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The Reality of OCD

The Reality of OCD | GenTwenty

We’ve all said it: “You’re so OCD.”

It’s meant as a joke when someone makes excessive lists, is overly-tidy or likes things color-coded. We’ve even said it about ourselves, about our little ticks and habits. But, so few understand the reality and severity of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Having been diagnosed with the disorder last year, I’ve come to realize how misunderstood the disorder is. During the time I knew something was wrong but didn’t know what, I never considered OCD to be the problem. This is largely due to the excessive amount of misguided attention it gets in media and in everyday speech. For example, my room is almost always chaos. Not even organized chaos. I don’t wash my hands all that much and other than a mild attraction to odd numbers rather than even (everyone has a preference, right?), none of the stereotypical signs of OCD are present in my life.

The reality is that OCD runs much deeper than a superstition about stepping on cracks does. It is an exhausting, often debilitating disorder that 1 in 40 Americans struggle with and it’s important to understand in order to avoid causing even more harm to those who really struggle with the disorder. So, what is OCD? I’ve asked a friend of mine, Lexi French, who has dealt with OCD far longer than I have, to contribute to this article as well.

The True Definition of OCD

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a psychiatric disorder characterized mainly by obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions. It is categorized as an anxiety disorder and can be potentially disabling and last throughout a person’s life.

The sufferer becomes entangled in repetitive thoughts and behaviors which often seem senseless, even to the sufferer. This cycle is also disturbing and difficult to overcome. In severe cases, it can destroy a person’s capacity to function in all areas of life. Between 5 and 25% of people diagnosed with OCD will attempt suicide at some point in their lives.

The Reality

The problem is, a definition from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) isn’t going to tell you what life is really like as a sufferer of OCD. The DSM can help diagnose, but it hardly helps one understand.

I hope to debunk some myths about OCD here, as well as shed light on some of the lesser-known aspects of the disorder.

1. It doesn’t mean you’re a neat-freak.

As I mentioned before, being OCD does not always mean you have an obsession with cleaning or washing. Neither does it necessarily mean you always check the door is locked 12 times. “Making the distinction between people with OCD and people who are just neat or anal…is important,” Lexi said. While these are some of the most common forms of OCD and should not be downplayed, it is important to realize that this and all other mental disorders reveal themselves in different ways.

No one should ever attempt to convince an OCD person they’re not OCD just because they aren’t tidy. First, you’re not a doctor. Second, giving someone with OCD another reason to doubt what they’re probably already doubting only causes harm, not comfort. (It’s nicknamed The Doubting Disorder for a reason.) Your well-intentioned “that doesn’t seem like you” will likely keep the sufferer up all night, wondering if they’re even crazier than they thought. (I speak from experience.)

2. Obsessions can be about anything.

Similar to the above point, a person with OCD doesn’t just obsess with counting things, checking the locks or cleaning excessively. Obsessions can, literally, be about anything.

A lot of obsessions have to do with identity. This involves second-guessing your own labels or titles – sexual orientation, religion or even whether or not you’re a “real hipster” or a “real writer.”

Obsessions can also be about losing control. These can be violent or explicit – the fear you’ll decide to drive off the road or hurt a loved one. Lexi obsessed over the idea of breaking up with her boyfriend and seeing him hurting. “I would constantly think about the things I would say to hurt him and the ways I could break us up and for what reasons.” She also obsessed over the fact that she might cheat on him. This particular type of OCD is also known as ROCD or Relationship OCD. “I also became obsessed with the idea of dying, more like obsessed with killing myself and ways to do it.” She would never follow through with anything and the thoughts couldn’t necessarily be considered truly suicidal. “I just thought I had an odd affinity for the macabre.” Although Lexi was more on what is called the “pure obsessive” side, (where compulsions are few) she did try to break up with her boyfriend “once or twice a month for almost six months. It was hell.”

As for myself, my obsessions are often related to social situations or relationships. I often obsess over the idea that people are talking about me which leads me to hate closed doors and whispering with an irrational intensity. Someone may be laughing in the other room and I’ll be worrying that it’s about me.

It sounds selfish and middle-school-ish. Everyone has these fears sometimes, right? But imagine being completely unable to stop them, like the thoughts are coming from somewhere outside you and you can’t find earplugs. I don’t want to think this way and I know it’s irrational but in the moment it feels so real and is so overwhelming that I’ve often acted out and hurt (emotionally) my friends.

