A Beginner’s Guide to OCD

by thethreepennyguignol

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week this week, and I would like to draw your attention to my mental health. Well, OCD specifically.

OCD, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, is an anxiety disorder characterised by obsessive thoughts revolving around specific topics, and compulsions performed as a way to mitigate the perceived real-world damage of those thoughts. I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and I’ve written a series about my experiences living with it since my diagnosis in 2018; my experiences with the disorder are not universal, but if you’d like a look into what life has been like for me, you can check out this series here.

But today I’d like to do a little mythbusting about OCD: it’s one of those disorders that people think they know a lot about, due to a really narrow representation of it in popular culture, but actually spreads a much wider net than the versions we see so often in fiction. I’ve covered a few of these topics in more detail in specific articles, which I’ve linked where relevant. Let’s get into it!

  1. OCD is about Cleanliness and Order

Look, here’s the thing: some people’s OCD does revolve around keeping themselves and the space around them clean, and making sure certain aspects of their life and space are in order. But there are so many things that OCD can hook itself on to – when it comes to the obsessions that drive the compulsions, there’s almost nothing that this bastard little creature won’t attach itself to and exploit. Whether it’s obsessive thoughts about your relationship, your gender, your sexuality, your morality, your health, or pretty much anything else, OCD is not limited to just being tidy or clean, and in fact, the continued narrow view of OCD as solely revolving around cleanliness is probably getting in the way of a lot of people recognising their own issues with the disorder (hi, hello, yes, that’s me!). This is not to say that people who do suffer from cleanliness-driven OCD have it any easier than the rest of us, but at least they’re more likely to see this version recognised in pop culture and society as a whole.

  1. We’re All a Bit OCD

If there is one thing, one thing, I want you to take away from this article, it’s this: OCD is not a personality trait. You cannot be “a little OCD”, you cannot have the course of your live irrevocably changed by suffering from intrusive thoughts and life-altering compulsions as a result: you either have this disorder, or you don’t. It’s not an adjective – it’s a descriptor of an illness, and that’s it. Using it as a cutesy way to describe your preference for having your books in colour order is genuinely pretty insulting to people who actually struggle with it, and if I never had to see this ridiculous misunderstanding of OCD propagated by anyone else ever again, it would still be too soon.

  1. Forcing People to Confront their Obsessions or Compulsions is Helpful

This is a trope I’ve seen all too often in pop culture, and I have to say this: please, please, please never try to deliberately trigger somebody’s compulsions to try and get them to “face” their issues unless you’re in a controlled medical setting and are that person’s healthcare provider. Exposure therapy is something some people with OCD find useful, and that’s brilliant. But that’s something that can only have benefits in really specific and well-managed circumstances, and Just Some Douche pushing buttons that they knew trigger compulsions to try and force the sufferer to deal with them is not that. It feels horribly exploitative to have someone hit the buttons for things that we can’t or at the very least heavily struggle to control, even if it’s done under the guise of helping us; “tough love” isn’t helpful here, it just feels cruel, and usually serves the opposite purpose than it’s intended aid.

  1. OCD is a Lifelong Condition

It’s true that some people deal with OCD for as long as they’re alive – some of us are just unlucky enough to have our brains wired in that certain way, and it’s a condition that, while it can be managed, will probably be around for the rest of our lives. But that’s not true of everyone with OCD. It can be triggered by a traumatic life event or just come on later in life, while some people struggle with OCD as children only for it to resolve when they move into adulthood. Whatever triggers your OCD, though, and whatever age you are when it hits you, there is treatment available – while there’s no cure, some people report getting a handle on their symptoms enough that they feel as though the label of OCD doesn’t apply to their lives, and treatment (whether that’s meds, therapy, or some combination of the two) can improve quality of life an almost unbelievable amount.

If you want to help people with OCD in your life, ask them how you can do that: understanding how it impacts them specifically is the best way you can learn how to help. And if you’re a person dealing with OCD, whether it’s a recent diagnosis or something you’ve lived with for years – please take extra-good care of your this awareness week, and know that there are so many of us out there who feel your struggle and root for you to have the best quality of life you can with this disorder.

If you liked this article and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting meĀ on Patreon, and check out the rest of my series on OCD here!