It’s typically something that’s said without much thought, as a sort of excuse for an overly organized bedroom or clean car:
“Oh my God, I’m so OCD.”
Though these behaviors have the possibility of indicating Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder on some levels, I find many are quick to throw out this phrase casually as if having OCD is simply about being a neatfreak.
Truth is, the mental health disorder is much more complex.
Though I have never been offended by someone saying, “I’m so OCD” while referring to their cleaning habits, I think it’s important to clarify that this disorder isn’t always about washing your hands into oblivion or continuously checking to see if your door is locked. Next time you say, “I’m so OCD” or hear someone else mention it, it’s my hope that after reading this post, you’ll remember the wider span of the disorder.
IMPORTANT: You’ll never hear me claim to be an expert on mental health, but I experience the obsessions and compulsions characterized by this disorder on a daily basis, sometimes for hours and hours. From this, I seek not to find sympathy, but instead a newfound understanding of OCD, because there’s much more to this disorder than being a “neatfreak”. In turn, it’s my hope people will use the term less flippantly.
In the past, I’ve shared my experiences with you guys about living with bipolar disorder and anxiety, but I figured it was time to let this often-misunderstood disorder have center stage. In doing so, I’ve also just solidified my place in society as a millennial. Well, then.
So really…what is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?
OCD is a disorder of the brain and behavior. According to Robert Boland, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown Medical School, patients with OCD are plagued with obsessions, compulsions, or both (this is more common). For those of you who don’t know, obsessions are characterized by recurrent thoughts, ideas, images, impulses, fears, or doubts. Patients can resist these thoughts but also may be unable to stop them. Compulsions can manifest in a variety of ways. Patients may feel compelled to touch, count, check, have everything arranged in a particular order, or repeatedly wash their hands. Any attempt to resist the compulsions (even though patients at some point recognize the senselessness of their obsessions and/or compulsions) are met with increasing anxiety.
Chances are, you probably knew something above from Psych 101, but in the spirit of broadening our horizons today, here’s a personal example of an obsession that has nothing to do with cleanliness:
As I’m walking down the street, I’ll suddenly feel I absolutely can’t walk to the left of the stop sign ahead or something bad will happen. If I walk to the left of it, I’ll die.
It doesn’t stop here. After I walk to the right of the sign, I’ll have these little thoughts every other minute for hours on end that I’ll:
a.) have a terrible day tomorrow,
b.) get shot,
c.) have a family member that will get maimed beyond belief,
d.) get possessed by a demon, or
e.) all the above. I’m a creative person, I’ve imagined myself dying in many, many ways. The options are endless!
Other days, I’ll continuously hear recurrent meaningless phrases or songs. The first time I listened to Casting Crowns’ “Just Be Held”, I heard one snippet of the song in my head for the entire day on repeat- not even the whole song, just a few phrases. TALK ABOUT ANNOYING.
Though these are just a few examples, there are many more. Here’s a link to a great site that teaches more about other intrusive thoughts those suffering from OCD may have.
As for an example of a compulsion, here’s a common one I used to struggle with:
Every night before I’d go to bed, I’d have to check my entire room for a robber/criminal/whatnot. I’d peak under my bed, behind my desk, in my closet, and behind my door. Just like with my obsessions, I knew this compulsion was completely senseless, but I had to do this routine a couple times before I could go to bed.
Another classic example of a compulsion I’ve recently overcome:
After my iPod was recently stolen out of my car, I’d sleep next to my keys and wake up repeatedly through the night to constantly double-tap the lock button. Every time I locked the car, I’d relieve some of my anxiety and go back to bed, however, I’d wake up a half an hour later to redo the whole process again.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve also always had to tap my left and right foot separately for every time I pass a stripe or landmark (mailbox, sidewalk ending, etc.) on the side of the road while listening to music. If my left foot tap doesn’t line up with the quarter notes of the song and my right foot tap doesn’t line up with the eighth notes in the song, I get frustrated and nervous. It’s slightly embarrassing to admit, but it’s a compulsion that’s easy to hide while with others. I’ll attribute this to taking piano lessons at an early age and listening to a metronome.
To give you a more scientific idea of what’s going on:
Boland notes, “[c]ompulsions spring from recurrent doubts or fears that something awful has happened or will happen…almost all patients view their compulsions as senseless, and out of embarrassment…they resist carrying them out. The growing tension that accompanies this resistance, however, is generally unbearable”.
Well, that sounds like nothing but happiness and sunshine! So are things kind of hopeless then?
Not at all.
Managing day-to-day activities with OCD is completely doable, with or without meds (meds can function as a sort of “crutch” to help you along if your symptoms worsen). The key is to controlling OCD is to first recognize maladaptive behavior, and secondly, not give obsessions and compulsions any merit.
Often times, for example, I’ll say “screw it” not give into my obsessions or compulsions regardless of my increased anxiety. This essentially breaks the “cycle” of obsession. Even though I’m sometimes convinced suffer a horrible death or have a family member fall off a cliff, everything seems to be okay so far.
“Oh My God, I’m So OCD”
So next time you hear someone utter this phrase, please think about those who truly suffer from this disorder. To me, saying this isn’t completely offensive, but like I mentioned before, shows how we’ve carelessly let another mental health disorder become part of of our casual daily vernacular (read: “I’m so depressed” while experiencing sadness).
To some, having OCD is a daily struggle not characterized by simply enjoying a neat room. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is very real to 2%-3% of our population which roughly translates to 3.3 MILLION people (Boland). It’s time we started treating OCD for what it is, something that if left untreated, can interfere negatively in all aspects of one’s life.
Let’s work to keep Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder a noun and not an adjective.*
*This goes not without saying this should expand to other mental health disorders as well.