Thought Catalog
February 10, 2014

5 Things Everyone Misunderstands About OCD

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I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when I was 8-years-old and spent the following 8 years in therapy and being medicated for it, so I am about to present a lot of anecdotal arguments and points about it. Normally, I would mock anecdotal anything because it, by nature, is not factual, but this is my article and I am special. I do plan on throwing in enough actual science to make myself look more intelligent though, but I digress.

What I am trying to say is that the term OCD gets thrown around a lot, and few people seem to understand what it is, so now lemme mash some information through your lookin holes into your cerebral cortex.

1. Statistically, You Do Not Have It

A lot of people throw around the phrase, “I’m a little OCD about x.” No you’re not, you dirty liar. According to this guy I know, let’s call him “Science”, OCD affects 1% of the population. What this means is that for every 1000 people who read this article, I am only wrong about this number for ten of you, and because I am me, I am still somehow not wrong about those ten. Boom! You have been cured by my pathological narcissism. I will accept donations in money or womanly favors for my prowess in medicine. You are welcome.

Here are some other things that I would like to point out to emphasize how small of a percentage of the population obsessive compulsive disorder is. According to the CDC 16% of you have genital herpes and according to another study,  57.7% of the US has HSV-1 (typically referred, but not limited, to as oral herpes). These two figured combined mean that roughly 74% of you have herpes in your head or your junk. So for that same 1000 people reading this, 740 have the herp. I don’t know if I am making this clear but it is far more likely that you have an incurable sexually transmitted disease and are completely unaware of it than you have OCD.

I know what you’re thinking, “Hayden, you delicious looking beast, I am obviously that one in one hundred. I totally have a mild case of OCD; I NEED my desk to be cleaned and organized a certain way and make sure it always is so. Also, I totes don’t have herpes.

Well guess what, fictitious person of questionable gender…

2. There is No “Mild” or “a Little” OCD.

I will admit that there are varying degrees of severity. Some people have it worse than others. During stressful moments my OCD would flare out of control, but at no point would it ever be “mild” or “a little”. I’m not being bitchy or a pedant here. If you like your stuff alphabetized or your desk arranged with everything perfectly symmetrical or some other formation, how much time do you spend making sure it is that way? How many times do you arrange it? Does it have to be a specific number of times? How specific does it have to be?

If you said “I don’t know” or “I fix it whenever it is incorrect” then stand aside, novice, lemme ‘splain you something.

In order to be diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder you have to spend more than one hour a day performing your compulsions. So if someone bumps into your desk and moves your pencil or dildo out of its position and you immediately correct it and are done, chances are you spend about 30 seconds doing that. Not over an hour. Chances are you also do not have to keep repeating this task and making absolutely positive everything is where it must be. If one of my obsessions was that my books needed to be alphabetized  I would check it a set number of times every time I felt the need to do so, or entered the room. Even if I knew no one had entered and nothing had changed. That’s kind of a bid deal.

If you use hand sanitizer or make sure your hands are washed every time they are dirty, congratulations. You are clean. If you have to do it 30 or 40 times for them to feel clean. You probably have OCD. When I’m in the throes of OCD I have to wash my hands exactly 50 times for them to be clean. If I lose count, I have to start again. If I lose count twice, I have to do it two more times because the number three is a “bad” number.

If you wash your hands when they are dirty or when you touch something common sense dictates is dirty, chances are they look like this:

If you wash your hands whenever they feel dirty, wash them 50 times, and/or whenever you have a thought that triggers the compulsion (an “intrusive” thought).

Now, believe it or not, that’s not that bad. When I was nine or ten my family was staying with another that happened to have a new born baby. I knew that infants had weaker immune systems so I was absolutely petrified that some germ on my body was potent enough to kill said infant. So every time I touched myself (he he he) anywhere, including one hand touching the other. I had to wash my hands exactly 50 times to make certain they were clean enough to exist in the same house as an infant. After the one week stay, the skin on my hands was so brittle that I could not move without it splitting and bleeding.

Now outside of the specific rituals, the actual compulsions involved in OCD, there is a difference in the nature of the trigger, because…

3. There is a Difference Between Wanting Something a Certain Way, and Being “OCD: About it.

When one usually hears someone say that they’re “a little OCD’ about something, a lot of times the earlier mention desk situation, or something similar to it, is the “something” they are referring to. It is usually along the lines of their books have to be organized alphabetically, they like to use hand-sanitizer often, or they like the stuff on their desks neatly positioned in a certain way. These are all things called “likes” and “personal preferences”. Many people are bothered when things are not the way they like them. That is kinda how life works; things you don’t like bother you, that is why you do not like them. Everyone likes things to be the way they like things and they do not care about the things they don’t. So if you, for some reason, care about how your collection of first edition copies (why is that word not pronounced like “coa-pees”? you would think it should have two ‘p’s to prevent that. Shut up, me) of “Balloon Penis Investment Banking Quarterly” are arranged, it makes perfect sense as to why you would be annoyed if someone caused them to be out of order. This is normal people stuff; everybody cherishes their arrangement of the tri-monthly “B.P.I.B.” Alphabetizing a collection makes sense, it is a reasonable preference and is an understandable thing to want. Washing your hands more frequently because you’re around an infant also makes sense. Fixing and cleaning things that need both is totally reasonable.

