Updated: Mar 2, 2022
Last summer, I received a diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). If I can say anything about this experience, it is that I was well and truly shocked.
It might seem odd to say that – that I was surprised. You might think: surely I had an inkling? Surely it made sense when someone identified it? But no, this was not the case, as I didn’t fit the image whatsoever of what I thought a person with OCD looks like.
In my head, someone with OCD was meticulously organised and obsessed with keeping things clean. They used hand sanitiser before the pandemic, they got upset when things weren’t tidy or kept in their “proper” place, insisting on wiping down any surface with an anti-bacterial wipe before touching it. Most of what I knew about OCD came from “jokes” that my friends and family would casually make when someone was being particularly uptight or intense.
My whole perspective of what a person living with OCD looked like came from a 2D caricature of a person ridiculously obsessed with keeping things clean. I say caricature because I couldn’t even register this stereotype as something that affects real people. The human side to the disorder was completely desensitised to me as they were a perfectly acceptable butt to people’s jokes and insults.
As a matter of fact, the only thought I had when being diagnosed was how could I – with my messy bedroom and disorganised life – possibly have OCD?
Truthfully, I had absolutely no idea about what OCD actually entailed or how it manifested itself. If I had even the slightest clue, then I probably would have picked up on how similar my patterns of behaviour were to the characteristics of clinical OCD and, perhaps, been diagnosed sooner.
What OCD medically refers to is a mental health condition within which a person has recurring unwanted thoughts, ideas or sensations that make them feel driven to do repeated actions. To put this simply, a person with OCD will have a nasty intrusive thought which they feel can only be satisfied by repeating a particular action. Honestly, it’s a sort of hellish and never-ending catch-22 within which a person can become trapped in having to repeat the same action over and over again.
People with OCD can often become very fearful of their own minds as they experience terrifying intrusive thoughts. These thoughts aren’t a reflection on who they are as a person, but are the mind’s way of trying to protect you by going into overdrive. Although cleaning can become the repeated action associated with getting rid of intrusive thoughts, this isn’t always the case. Plenty of people, myself included, don’t have repeated actions associated with cleaning or hygiene.
So, where did this common perception of OCD that we carry in our public consciousness come from?
One could theorise that the person who feels the need to constantly clean their environment is quite noticeable, so that others are more likely to pick up on their behaviour. While, on the other side of it, a person whose OCD makes them do repeated actions within the privacy of their home or bedroom is more likely to go unnoticed by those around them. As more private behaviours are less talked about, fewer people understand how variable OCD is as a condition.
As a society, we have a quite exceptional relationship with OCD – one that we don’t seem to have with other mental health conditions. Calling someone “OCD” seems to be perfectly acceptable in social situations, but imagine for a moment that we treated other mental health conditions the same way, if we smiled whilst calling a friend “schizophrenic” or “anorexic”. It feels strange and quite demeaning to what people with those conditions have to go through.
But yet, why is OCD something that we can treat with such a light-hearted attitude? It almost feels as if we don’t think of OCD as very serious, or perhaps we have just become so accustomed to using it as a punchline that it is difficult to change our behaviours around it.
Perhaps the strangest thing to consider is that calling someone “OCD” can even be considered a compliment. In an age where we devote a lot of time to striving for perfection, whether that be with increasing productivity or the media telling us we should start our day at five o’clock in the morning. Social media is bombarded with people telling you how you “should” clean your home and cook your food. I suppose society’s warped view of OCD isn’t all that different to this encouraged lifestyle, and so we deem it acceptable to casually interchange being “OCD” with being “neat” or “organised”. Yet, if we were to grasp the depth of what the condition involves, we wouldn’t dream of being so blase.
Speaking from personal experience, I have found the misconceptions and wide-spread ignorance around the condition to be exhausting. To be diagnosed with a mental health condition is difficult enough to process without having to justify your diagnosis to everyone around you. Far too often have I received remarks such as “but you don’t seem OCD” or “are you sure you aren’t just super organised and tidy?” There exists a pressure for people with OCD to educate those around them about what the condition actually entails. Surely this education should be provided in schools? Or through public health campaigns?
As someone already suffering from the challenges that OCD brings, it shouldn’t be my duty to inform my peers about the facts of the illness. Anyone with an OCD diagnosis can testify that this is a heavy burden to carry while we already have to trawl through every day with an immense number of obstacles.
For more information on OCD please contact your GP or visit the Irish Health Service’s website at: https://www.hse.ie/eng/ to learn more about the condition.