We’ve all heard it.
“I’m feeling so OCD today!”
“They’re a neat freak; they’re so OCD.”
These sort of phrases and figures of speech are so prevalent that when I came out to a friend as a person living with OCD, he refused to accept the reality of my disorder, stating matter-of-fact that “everyone says they have OCD nowadays”. Because of the popularity of claiming OCD when one is feeling a tad touchy, or are in the mood to mop the kitchen, this friend had decided for himself that I was only sharing my mental illness with him in order to fit in, and that my experience with OCD was in fact invalid and inauthentic even though I was diagnosed with the disorder at the age of six and have been living with it since. The truth is that OCD is often the result of high-level anxiety.
When you live with OCD, you develop all sorts of habits to help you cope with anxiety, habits which can become as necessary to your survival as air. This can be anything from completing any sort of action in a certain set or pattern of numbers, to compulsively picking at your skin, hair, or nails in order to quell the onset of a panic or anxiety attack. Personally, I overcame the compulsion to pick my leg hairs out with tweezers years ago, while I still struggle with compulsive cheek-and-lip biting when I have a presentation to give, as well as the need to count my steps under my breath in groups of 3 or 5 lest the world end. Truly, if I do not count my steps, I feel so much dread that I really do believe the world will quickly end in flames and destruction.
Like fingerprints, everyone’s OCD is different. So what are some popular myths that trivialize OCD, and how do they stigmatize those of us living with mental illness?
1. OCD is about being a neat freak or germaphobic.
This is the number one myth about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that can really get me going. There is history behind this myth, being that the very term “mysophobia”, the fear of bacteria, contamination, and dirt, was coined by Dr. William Alexander Hammond in 1879 after observing a patient diagnosed with OCD who was an obsessive hand washer. While many people who live with OCD to develop habits that engage excessive cleaning rituals, this is certainly not the only way OCD manifests in a person, and simply being a person who likes to keep a room tidy does not mean that you have OCD. It is really hurtful for me and many people with OCD to hear the term tossed casually around in regard to cleaning because, in fact, a lot of the time OCD can prevent folks from keeping a tidy room. I personally can get so distracted by my own compulsive patterns and habits that I neglect to do the laundry, make the bed, or vacuum because I’m too busy making sure that I’m breathing in equal, timed intervals of 3 or 5.
Those with OCD who do often keep clean surroundings do so because it’s the only way to feel like you have control over any aspect of your life. For me, the need to feel control over something can either manifest in obsessive cleaning or, in extreme cases, the urge to self-harm or engage in my eating disorder. When someone who doesn’t actually have the disorder jokes about their monthly window-washing as being OCD, it is very hurtful for those of us who feel like our very lives depend on our rituals, habits, and compulsions.
2. OCD is just an excuse for a controlling personality.
I cannot count how many times I’ve been ridiculed by friends, partners, and family for my obsessions and compulsions. I’ve often been labeled as a control freak because I need to have things a certain way, and I can get irritable when certain things, like dirty dishes or wet towels, are left in the sink or left dripping on a floor. But I know this is because I have loads of trauma rooted in dirty homes bursting with dirty dishes and insect infestations — my OCD reasons that if it happened in a dirty house before, it will happen in a dirty house again, and so to protect myself I have to take all the steps necessary to not repeat that sort of environment again.
I have to find something to be in control of because, for the majority of my life, my physical and emotional well-being has been completely out of my own control. It’s not about controlling other people to prove a point about power dynamics or status; it’s about feeling in control of your surroundings, it’s about feeling some sense of safety. We should all want to make our friends and family feel comfortable, and asking your loved ones who live with OCD what you should avoid doing, moving, or altering in their space is a great first step toward that.
More Radical Reads: Ways Anxiety Can Affect a Person (That You Might Not Know)
3. OCD isn’t real, and you’re just faking it for attention!
When I came out as living with OCD in high school, I had tons of people tell me that I was faking it because it had somehow become cute and quirky to lay claim to the disorder. People will insist that you are faking your OCD even after asking about your obsessions and compulsions, as though our condition does not exist if it does not fit the narrative of OCD taught to you by the television show “Monk.” And sometimes it’s as though some see OCD as a component to the manic-pixie-dream-girl-trope—how cute is it that she has to count down every second she’s in an elevator! How quirky that she has to wash her hair three times before buying groceries! But those who live with OCD aren’t sexist tropes come to life, and we are definitely real.
When our mental illnesses and other invisible disabilities are invalidated, it becomes difficult to trust other people with our true selves, the reality of our lives. I didn’t tell my partner of five years that I lived with OCD for months into our relationship, and was always quick to come up with some sort of excuse for my obsessions and compulsions. Hiding my OCD, instead of living with it openly and without fear, was a result of the myths perpetuated by an ableist society that would rather stick with its own preconceptions of disability rather than listen to those who live with a multitude of conditions every day.
Understanding the way mental illnesses shape our lives is the first step to opening up the possibility of a world more easily navigated and enjoyed by those of us who live with any mental illness, including OCD. Listen to your friends, family and co-workers when they say they live with mental illnesses, and ask how to best support them before supporting a harmful stereotype!
Are you learning to navigate your own mental illnesses and radically love yourself through that process? Come and join us with our next webinar 10 Tools for Radical Self Love.
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