1. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is probably nothing like you think it is.
I don’t blame you one bit for this. The way OCD is portrayed in the media and pop-culture is a total misrepresentation of the disorder, and it’s the only taste of OCD most people have had. To put it simply, OCD is not about preferring even numbers to odd numbers, an enjoyment of colour coding, or being organized. It’s not a quirky, cute perfectionism thing. It’s a devastating,and life-altering disorder.
2. OCD has two parts: obsessions and compulsions.
Compulsions are what you see on the outside. They could include checking to see if a stove is off a “safe” number of times, picking off skin, desperately avoiding crowded areas, intense panic in the absence of perfect symmetry, or any number of other things. The important thing to remember about compulsions is that they’re never enjoyable for the sufferer. They’re traumatizing at best, and are the way that sufferer’s brains deal with the other part of OCD: obsessions.
For me, obsessions are the scariest part of OCD. They’re unavoidable intrusive thoughts that can be best described as forced daydreams. Brains with OCD like to latch onto terrifying, disturbing thoughts, like they’re nets with holes that are just a little too small for the thoughts to flow through. People with OCD tend to have obsession patterns that ebb and flow, and the thoughts can range from loved ones dying in a house fire, to suicide, to being murdered, to an intense fear of molesting a child. The images are graphic, taboo, and devastating. People with OCD have no intention or desire for any of their thoughts to come to life, which is why they’re so upsetting and result in such intense anxiety. Someone with an irrational fear that they’ll molest a child because of the disturbing intrusive thoughts may avoid young people altogether, and staying in their house would be the compulsion. Someone with intense obsessive intrusive thoughts about deadly germs entering their body might wash their hands until their skin comes off. (In this example, the hand washing would be the compulsion.)
3. Most people with OCD suffer from both obsessions and compulsions, but some only have one or the other.
It’s important to remember that we never know what someone is going through. Many people living with the disorder don’t have outward compulsions, and some don’t have intense internal obsessions. The symptoms people deal with also often come and go in waves.
4. A day of fighting intrusive thoughts is both mentally and physically exhausting.
Vulnerability time here: my most frequent intrusive thoughts are about being caught in violent situations (especially terrorist attacks), so my mind wants me to avoid crowded areas, airports, and anywhere else that my OCD has determined unsafe. Classrooms were extremely difficult for awhile as well. Technically, the avoidance is a compulsion, even though it’s not as obvious to people that I’m struggling with OCD.
Incidentally, I love to travel, I love live music, and I love to learn. Truth be told, I love to live, and I’m so fortunate to be in a place with the disorder where I feel strong enough to fight the thoughts.
With that said, it takes an unbelievable amount of mental resources to battle such intense anxiety. After a day with an elevated amount of triggers and symptoms, I have a lot of trouble concentrating, remembering things, processing general thoughts, and often even staying awake. As is the case with any anxiety disorder, little things like making plans can feel incredibly overwhelming. It doesn’t ever mean that I want to miss out on things, but sometimes I need serious time to recharge. It also doesn’t mean I’m upset with you or don’t want to talk to you. I still love you so much, it’s all just part of the fight.
5. Phrases like “I’m so OCD” are more damaging than you think.
I get the frustration with people being “too sensitive” these days. I get that it’s not meant to be a damaging phrase. But know what? People living with mental illness are not overreacting when we hear people using our most intense difficulties as a way to describe quirks or cute personality traits. Every time someone uses OCD, depression, bipolar disorder, psychosis, or any other mental illness to title something other than what it’s meant to describe, it takes away from people’s understanding of how serious mental illness is. It’s not okay. There are so many other cool words you can use! Next time you’re tempted to say “I’m so OCD”, try one of these:
- I’m so particular about that
- I’m ridiculously organized
- I’ve got some hella weird quirks
- I’m a profesh perfectionist
6. You can have obsessive-compulsive tendencies without having OCD.
So it bothers you when the volume on the TV is set to an odd number instead of an even number, or you count your steps, or you use your own spoon because you find germs gross, or you colour-code everything, or the knobs on your cupboard that aren’t perfectly level bother you beyond reason?
You are a human.
Most people in the world have tendencies like these, and hey, maybe you do have some obsessive or compulsive patterns. It doesn’t become a disorder until it’s a devastating, life-altering, everyday thing that makes it difficult to live in the world. If any of the tendencies are really hard to deal with, there is support available to you-don’t forget that.
7. OCD is treated with medication and therapy.
Luckily, OCD is treatable. Different combinations of medication and therapy work for different people, and exposure therapy in particular is usually helpful. Because there is no specific OCD medication, SSRI’s are often used to help people cope with the anxiety associated with their thoughts and compulsions. Less anxiety means being able to better-rationalize what’s going on!
8. People with OCD are often exceptionally creative.
There are different theories about why this is. It could have something to do with the fact that people with OCD have elevated brain activity, since their neurons fire in patterns over and over again. They’re also constantly thinking and feeling, so there’s always something extra going on behind their day-to-day thoughts. Most fellow OCD sufferers I’ve interacted with have been extremely passionate and creative, and like many people with other mental illnesses, they’ve been exceptionally compassionate. I love the silver linings that come along with the difficulties.
9. You shouldn’t ever be afraid to ask questions about this disorder.
Something that I appreciate so much is when friends and loved ones ask me about what I’m going through. It’s not something that’s obvious to see, and I often go about my day without stopping to deal with it. Compassionate people mean everything for people living with mental illness. Asking questions isn’t overstepping, it shows how much you care and want to learn.
10. People living with mental illness are capable.
We all do things a little differently, whether we live with mental illness or not. Some days I can’t get out of bed, and I recognize that, but it doesn’t hold me back from doing all of the things I dream about doing when I am strong enough to fight. If you are honest with yourself and the people around you, they’ll understand that you’re battling something. You are capable. You are enough.
Written by Laura D'Amico