Content warning: This post includes brief descriptions of violence. Monica is my least favorite character from Friends. Maybe that isn’t fair of me to say, because it’s not like she did anything wrong (she is, after all, a fictional character). But with every joke about her tidiness, complete with a live studio audience cackling at her every word, she has contributed to the stigmatization of mental illness. She is one of the reasons why a condition I have suffered from my entire life has been misunderstood by most of society. I can’t help but hold a grudge.
Monica from Friends does not have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), even though for over 20 years fans have assumed she does. Her urge to make everything neat and her quirky love of cleaning products was one of the most common running jokes in the series.
For years, I didn’t think of OCD as a possible diagnosis for myself because of Monica and other media portrayals like her. I had piles of laundry on my bedroom floor, I didn’t care if the TV volume was at an odd number, and I didn’t need to clean fruit for half an hour before eating it. All of these were behaviors I saw media characters with “OCD” engage in.
Instead, I had intrusive thoughts, which are unwanted thoughts, images, or impulses. Everyone has these to some degree, but the response for a person with OCD is vastly different. A person without OCD can acknowledge the thought and let it go, but a person with OCD may ruminate.
Why did I have that thought? Do I secretly want to do this awful thing? How awful is that? I must be a terrible person who wants to hurt people.
This is how my brain has worked for as long as I can remember, at every single moment of every day. I saw vivid images in my mind of me stabbing my teachers with scissors in class, strangling my friends while hanging out, and countless other unspeakable acts. I assumed that deep down I wanted to do these things, because why else would I think about them all the time?
I developed little rituals in response to these thoughts. If I played a certain song as I fell asleep each night, it meant I wouldn’t hurt my friends at school. If I tapped my fingers 25 times on my desk, nothing bad would happen when I babysat my neighbor’s kids the next morning. If I repeated the last thing I ate in my mind thousands of times per day, it would keep the horrifying images from popping up.
Logically, I know now that my rituals can’t change a single thing. But trapped in my own mind, they felt like all I could do to maintain control of my own life.
I remember sobbing in relief when I learned what intrusive thoughts were on Tumblr late one night. I was 15 years old and in therapy at the time, and brought up the term to my therapist.
“You know, everyone has those kinds of thoughts,” she told me, and then she went on to keep asking me questions about my childhood. That was the end of it, I supposed. She was the expert, after all — I must not have OCD if my therapist had waved it away so casually.
For the rest of high school and the beginning of college, I kept trying to fight the intrusive thoughts away. But fighting almost never works. If I told you not to think of a white bear, the first thing you’d do is think of a white bear. I was holding these thoughts under a microscope, so of course, they weren’t going anywhere.
When I was 21, I had had enough. Every waking moment of my life was filled with obsessions and compulsions. There wasn’t a spare second when my mind wasn’t flooded with intrusive thoughts or repetitive phrases. I was exhausted. I was seeing a new therapist, so during one session, I brought up how drained I was feeling.
I was expecting to get waved away, like I had with all of my previous therapists, but instead, she offered to go through the diagnostic questions with me. She went down the list of diagnostic criteria in the DSM-5, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (sidenote: the DSM-5 is problematic and inaccurate for many reasons, but can still be a helpful diagnostic tool). About halfway through, we shared a knowing look: I had answered “Yes” to every single question.
“Jordyn, it sounds like you have OCD to me,” she stated matter-of-factly when we had finished. I immediately burst into tears. Finally. I had suspected I had this illness for years, but hearing it so declaratively from someone else felt like a victory. I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t a monster. I was just sick.
Maybe Monica from Friends did have OCD. Maybe cleaning was her compulsion, just like tapping and repeating were mine. But instead of exploring that storyline, the show made her a caricature. Fans labeled her “OCD” as if it were a personality trait. As if the disorder was something that could be chosen or controlled, instead of a debilitating sickness.
OCD is not Monica from Friends. It is not “Obsessive Christmas Disorder” sweaters or polishing silverware for no apparent reason. It is not a personality trait or something you are, it’s a condition that you have.
OCD impacts one in 40 individuals in the United States, but around a third of them don’t receive appropriate treatment. Against my best judgment, I get so angry when I hear someone say “Sorry, I’m so OCD!” or “My intrusive thoughts won today!” Stigmatizing OCD and misusing the term is contributing to so many people suffering from their disorder.
I am so grateful to be diagnosed, medicated, and working on a treatment plan, but I can’t help but wonder how much easier my life could have been if I got a diagnosis sooner. I could have spent my high school years getting treatment instead of hiding in my room, hating myself for thoughts that I couldn’t possibly control.
Now, I have good days and bad days. I still have moments where I can’t get out of bed, haunted by the hellscape in my mind, but those days are few and far between. Maybe I’ll always have OCD. That thought used to scare me, but it doesn’t so much anymore.
On my bad days, I think of a video Hank Green made a few years ago about chronic illness, and I remind myself that my illness is not my fault. If you struggle with OCD or any other mental illness, please remember that your illness is not your fault and recovery is possible. The road to diagnosis can feel treacherous, but it is possible to live a fulfilling life even with mental illness.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.