A Minor Obsession: Paedophilia and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

The young scientist arranges several sheets of paper on the desk in front of her so that the edges line up end-to-end. She alters them momentarily so that the sides of the paper are almost perfectly arranged. She opens her laptop, ready to transcribe the data hastily recorded onto the pages before her, but pauses briefly, turning to her lab partner. She adopts a faux-apologetic countenance, and the telling words fall from her lips:

“Sorry, I’m just a bit OCD about this sort of stuff.”

In truth, the vast majority of us are guilty of misusing psychiatric terminology at some stage in our lives. At the very least, we are witnesses to it on a regular basis. But the equation of OCD, a debilitating anxiety disorder, with a personality quirk demanding neatness, is particularly disturbing.

Of course, the young scientist didn’t intend to hurt anyone with her comments; using “OCD” as an adjective to describe particularly neat behaviour is just a thing that people do. The unintended consequence of this ubiquitous ignorance is that the vast majority of the population misunderstands the nature of OCD as a mental illness.

If I were a more outgoing person, perhaps I would have called her out on this lexical error. “You have obsessive-compulsive disorder?” I would have said, excitedly. “Me too! What’s yours about? Do you wash your hands until they bleed because you’re afraid of being contaminated and potentially hurting someone? Are you constantly worried that you might snap at any moment and murder or rape a passer-by? Do you need to experience every bodily stimulus symmetrically lest the world come crashing down upon you? Maybe you spend hours every day making sure all your lights and taps are off and that your door is locked? Or perhaps you’re experiencing a crisis of sexual identity or are terrified that you secretly don’t love your partner?”

These are all potential (and common) features of OCD — a mental illness characterised by the presence of anxiety-producing intrusive thoughts, called obsessions, or repetitive behaviours that seek to reduce that anxiety, or both. You do not necessarily have OCD if, for example, you feel the need to make sure clothes in your cupboard are lined up properly, or if you insist on an alphabetic arrangement of your record collection.

I, for example, spend a lot of time checking letters. I will spend a disproportionate amount of time checking this article for errors. I check forms many times before submitting them. I go over assignments several times with a fine-toothed comb before sending them off, mostly to make sure there isn’t anything inappropriate in them. And while I’m logically pretty sure I didn’t randomly insert “fuck” several times into an essay about melanoma oncogenesis, I feel compelled to check over and over again just to make sure. Here is the key difference between actual OCD and a personality quirk: I have to do it, because I’m afraid that if I don’t, something really bad will happen. I’m pretty sure that for 95% of you, this isn’t the case when you make sure that you set the cutlery perfectly perpendicular to the edge of your dining table.

But there is a far more sinister side to my OCD experience that is not often talked about. Because most people’s understanding of OCD is characterised by the presence of compulsions, we tend to forget about the other side of the coin. Obsessions, for me, are much more powerful and far more distressing than their behavioural counterpart. I’m afraid to handle knives because I fear that I will accidentally stab someone. I don’t like walking along the sides of main roads because I worry that I may push someone out in front of a bus. And, most unpleasantly, I have spent a large amount of time every day for the last five years worrying that I am secretly sexually attracted to children.

I was fourteen when it started. I developed a brief crush on a younger girl at my high school, and this, combined with being frequently told by my teenage peers that I’m “the kind of person who’ll grow up to be a paedophile” caused my brain to start toying with the possibility that I might be into kids. At the time, I was completely oblivious to the idea that this might be caused by emerging OCD. I assumed that the only possible explanation for having feelings for a younger girl could be a genuine paraphilia, and not at all something to do with the massive increase in serum testosterone inherent to that period of sexual development.

I couldn’t disclose this unsettling revelation to my parents, obviously. I certainly couldn’t talk to a teacher or school counsellor about it — they’d have to report me to the police, and I’d be dragged off somewhere to live out my days in solitude. And unlike “burning sensation after urination,” these aren’t really symptoms you can safely punch into Google. So I went about testing the reality of the situation by different, altogether much more unhealthy means. When my family and I would go to the beach, I’d look out for naked children to see if I was aroused by looking at them. I accidentally stumbled across some abhorrent drawings on the internet, and lingered on the page perhaps too long, with the aim of figuring out whether I was actually turned on by that sort of stuff.

As I matured, I decided that these behaviours were dangerous and problematic, and swore to never tell a soul about the things that I had thought and done. I continued thinking that deep down, I was a monster. A psychopathic, violent pervert who should be removed from society for the safety of young people everywhere.

I became heavily depressed in the middle of last year, five years after the intrusive thoughts began, and started seriously considering suicide. To delete myself from society would be a favour to the world, despite any good that I may be capable of in my life.

It was this depression and the anxiety resulting from constant instrusive thoughts that finally drove me to seek help. I went to my GP and told him that I suffered from suicidal thoughts and constant anxiety, but kept the intrusive thoughts to myself. He assessed me as having severe anxiety and depression, and referred me on to a psychiatrist for a proper diagnosis. For perspective, at this stage, I was spending roughly six hours a day consumed by the thought that I might want to molest a child and should be incarcerated.

When I finally met with the psychiatrist, I resolved to tell him the whole story. I wept as I dictated my thoughts to him, and when I was finished, he said:

“I don’t know about you, but I think this is pretty consistent with OCD.”

What? I spent five years assuming I was attracted to children, constantly looking for any sign to confirm my worst fears, but it might all be imagined? But how can you know for sure?

The distinguishing factor between those with OCD and those with actual paedophilia is this: People with genuine sexual attraction to children collect catalogues from clothing stores to look at the pictures in them for arousal. They feel the urge to brush up against children in the street, spend time hanging around playgrounds and schools, and long for the companionship of a minor. OCD sufferers do quite the opposite — they avoid any sort of situation that might trigger intrusive thoughts. They are scared of what is going on in their heads. For me, that means steering clear of pools, beaches, schools and playgrounds, and making sure I’m as far away from kids on the street as possible. This would be adaptive, positive behaviour for someone who is at risk of hurting a child, but for someone with OCD, giving into these avoidance behaviours simply strengthens the fear of paedophilia and sends you further down the spiral of self-hatred.

I fully understand this distinction, but it isn’t exactly helpful. Intrusive thoughts are usually unresponsive to any kind of logical rebuttal. Knowing that I’m not actually attracted to kids doesn’t stop me from scanning the streets for police cars when I come home, or looking out the window every time a car door slams just in case “they” have finally found me out, and I will be dragged off to prison where I will be promptly raped and murdered. I (still) sometimes believe that I deserve that fate.

I should make it clear that I’m not going to hurt anyone. Quite the opposite is true, actually. Obsessive-compulsive disorder loves to prey on the things that are most important to you. Highly religious OCD sufferers are plagued by blasphemous thoughts, gentle people fear that they will hurt someone, and clean people will worry that they are “contaminated.” Along with the violent thoughts that fill my head, some rogue part of my brain decided that the worst thing possible would be to have some kind of sexual attraction to children. And so, despite medication and hours of therapy, I still find myself constantly checking my arousal levels whenever kids are nearby.

After my visit to the psychiatrist a few months ago, I started on fluoxetine and began a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy program. While both of those have been somewhat effective, I still have a long way to go before I can finally rest easy in the knowledge that I will never hurt a child. It is a long road ahead, but one that I, and the many other individuals suffering this form of OCD, must walk.

So, “OCD” isn’t just a playful term to be thrown around whenever you do something that is remotely perfectionistic. It is for this reason that my parents do not take my illness seriously. It is for this reason that the full extent of my suffering is extremely difficult to understand. It is for this reason that people laugh when I tell them I worry about stabbing people to death for no reason other than spontaneously losing control of my body.

Imagine if you felt, for over a quarter of your life, that you were a member of society’s most hated group. That if your “secret” ever got out, you’d be thrown in prison or publicly hanged or lynched or at the very least exiled. That you simply do not deserve a place in society. This is a very real and common consequence of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and an excellent example of why we must begin to correct our usage of the term “OCD.” If you like order in your life, you do not necessarily have any kind of mental illness. Your behaviour is completely normal, and you owe it to sufferers of OCD to reflect this in your vocabulary.

If you are struggling with OCD or any of the symptoms mentioned above, I encourage you to check out ocd.community and the OCD subreddit. I also urge you to seek professional help immediately if you haven’t already — OCD is a condition that can be effectively treated, and there are plenty of people out there who want to support you.

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