“How can you not line your shoes up at night without your toes feeling cramped?” my grandfather asked one morning when I was a child.
At the time, my grandfather’s question and the other odd habits of his I noticed seemed strange, but I told myself it was just his way.
I never really noticed the habit of pulling my hair out when I was stressed. It didn’t seem strange. I had to go back three times to make sure my curling iron was unplugged before I could leave the house.
I never associated these traits or my grandfather’s habit with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, because neither one of us were “clean freaks” or the other stereotypes people use to label the disorder.
It all seemed just a part of my nervous personality until I talked to someone who finally put some reasoning behind it. I have OCD tendencies in relation to my anxiety disorder.
OCD isn’t an adjective, it’s a noun. You wouldn’t joke about being “so cancer” because your hair falls out when you brush it. How we use words can affect how we think about things, especially something so personal and intangible as mental health.
The idea of OCD isn’t unfamiliar to most people, but the true face of it is. According to a Psychology Today article, “4 Myths About OCD,” there’s lingering stereotypes about what OCD actually looks like, including the common stereotype that those who suffer from the disorder are insistent about clean conditions.
The entertainment industry perpetuates this stereotype. Emma Pillsbury, the guidance counselor character on Fox’s “Glee,” is depicted as quirky, cute and, unfortunately, her OCD is seen as a characteristic of this at times. While she comes off as just an adorable “clean freak,” it isn’t shown until later in the series how debilitating her disorder can be.
The true consequences of what writers rely on to label a character-type showed through in a 2009 ABC interview with game show host Howie Mandel. Mandel went into detail about his OCD and germaphobia, which at the time was an object of curiosity surrounding his public figure. Far from just a “clean freak,” Mandel said his disorder affects his family life, his job and even his head, which he shaves in order to prevent what he perceives as the uncleanliness of hair.
Mandel isn’t afraid of germs because they’re gross, or he’s afraid of getting sick and being inconvenienced. Mandel is germaphobic because he thinks if he gets sick, he will die. Those who suffer from OCD display habits in hopes of stopping their repetitive thoughts, not because they just want to be clean.
My grandfather didn’t have to line his shoes up because he had to be organized. He had to because otherwise his toes would feel cramped once he put them on. There’s no order to this thinking.
I once dropped a noodle underneath the burner plate on my stove. My thoughts immediately jumped to the house burning down, and my roommate had to take the noodle out for me because I started having a panic attack.
The next time you want to joke about being OCD while you clean your room or straighten something, ask yourself: am I just annoyed by this, or is there a thought in my head that keeps telling me I have to do this?
OCD comes in many different forms, and not everyone is the same. If you really feel like your repetitive thoughts and urges might be something more, then talk to a professional.
Realize OCD is a real mental illness, not just a punchline or a stereotype, and maybe there will be one less person who goes undiagnosed longer than they should, like I did.
Digital editor Julie Hubbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.