What It Really Means To Say ‘I Have OCD’

Dustin Lee
Dustin Lee

“My food is delivered every day in little freezer packs. I put those in the refrigerator and make sure it’s all tidy. I can’t take a shower unless the bathroom is absolutely spotless. I think I’m totally OCD.”
–Kim Kardashian, Glamour Magazine, 2012

While celebrities aren’t typically known for their expertise in mental health, we have all witnessed (or even said ourselves, shhhh) someone in our own circle refer to themselves as “so OCD.” When we hear this phrase we often laugh and reply “me too” or “I wish I was too.” Although this saying is an effective way to get the point across that someone is very particular, it can actually be offensive to someone who is living daily with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

What exactly does it mean to have (yes, have…not be) OCD? Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a serious psychiatric diagnosis that often presents in childhood (but can also present later in life). It is, as the name states, comprised of obsessions with or without compulsions.

To be more descriptive, obsessions are different then wanting things to be ‘just so’ (a common characteristic of many efficient, successful and type A individuals). Obsessions refer to recurrent, intrusive and persistent thoughts, urges or images that are often unwanted and cause marked anxiety and distress.

Common obsessional thoughts include: violent thoughts (ex: wanting to kill a loved one), sexual thoughts (ex: sexual thoughts of children and family members) and thoughts of contamination (ex: thoughts that one will be infested with germs). On the contrary, what people typically mean when they say “I’m so OCD” is that they are neat, tidy, like everything color coordinated, organized and ‘just so’ and not that they are experiencing intrusive, ego dystonic (inconsistent with one’s fundamental beliefs and personality) thoughts.

We would be lying if we said that we had never experienced thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere and that are just plain weird, gross or frightening. But what is the difference between an obsessional thought and those thoughts that seem just ‘odd’ to the majority of people?

The difference is those living with OCD are not able to pass off these thoughts quickly as an ‘odd thought’ but often get ‘stuck’ on them even with every attempt to ignore or suppress them.

Often (but not necessary for a formal diagnosis) individuals with OCD engage in compulsions as an attempt to suppress the unwanted thought(s) or alleviate anxiety. A compulsion is a repetitive behavior (ex: hand washing, ordering, repeatedly checking) or mental acts (ex: praying, counting, repeating words silently) that an individual feels driven to perform in response to the thought, urge or image. These repetitive behaviors or mental acts are often unrelated to the actual obsessional and intrusive thoughts.

Can you imagine how distressing this condition is for people who live with OCD on a daily basis? Can you imagine the impact this condition has on their lives as well as the lives of their family and loved ones? To further complicate living with OCD, the general public uses the very name of the diagnosis synonymously with the positive quality of “liking things in a particular way”. How can we (me and you!) change this?

In an effort to improve our knowledge about mental health and help lessen stigma, let’s start by using the appropriate terminology and dropping seemingly harmless sayings from our vocabulary. Next time you hear this phrase being used by a friend, try informing them of what having OCD actually means and as a result increase awareness of those surrounding you. We would never identify ourselves as having another illness (ex: cancer) if we truly did not have it.

Let’s give mental health the same respect it deserves.

The saying: “I’m so OCD”, while hurtful, it is most often used innocently. Many of my close friends still say it to this day. What I have learned is that this is ok – mental health awareness takes time, patience and consistency. We are all human. All we can do is continue to learn and try to incorporate change in our lives daily. TC mark

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