I was folding sheets the other day when a friend turned to me and said ‘wow, OCD much?’ I looked down and noted that I was folding sheets the same way I always did, and I didn’t think there was anything terribly remarkable about it, but to her, apparently, neatly-folded sheets are evidence of a serious mental health condition. As it happens, I do have OCD, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the way I fold, or do not fold, sheets. The popular cultural conception of OCD is that it makes people extremely clean, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness, and that people living with this mental illness are, well, obsessive about cleanliness.
That’s…not actually the case. I know people with OCD who are complete and total slobs. My house isn’t a paragon of cleanliness either, for that matter — sure, things are put away neatly and I don’t let dishes sit around, but also? There’s tons of dust on my bookshelves. I get lazy about vacuuming the floors sometimes. I let alarming amounts of soap scum and mineral deposits build up in the shower. If your vision of someone with OCD is someone who scrubs grout with a toothbrush, it ain’t me. I’m too lazy to scrub grout. (Also, I don’t have any. But if I did, a toothbrush would actually be a logical tool to use.)
Misperceptions about OCD make it hard to explain to other people, as well as hard to identify. And that’s tough for people who may be living with it without being aware of it. Changing the way OCD is depicted in media and pop culture would go a long way towards increasing understanding of the condition in addition to helping people who might be wondering why they’re experiencing such dysfunction in their lives, without being able to put a finger on the specific impairment that might be behind it.
One is the obsessions. Those would be: “distressing ideas, images, or impulses that enter a person’s mind repeatedly. Often violent, obscene, or perceived to be senseless, the person finds these ideas difficult to resist.” Obsessions can be things like (content warning) thinking you should pluck your own eyelashes or becoming convinced that your house is going to catch fire. The thing about these thoughts is that they’re intrusive: you can’t dismiss them, they feel like something external, and they’re scary.
Now for the compulsions, also called rituals: “stereotyped behaviours that are not enjoyable that are repeated over and over and are perceived to prevent an unlikely event that is in reality unlikely to occur. The person often recognises that the behaviour is ineffectual and makes attempts to resist it, but is unable to.” Did you know that I lock and unlock my door three times before leaving the house, every time, and I double-check the doorknob before I leave to make sure it’s locked? That’s an improvement over before, when I would follow that ritual, walk to the car, walk back, repeat it, walk to the car, walk back, repeat it, and THEN be able to leave. Oh, but that’s actually better than BEFORE, when I would follow the above ritual, get in the car, drive halfway down the road, and have to turn around to do it again.
Rituals can be subtle, they can be highly noticeable, but one thing is for sure: they are repeated, they are annoying (for some of us, at least), and they are things that we feel compelled to do. I can’t go to sleep if I haven’t read at least as many pages as I have years — which is going to be a serious problem when I’m, like, 80. I firmly believe that the next day will be unlucky and miserable if I don’t follow the reading ritual. I knock the walls in complicated patterns and use silverware the same way for various rituals. I have driving rituals and cooking rituals and rituals for everything else imaginable.
Yes, I also care passionately about facing out all the condiments in my fridge and organising my tea and spice jars just so. I will compulsively rearrange them and I’ll get upset if they get disarrayed. I will compulsively fix them, even in the presence of guests, even if I try to resist — if, for example, someone doesn’t put a dish away right, I will fix it, and I will hate myself for it, knowing it looks passive-aggressive and rude when I really just can’t control myself.
Everyone experiences different obsessions and compulsions, and this mental health condition manifests in a variety of ways. The stereotype, though, simply isn’t true, and the longer it’s advanced as ‘what OCD looks like,’ the worse life is for people living with OCD. Stereotypes about mental illness are, of course, nothing new, and it’s not surprising to see them carried out here, but attitudes about OCD provide a stark reminder of how far off-base pop culture and society can be when it comes to thinking about the actual lived experience of people with OCD.
I’d love to see a character with OCD in a book or television drama who looks like me, or one of the other people with this condition that I know. I’d love to see that character’s OCD silently and gracefully integrated into the story. I’d love people to see that their impression of OCD isn’t at all like the reality.