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How clean is too clean?

Summary: Alya's mother and Monica from 'Friends' may well have been twins separated at birth judging by their freakishly obsessive nature to clean.

Alya's mother and Monica from 'Friends' may well have been twins separated at birth judging by their freakishly obsessive nature to clean.

She often regales to others the numerous dirt inspections of her apartment she has had to suffer through each time mom visits. Alya, along with the rest of her family, have concluded that mom must suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

But what is OCD? Do you, like Alya, use OCD as a label a bit too loosely without really considering what it means?

The Oxford Dictionary defines Obsession as "something that you can't stop thinking about." Psychologists believe that obsessions are not just recurring thoughts but also include images and impulses. Obsession is akin to worrying or feeling anxious but to a degree which is intrusive to the person's daily functioning.

The same dictionary defines Compulsion as "a pressure to do something, an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way." Compulsive eaters, compulsive gamblers and compulsive drinkers may experience an irresistible urge to eat, gamble or drink but there is pleasure derived from these activities and true compulsives feel that their compulsions are foreign or alien to themselves.

For a person to be diagnosed as having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) states that the individual must have obsessions and compulsions together.

Professor Gerald C. Davison, chair of the department Psychology at the University of Southern California, defines OCD as a disorder in which "the mind is flooded with persistent and uncontrollable thoughts or the individual is compelled to repeat certain acts again and again, causing significant distress and interference with everyday functioning."

This may be the woman, who washes her hands every time she touches a door knob because of a fear of contamination, or the man who has to chew each bite of his food exactly twenty-four times, or the neighbour who has to circle his garden eleven times in the evening before going home. Perhaps you make sure to check under the bed before going to sleep and do it without fail each night.

Many people have different activities that they must engage in so that they are able to make sense about the world around them, such as cleaning up your desk before starting work. However, this wouldn't be categorised as OCD since a true sufferer of this ailment would be so caught up in the obsessive compulsions that they would not be able to live a functional life.

The famous American billionaire, Howard Hughes, was known to suffer from OCD. He demanded that his assistants wash their hands in an elaborate manner and wear white gloves before touching any of his documents. Hughes' OCD worsened with age and he slowly became extremely reclusive. He ordered tape around doors and windows and his staff were not allowed to touch or even look at him.

Even Cameron Diaz is known to suffer from OCD. She admits that she rubs door knobs regularly before opening doors in order to clean them and sometimes she rubs so hard that paint comes off in her hands.

Different modalities of psychological treatment varying from psychoanalytic therapy to behavioural therapy have been used as well as self-help books that can be found in bookstores that encourage individuals to overcome their symptoms.

OCD is a serious condition and it has been considered by psychologists as one of the most difficult disorders to treat. Therefore it is imperative that we don't give in to self-diagnosis or treatment and the advice of a clinical psychologist should be sought.

In retrospect, it does seem a bit unfair to say Alya's mother has OCD. Does she have a phobia about germs? Is her apartment really not meeting her standards of cleanliness? Does she just enjoy cleaning much akin to someone enjoying gardening or cooking? Labels, like OCD, sometimes serve as a perfect cop out and can be corrosive to our thinking and the labelled individual's actions.

Next time mother visits, Alya should just suggest cleaning together, if only to see her face light up at the prospect of a sparkling bathroom floor.

Remember, learning more results in living moreC*over to youC*

Samineh I Shaheem is an author, an assistant professor of psychology, currently lecturing in Dubai, as well as a cross-cultural consultant at HRI. She has studied and worked in different parts of the world, including the USA, Canada, UK, Netherlands, and the UAE. She co hosts a radio program (Psyched Sundays 10-12pm) every Sunday morning on Dubai Eye discussing the most relevant psychological issues in our community.

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Publication:Khaleej Times (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
Date:Nov 11, 2011
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