When you have OCD, the trigger is not reasonable, it is not something along the lines of “they messed it up, I have to fix it or it will annoy me”, it is more a long the lines of “if I don’t make sure my collection of vintage potato chips is in chronological order, someone will date-rape my future daughter”.

It’s thoughts like that that trigger the need to fix or clean. It is not because something not being the way you prefer it, bugs you. It is because something terrible will happen if you do not fix it, and the thought does not go away until you make sure what ever it is is the way it has to be. Then you have to make certain you did that correctly.

This is mental monkey wrench that twists your shit all kinds of up. Eventually you develop rituals to make certain the rituals were carried out completely. This is how you wind up with a “wash your hands 50 times” situation. It starts off with something inane and juvenile like being mad at a parent or significant other and thinking “I wish she would get out of my life.”

But then you start to feel scared and guilty, like what if they die because you thought this. Now you can’t stop thinking about it. Washing your hands would make you feel better because that thought was dirty, and if you wash your hands that thought will go away and they won’t die. What if you don’t wash your hands right though?

Each time you go through this ritual you have to wash your hands more and more to make sure you washed your hands right and your significant other or parent will not die because you had a “bad thought” and didn’t cleanse it. So the number keeps going up until you do it enough times to make the thought and the fear and the anxiety it carries go away. Eventually the number will reach high enough that you will “compromise” on a “safe” number like 50.

That’s the difference between having a preference for something being a certain way, for cleanliness, and actually being obsessive compulsive.

But that makes no sense, can’t you just realize it’s irrational and just not do it?

Guess what, person I made up and am beginning to dislike due to your judgmental questions:

4. You Are Entirely Aware That Holds No Logic.

But that does not matter at all. Someone, who I cannot remember, but would love to give credit to because I am a prick, not a thief, once described using logic against your obsessions and compulsions like having an argument with a toddler.

Think about trying to use reason and logic in an argument with, or against the demands of, a toddler. How far is that going to get you when he is threatening to take you to jail or hold his breath or something if you don’t let him have chocolate milk. Imagine he is screaming and you are in public. You know damn well he does not deserve the chocolate milk with this behavior. You know you’re all Tony Danza and the boss in this bitch. Logically, you have all of the power here.

But, he is super loud, he will not stop, and that chocolate milk will make it all go away.

Now imagine that this made up toddler is you. This is an argument you are having with your own brain. Your brain that knows full well all of the ways you will try and rationalize and logic your way out of giving in to it. It also never has to stop sending that thought because it has no tears to run dry, no voice to tire, no tiny fists to grow too sore for the tantrum to cease. How do you win?

You do the ritual. You are now under the control of the lizard/baby/peckerhead part of your brain. You have become your own bitch.

But there’s hope…

5. You Can Overcome it.

If you’re a liar.

It’s like an addiction where you produce, use, cultivate, and abuse the drug in your own body. You’re never, ever going to win.

Best case scenario, you become Pure O. This is when you still have all of the intrusive thoughts. All of them. But you either have learned to ignore them, like the shitty little toddler they are, or you only perform mental rituals that are not outwardly manifested and cannot be seen (like beating that toddler with a rubber hose behind a shed: no marks).

You learn ways to deal with it. Meds can make it easier to do. Therapy can teach you ways to do it. But this is something in your brain that you cannot control. The intrusive thought. The needling lack of logic. The obsession. The anxiety. They do not yield, but you can get better at ignoring it. It’s like not wanting to smoke or drink or shoot or snort if you’re an addict; it’s never going to happen, but saying no gets easier.

I have been on meds and in and out of therapy for my obsessive compulsive disorder for more of my life than I haven’t been. I am now Pure O about most things. I do not spend ~4 hours completing rituals like I used to, but every time I see a doorknob, I want to make sure it’s locked five times.  Whenever I have a “bad thought” I want to wash my hands. I want to check every pre-packaged food thing for poison by rubbing my hands over each side of the thing 25 times. Sometimes when I’m really worn or stressed I find myself regressing.

Sometimes I don’t have the obsession.

A lot of the times I do. TC mark

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