OCD Is Not a Quirk

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While shuffling through a Washington, D.C.-area metro station recently, I noticed a large ad for the technology company Brocade plastered on the wall:

Obsessive Compulsive Reorder (n.): The need to buy expensive IP networking gear again and again.

This is, of course, an attempt at a cheeky play on obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which sufferers have compulsions to do the same things over and over. Companies and people alike frequently evoke the mental disorder with lighthearted puns or references just like that one. Misuse of the term “OCD” has become popular, leading to misunderstandings revolving around the disorder itself.

The examples are endless: Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics offers high-end makeup; Buzzfeed routinely publishes articles like “33 Meticulous Cleaning Tricks for the OCD Person Inside You” and “19 Things That Will Drive Your OCD Self Insane;” searching “OCD” on Pinterest yields few results on the actual disorder; and social media is littered with countless hashtags like #ObsessiveChristmasDisorder, #ObsessiveCastleDisorder, and #ObsessiveCrossFitDisorder.

“When people have this common usage or knowledge of the term; it creates what we call a ‘cultural script,’ a commonly used way that identifies what something is, what kind of steps are involved, or if it is harmful or not,” says Yulia Chentsova-Dutton, a cultural psychologist and a professor at Georgetown University.

For many, “OCD” has become synonymous with words like “clean” or “organized”—qualities most would say are good. When OCD is seen as something “good” rather than as a devastating illness, it’s stripped of its reality.

“Whenever it’s kind of a ‘positive’ thing, like with OCD, it means we are encouraging these symptoms, overlooking them, or encouraging people and their family members to overlook them, potentially,” Chentsova-Dutton continued.

People may just be trying to relate. When someone first comes into contact with the term, maybe she focuses on a perceived commonality. The “obsessive” part sticks in her memory and the “compulsive” part and the “disorder” part lose their meaning. So anything that she can remotely obsess over becomes equated with OCD.

“‘Obsessive’ is a personality trait. It doesn’t get in the way of your functioning, it’s something you prefer. What people are meaning to say is, ‘I am obsessive rather than OCD,’ ” says Jeff Szymanski, executive director of the International OCD Foundation. “You’re now mixing a distressing psychological disorder with a personality preference, and when you mix them, you lose the severity of the disorder.”

Nearly one in 100 people suffer from OCD in the United States. Approximately 51 percent of those cases are severe.

“Your life becomes consumed with a fear and your preoccupation with getting rid of the fear … it becomes a vicious cycle,” Alison Dotson, author of Being Me With OCD, told me in an email. “It’s scary to feel like you can’t even control your own thoughts.”

Alison’s experience with OCD is also one that stresses the effects of misguided portrayals of the disorder: “I started obsessing when I was a child, and I wasn’t diagnosed with OCD until I was two months shy of my 27th birthday. I suffered in silence for years and years because all I knew about OCD was that people wash their hands too much and always check to make sure the stove is off.”

With OCD, there are obsessions (unwanted thoughts, impulses, or images that repeat in a person’s mind) and compulsions (acts that a person repeats in order to “get rid” of these obsessions). These compulsions are often done in a desperate attempt to protect oneself from the wave of anxiety the obsessions bring, not because the person actually wants engage in the compulsion. The cleaning and checking that Alison mentioned are just two examples of the many kinds of OCD compulsions people can have.

In my teen years, I had a close friend who suffered from OCD. She told me about a time when she sat on the floor of her kitchen crying, deranged with anxiety as she tried for an hour to correctly pronounce the word “now.” Once she said the word “now” correctly, it kickstarted a stream of mental compulsions which she then could end by pronouncing the word “now” again. Once she said “now” the second time, she was able to allow herself to get off of the floor, as long as she was applying more pressure on her right foot than her left. By doing these things, she thought she would prevent her parents from dying. They weren’t in any danger, but the thought was inescapable, and she felt the only way to keep it at bay was by performing her compulsions.

“I would think, ‘What type of person thinks things like this?’” Alison asks. “Even though I knew—or thought I knew—deep down that I was a good person, it certainly didn’t feel that way when I couldn’t stop obsessing about religion and offending God and illegal or immoral sexual acts.”

The International OCD Foundation lists approximately 10 different types of obsessions and compulsions, the majority of which, including religious obsessions and mental compulsions (mentally reviewing events to prevent harm, for example) rarely appear in public interpretations of OCD. Using the term “OCD” correctly, only in reference to the disorder itself, and understanding the diversity of the disorder, would help people begin to acknowledge its seriousness and complexity. After all, casual use of other mental-illness terms has become increasingly frowned upon, Alison points out.

“I don’t often hear people say, ‘I’m so schizo!’ or, ‘I’m so psycho!’ On some level people seem to know that’s wrong and offensive,” she says. “OCD isn’t cute.”