University can be stressful at the best of times, but imagine struggling with a condition that meant you compulsively wash your hands, check locked doors, or even lose concentration and bodily coordination. This is what day-to-day life is like for students with OCD and dyspraxia.
OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) is often bandied around student conversations to describe someone who might prefer to occasionally clean the bathroom as opposed to leaving it to become a hazardous plague of germs. But the truth of the condition can be far from funny. Sufferers have persistent compulsions to perform certain actions or rituals. Luke, a Nottingham student and OCD sufferer describes his compulsions: “Well, I can’t turn a light switch off at night without having a happy thought. When I lock my car door, I have to try the handle eight times, and watch the red light flash eight times. Before I go to bed, I have to set two alarms, and when I go to the bathroom I have to turn the tap off eight times and stare at it to make sure it’s turned off. And even if I’ve already switched off and unplugged my straighteners, I will take them to someone else to check they’re turned off.”
“It’s more severe at uni, I don’t know why, I don’t feel more stressed, but… the lifestyle’s just worse for it. It affects me more because I have to leave extra time to go to lectures because of the car locking ritual. It’s frustrating when I get into bed and I can’t sleep because I’m still feeling anxious. In general, everything takes longer. Before I go to bed, I have to leave time when turning all the lights off to think of a happy thought.”
Luke is typical of many OCD sufferers. He knows that his compulsions are irrational yet he cannot help himself from carrying them out. In fact “the need for repetitiveness or compulsion is a symptom of something deeper – an underlying anxiety, worry or fear”, explains a University clinical psychologist; “The person is attempting to cope with their feelings through their obsessive compulsive behaviour. Sometimes these rituals can ‘breed’, leading to further compulsive behaviours”.
The knowledge of their obsessive actions being strange and irrational yet compulsive often leads to the sufferer withdrawing from others, allowing them to keep their behaviour hidden. However, this is difficult to do at University, particularly when sharing a house with other students. Jamie, who lives with Luke, describes how Luke’s OCD affects him: “When I get a lift with him and have to make a lecture for 11, we’ll have to leave about half an hour earlier so he can do all his anxiety checks. I have to wait patiently through the process. Moreover, we sometimes hear his alarms going off about a million times; it’s so aggravating in the morning when you want a lie in! Turning lights off is annoying too, it’s frustrating watching him trying to find a happy thought before turning it off, when I can literally just flick the switch.”
Whilst OCD is easily noticeable, dyspraxia on the other hand is often called a ‘hidden’ condition because it’s difficult to distinguish those who have been diagnosed. So how does it affect people? “I found learning to drive impossible,” describes Chloe, a Nottingham student with dyspraxia. “I also find reading and making notes difficult. When lecturers talk to me I can often drift off and forget what they say.”
“I have bad co-ordination,” explains Stephen, another dyspraxic student, “which has always meant I can’t play sport, even football which I love. I always got into trouble with my teachers because of my short attention span. My biggest problems are with thought processes and writing. I often lose my position in a sentence or I know what a word is but I search and can’t find it. It sounds silly, but I can see a word but can’t transfer it to my mouth.”
Stephen explained that he finds it hard to be in big groups due to a lack of confidence in expressing ideas. He also struggles with balance, finding it difficult to walk with other people side-by-side, and entering messy or busy rooms present problems in avoiding things. The structure of university learning also causes problems for Stephen, “I struggle to pay attention in class and have problems understanding the concepts lecturers try to get across and I can’t just stop the letures. I just have to think about the most important points for a few minutes and rejoin the class wherever they have reached.”
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common drugs prescribed for OCD. They are anti-depressants which reduce the symptoms of OCD, even if sufferers are not depressed. ‘Talking Treatments’ are an optional non-medicinal route for OCD sufferers. Whilst there is no ‘cure’ for Dyspraxia, there is something to be said for looking to the University Educational Psychologist and University Academic Support for help. “They give me so much support in getting over my problems,” explains Stephen. “Of course I do still have problems…but that’s what my 20% extra time is for!”
Austin Booth and Rachel Boyle