What Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Is and Is Not
You know, the very first time someone floated the idea that I might have OCD to me, my reaction was “and have you seen the state of my house right now?”.
And honestly, the reaction that a lot of people who knew me had when I shared my diagnosis with them was “but…but…?” and a polite attempt to avoid the fact that the last time they came to my house there were five feet of books stacked on every surface and a light coating of cat fur everywhere else.
Because let’s be real: when we think of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, we’re probably going to imagine some version of it that exists in the pop culture we consume. I don’t think that’s something to get angry with individuals about, given that not everyone has the urge to hork their mental health problems on to the internet in front of God and everyone, and given that most people are more likely to have encountered Monica Geller or Adrian Monk than they are someone who deals with the illness in real life.
And that version is usually pretty limited, to be honest. It’s the reason that we think of OCD that is inherently interconnected with an obsessive need for external order – generally, the person suffering is seen as more a quirky clean-freak than someone with a debilitating and life-impacting mental illness. Even when characters feature OCD as more than just a sidenote, the treatment of it is still fundamentally based around cleanliness, and usually still fundamentally focused on the disorder as something not serious enough to spend real time dealing with (hello, Glee, in which a character with OCD was deliberately triggered by her heroic love interest For Her Own Good!).
I’m sure anyone who’s been reading this series for a while doesn’t need to be told that OCD is about way more than cleanliness. In fact, it often doesn’t manifest in that way at all – OCD can roll up in the form of hypochondria, self-harm, religion, food, exercise, so much more that isn’t seen out there in pop culture. It’s driven by all-consuming obsession and the attempts to control them with external compulsions, and, when those start impacting your quality of life, that’s when it becomes a disorder.
The way we think about OCD, culturally, is something that is functionally wrong in most practical ways. And, given that most people don’t know someone who has the disorder in real life, that means that the pop cultural representation of it is pretty much the most influential version of it that we see. When stories repeat the same thing over and over and over again, it doesn’t take long for them to start sinking into reality as the given truth.
And that truth goes even for people, like me, who have OCD that doesn’t manifest in the more traditionally-recognized fashion that pop culture almost completely tells us that it does. There’s no doubt that, for some people, the worst of their OCD can make itself known in the form of aggressive cleaning compulsions, and, just because that’s what we see in pop culture, that doesn’t make it any less true.
But there’s far more to it than that, too – and repeating to people over and over again that this is all that it happens to be is only going to limit people who really need help reaching out for it because they’re sure that they don’t fit the boundaries of the disorder as we’re told it exists. Even after my diagnosis, I have spent a lot of time doubting myself, sure that I’m making it up, because the rules that we have in place for this disorder just don’t apply to me. So here’s a shout-out to all my OCD friends, diagnosed or not, who doubt their diagnosis because they don’t fit the mould that we’ve been told we should fit. I’m right there with you, and, even on the days where we doubt ourselves and our right to claim that diagnosis – we’re still deserving of help. Even if our houses are still covered in cat fur.
If you’ve dealt with compulsions, and specifically trying to overcome them, I would love to hear about what’s worked for you – please drop them in the comments below, or hit me up on Twitter or Tumblr. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting me on Patreon for exclusive perks. Oh, and, as always, buy my fucking book!