by Mara Wilson
We live in the Age of Awkward. It’s hip to be square, cool to be uncool, and sexy to be nerdy (and above all, quirky). And there’s no better way to assert your individuality and weirdness than branding yourself “so OCD” about something.
Except that OCD isn’t a quirk or a set of tendencies or a BuzzFeed list; it’s an incapacitating, isolating disease that makes you afraid of your own mind. Here’s what it’s really like to have OCD.
#4. You Believe You’re a Terrible Person
Imagine the feeling of having a song stuck in your head. Now imagine that instead of “It’s Raining Men,” it’s the thought of murdering your best friend. In graphic detail. Over and over again. You’re not mad at your best friend, and you’ve never done anything violent, but it won’t stop playing.
You probably feel kind of shitty just reading that. But that’s what the “obsessive” part of OCD is like: intrusive, unwanted, disturbing thoughts that won’t go away. No one seems to know what causes them, although it might be miscommunication between parts of the brain or something faulty in its error detection circuit.
The thoughts aren’t always about you doing bad things, but they’re never pleasant. Most obsessions are based on deep fears — “What if I or someone I love gets sick?” — or basically the worst things one can think of, like blasphemy, racism, suicide, murder, rape, contamination, animal abuse, cannibalism, torture …
People with OCD who have thoughts of doing something violent never actually act on these thoughts, and those who dread bad things happening almost never see those things happen. But while most people can shake off a weird thought, when you have OCD, it sticks in your mind. Inevitably, you think, “Why do I keep thinking about these things? Is it because they’ll happen? Do I want them to happen?”
The answer’s no, you don’t. But you’ll always fear you do.
#3. You’re Probably Not a Neat Freak
Some of you might remember the show Monk, about a private eye whose OCD makes him a brilliant detective. When I watched it, I felt a little like how my gay friends felt about Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: It was nice to see us being represented as useful, but did it have to be so stereotypical?
Despite what Monk or the company Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics might have you think, OCD doesn’t necessarily mean you’re neat and particular. Those of you into freak shows (sorry, reality shows): Have you ever seen that show Hoarders? Hoarding is often a symptom of OCD. Compulsions vary. Sometimes they correspond to fears, like washing your hands because you’re scared of contamination. Sometimes there’s no real logic behind them, like when you have to jump over a line on the floor because otherwise everybody you know will die horribly and it will be all your fault.
Many don’t have physical compulsions at all, instead suffering from “purely obsessional” OCD, where all they have are obsessions. And some people with diagnosed OCD even obsessively doubt the fact that they have OCD. How’s that for a mindfuck?
OCD, at heart, is an anxiety disorder. Yet movie and TV characters with OCD are often shown washing their hands or straightening things, never suffering from overbearing anxiety. This is probably because writing is hard and it’s easier to show someone cleaning than to show someone going through extreme mental anguish.
There have been some more true-to-life accounts in the media lately: Maria Bamford talks about OCD in her standup act, and the depiction on Girls was actually pretty accurate. But the majority is still way off.
This is why I can be found staying up late writing to Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics suggesting that, while they’re at it, they should start selling their makeup in insulin syringes and call it “Diabetic Cosmetics.”
#2. You Know There’s Something Wrong With You
One of the many differences between OCDers and people who are just “quirky” — besides a role on a major sitcom — is shame. Let’s be clear: If you regularly check your pockets to confirm that you’ve still got your car keys, or if you prefer your sandwiches with the crust cut off, or if you only eat red Starbursts, you’re not suffering from OCD. Those are just quirks, and also the red Starburst is obviously the best. People like quirks when they’re cute, fun, and harmless. When they involve licking light switches or hitting yourself over the head with your shoe, people just think you’re “crazy.”
But you’ll believe it of yourself as well. You’ll be standing in your bathroom at three in the morning, scrubbing your pocket change because you’ve been awake for hours wondering if it could contaminate your clothes and make you a danger to the people around you, and you’ll be unable to stop, but you’ll know that what you’re doing is crazy.
OCD is “ego dystonic,” which means “out of sync with your ideal self” or “making you look and feel like an asshole.” People with personality disorders usually think they’re always in the right, and people with psychosis often don’t realize that their delusions are coming from their heads. But one of the defining aspects of OCD is knowing that your thoughts are bizarre and your rituals are senseless.
Additionally, OCDers don’t even get any joy out of their compulsions. Relief, sure, but it’s temporary, like scratching a mosquito bite or responding to a YouTube comment. You don’t want to count all the leaves on every tree you pass, you have to.
There are people who are perfectionist control freaks and love every meticulously planned minute of it. But they have a different diagnosis: obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. OCPD involves being neat and exacting to the point of disrupting one’s life and being really annoying to everyone else; it’s all of the OCD stereotypes with none of the anxiety or shame. They’re kind of the trustafarians of the obsessive-compulsive world.
#1. It’s Rarely Just OCD
The day I was diagnosed with OCD was one of the best days of my life. Finally, I knew what was wrong, and I could get it treated. Then my doctor told me, “Oh, you’ve also got panic attacks and depression and generalized anxiety. Sorry about that.”
Panic attacks, Tourette syndrome, hypochondria, body dysmorphic disorder, and eating disorders are all so-called OCD spectrum disorders. They’re diagnoses in their own right that exist on their own but also hang around in the background while OCD fucks your mind. They’re like its creepy cousins.
OCD also often coexists with depression. This is partly because of chemicals and genetics, and also because constant obsessing and feeling forced to keep everything you’ve ever owned to the point of isolation can be pretty fucking depressing. Studies show that having OCD from an early age tends to make you more susceptible to depression because it wears on you so much. You’re also at higher risk of suicide.
The good news is that OCD and its tag-along disorders are treatable. There are all kinds of medications and therapies that can help alleviate symptoms. And since the spectrum disorders are linked, one treatment can sometimes cover all symptoms. OCD is not something that can be cured, but it can be controlled.
My own OCD has been in check for more than 13 years now. I still do have tendencies — I’ll tap out the lyrics to songs on my fingers, obsess over details, and worry about stupid crap. Still, it’s better than it was. Now the only all-consuming compulsion I have is to set the record straight about OCD.