By Laurel Saxe
I hear people say “I’m so OCD” on a weekly basis. Usually, the proclamation is accompanied by comments regarding organization or perfectionism. Generally, I ignore it and move on with my day, but lately, especially when my stress levels rise and my OCD symptoms get more intense, comments like that make me frustrated.
The way people use the term OCD is generally inaccurate; it is often portrayed as a quirky personality trait. I, like others who struggle with OCD, have found it challenging to bring up my disorder. The phrase “I’m so OCD” isn’t in my vocabulary because I don’t consider it to be an accurate representation of OCD.
What is OCD really? It is a mental disorder, and it is not a personality trait or a headspace that you can simply snap out of. OCD stands for obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is a mental disorder characterized by a pattern of unwanted thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead to the need to execute repetitive behaviors (compulsions) (Mayo Clinic). Obsessions can be around any topic and compulsions pertaining to each topic vary by individual. Some examples of obsessions include fear of causing harm to oneself or others, unwanted thoughts or fears, fixation with symmetry/order, or patterns of touching/counting. The compulsions are performed to reduce anxiety surrounding obsessions and can include following rigid rules of order, rituals that include counting or repeating actions, and excessive cleaning (Cleveland Clinic). The characteristics of obsessions and compulsions that make them attributable to OCD are that they take up significant time each day, are distressing, and interfere with daily life (Cleveland Clinic).
Why does it matter to me, a person with OCD, if people claim their organizational preferences or perfectionism are the result of OCD? The short answer is that it makes it hard for me to talk about my experience with OCD. This disorder is perpetuated strongly in the media as a harmless trait. When the dominant public image of OCD is an organized room, it leaves little space for people with OCD to talk about the real, harmful ways that it disrupts their life.
My OCD is largely centered around cleanliness. No, this does not mean that my desk must be organized. It means that I will wash my hands until they are raw because they don’t feel clean. It means that if anyone else in my home uses the kitchen before me, I have to clean it (regardless of if they did) because I can’t be certain it’s clean. It is something I’ve lived with for so long that I can vividly remember telling my middle school friends at a sleepover that the reason I had to scrub my walls clean as they were leaving was that I could feel the germs on them.
I know logically that most of my OCD-driven thoughts are irrational, but in those moments, there is no way for me to reach that conclusion. My OCD is paralyzing, and when I can’t come up with a way to move forward through a situation while satisfying my compulsions, it can cause me to shut down. Sometimes, the sheer number of steps I need to execute to get through a situation in a way that feels safe causes me to panic. I’ve missed out on events, lost sleep, turned in assignments late, and offended the people around me because of my OCD.
Like other mental disorders, OCD can be managed with cognitive behavioral therapy and medication (ADAA). From my perspective, the fact that my compulsions could one day end is terrifying. It’s hard to explain, but I can’t fathom that I might eventually be okay going against the actions I’ve relied on for so long. At the same time, I am not happy when I give in to my compulsions, and in those moments, I want nothing more than for them to stop.
My point in sharing all of this is to create a more accurate image of OCD. It is hard for me to hear people talk about OCD inaccurately because the disorder causes me so much mental pain on a daily basis that it doesn’t feel like something to mention in passing. I encourage you to think about OCD as a disorder rather than a personality trait and evaluate if it is the correct term to use in any given situation. It has taken me a long time to accept the fact that I have OCD, and it will take even longer for me to reduce it to a manageable level. I will continue to talk about it because I want people to understand what OCD can look like. After all these years, I finally know that it’s something that I don’t need to be embarrassed by, and if you struggle with OCD, I hope you can come to understand that too.
Laurel is a 4th-year Computer Engineering student at the University of Michigan. She is originally from Arizona but will work here in Michigan after graduating in April. In her free time, she enjoys cooking and baking. She also loves working with dogs and hopes to train her future dog for therapy work!