Yes, I have OCD. No, I don’t obsessively wash my hands.
“What if I suddenly murder my whole family?” Wring, wring, wring.
“What if a tsunami comes and wipes out the entire city?” Wring, wring, wring.
“What if I’m sitting in the doctor’s office and I involuntarily let out a loud scream?” Wring, wring, wring.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been doing this: I have a horrible, intrusive thought, and I wring my left hand to stop the thought from manifesting. Just as someone might knock on wood when discussing a worst-case scenario, I thought it was a weird superstition.
To many people, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) looks like excessively washing your hands or keeping your desk impeccably organized. For many years, I thought this was what OCD was: neatness.
Because I thought it was neatness, I didn’t recognize that my behavior was OCD.
We’ve all heard it hundreds of times before: the trope of the germaphobic, hygiene-obsessed person who is described as “OCD.” I grew up watching shows like “Monk” and “Glee,” where characters with OCD nearly always had “contamination OCD,” which looks a lot like being excessively clean.
Jokes about cleanliness, framed as OCD, were a stand-up comedy staple in the early 2000s.
And we’ve all heard people use the term “OCD” to describe people who are extremely neat, organized, or fastidious. People might say, “Sorry, I’m just a bit OCD!” when they’re picky about their room layout or particular about matching their jewelry.
There are two main components of OCD:
- obsessions, which are thoughts that are intense, upsetting, and difficult to control
- compulsions, which are rituals you use to relieve that anxiety
Handwashing can be a compulsion for some people, but it’s not a symptom for many (and even most) of us. In fact, OCD can show up in a variety of ways.
Generally, there are four types of OCD, with most peoples’ symptoms falling into one or more of the following categories:
- cleaning and contamination (which could include handwashing)
- symmetry and ordering
- taboo, unwanted thoughts and impulses
- hoarding, when the need to collect or keep certain items relates to obsessions or compulsions
For some people, OCD can be about obsessing over religious and moral beliefs and behaviors. This is called scrupulosity. Others can have existential crises that are actually a part of existential OCD. Others might focus on certain numbers or ordering certain items.
It’s this variety, I think, that makes it hard to recognize OCD. My OCD looks completely different from the next person’s.
There’s so much to OCD, and what we see in the media is just the tip of the iceberg.
And often times, OCD is a disorder of degree — not necessarily difference.
It’s normal to have random thoughts like, “What if I jumped off this building right now?” or “What if there’s a shark in this pool and it bites me?” Most of the time, though, these thoughts are easy to dismiss. The thoughts become obsessions when you fixate on them.
In my case, I’d imagine myself jumping off a building whenever I was on a high floor. Instead of shrugging it off, I’d think, “Oh my gosh, I’m really going to do it.” The more I’d think about it, the worse the anxiety got, which made me even more convinced that it would happen.
To deal with these thoughts, I have a compulsion where I have to walk an even number of steps, or wring my left hand three times. On a rational level, it doesn’t make sense, but my brain tells me I need to do it to prevent the thought from becoming a reality.
The thing about OCD is that you usually only see the compulsion, as it’s often (but not always) a visible behavior.
You can see me pacing up and down or shaking my left hand, but you can’t see the thoughts in my head that exhaust and disgust me. Likewise, you can see someone washing their hands, but not understand their obsessive fears about germs and illness.
When people flippantly talk about being “so OCD,” they’re usually focusing on the compulsion while missing the obsession.
This means they misunderstand the way OCD works entirely. It’s not just the action that makes this disorder so distressing — it’s the fear and obsessive “irrational,” inescapable thoughts that lead to the compulsive behaviors.
This cycle — not just the actions we take to cope — are what defines OCD.
And given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many people with OCD are struggling right now.
Many have been sharing their stories about how our focus on handwashing is fueling their obsessions, and how they’re now experiencing an array of pandemic-related anxieties that are fueled by the news.
Like many people with OCD, I constantly imagine my loved ones becoming extremely ill and dying. I usually remind myself that my obsession is unlikely to happen, but, in the midst of a pandemic, it really isn’t so irrational.
Instead, the pandemic is confirming my worst fears. I can’t “logic” my way out of anxiety.
Because of this, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at Stephen Colbert’s latest joke.
When Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recommended that everyone normalize compulsively washing their hands, Colbert joked that it’s “great news for anyone with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Congratulations, you now have obsessive-compulsive order!”
While it isn’t intended badly, quips like this — and jokes like Colbert’s — reinforce the idea that OCD is something it’s not.
Colbert isn’t the first person to joke about how people with OCD are managing in a time where excessive handwashing is encouraged. These jokes have been all over Twitter and Facebook.
The Wall Street Journal even published an article entitled “We All Need OCD Now,” where a psychiatrist talks about how we should all adopt more stringent hygiene habits.
I’m not going to tell you that the Colbert joke isn’t funny. What’s funny is subjective, and there’s nothing wrong with making a played-out joke.
The problem with the Colbert joke is that — funny or not — it’s harmful.
When you equate OCD with obsessive handwashing, you spread a pervasive myth about our condition: that OCD is just about cleanliness and order.
I can’t help but wonder how much easier it would’ve been for me to get the help I needed if the stereotypes around OCD didn’t exist.
What if society recognized the true symptoms of OCD? What if the OCD characters in movies and books had a range of obsessive thoughts and compulsions?
What if we retired that trope of OCD people obsessively washing their hands, and instead had media showing the full spectrum of what it’s like to have OCD?
Perhaps, then, I would’ve sought help earlier and recognized that my intrusive thoughts were symptoms of an illness.
Instead of getting help, I was convinced that my thoughts were proof I was evil, and oblivious to the fact that it was a mental illness.
But if I had obsessively washed my hands? I probably would’ve figured out that I had OCD earlier, and I could’ve gotten help years before I did.
What’s more is that these stereotypes become isolating. If your OCD doesn’t show up the way people think OCD shows up, your loved ones will struggle to understand it. I’m relatively tidy, but certainly not an obsessive cleaner, which means that plenty of people don’t believe my OCD is real.
Even my most well-intended friends struggle to make the connection between my constant hand movements and the stereotypes of OCD they’ve seen for so many years.
For those of us with OCD, “obsessive compulsive order” is possibly the worst way to describe how we’re currently feeling.
Not only are we facing a great deal of anxiety-inducing circumstances — including loneliness, widespread unemployment, and the virus itself — we’re also dealing with misinformed jokes that make us feel like punchlines instead of people.
Stephen Colbert’s joke about OCD might not have been ill-intended, but these jokes actively harm people like me.
These stereotypes obscure the reality of what it means to live with OCD, making it harder for us to find help — something that many of us desperately need right now, some without even realizing it.
Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information.