I was always a ‘particular’ person, as people would gently put it. They would accommodate my eccentricities in good fun as I washed my hands raw and worried about contaminating the world with Armageddon-causing germs. I wished my family goodnight with a set phrase so they didn’t pass away in the middle of the night and hoarded years of class notes lest I fail school, never once suspecting I might be ill.
My obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) diagnosis came when I was 21 years old and in retrospect, I couldn’t figure out why I never suspected it. All the signs were there; the obsessive irrational thoughts and the ‘odd’ things I’d do to make them go away all the time.
Mental illness is still painfully taboo in most places, despite the surface-level awareness touted on social media-led wellness culture. Scant depictions of psychological disorders in mainstream media are most often caricatures at best. While, the (partly willful) ignorance of my disorder was due to a long list of reasons, far more nuanced than ‘OCD isn’t represented well, that was still a huge factor.
What is OCD though?
According to the American Psychological Association, OCD is “a disorder characterized by recurrent intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that prompt the performance of neutralizing rituals (compulsions).” For people who don’t suffer from the disorder, it might be slightly difficult to understand the magnitude of these obsessions and compulsions. Unfortunately, there’s no standard way of explaining OCD to anyone, each experience is so vastly different from the next.
When I was about 18, I developed a habit of watching my brother walk from the door to outside my field of vision when he went to school each morning. I believed that if I didn’t do that, I’d never see him again. I knew it was unreasonable to believe that, but what if it wasn’t? The weight of saving his life rested on my ability not to blink until I couldn’t see him anymore. For me, OCD felt like weighing the world on my shoulders.
Why media seldom gets it right?
Perhaps the most well-known example of an ‘OCD’ character in mainstream media is Monica Geller from the tv series 'Friends'. Her knack for keeping things spotless, 'come hell 'or 'high rain' is synonymous with what a lot of people think OCD is. She liked cleaning and got annoyed in facing a mess. But this obsession with the unclean was never distressing to her. She didn’t scrub floors for no reason, but because she thought an unclean home meant that her brother is going to fall fatally ill. She believed her propensity for cleaning was completely rational, a blessing even.
Perhaps the reason it’s easier to pretend that Geller is the poster child for what OCD is, is that it's palatable. It’s easier to believe that OCD means a blessed love for the organization (like Khlo-C-D). What’s far less easy to digest is hands scarred by obsessive washing or weeks of not going out. You don’t have to check your door if you never leave the house or hours of praying because you thought something that was unlike yourself, that now you think you’re no longer yourself and you have to pray it away or it means that you like it.
I often hear people claiming how ‘OCD they are’ because they like things to be organized. Sometimes I correct them, sometimes I don’t. All of these times I feel exhausted and alienated.