The week of October 11th-17th is National OCD awareness week. For most people, this is just another awareness week that doesn’t make a difference for them, as diagnosed OCD is not very common.
But that is not the case for me. OCD is something I’ve struggled with from a young age, although it was not at first recognized as OCD, I was not diagnosed until I was in my early teens. OCD stands for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and is a mental illness that causes the sufferer to have obsessions (often referred to as themes) and compulsions, that they must think about or perform.
Unfortunately, it is one of the most misunderstood mental health disorders. Throughout my life, I constantly hear things like, “That picture is crooked, it’s messing with my OCD,” or, “The pattern in that rug makes my OCD so happy.”
But it is in fact not simply liking organization or images you find satisfying. It’s not something you say because you enjoy being proactive and keeping things neat, or when you see something out of place you want to fix. It is not a characteristic, it’s a disorder.
And it is something much closer to a monster.
The best way I could describe what having OCD is like to someone that doesn’t, is a little voice in your head that has complete control over your thoughts and feelings; it has full access to your fears and doubts, and it plays off of them until you do what it says.
An example of a compulsion I have is when I am buying something, I have to touch every item of the thing I am buying, examine it closely, and decide which one is “good” or “safe.” I was at the bookstore recently and had chosen the book I wanted to buy; but of that specific book, there were about a dozen copies. I had to take the entire stack off the shelf and lay each one out in front of me. Then I had to separate them into two piles: ones that had visible damage, and ones that didn’t. Mind you, finding the ones with visible damage meant picking up each book, examining it thoroughly on the outside, flipping through the pages, taking the hardback sleeve off to ensure there was no damage underneath. Once my piles were determined, I had three that were damage free. I was able to put back the damaged ones, which had taken about fifteen minutes of deliberation. I was left with the three. The first item on any shelf is contaminated to me, so I put it back. I was left with two. I debated for several more minutes about which book was a “good” book, and ultimately decided. With my incredible friends, who had been waiting patiently for me to finish, I grabbed the book and headed towards checkout. The whole process had taken a little less than thirty minutes. However, on the way, my friends decided to stop at a few displays. As they looked, the book in my hands became contaminated, if I hold any item for too long, it is no longer “good.” This is oftentimes even more of a struggle when there are limited quantities of an item left, so I feel compelled to get the item because it may not be there if I come back at the end of my shopping. Yet if I hold it, it won’t be “good” anymore (for this reason, carts and baskets are my saviors). As my friends continued to look, all I could think about was that I could not buy this copy of the book. So when they were done, I had to go back to choose a new book. Thankfully, I didn’t feel like I needed to examine the damaged ones again, and since the one in my hand was now contaminated, I only had to decide between the two, and I never grab the first item displayed, so the second was the “correct” book to get. It would have been wonderful if this story could end there, but it doesn’t. I have a theme regarding money. I am petrified of an emergency occurring and I not having enough money. It is also extremely difficult for me to buy things for myself, and it usually requires an intense deliberation and reassurance from others to make a purchase. I once sat in the Starbucks parking lot for ten minutes trying to decide if I should add an extra shot of espresso to my drink, as it would add 60 cents, making the drink exceed five dollars. But returning back to the case of the book, I started worrying about spending the money to buy it. This included 10 minutes of decision making, in which ultimately, I decided I should not do it, and put the book back. All of that, and I didn’t even get to buy the book.
This is an example of one compulsion and one obsession I struggle with – I have over a dozen of them, this one is one of the least personal and intimate.
OCD does not care that you don’t want to perform the compulsion it’s forcing you to; it does not care when you’re exhausted and want nothing more than to sleep or relax; it does not care that you are embarrassed by your compulsions and work to hide them as much as you possibly can; it does not care that you avoid going places and doing things because you’re afraid, and you’ve missed out on more things than you can count; it does not care that you’ve spent hours obsessing over a theme; it does not care when people laugh at you, point, roll their eyes or whisper when you try to explain that you have to do something, or you can’t let it go; it doesn’t care that you feel isolated; it does not care that its line of reasoning isn’t logical, it doesn’t even know what logic is; it doesn’t care that very few people understand the disorder you suffer from. The bottom line is: it doesn’t care about you.
Even more difficult to endure, it takes over multiple other parts of my life such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, causes multiple phobias, and OCD dreams, which are essentially bad dreams of what you fear or obsess over the most.
Though I have gone through treatment to work on my OCD, it is still a battle I fight every day, and likely will fight for the rest of my life. I refuse to let it take over my life like it’s once done, and even that mindset alone makes a difference, but it’s still hard.
What I ask you take away from this article and OCD Awareness Week, is that OCD is not a joke, a phrase, or a characteristic – It is a disorder. While I recognize that most people don’t mean anything by throwing around phrases like, “I’m so OCD, my pen has to match my notebook,” it slowly overtime creates the idea that OCD is a light-hearted thing, and is morphing the abbreviation into a phrase rather than a medical diagnosis. It makes it considerably harder to suffer from OCD when the world thinks that means enjoying satisfying videos, not something that sends you off into panic attacks and takes up hours of your day, where you’re forced to do things or think about things you don’t want to. It would be like if when people ate candy and got a sugar rush, they said “I am SO diabetic, when I eat candy I get a whole bunch of energy.” That is wrong on multiple levels because A) that is not the same thing as having diabetes. B) Even throwing aside my first reason, you could still choose to not eat a bunch of candy, where a diabetic person could not control how their body processes the sugar in the food they eat. And C) That would overtime desensitize people to diabetes, a serious condition that needs to be recognized for what it is and that people must adjust their lives to, as well as receive treatment for.
Secondly, I ask that you try to open up your normal thought process when looking at someone who is doing something that seems “odd”. If someone with OCD is performing a compulsion, or can’t let a topic go, I can assure you that they want to be doing it far less than you want to be seeing it. Most likely, they are humiliated and are already paranoid about how it may look or what others are thinking. Do not laugh, do not make a face, do not whisper. Instead, think about it as something that they have no control over, like sneezing, or falling asleep. Most people will not be upset if you ask questions respectfully, but the key part of that is being kind and judgment-free. Do not respond with, “that’s really weird” or, “that doesn’t make any sense,” trust me – we know. Instead, accept it, and ask if there’s anything you can do to help. Do not draw attention to it, do not bring it up to others. Offer someone with OCD the same thought process you do with someone suffering from a physical health condition.
So please, recognize OCD for what it is. Though it’s not a disorder that we can really change as people, how we treat those with it, can be.
And to everyone who has helped me cope with me, who has strived to understand my disorder – thank you. It means the world to me, and you are an example to others.