In the past few years, mental illness has come into the spotlight, which is a really great thing because it’s being less stigmatized in a lot of circles. This is thanks to a lot of things: TV shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (coming back October 21!) which deal with mental illness in a very frank and real way, more education for students about mental health, and the internet. There are so many spaces online that make it easy and acceptable to talk about your mental illness, such as tumblr.
While on the whole, people are becoming much more aware of mental illness and handling the subject with the appropriate level of importance and care, there are still common, overlooked actions that some of these same people perform without even thinking about it. There’s no harmful intention, but often, mentally healthy people will use the name of a mental illness as an adjective to describe themselves. For example, if someone is sad, they might say, “I’m really depressed right now.” This trivializes the problems faced by people who suffer from clinical depression.
Another mental illness whose name has, somehow, turned into an adjective is OCD. It’s oddly become a ‘popular’ thing, most likely because it’s connected with things that are socially desirable: cleanliness, organization, tidiness…
It isn’t just in language. Not too long ago, Target sold a sweater that rubbed many people with OCD wrong. It was red and green, Christmas colors, and it read in big, proud letters ‘OCD.’ Beneath that, it defined OCD as standing for ‘Obsessive Christmas Disorder.’ Facebook was full of article after article, status after status, with people’s opinions about this sweater. Some people thought it was cute and didn’t see the issue with it. Others found it offensive and ableist (which is, in short, discrimination against people with disabilities). At the time, I really couldn’t have cared less. I was in a mentally sound place and didn’t even realize that I had OCD. I knew that I did ‘weird things’ and had been a self-described ‘germaphobe’ since middle school (I actually wrote an article about this for LocoMag), but I didn’t connect that with any sort of acronym.
The sweater thing is a mainstream example of OCD becoming this ‘popular’ thing; if I had to count up the amount of times in just the past year that someone around me has described themselves as ‘so OCD’ for doing something normal, I’d run out of fingers before I got halfway through the list.
Honestly, I don’t blame anyone for this. I’m sure I’ve said I was ‘being OCD’ about something before – it’s become a common part of our vernacular. Language experiences all kinds of slow shifts, and once something is common, it ceases to mean what it strictly means and takes on a whole new meaning. In the case of OCD, people usually say it when they’re expressing a desire for things to be organized or clean. I’ve had friends say they’re OCD because they like their desks neat, they make their beds, or they like to sort their M&Ms by colors.
But just like saying you’re depressed when you’re only sad, or bipolar when you’re feeling moody, this casual usage of the term OCD is harmful. Especially considering that these traits don’t necessarily embody OCD.
OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by two things, as the name suggests: obsessions and compulsions. Someone with OCD can have either one or both. Obsessions are defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as “repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images that cause anxiety.” Some common obsession symptoms are “a fear of germs or contamination, unwanted forbidden or taboo thoughts, aggressive thoughts towards others or self, or having things symmetrical or in a perfect order.” These obsessions can be extremely intrusive and negative and they’re always unwanted. They’re like a really smelly guy sitting in front of you in a movie theater who occasionally will turn around and talk to you during all the good scenes.
Often, in an attempt to control the obsessive thoughts, people with OCD will develop certain compulsions, or repetitive behaviors. These can include “excessive cleaning and/or handwashing, ordering and arranging things in a particular, precise way, repeatedly checking on things, such as repeatedly checking to see if the door is locked or that the oven is off, and compulsive counting.” Someone with OCD may recognize that these behaviors are excessive and would very much like to stop doing them. I compare certain compulsions to having a bug bite: you know that you shouldn’t itch it, but you do anyway, ‘just this once,’ ad infinitum until you end up with a little trail of blood down your leg. Other, bigger compulsions, can seriously inhibit someone’s life, such as the need to wash your hands over and over until they’re raw and bleeding, or check the lock on the door ten or more times before bed.
I’ve been in situations before where I’m being plagued by some upsetting obsessive thought and a friend will say, “I’m so OCD because I need to tuck my sheets in at the bottom of the bed.” Something like that could be a symptom of OCD, but many times, it’s just a personal preference thing. Even though saying that is just a word, it belittles the real, painful struggle of people who have OCD. It also makes it harder to tell that person that you have OCD, because you worry that they won’t take your experiences seriously. And because language only shifts when we push it, this change can start with you.