“I’m so OCD” and “I’m OCD about that” are two phrases that I hear often. Occasionally, I’ll attempt to explain my odd behavior, like refusing to touch public doorknobs (without washing my hands immediately or using a tissue or napkin. Or my sleeve. The other day, I even used my tablet to open a door). The conversation usually goes like this:
“I have OCD.”
“Me too! I’m so OCD!”
“No. I mean I have obsessive-compulsive disorder. I actually have OCD.”
I have tired of explaining that OCD doesn’t mean that someone is quirky. It doesn’t mean that they spend all of their time cleaning and organizing, either. It’s a mental disorder marked by obsessions and compulsions. The symptoms vary by person, but here are many common ones.
It isn’t considered a disorder unless it has a significant impact on your daily life. Though I wish it was an adorable set of quirks, it’s much more than that. I want to say, “Did I ever tell you about how I wear eyebrow pencil because I compulsively pluck my eyebrows?” Charming. Or how I have nerve pain in my wrist that likely is a result of my compulsive need to click my computer mouse repeatedly? Hilarious, right? I can remember a time when OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) was not something that most people knew about.
I can still remember my first compulsion. I must have been about four. There was a cardboard box in the room, with the word “etc” printed on it. I would chant “etc” over and over to myself as I drifted off to sleep. I had no idea why, I just felt compelled to repeat it to myself. This was the first of many, many rituals.
Over the years, my compulsions grew and started to dominate my behavior. There were too many to count, more than I can remember. They were the worst during my teenage years. I can remember writing down the serial numbers of dollars before I would spend them. I would wake up several times during the night to check that the doors were locked. I would only use disposable white plasticware to eat with because I was sure that the metal ones somehow carried more germs. I developed a hoarding problem and wouldn’t throw anything away. I probably spent hours a day satisfying these compulsions. And most people never noticed. I became an expert at hiding it. I didn’t know why I did these things, I only knew that they made me feel better, if only for a moment. When I gave in to my compulsions, I felt safe, as if I were cradled by them. If I didn’t, the fear would take over. I had no idea that I was suffering from an affliction that affects one percent of the population; instead, I feared that I was just crazy.
When I was still a child, I saw a commercial for an episode of Oprah that talked about something called OCD. Suddenly, everything clicked. I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t the only one who did this! During my adolescence, public knowledge of OCD increased but there were still more questions than answers. I spent hours in the library doing research. Of course, my tendency towards obsession took over, and I became consumed with the need to understand the disease.
I learned that OCD is far more common than previously known and that it affects approximately one percent of the population to varying degrees. That’s estimated to be about 2.2 million Americans. I came to understand that in laymen’s terms, those with OCD need to feel a “click” in the brain, one that can only be satisfied by completing rituals that result from our obsessions. I also learned that OCD is nothing new; it’s likely a disorder that has always been around, even back to the days of Shakespeare, whose character Lady Macbeth was likely inspired by someone with OCD.
Over the years, it has gotten better. I went from moderately afflicted to mild. (I often joke that having mild OCD is like being a little bit pregnant. You either have it or you don’t.) I still won’t use silverware that has been in someone else’s hands without scrubbing it. I still cover doorknobs with paper towels or my sleeve. But it doesn’t rule my life anymore. I may always resort to my rituals to some extent when I’m feeling stressed, and for the most part I’m okay with that. I can accept it. It doesn’t define who I am, despite the fact that my brain might be “so OCD.”