Trigger Warning: This piece contains a brief description and true account of self-harm.
In our society there exists a general misconception about OCD, which makes it difficult for those who suffer from it to get a diagnosis and accept it. When I was nine years old, I remember looking over at my mother as she was washing the dishes. I smiled at her and my stomach started to churn. An overwhelming feeling I didn’t recognize consumed me. She’d always been one of my favorite people in the world, but my mind flickered and asked, “Do I really love her? Or do I just feel like I have to because she’s my mom?” I couldn’t shake the intrusive thoughts, no matter how hard I tried. Whenever I was around her, I became consumed by doubt.
Eventually, I started questioning my love for other family members as well, to the point where it made me feel physically ill. Since I was young, I had a hard time articulating the feeling. I ended up calling it “the thing,” and whenever the sensation arose, I’d tell my family I was struggling with “the thing.” I hoped that by giving it a name, the overwhelming feeling would disappear. One day, I told my grandmother, and she started to cry. When she asked if I wanted her to stop babysitting me, I was devastated. I wish I had gotten the chance to explain to her what I was experiencing, but she passed away before I was able to articulate it myself. I’ll forever hold onto that guilt.
Two years later, a classmate began bullying me. I was in the sixth grade, and my bully made me feel inferior, so I convinced myself that nobody cared. I dreaded waking up in the morning to go to school, and the stress exacerbated the intrusive thoughts. Not only had I continued struggling with “the thing,” but other thoughts had started to nag at me to complete certain compulsions. My brain would tell me to repeat certain phrases until it “felt right,” or write certain words into the air with my finger. And once I had completed a compulsion “correctly,” all of my anxiety would go away. They ultimately escalated; I’d convinced myself to scratch my face a certain amount of times in just the right way, until I bled. When people asked me what had happened, I’d tell them that I’d accidentally scratched myself.
My compulsions are no longer as severe, but they still regularly impact my daily life. I have a tendency to comb through my hair with my fingers until it’s perfectly smooth, at times ripping out strands in the process. I have to set my phone down in a very specific way before I go to bed. And I still have the occasional intrusive thought, such as questioning whether or not I really love my boyfriend. But he happens to share my diagnosis, so we support each other through our struggles.
In 2020, I was formally diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. At first, I felt scared. The desire to be “normal” filled me with shame. But now, a year later, I’m proud of myself for being so strong and persevering through my struggles. I’ve been seeing a therapist and have begun taking medication. Now that I’m old enough, I can take the proper steps to ensure I have the best possible life. No longer “the thing,” I understand what’s happening to me, and know I’m not alone.
One of the hardest parts of my diagnosis was realizing how few people have a firm understanding of the disorder. When they hear “OCD,” they tend to picture someone obsessively organizing or cleaning. It’s even become a colloquialism that’s used in everyday slang. How many times have you ever heard someone say, “I just need to clean this up. I’m so OCD”? I’ve personally lost count. But while this mental disorder can be debilitating, it only affects 1% of people in the United States — that’s why so many misunderstand its impact.
In 2015, Target released a Christmas sweater that said “Obsessive Christmas Disorder.” People were enraged, taking to Twitter to accuse the company of making light of mental illness. The incident broke my heart; it hurts to hear people talk about OCD as if it’s a quirky personality trait. This mindset completely invalidates a community of people who suffer daily. Instead of saying, “I’m so OCD, I just have to clean this up,” why can’t people cut right to the chase and say, “I just need to clean this up really quickly”?
Moreover, these comments reinforce a stereotype about the disorder, when symptoms vary so much from person to person. While people might have to organize things a certain way in order to feel at ease, other common compulsions include handwashing, checking things (like the oven over and over to see if it’s off), and repeating actions (such as blinking a certain amount of times). The “obsession” aspect of OCD centers the intrusive thoughts that I’ve experienced, which can cause anxieties such as fear of contamination, fear of acting on harmful thoughts, or unwanted thoughts about sexual behaviors. It’s unfair to generalize a disorder that presents differently across the board. Doing so creates the misconceptions that are so harmful to the communities that actually struggle with that diagnosis. Just because you experience one symptom of a disorder, doesn’t make it a universal struggle.
Gen Z is known for taking action, and spreading awareness about groundbreaking issues like gender representation, toxic celebrity conservatorships, and misogynistic representation in the world. But the ableism baked into our everyday language tells me that we still have a long way to go. While sharing stories on social media can help raise public consciousness, awareness only goes so far. Each and every person should take the time to research specific mental illnesses and disorders, and listen to stories straight from their sources. That way, we can support each other and build a stronger community. So next time, ask yourself: Is the joke really worth it?
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.