When people (especially women) are highly organized, hyper-focused, and efficient they often label themselves (or are labeled by others) as OCD. In essence, “being OCD” is a superpower that leaves us with clean houses, well-manicured appearances, and detail-oriented work products. A person might even flaunt their “OCD personality” as a positive in an interview. But, saying you “are OCD” takes away from the very real anxiety that people who “have OCD” experience on a daily basis.
I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in 2012 after experiencing major anxiety after my mom’s sudden death. I started doing things that took up space in my mind and time out of my day. For example, I’d carry around little sheets of paper and a pencil, used to calculate my expendable income for the month. I would use my time on the bus or between teaching classes to add up my income and deduct my expenses. This seems reasonable for a young professional coming out of grad school and into the workforce; but I did it over and over again throughout the day. And then I would repeat it the next day.
I also started weighing myself three or more times per day. I used my upcoming nuptials as an excuse, but couldn’t stop myself from hopping on the scale when I woke up, after I peed, after a meal, and/or before I went to bed. For context, I’m a thin woman with a healthy BMI. Recognizing that this didn’t seem normal, I confessed to a close friend. He asked, “Is it interrupting your daily life?” “Yes,” I replied, with little hesitation. “Then you have to see a doctor about it.” So, that’s what I did.
OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions). Having grown up in the Maury Povich generation of talk shows, my understanding of the disorder was limited to folks who need to touch a doorknob 46 times before they can leave their house. So, like some reading this, I was confused about how OCD could seem so banal and ordinary. Indeed, I was over-focused on finances and weight—two things that many millennials are hyper-aware of, given our place in a capitalistic, appearance-driven society. But, these “rituals” are simply the manifestations of the anxiety disorder and can wreak havoc on a person’s day-to-day life.
Like many anxiety disorders, OCD can ebb and flow. With cognitive behavioral therapy and medication, I’ve moved in and out of periods where I barely obsess or exhibit compulsive behaviors. And, at other times, my anxiety is flaring. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when almost everyone was worried about finances and weight, my anxiety was debilitating. Imagine trying to calm the thoughts in your head by calculating your monthly budget and savings totals, while trying to watch your baby and stay afloat at work. I did it by waking up in the morning, completing my rituals, taking care of my daily tasks, returning to the rituals during nap time, and again at the end of the day. In addition to my rituals on weight and finances, I added a habit of Googling myself every day because I had experienced a right-wing attack the previous year. On average, these compulsions took up 2 to 3 hours of my daily activities. The obsessions never stopped. Only through therapy and an increase in medication was I able to get back on track.
My experience of raging anxiety was juxtaposed by everyone telling me, “Wow, you’re a superhero!” and “I don’t know how you do it!” I was at the end of my rope and willing to make my experience more transparent. As a result, I’d reply, “Well, I am heavily medicated in order to do it!” But retorts would include, “Well, tell me what you’re on and how I can get it!” These responses echo what researchers have long found to be true: outsiders treat OCD like the “good” disorder, communicating with those who suffer as if they have superpowers or have won the lottery in the mental illness game. OCD should not be equated with perfectionism, nor should it be used as an adjective to describe your personality.
Given that the pandemic has contributed to a rise in OCD and general anxiety, it’s time to give credence to this very real mental illness. Words matter. In recent years, we have shifted the way we talk about suicide, addiction, and learning differences. We can easily shift the way we talk about OCD as well. Instead of saying you “have OCD” it’s fine to talk about perfectionism as a trait characteristic. Instead of saying you “get OCD” about some things, feel free to talk about the ways in which you focus on certain tasks. And on the other side, don’t treat your peers who have OCD like a complainer or a superhero. Honor their decision to disclose this information and ask about the ways you can support them. It’s high time we break down the stigma hierarchy and meet people where they are at.
Brandi Lawless is an associate professor of communications.