Living with the Ribbon: Deconstructing the Myths Surrounding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as Told by Experience

1.

OCD is, first and foremost, an anxiety disorder

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is not a synonym for germophobia; it is classified as an anxiety disorder, which means that, along with the plethora of symptoms that are unique to OCD, additional signs can range from general feelings of panic or uneasiness to chronic sleep problems to withdrawal from social situations. An irrational fear of becoming desperately ill and physically sick is a sign of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but it is not even a partial definition of the disease. On the contrary, it’s not unheard of for one to ignore personal hygiene as their condition worsens; the late film director, Howard Hughes, who suffered from one of the most infamous and cases of OCD, died weighing barely ninety pounds with dirty, unkempt hair and uncut fingernails. I’m not organized or particularly neat in the slightest, but I have been experiencing some of the most obvious signs of OCD for as long as I can remember, and like anyone else with a chronic mental illness aspires to, have learned to live around it rather than through it.

 

2.

Life is ruled by inexplicable, horrific thoughts…

Contrary to popular belief, the “obsession” in OCD represents intrusive thinking, not germophobia. Intrusive thoughts are unwelcome It’s similar to the feeling of having a song stuck in your head, only instead of a song, it’s a graphic image of your entire family being brutally murdered, your car tipping into the freezing cold river as you’re driving into Boston, an endless loop of Holocaust concentration camp prisoners, home invasions, cat burglars, nuclear war-

You get the picture. While nearly 90% of people report experiencing some form of intrusive thoughts in their lives, it’s much more difficult for a person with OCD to banish these images and what-ifs from their mind. Their brains are wired for this, literally programmed to allow these thoughts to thrive. These thoughts can also include constant feelings of self-doubt; in other words, many of those with confirmed diagnosises of OCD are often plagued by the notion that they may not even have OCD.

 

3.

...as well as bizarre, repetitive behaviors that reduce you to both a punchline and a public nuisance

The only way most sufferers of OCD are able to squash these intrusive thoughts are through repetitive compulsions. While these rituals are very effective in quelling obsessive thinking and unwanted feelings of anxiety, they can also become counter-productive in that they draw you away from socializing with friends and family, as well as prevent you from fulfilling work or school obligations. Some have described feeling the urge to perform seemingly pointless tasks, like washing their hands a specific number of times or counting the number of leaves on every tree on a particular street, that they oftentimes dedicate hours of their day to. Enter the image of the token OCD sufferer: a nervous eccentric with a dire need to cleanse any environment perceived to be unhealthy or germ-infested, or else avoid these areas altogether. This is often played for laughs in the media and, consequently, by those who have been misinformed about OCD their entire lives. This is why few are aware that the completion of these tasks feels like a life and death situation for people like me. Someone with OCD having to accept something as minor as, for example, eating dinner off of a plate that had a food thought to be “wrong” on it is the equivalent of being handed a plate of raw meat soaked in bleach. Imagine how frustrating eating out can be; hurtful comments about being a picky eater or wasting time separating foods are pretty much a guarantee. I’m that person, the one with the overcomplicated order in front of you at McDonald’s, not because I’m trying to ruin your day but because if I even think there’s been onion near my food I can’t eat it without feeling sick.



4.

Comorbidity is a reality

The unfortunate thing about mental illness is the likelyhood of comorbid diagnoses, or the presence of two or more mental disorders at once. There is a high comorbidity rate with OCD; it’s not difficult to imagine a person becoming depressed or developing an additional anxiety disorder or phobia of something relating to a particular intrusive thought or image. I’ve always felt that this is because one of the most frusturating things about OCD is knowing that the thoughts, numbers and images that play out in my mind in a continual loop are completely irrational while feeling powerless to stop or control them, which is what causes so much distress in the OCD sufferer.

 

5.

You know this isn’t actually helping, but you do it anyway

The worst thing about having OCD for me has always been this: compulsions offer instant relief from anxiety but also bring to the surface drastic feelings of self-loathing. Unlike personality disorders, where the person always believes they are correct in every scenario, or autism, where the person often is unable to comprehend why their actions are unacceptable, one who is diagnosed with OCD is fully aware that their compulsions are illogical and maybe even counterproductive, but they need to do them anyway. This goes much farther than cleaning the kitchen or alphabetizing your bookshelf, too. I’ve spent hours copying over my notes for school because they weren’t symmetrical, because I didn’t use the write color-coding system, because I didn’t like the way some of the letters looked.

Imitation is not the highest form of flattery

If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard someone say, “I’m/he’s/that’s so OCD,” I’d be spending my life locked in my house repeatedly counting through thousands of coins because I, unlike the person with the flawlessly organized locker next to mine, actually have OCD. A major reason why there continues to be such a negative stigma relating to mental illness lies in the trivialization of serious conditions like OCD. Television shows, most notably the USA Network’s “Monk,” are guilty of dismissing the severity of  Obsessive Compulsive Disorder through the use of stereotypical characters who display no symptoms of OCD other than an overwhelming fear of germs, a symptoms which many patients, myself included, have little to no struggle with in the first place. This hasn’t helped the already grossly inaccurate public perception of OCD; when I overhear “OCD” in conversation, it’s being used as a describing word more often than not, and that will never not upset me. Please refrain from using my debilitating chronic illness as an adjective;  the dismissal of OCD as a quirky personality trait is representative of a general ignorance of the importance of mental illness, but it doesn’t make it any less hurtful to hear teachers, friends and family who prefer to color code their closets erasing the complexity of this illness.

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