OCD is not so much an amusement as it is a private hell. I should know — I’ve lived it.
With COVID-19 leading to more handwashing than ever before, you’ve probably heard someone describe themselves as “so OCD,” despite them not actually having a diagnosis.
Recent think pieces have even suggested that in light of the viral outbreak, people with OCD are lucky to have it.
And it’s likely not the first time you’ve heard an offhand comment about OCD, either.
When someone spots something that isn’t symmetrical, or the colors don’t match, or things aren’t in the right order, it’s become commonplace to describe this as “OCD” — despite it not being obsessive-compulsive disorder at all.
These comments might seem harmless enough. But for people with OCD, it’s anything but.
For one, it’s simply not an accurate description of OCD.
Obsessions are unwelcome thoughts, images, urges, worries, or doubts that repeatedly appear in your mind, causing severe feelings of anxiety or mental discomfort.
These intrusive thoughts can involve cleanliness, yes — but many people with OCD don’t experience a preoccupation with contamination at all.
Obsessions are almost always antithetical to who someone is or what they would normally think about.
So, for example, a religious person might obsess about topics that go against their belief system, or someone might obsess about harming someone they love. You can find more examples of intrusive thoughts in this article.
These thoughts are often fraught with compulsions, which are repetitive activities that you do to reduce the anxiety caused by the obsessions.
This could be something like repeatedly checking a door is locked, repeating a phrase in your head, or counting to a certain number. The only trouble is, compulsions trigger worsening obsessions in the long term — and they’re often actions the person doesn’t want to engage in in the first place.
But what truly defines obsessive-compulsive disorder is its distressing, disabling impact on daily life.
OCD isn’t so much an amusement as it is a private hell.
And that’s why it’s so hurtful when people use the term OCD as a fleeting comment to describe one of their concerns for personal hygiene or their personality quirks.
I have OCD, and though I’ve had cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which has helped me manage some of the symptoms, there have been times when the disorder has controlled my life.
One type I suffer with is “checking” OCD. I lived with a near-constant fear that the doors weren’t locked and therefore there would be a break-in, the oven isn’t off which will cause a fire, the faucets aren’t off and there will be a flood, or any number of improbable disasters.
Everyone has these anxieties from time to time, but with OCD, it takes over your life.
When it was at its worst, every evening before bed, I would spend upwards of two hours getting up and out of bed over and over again to check that everything was off and locked.
It didn’t matter how many times I checked, the anxiety would still come back and the thoughts would creep back in: But what if you didn’t lock the door? But what if the oven isn’t actually off and you burn to death in your sleep?
I experienced many thoughts that convinced me if I didn’t engage in compulsions, something bad would happen to my family.
At its worst, hours and hours of my life were consumed by obsessing and fighting the compulsions that followed.
I also panicked while I was out and about. I would constantly check the floor around me when out of the house to see if I had dropped anything. I mainly panicked about dropping anything with my bank and personal details on it — such as my credit card, or a receipt, or my ID.
I remember walking down the street on a dark winter’s evening to my house and becoming convinced that I’d dropped something in the dark, even though I knew logically I had no reason to believe I had.
I got down on my hands and knees on the freezing cold concrete and looked around for what felt like forever. Meanwhile, there were people opposite me staring, wondering what the hell I was doing. I knew I looked crazy, but I couldn’t stop myself. It was humiliating.
My 2-minute walk would turn into 15 or 30 minutes from the incessant checking. The intrusive thoughts bombarded me at an increasing frequency.
My daily life was being consumed by OCD, little by little.
It wasn’t until I sought help through the means of CBT that I started to get better and learned coping mechanisms and ways to deal with the anxiety head-on.
It took months, but I eventually found myself in a better place. And though I still have OCD, it’s nowhere near as bad as it was.
But knowing how bad it once was, it hurts like hell when I see people talking as if OCD is nothing. As though everyone has it. As if it’s some interesting personality quirk. It’s not.
It’s not someone liking their shoes lined up. It’s not someone having a spotless kitchen. It’s not having your cupboards in a certain order or putting name tags on your clothes.
OCD is a debilitating disorder that makes it impossible to get through the day without distress. It can affect your relationships, your work, your financial situation, your friendships, and your way of life.
It can lead people to feeling out of control, agonizing panic, and even ending their lives.
So please, the next time you feel like commenting on something relatable on Facebook to say how “OCD” you are, or how your handwashing is “so OCD,” slow down and ask yourself if that’s what you really mean to say.
I need you to think about the people whose struggles with OCD are being trivialized daily because of comments like these.
OCD is one of the hardest things I’ve ever lived through — I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
So please take it off your list of cute personality quirks.
Hattie Gladwell is a mental health journalist, author, and advocate. She writes about mental illness in hopes of diminishing the stigma and to encourage others to speak out.