OCD is extremely unique, just like every other mental illness. Everyone’s symptoms are different, and even minute changes to the routine of someone with OCD can take years of therapy. If a friend EVER comes to you and is excited about progress that you think is insignificant, I understand.
And if you don’t have OCD, the tiny bits of progress made after long periods of treatment can seem like a waste of time, considering all of the effort that goes into such a small bit of change. If this is what you think of a loved one’s progress, then please try to re-evaluate your way of thinking from their perspective: they suffer from a disorder that takes over every aspect of their life. Something as small as not having to sort their pens before taking notes can take up to 10-60 minutes a day. Suddenly, with some work, their condition improves. This person now has 30 extra minutes of free time, and is a little less stressed and embarrassed to go to class. If this progress continues, their OCD routine could be an hour shorter, and they can work on other compulsions. Every little bit of progress can boost the confidence of the sufferer, making it easier for them to accept themselves and improve their situation. So don’t discourage their progress, because none of it is insignificant.
1. IT APPLIES TO EVERYTHING, and my willpower can’t solve all of my problems.
How much I eat, what mug I pour my coffee into, how often I sleep, etc. – it all comes back to my OCD. It can also be distracting if I am trying to focus and something triggers my compulsions. OCD is not something I can turn off by sheer willpower. If Green Lantern had OCD, it wouldn’t be solved by their sheer strength of will. Willpower has little to do with OCD – although treating the disorder requires an internal drive to change, and some force of will, it is also about changing how we think – OCD creates patterns of behaviour in the brain, and these take a long time to change enough to make the behaviour elastic again.
2. Nobody has OCD “like mine” – everyone’s is totally different, and not all compulsions are totally visible. Compulsions are also 100% not meant for your amusement.
As I mentioned, everyone has different OCD behaviours. Mine started before I was two, so OCD isn’t always caused by trauma that creates an extreme desire for control. OCD is not always a coping mechanism either. Sometimes, it just happens. I was super excited when I found out one of my friends had OCD – hear me out, I wasn’t excited because I am selfish or petty.
I noticed that sometimes she was made fun of, even by her friends, for her “strange habits”. And I noticed her habits because my OCD often makes me hyper aware of organizational details, so it was easy for me to notice when I thought something was out of place, and she thought something was unsanitary. We were able to help each other a lot – having someone to safely talk to, act natural with, and support you without being impatient or annoyed was a real blessing. It helped me become able to accept my OCD a little more, and even be more lighthearted about the topic.
I sometimes joke about my OCD as a way to practice self-acceptance, or make other people more comfortable when I act on compulsions. The way I portray my condition influences how others react to it, and I never want them to pity, or mock me. I know that there a few characters in popular media that represent OCD rather well – Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, Monica Geller from Friends, Monk, but that doesn’t mean it is appropriate to compare/impersonate a character when you see a friend having trouble with their OCD. Like Sheldon, I have a preferred seat and I need to use a coaster like Monica. Yes, there are some habits we share, but that doesn’t mean it is OK to demean them. I feel a lot of shame when my habits are compared to someone else’s, or trivialized.
3. It doesn’t always have to do with cleanliness.
I know some fellow OCD sufferers who are vigilant in their cleaning routines, and are very stressed about any kind of mess. I am not one of them. Yes-I do like to have a clean house, but what is more important in my case is that my house is organized properly. “Everything has a place, and everything in its place” – another character with OCD, Wasabi from Big Hero Six. I agree with Wasabi’s mantra. If something is out of place, I feel very uncomfortable.
Or an “OCD Sense”
Here is the thing, though – unless they can make a joke of it, and that is OK with them, don’t say that some has “an OCD sense” (Like a Jedi who senses a disturbance in the Force, or Spiderman when his Spider-sense is tingling). I am OK joking around about my when my “OCD sense is tingling”, but not everyone will make the same joke. This “sense” is really just my OCD freeloading at the back of my mind, and telling me it has been too long since I have checked if everything is in its proper place, so I suddenly jump up and see if one of my sisters rotated the hairbrush the wrong way.
4. I can’t quit my routines, and if I do, such a large modification of behaviour would require weeks and weeks to adjust to safely.
Has anyone watched the episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon is late getting a haircut, so he gets a set of bongos and sleeps on Amy’s couch? Everyone finds it ridiculous when Sheldon is upset that nothing went terribly wrong because he missed a haircut, but in a sense, this is what OCD feels like. At least if something happens you can feel a little bit satisfied in your compulsions, like they were justified in some way. Many people with OCD build their routines around their compulsions and intrusive thoughts. What might seem like a small setback can make us feel worthless, as though this disorder we are forced to spend so much time and effort obeying, is even more pointless than we thought it was.
5. My OCD can make me very anxious, even to the point of an anxiety attack.
I love having friends over, but it drains my OCD. They leave dishes out, move furniture, etc. and then I have to fix everything once they leave. My friends are amazing – they know that if they come over it may disturb my OCD, so they always help me gather up the dishes and try to fix whatever they can so I am not up into the early hours of the morning once they head out. However, OCD is a very personal thing, and there is only so much anyone else can do to help. Having to clean up the whole house once they head out, when it is late at night, and I am already exhausted from being overwhelmed by people is less than fun. Mix in super specific OCD habits, and you can find me, as my father has, crying profusely while washing dishes. In situations where I am overwhelmed by OCD triggers and can’t fix them, (I can also only ignore triggers so much – they grate on the back of my mind constantly if they are not fixed) I often panic. It is embarrassing and draining and makes me hate myself.
