I mean, at this point if anyone who reads my blog doesn’t realize I suffer from mental illness, then you’re not reading hard enough. And if you’re reading this because you saw the link on my FB page and decided to give it a go, and you somehow are remarkably unfamiliar with me, then here’s the short version: I suffer from mental illness.
And somehow I’ve decided to take it on myself to be champion of the mentally infirm. For a long time, I was too scared to let people know. My closest friends had no clue, we didn’t tell my extended family, it was just that taboo thing between me, my parents, and a handful of psychiatrists and psychologists and therapists that didn’t get spoken of all that much. Except, you know, in therapy and whatever.
But even then, there was a ton I didn’t understand about it. Most of this was probably because I was young and in a pretty fierce state of denial over being crazy, but part of it was that my craziness hadn’t fully bloomed — I didn’t know what was to come. And, while I thought of myself as remarkably self-aware, I was not.
I am now. Perhaps to a fault, but give it several years, and I’ll learn from my mistakes.
And what I’ve come to learn over the decades of being nuts is that no one gets it. That’s fine — unless you suffer OCD yourself, then it’s this mystifying thing that you’re both puzzled by and potentially a little scared of (don’t worry, we are too). So here’s a crash course.
1. OCD is not the same as being compulsive
Look, I might not call you out on it when you say, “I’m a little bit OCD about …” but I assure you, I’m judging you to the fullest degree. I can’t help it because OCD is an all-in sort of thing. You don’t sit on the edge of the pool and dip your feet in and say, “I’m a little bit swimming” because you’re not. If you’ve ever said you were OCD over one particular thing, then you’re kidding yourself into thinking you have a real mental disorder that requires years of therapy and medication because that’s not how it works. If you really, really, really want to suffer OCD and don’t have it, then I’m sorry for your disappointment.
Maybe we should get a little more basic.
2. OCD is an acronym for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and does not mean compulsive, meticulous, anal, or imply that you’re a perfectionist
It’s like saying you have PTSD when really what you mean is you’re mega stressed. Eat a cookie or something and leave the disorders for those of us who are actually crazy.
3. Back to compulsivity and how it’s super common
We are all compulsive. Yep, you heard me: ALL OF US. Well, maybe not all. I’m sure there are people out there who go through life with so little care that they’re only one step above catatonic, but there’s probably something else going on under that surface (and this isn’t about that). If you like your movies in alphabetical order so you can find them easier or your underwear drawer to be organized or the papers on your desk to be in a neat pile, then that means you’re probably like 99% of the rest of humanity. We like order in our lives — it decreases stress and generally looks nice (I blame Pinterest and all those bloggers who stage their homes for photos before permeating the internet). If you like your kitchen appliances JUST SO, and your family gets on you about it, tell them to leave you alone and then keep doing you. If it makes you feel happy and better about your life/home, then their opinions do not matter.
OCD, in my opinion, has a lot more to do with the obsession than the compulsion.
4. Obsessions are time-consuming
We’re not talking “I’m obsessed with One Direction because I’m 15” here — we’re talking about pervasive thoughts. These are a bitch. Imagine someone started singing the song that never ends (you’re welcome), so it naturally gets stuck in your head and replays for several minutes. And it kind of drives you crazy, right? But eventually it gets replaced with other things, and you move on, and everything is all right. When you have OCD and subsequently suffer from pervasive thoughts, that song not only continues to replay in your mind, but it takes over your entire brain till it’s all you can focus on, and even when you think that somehow, perhaps, you have managed to filter it out, it comes back again. You feel like you’re about one step away from straight psychosis, your anxiety level has now skyrocketed, and that song is still never ending.
These pervasive thoughts can range anywhere from an annoying song to murdering your entire family in cold blood (I wish I were extrapolating here, but I’m really not). Everything in between is pretty fair game, too. They come from left field, they’re often thoughts we wouldn’t have if we were otherwise normal, and we recognize their irrationality.
5. Obsessions and compulsions are often not linked
So now we get to the compulsive side of the disorder. To quell the anxiety, we act out with compulsions. The most commonly portrayed in Hollywood are germ-based, meaning the OCD sufferer washes his/her hands a bazillion times, but that doesn’t mean all OCD sufferers are this way. (There was a point in my life when I would wash and dry my hands and then apply hand sanitizer, but that was extremely short-lived because my hands were fantastically dry and cracked, and I didn’t like it.) My compulsions, should you be interested, include but are not limited to:
- typing things I hear (this can be physically or mentally typing — depends on how many people I’m around and how anxious I am)
- picking my cuticles (manicures are pointless)
- clenching my jaw (I’ve given myself TMJ, which has been probably the worst side effect of mental illness to date)
- wiggling my eyebrows
- waving my foot around (I have to be sitting, obviously, and I spell certain words out over and over again)
- playing games on my iPhone (I’d like to say I’m trying to pay attention to you, but honestly I’m way more invested in lessening my anxiety)
The compulsions do not indicate what it is that I’m obsessing over — I feel no anxiety in regards to computers or typewriters, my molars are fine — in fact, for many OCD sufferers, they’re not related at all. If a person knocks on the doorframe three times before entering a room, I can pretty well assure you that person has no anxiety over the room or the door. Handwashing and germs are obviously related, but the level of anxiety the individual experiences is abnormally high, and chances are there’s something else going on as well.
6. OCD shouldn’t be self-diagnosed
I’ve had friends over the years say, “Yeah I’m pretty sure I have OCD, too.” I’m not sure if they’re trying to relate to me, which I suppose I should appreciate since they’re attempting empathy, but sympathy does just fine. And, in case you feel compelled to self-diagnose yourself, refer back to #1. My diagnosis came when I was 16 years old and had picked my cuticles till all ten fingers were bloody, after a doctor referred us to a psychiatrist, and after a VERY long day of psych evals. I’d read a little about OCD and thought, “Wow that sounds a lot like me,” but I wasn’t parading around telling people I had it.
I mean, it’s not all that glamorous.
And even if you read this and think to yourself, “Much of this seems familiar,” that still doesn’t necessarily mean you have the actual disorder. I display symptoms of ADD, but I actually only have deficiencies in attention rather than the disorder (and thank goodness because seriously four is more than enough). I share some traits with people with Asperger’s, but that doesn’t mean I’m on the autism spectrum. If you feel concerned that you or a loved one may have actual OCD, then call a doctor and schedule an appointment.
7. We’re attempting normalcy through it all
Some people end up debilitated by their OCD. It can honestly take over your entire life — especially if you have dozens of compulsions or they’re not something easily hidden away. Working is nearly impossible, school isn’t an option, relationships can be hindered. But we also really like to binge-watch Netflix (like, maybe even more than you do) and drink Coke Zero (even though our doctors tell us not to because the caffeine increases anxiety, to which I say YOLO) and cry to Adele’s hauntingly beautiful, perfect voice (Hello. It’s me.) There’s no need to treat us like damaged goods.
Next up: things you don’t know about depression (because yeah, I totally suffer from that too)