This obsession extends out to the obsession with bad, gruesome things happening to my family, things I can’t control. I also used to obsess over the idea of breaking glass – smashing it with some part of my body, usually my head. Again, I never did it and probably never would, but they weren’t thoughts I could stop. Then there’s the obsession that I’ve made a mistake or hurt someone and the obsession with my own OCD. Which leads me to the next point…

3. Compulsions can be anything.

There are two categories of compulsions: overt and covert. Lexi compulsively tried to break up with her boyfriend. Others check locks 12 times a night and still others avoid knives for fear of hurting loved ones. These are covert.

For me, my obsession with OCD (and mental illnesses in general) means I am constantly doing research, taking tests (I’m talking to you, Meyers-Briggs) and writing out all my symptoms, all my obsessions and their relative compulsions. Talk about exhausting… and useless. The social OCD often leads me to excessively text friends, wonder where they are and try to make plans for fear of being left out.

Another form of compulsion I partake in is confessing/reassurance-seeking, which sits on the fence between overt and covert compulsions. I look back and realize my inability to hide my wrongdoings from my mom was an early-onset form of compulsory confessing. My obsession with doing something wrong or hurting someone leads me to ask for reassurance – asking “are we okay?”, “are you okay?” a million times a day.

Often times, the subconscious desire is to receive reassurance that I’m not a bad person or that I haven’t hurt anyone. Again, we all go through moments like this. But, while the average person can stop this train of thought, these fears, those with OCD cannot and therefore do something in order to stop the cycle… which only provides temporary relief.

4. It’s debilitating.

It’s not just an extra hand-washing or a daily clean-up. It’s constantly thinking about washing your hands even when you can’t. It’s constantly thinking about what your friends are doing or talking about, even when you’re alone and have plenty to occupy yourself. It’s being unable to stop the thoughts of breaking up with your boyfriend or get your mind off of the disorder itself.

Even when compulsions aren’t being acted on, the obsession remains, turning circles in your brain. Until, what should be healthy time alone turns into a panic attack or what should be a fun time with friends turns into a worry-fest where you’re constantly wondering if you’ve done something wrong. It is constant and can take away your ability to function in normal situations.

5. Jokes about it are offensive and harmful.

Because it’s such a serious disorder, jokes about it can be hurtful. It’s frustrating – angering, even – to hear someone say “I’m so OCD” about something, when they’re not.

“When people use that phrase casually, they don’t realize that it comes with a whole bunch of implications and connotations,” Lexi said.

Those who suffer from OCD know the pain that comes along with it and they know it isn’t something to take lightly and it’s definitely not something every other person in the world has. Like any other mental disorder, OCD is serious and very unfunny. And it gives us OCD people a much harder time explaining the severity to someone, when the only time they’ve heard about the disorder is in a joke.

6. It’s not temporary.

OCD is for life. It may come in waves, it may be subdued by medication, but all in all, it will always be there, lurking, waiting.

“The use of mental illness casually to describe your temporary state is one of the things that enrages me the most,” Lexi said. It’s like telling someone whose parent just died “I had a bird die, once.”

Just like depression or anxiety, OCD is not something that comes for a week and then leaves. You can’t say “I’m OCD sometimes.” That isn’t possible. You can’t say “I’m OCD about having my crayons in rainbow order,” if it’s just something you prefer but can ultimately do without.

OCD is pervasive, lasting and definitely not something that turns on and off.

7. It’s terrifying.

Imagine being unable to control your own mind.

“Real OCD is scary, for those suffering from it and for those close to them. It’s like losing control of your mind at certain times,” Lexi said. And it’s true. The things that go through an OCD person’s mind are enough to make anyone think they may be going crazy. As the Doubting Disorder, it not only makes you doubt your identity, your rightness or wrongness and your safety… it makes you doubt your sanity.

In short, OCD is not a joke. People who suffer it will tell you it’s not something to be taken lightly, and it’s definitely not something everyone who is clean suffers from. It’s a mental illness that those with it would do anything to get rid of. To us, it’s not a quirk or a habit. It’s a disorder we’ll have for the rest of our lives.

GenTwenty would like to extend a very special thanks to Maggie Marshall and Lexi French for sharing their experiences with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder with our readers. 

About the Author

Maggie Marshall

Maggie is a senior English major at Abilene Christian University. She enjoys creative writing, reading everything she can get her hands on, and learning what it means to be a grown-up. After graduation, she plans to pursue a MFA in creative writing and perhaps a PhD after that, all while working on getting published and finding as many writing opportunities as possible. She would love to continue contributing to sites like GenTwenty and perhaps, after getting her doctorate, become a professor of creative writing at a university.