Did you know that October 14-20 is OCD Awareness Week? Yeah, neither did I. But it is! And in honor of this very special week, I want to talk about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and what it is actually like to have it.
Hi, my name is Chelsey. I like odd numbers, touching my hands against smooth surfaces and checking the locks on all doors. I fear germs and illness. Simply put, I have OCD.
If you learn anything about OCD during Awareness Week, let it be this: It is not all about cleaning. That’s just what Hollywood wants you to think because it’s the easiest symptom to portray on camera. If you really want to put it into perspective, hoarding is a sign of OCD. Those people on Hoarders? They’re probably suffering from OCD. I think the whole stereotype of “OCD sufferers are neat freaks” comes from the fact that sufferers have a desire for control. I might not be able to stop my hands from touching a smooth surface, but I can control how clean my bathroom is or how my bookshelf is organized. Sometimes it’s all about the small victories, even if it’s just trinkets lined up in height order.
To explain OCD, I’m going to take it word-by-word. First up: Obsessive. To be obsessive is to be affected by an obsession. We all have obsessions. That’s why Tumblr and Pinterest exist. For most of us, obsession means we love something so much, we need a major way to describe that love. But the obsessive aspect of OCD is nothing like obsessing over Scandal. With OCD, the obsession affects us with overwhelming thoughts that take over our brains and cause us to feel or believe illogical things.
My obsession is with odd numbers. I couldn’t stop thinking about them as a child. If something was an even number (such as a television channel, the day of the month or the number of books on a shelf), I felt uneasy, as if something bad was going to happen. My mind was only at ease if odd numbers were dominant in my life. If I held something, I had to have an odd number of fingers touching it. During school, I would tap my fingers against my desk in different odd-numbered combinations, but eventually that made me worry more. If I put down three fingers on my left hand, and three on my right hand, that made six. So I put down another right finger, which made seven in total but four on my right hand. I couldn’t make a perfect odd-numbered combination, and that became the bane of my existence. I was able to control my doodles by keeping an odd number of stars or hearts on the page, and I could make sure each walk lasted an odd number of steps, but I could never achieve the perfect odd-numbered combination of fingers.
Obsessing over odd numbers was how I kept myself from worrying about a big test or the flu. Knowing that three fingers were touching a marker was enough for me to ignore my fears. Everyone with OCD behaves differently. Many sufferers experience violent or sexual thoughts that they can’t turn off. (It’s very rare that someone with OCD will act on those thoughts.) Since the thoughts won’t go away, they might turn to rituals or behaviors that can temporarily quiet their brain. Those behaviors can include having to do everything six times or not stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. (My theory is that most popular superstitions came from a very influential person with OCD.)
What makes an OCD obsession different from an everyday obsession is the compulsive aspect. Compulsive defines the urge that someone with OCD cannot resist, no matter how badly they may want to. It’s sort of like when someone says, “Don’t look down.” As soon as you hear that, chances are you have to look down. You know you shouldn’t, and you don’t want to, but you do it. And you probably regret it. That’s what OCD is like.
If you ever meet me, you might notice that I often press my hands against my arms or a table top. That’s because I sometimes feel like the palms of my hands are fuzzy and I need to press them against something smooth to stop my throat from closing up. That’s a compulsion. Trust me, I know my palms aren’t fuzzy, and I know my throat isn’t closing up, but I feel like it is. Sometimes I try to fight the feeling because I know it’s weird, but I always lose. I always have to touch the wall or my legs in order to breathe.
That’s what makes OCD such a struggle for so many people. They’re very aware of how crazy their actions may seem. They will fight the urge or try to shush their thoughts, but they often can’t. I don’t want to have to keep pressing my hands against my cheeks! I’m starting to look like the Home Alone poster, and I’m not okay with that. But I have to do it.
That brings us to disorder. This is what separates the quirky from the obsessive compulsive. To label an obsession or an act as stemming from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is to say that it is very intense. Let’s say you have a bag of M&Ms and decide to save all the green ones for last because that is your favorite color. That’s not OCD, that’s a quirk. But if you have to save the green ones for last because eating one too soon leads you to believe your family will be murdered, that’s OCD. You might be sad if you eat your favorite color first, but that sadness is nothing compared to thinking your family will be murdered.
To sum all of this up, OCD is usually diagnosed because your brain is trying telling you certain behaviors are necessary when you know they’re not, but you do them anyway.
For anyone with OCD, happy Awareness Week! And if you don’t have OCD, I hope you managed to learn something. It’s not the quirky disorder we see in movies or television, it’s a serious problem that affects between two to three million adults in the United States. It also makes life very confusing and very annoying. If you want an honest portrayal of OCD, watch season 2 of Girls or check out this Cracked article from Matilda’s Mara Wilson.
If you have any advice on how to handle OCD, please share! And in honor of Awareness Week, feel free to share your own obsessions and compulsions. Let’s show others what OCD is really about!