In this op-ed, Gloria Oladipo explains why assuming people with OCD are obsessed with cleanliness is a harmful stereotype.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, some have suggested that those of us with obsessive compulsive disorder have a leg up in staying healthy. Let me clear something up: OCD is not a gift, and my obsessions around germaphobia and cleaning compulsions certainly haven’t given me an advantage when dealing with COVID-19. Like others, I am still learning information about how to prevent the spread of the disease. I still had to re-learn the proper way to use a mask and how to clean surfaces so germs don’t spread. I’ve still paid attention to news reports and updates on how the virus is progressing and what new steps I can take to protect myself. And yet, people assume that my OCD makes me more prepared to face this global pandemic.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition characterized by an ongoing cycle of unwanted thoughts that lead to repetitive behaviors, and for people like me, it can be devastating. It affects a variety of people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and other demographics. Obsessions can be about a variety of topics: cleanliness, harm coming to yourself or others, religion, perfectionism, and other subjects. Similarly, compulsions can be any range of repetitive behaviors from checking to make sure you’ve locked the door, to picking one’s skin, to arranging things in a particular order. While everyone experiences unwanted anxiety at one point or another, and people can be perfectionists or pay attention to detail, OCD is different than these everyday occurrences. The difference is that obsessions and compulsions affect your daily life in a significant way.
At my worst, OCD left me completely immobilized. During my sophomore year of college, my OCD exploded. At first, it started out as small, tiny quirks here and there. I would have unwanted thoughts — “you’re going to fail this final,” for example — and knock on wood for extra assurance. I liked to keep my room tidy. On occasion, I would avoid foods in the dining hall that looked “off.” My OCD grew from there, and obsessions and compulsions began to dominate my life. I had dozens and dozens of intrusive thoughts a day: “Your parents will die,” “your university will be shot up.” I adopted an arsenal of complicated compulsions to manage the anxiety: Knocking on wood, hoarding “lucky” objects, throwing away “contaminated” food, and more. I went from being an extroverted, curious student to an anxious shadow of my past self, confined to my room — the only place I felt safe.
Even though I was experiencing clear signs of OCD, I didn’t recognize the symptoms in myself due to the condition’s misrepresentation in our culture. Most people seemingly understand OCD through a set of outdated stereotypes. Colloquially, OCD is often thought of as an obsession with cleaning or an extreme germaphobia. People often make flip comments like “I’m so OCD” because they have a preference that things remain organized and clean. In TV shows and movies, characters with OCD are defined as being extremely organized or obsessed with cleanliness. While germaphobia or organization can be an obsession-compulsion that a person struggles with, this isn’t the only way that OCD manifests. OCD encompasses a wide variety of obsessions and compulsions, many that have nothing to do with cleanliness, organization, or germaphobia at all.
Like those who think I have a leg up on COVID-19 because of OCD, another stereotype is that OCD is a heightened ability. When I disclose my OCD to someone, there’s a good chance I’ll be met with a response like “Wow, you must be so clean,” or “I wish I were more organized!” Congratulating someone on their OCD is the equivalent of congratulating someone with an eating disorder for losing weight. Like any disorder, OCD causes a great deal of distress and pain; OCD comes with debilitating anxiety that can completely take over one’s life. For example, during the height of my OCD, while my room was tidier and I was more organized, it was only because of the continuous irrational and intrusive thoughts I was having — complimenting me on my tidiness reinforced my OCD, and wasn’t in fact a compliment at all. My OCD didn’t serve me. My obsessions and compulsions only kept me more isolated, more depressed, and more anxious. Nothing about it was useful.
Misrepresenting OCD as a limited range of symptoms or as lucky only further stigmatizes those who suffer from it, and that includes the misguided comments about OCD and COVID-19. Reinforcing these stigmas and stereotypes prevents people from reaching out for help, particularly if they present symptoms other than those commonly associated with the disorder. This disproportionately hurts people of color, specifically Black people, who are already underrepresented in OCD research. In the case of this pandemic, celebrating OCD as a “useful trait” undermines the ways that OCD patients can suffer. It prevents people from speaking out about the ways in which OCD has complicated their lives because society says they should be grateful.
Most of all, misrepresenting OCD enables ableism, allowing people to call themselves OCD in jest if they clean or organize a lot. When we only understand OCD as a “quirk” or as a shorthand for being extremely tidy, it allows people to use OCD as a joke, rather than reserving it for when discussing the illness. In short, misrepresenting OCD stops people from getting the treatment they need.
OCD is extremely serious and has stolen years of my life. Instead of pursuing my goals in college, I was confined to my home, afraid of any level of uncertainty. Thankfully, through a combination of medication and therapy, my OCD has quieted, making my life more manageable. Unfortunately, for many people, misinformation prevents them from understanding their symptoms and getting the necessary help. Our society must progress beyond our one-dimensional understandings of OCD. Only through spreading factual information and combating ableist falsehoods can we help those suffering in silence from this horrible disorder.