justin Dâ€™souza. For over two years, this Borivili resident was a bundle of nerves, prone to vomiting and crying at the drop of the hat. Justin hated travelling by bus and train because he believed that touching something or someone would give him germs. His thought process was tortured. â€œIâ€™d imagine that I would not be able to give exams or flunk because I could not concentrate. I would then envision myself being thrown out of school and not being able to fulfil my dream of becoming a software engineer,â€™â€™ says Justin, explaining how his mind played tricks on him, impairing his judgment. His parents initially thought it was just stress but a friend of Justin, who also had OCD, realised that there was more to Justinâ€™s emotional problems.
Justinâ€™s parents say they were fortunate enough to realise that their son suffered from an illness. â€œThereâ€™s a very thin line between being obsessed with something and suffering from OCD. In Justinâ€™s case, his tension and obsession overwhelmed his personality. He would suddenly burst into tears and it was difficult for him to even finish his exams,â€™â€™ says his father. Things have improved, however, and despite not completing a portion of his board exam papers, Justin scored 70 per cent.
While doctors are the ones who can diagnose and treat OCD, a support group is invaluable. As â€˜Obsessive-Compulsive Disordersâ€™, a book edited by Eric Hollander and Dan J Stein explains, those suffering from OCD often have a fear that others will discover their secret obsessions or observe their rituals and label them mad. As a result of this, they have poor social networks, and OCD support groups are a good vehicle for decreasing the social isolation they feel.
Often, as evidenced by this particular group in Mumbai, a support group serves as the doorway to treatment and the starting point on the path to recovery. Hollander and Stein explain that the dooropening function is extremely important because it is estimated that less than 20 per cent of those suffering from neurobiological disorders such as OCD are in treatment. In India, that figure would be even less.
The Mumbai group comprises people from a spectrum of backgrounds. Ali Akbar, a 20-year-old youngster from the powerloom town of Bhiwandi, who for years had imagined that he was mentally and physically weak, went through a series of tests, medicines and doctors before he finally realised that he suffered from OCD. Shekhar Kulkarni, a 33-year-old graphic artist sits quietly even though he is supposed to be the most vocal one in the group. But he lights up when the group talks of its experiences in combating the illness.
Shekharâ€™s problem was that he simply could not travel alone in a bus or train, and often felt claustrophobic in enclosed spaces. Once when he was on his way from Pune to Mumbai in a bus, he started getting panic attacks midway. â€œMy stomach started hurting and I felt it would burst and I would collapse. I just got off the bus.â€™â€™ His aging mother did travel with him for a while but that could not carry on. The OCD support group has helped him, says Shekhar, and his dependency on people has lessened.
Shirin Mistry, who started suffering from a cleanliness OCD after her marriage, went through endless rounds of drugs and treatment. Her husband, Rohinton, who often accompanies her to the OCD meetings says that very often general physicians or family doctors are unable to diagnose the disorder and often give symptomatic medicines without realising the gravity of the problem.
There are bizarre cases of OCD as well. A man attended some of the meetings wearing dark glasses which he wouldnâ€™t remove for a second. He refused to remove them because he believed that those around him would be able to look into his eyes and read his mind.
The OCD group is free for all those seeking help, and runs under the aegis of the Samaritans. Dr Fabian Almeida, who supervises the meetings, says the classic symptoms of OCD are that thoughts are intrusive, automatic and seem to be out of oneâ€™s control.
â€œDiagnosing the disorder helps to outline specific treatment and involves a combination of behaviour therapy techniques as well as pharmacotherapy and a host of self-help methods,â€™â€™ he says. And then sums up the motto of the group in three succinct words: â€œThinking without sinking.â€™â€™ TNN