Stop Saying ‘I’m So OCD’ Unless You Actually Have OCD.
Fighting the stigma of obsessive-compulsive disorder as one-dimensional.
By Meghan Johnstone
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) has many ways of presenting and can be different from person to person.
I believe I have had OCD my whole life, although I was only diagnosed with it in my early twenties. Before diagnosis, I knew that my mind and I didn’t always get along and I spent most of my time trying to hide the thoughts I was having because I thought they made me a bad person. I worried that if I shared these with other people they would think less of me. I didn’t understand why I was having the thoughts I was having or how to stop them and I didn’t know what to call it because I had never thought of OCD as anything other than ‘a cleaning disorder’ or a ‘neat disorder’. Whilst for some OCD can manifest itself in cleanliness, neatness obsessions and compulsions, this is far from inclusive of every facet of OCD and a far cry from my personal experience.
I remember my doctor explaining my thoughts to me, saying that I have the anxiety as if there was a tiger standing in front of me but attached to everyday objects and thoughts. Sometimes I am not allowed to think of certain words, I have to count to a number inside my head several times, or I have to think certain thoughts over and over again, getting ‘trapped’ wherever I am until I finish the cycle. These thoughts can change and adapt depending on the level of anxiety I have that day, what my brain has decided is a threat, or what I am most worried about. I have intrusive thoughts about my loved ones being harmed, or bad things happening, or my worst fears coming true. I have these thoughts and worries whilst going about my daily activities and studies, worrying someone will see me acting strangely but thankfully I have often been able to hide my compulsions. I have never spoken about having OCD with anyone outwith my immediate family and have only told two friends because I always hated the idea of being treated differently.
However, I wanted to write about my experiences because OCD is often not diagnosed until adulthood, despite the fact that it commonly presents in childhood or early teenage years. One of the reasons for such late diagnosis is the way in which OCD is represented in the media, pop culture, and in casual conversations. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people say in passing ‘I’m so OCD’ because they are organised, or they think it is a funny way to explain away a quirk they have, or because they enjoy being neat. It’s joked about in TV shows and films and often presented as a one-dimensional disorder, and this becomes even more noticeable when you yourself have OCD. Much like when you drive a certain make of car you start to notice that car everywhere, that is how mainstream OCD jokes feel when you have OCD.
Not many mental health disorders are so often joked about in such an offhand way. So why is it so accepted for OCD? Why is it seen as trendy to claim to have it?
This stigma around OCD being a neat disorder can reinforce the way it is perceived and result in late diagnosis, a lack of understanding for those who genuinely suffer, and makes light of a debilitating mental health disorder that is incurable. There are many different kinds of OCD, with cleanliness, neatness, and contamination only accounting for some of the ways it manifests, and not everyone who has OCD will fall into those categories. Other categories are relationship, magical thinking, religious, and harm and these are only a few, the list goes on and is quite extensive. However, someone with OCD may not necessarily only have one type or similarly have all of the different types of OCD listed, and obsessions and compulsions can change and adapt over time. In addition, not all OCD is visible, and for some obsessions and compulsions can be carried out mentally, making OCD (at least for some) possible to hide. OCD compulsions are rarely enjoyable and cause a great deal of upset, anxiety and stress and can make taking part in everyday activities incredibly taxing. Of course, as with any condition, the severity and symptoms can vary from person to person.
Many of the facts I have learned about OCD, I have learned since being diagnosed and they have helped me understand the way my brain works. There are ways that I acted and how my brain thought that I had never known were OCD until I was researching after my diagnosis.
It was a lightbulb moment when I could finally understand who I am, and I suddenly felt like I wasn’t crazy and there was a reason for my brain behaving the way it does.
There are so many ways in which OCD can present itself, manifest and emotional responses it can cause that I had experienced throughout my life but had never been able to find the words to explain. I am sure this must be the case for many people who have OCD but do not fall into the way OCD has been socially perceived and talked about. I have never been particularly obsessive about cleaning and organising and because of this I never considered myself to have OCD because this is the only way I had ever seen OCD be portrayed or heard it talked about.
Mental health conditions are so complex and varied and there is no ‘one way’ for any condition to look.
That’s why it is important to have awareness, to be compassionate, and to fully understand the gravitas of joking about mental health. But most importantly, when someone says, ‘I’m so OCD’ and they do not genuinely have that disorder, they are encouraging the joke to continue and then the next time someone says it, even if it is someone who may genuinely have OCD, they are met with the same reaction as someone who was merely joking, and this should not happen.
Whenever someone has the strength to open up about a genuine medical condition it should be met with the utmost seriousness and consideration and this can only happen if we stop making OCD a joke, trendy or one-dimensional.
In recent years attitudes towards mental health conditions are changing and the stigma around needing mental health help is thankfully lessening, with conversations around mental health conditions happening more. That’s why we need to break the stigma of what OCD ‘looks like’. This also means that people who don’t have OCD need to stop saying ‘I’m so OCD’ or ‘It’s just my OCD’ as a joke to explain away the quirks they have. Not just because it is genuinely infuriating if you do suffer from OCD, but because no mental health disorder or condition should be made light of and because it is leading to confusion around what the actual disorder is. There are also times when you might not even know if you are speaking to someone who has OCD, much like many of my friends and family do not know about my disorder, and what you say may negatively impact their ability to open up about their disorder in the future. So please, stop saying ‘I’m so OCD’, unless you genuinely do have OCD.