Kelly ended up in a counselor’s office because her roommates at college were having difficulty living with her. Kelly was convinced that germs were everywhere—and that every time she touched something, she came in contact with those germs. She washed her hands multiple times each day, placed hand sanitizer on every table in every room, and even told her roommates to wash their hands as often as she did. Not only that, she insisted on cleaning the toilet seat after each use by a roommate, even if someone was waiting to use the bathroom.
Kelly had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). “Her brain was telling her that germs were everywhere,” the counselor explained. Kelly developed her behaviors to try to get rid of her intrusive thoughts.
Jake had a routine for everything. He was one of the few teenage boys who was highly organized, neat, and clean. But because he had obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), he had a hard time finding a job. People with OCPD have overly rigid ways of viewing the world.
Jake wasn’t able to keep his job at McDonald’s for very long because he insisted that the wrap papers be organized in a certain way: they had to be straight, squared with one another, and even. On top of that, the bags had to be facing the same direction.
His next job was in the construction business. His parents thought the job might be a good fit since there’s a need to be precise—and their son was precise. But Jake discovered that the construction company he worked for accepted less than perfection: angles could be off and things could be uneven. Jake would have an emotional meltdown when things weren’t straight and level. If there were six nails and there were supposed to be five, he’d correct the construction workers. Consequently, he lost that job.
While Jake was good with the younger kids at church, a job helping them didn’t work out either. The kids did a lot of arts and crafts projects, but according to Jake, there was only one way to do a project. So when kids were creative or got paint on their noses, he had to quickly clean them up. It didn’t take long before he lost that job, too.
He ended doing very well with a job at a clothing store because he was the one the owners could depend on to organize the clothes and put everything back on the right rack. And he was meticulous about folding. Jake is now on his way to engineering school.
After hearing about Kelly and Jake’s dilemmas, it’s probably not difficult to see how OCD and OCPD can sometimes provoke or aggravate suicidal thoughts and behavior. People afflicted with these anxiety disorders might be described as a kind of hyperperfectionist (though it is possible to be a perfectionist without being obsessive or compulsive). They live life under the shadow of words like should and shouldn’t. All of their actions are judged against a demanding and inflexible standard of correctness.
Scrupulous attention to detail and a genuine concern for excellence can be positive and advantageous qualities. The problem begins when your child crosses a line from simple conscientiousness into the realm of irrational thoughts. At that point, the concern for getting things right becomes so oppressive that she loses the ability to function normally. That’s where OCD and OCPD kick in.
The intensity of OCD and OCPD symptoms can range from mild to severe. At the extreme end of the scale, a person’s focused and specific obsession creates attitudes and behaviors that make it hard to function in life.