6. It involves a lot of intrusive thoughts, which lead to superstitions and precautions.
This is a common symptom for many people with OCD or depression – intrusive thoughts accompanied by an impending sense of doom. I know in the logical sense that my compulsions will not necessarily prevent anything terrible from happening, but compulsions are rooted in logic. For example, before I leave my apartment, I make sure to lock the door, and then turn the handle four times to make sure it will not open. Turning the handle isn’t necessary, the door is locked once I use my key, but it makes me feel assured that I have locked the door. If this ritual is not performed, I can get very restless and anxious worrying about the safety of my home for the rest of that day. I start to have intrusive thoughts about someone harming the people I live with, or damage to the house (a pipe bursting, a fire, etc.) if I have not carried out my routine. Not all intrusive thoughts are so dark though – a lot of them are more like an annoying voice saying “Hey, hey move that ottoman to the left. No, not like that.” For HOURS.
7. It does not matter how pointless other people think our intrusive thoughts are.
It does not make sense that I worry my loved ones will be harmed if I do not organize the washroom every night. Other people will go the extra mile to point out how ridiculous these thoughts are – some people to make fun, others to be reassuring – but it doesn’t matter what other people say. If I can convince myself these thoughts are intrusive, and find the logic behind them, I can begin to manage my compulsions. For me, this is best done with the help of my psychologist and not with any external reassurance, even if it is well intended.
8. Some things never feel “good enough”, and in new situations, I may not even be aware of a compulsion until it is triggered.
I never feel like my bookshelf is in the right order. The mixture of last names, heights, colours, genres and series leave me pondering the best way to shelve my books. When one of my best friends from university invited me over to hang out and have dinner for the first time, she knew I had OCD and she handled it in a stellar fashion. When I first sat down at her table for the dinner we had made, I frowned solemnly at my plate, and shook my head. I hadn’t realized it before I sat down, but something felt wrong. I had sat on the wrong side of the table, and promptly moved across from where I had been sitting. Then we ate, and for once, it wasn’t funny that I had done this – she didn’t mind at all. Due to her absolutely amazing acceptance of a disorder she had never encountered in person, I felt like it was OK to have OCD. I wasn’t afraid to be myself and I didn’t have to hide, and it felt wonderful.
9. It is a mental illness, not an adjective and NOT. A. JOKE.
There is no such thing as “a little OCD” – OCD is OCD. OCD is an obsession, which brings on a compulsion, and becomes a disorder if this process repeats. An obsession is an idea that causes a fixation, intrusive thought, or any unwanted thought that takes time out of your day, and creates stress. This thought brings on a compulsion – a behaviour that is an automatic response to an obsession – it can’t be fought. A compulsion is a response to eliminate whatever triggers an obsession, and get rid of that stress. It is a disorder because it disrupts normal functioning.
10. I have to control the situation around me, not other people.
Other people often ask me if their behavior triggers my OCD, and it rarely does. What mainly triggers my OCD is a situation – I begin to have intrusive thoughts and compulsions that, when acted on, allow me to feel more control of my situation, eliminating some of my stress.
Stress can be caused either by the situation, which triggers my OCD. If I am stressed about being alone in a room full of crowded people, I may look for triggers on a subconscious level, because my OCD feels familiar in a situation that is not. My existing compulsions can also be aroused by a situation. For example, if I notice a flashing light, my OCD will be aroused.
BONUS: Separate toxic encouragement from caring reassurance.
If you have OCD, please remember that the skills it gives you are your own, and other people will try to exploit them, or encourage your habits in a toxic way. If you are an architect, it would be exploitation if your friends suddenly all expected you to do a rough draft of a new house with nothing in return. Some people may have the best intentions when they ask for help with organizing their bathroom – they may recognize your organizational skills, and think you would enjoy this. If you want to help, and your OCD won’t cause problems once you return to find their bathroom in chaos, do it!
However, when a friend sees you struggling with a compulsion, and they say “Can you stop for me?” or “If you loved me” or “is that more important than (activity/ person/ situation)?” your friend is toxic. There is no nice way to say that. Emotional exploitation is never appropriate, and expecting you to change on a dime without offering extended emotional support and encouragement as you fight your OCD is a major warning sign that this friend thinks they are more important than you are. If a case of OCD is going to change, the sufferer will change it. Changes will usually take months, or years of intensive therapy, and the support of the patient’s loved ones.
To sum up, OCD is a difficult disorder to overcome. It is unique, and exhausting. A lot of the time, it is easier to hide alone than to go through the stress of explaining your OCD to other people. At first, it was really hard for me to talk about it – I remember struggling with it my whole life, and I finally learned, when I was 13, that there was a name for what I was going through. Suddenly, I could classify it as not just being a freak. There was a whole community of people that experienced similar symptoms, and they could get help for something I had been hiding and apologizing for my whole life. Initially, confiding in friends about my OCD taught me who was a toxic influence to my condition, and the pain of this set me back in my treatment. I hid away with my anxiety and guilt. Eventually, I learned to cut out these toxic people, and I can say to almost anyone that I have OCD when my compulsions are visible. I’m not ashamed anymore.
The fact that people think this illness can make someone live an “unfulfilling” life is offensive. As someone who has struggled with OCD for my whole life, I can tell you that our contributions to society are not lesser because they may be different, or may take longer if we are working around a routine. Some people may be inhibited by their OCD, and stay inside every day for months, but that doesn’t mean they lead a pointless life. It means they need treatment to be able to live in a space that they can’t control. The fact that someone would rank our input as worthless shows a sense of superiority over people struggling with mental illness, and this need to be challenged to eliminate the stigma around this illness.
RESOURCES FOR OCD:
For Intrusive Thoughts: