The Messy Truth About Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

By Ethan S. Smith | Mar. 05, 2018


I hear comments all the time:

“My place is so perfect. I’m so OCD.”
“No, it has to be neat and clean. I’m so OCD.”
“You should see how I organized my Star Wars collection. I’m so OCD.”

I was born with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I struggled throughout my childhood, through multiple high schools and left college after just one semester—consumed by my obsessive thoughts. I barely made it through my twenties. In my early thirties, I hit rock bottom. I was bedridden in my parent’s guest bedroom, paralyzed by OCD.

One year included three psychiatric hospitals; intensive outpatient therapy; two months at the OCD Institute at McLean Hospital in Boston; being kicked out of said OCD Institute; and living on the streets of Boston in the middle of winter with little money, no transportation, no job and severe OCD and separation anxiety.

It took hitting rock bottom to get the help I needed. After eight scary therapeutic months, I was “reborn” and moved to Los Angeles a healthy, happy and thriving member of society. I finally understand the point of the therapy my loved ones had desperately been trying to get me into.

Why do most people believe the myth that OCD is just about a hyper-organized desk or color-coordinated closet? The reality is that most of the 3 million people with OCD in this country struggle just to function on a daily basis. They’re not bragging about the “benefits” of OCD.

Well, Hollywood’s general portrayal and perspective of OCD is limited. Movies and TV present OCD as quirky or fun. Characters often use their symptoms to their advantage, almost like a skill or superpower. Hollywood has created the belief that OCD is just double-checking, hand washing or a strong dislike of germs. Hollywood and the media rarely address the reality of this serious condition—it simply seems funny to watch, and not too difficult to live with. So, many individuals with OCD continue to struggle in silence, afraid to seek help.

OCD typically looks nothing like what you see on television. I didn’t wash my hands; I didn’t check, organize or clean; I wasn’t afraid of germs. My OCD was based in my fear of losing control. OCD is complicated like that; it preys on your unique fears and anxieties that have no basis in reality. For some people that’s germs, for others (like me) it’s extremely taboo topics, like self-harm.

To you, these fears and anxieties seem irrational and easy to brush aside, but the actual experience of having OCD is losing that rational perspective. Your brain can’t shrug off these fears. It’s a constant battle between uncertainty and truth inside your brain. That’s why the disorder is a far cry from: “I love when my kitchen is put away perfectly. I’m a little OCD.”


Ethan S. Smith currently lives in the Los Angeles area working as a successful writer/director/producer/author and OCD Advocate. Ethan was born with OCD and struggled most of his life until receiving life-changing treatment in 2010. Ethan was the keynote speaker at the 2014 annual OCD conference in Los Angeles and is the current International OCD Foundation’s National Ambassador.

Thank you for sharing! People need to understand the difference and it’s a constant daily struggle within yourself. I was always embarrassed to let other people in my life know because of the stigma around it until I went to IOP therapy. A girl spoke about her struggle and I 100% related and that made me be more open with others. The struggles of having to do things in pairs and if I don’t, it will take over my mind until I go back and flick that light switch, etc. If I don’t, I will think something bad is going to happen and if something bad does happen, I blame it on that reason. I wish others could take the time to really understand.
3/12/2018 11:12:24 PM

Thank you! I also have OCD and MANY people ask why my house us so messy if I claim to have OCD. A member of my family, who keeps a very tidy home said, "I think I have OCD, I'M not on disability". The stigma is real and very loud!
3/8/2018 10:37:43 AM

Hi. Great article. I was wondering what the life changing treatment that you received was? THank you for your work.
3/7/2018 9:41:39 PM

Ann P. Cahouet
Thank you for writing this. It is frustrating to hear people throw around the term OCD as if it's a synonym for perfectionism. As you say, living with real OCD is a tough road. By the way, a psychiatrist named Ian Osborn examined the writings and historical accounts of Martin Luther, John Bunyan, and St. Therese of Lisieux and argued that they too lived with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
3/7/2018 1:13:33 PM

Karen G
EMDR Therapy is life changing with immediate healing in 4-7 sessions for ptsd; it heals ocd, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, claustraphobia, traumas like rape, home abuse, etc. (Im living proof of a few of the above including ptsd). Discovered in 1980's "EMDR Getting Past Your Past" by Dr Francine Shapiro PhD explains it.
3/5/2018 8:40:22 PM

Lizanne Corbit
I think this is such an important read. Mental health issues like OCD and anxiety tend to give this "hollywood brush" -- I'm SO organized I'm totally OCD. If I can't find my keys I have a total anxiety attack. These instances are not actual instances of OCD or anxiety disorder and people who really live with the diagnoses know this, but it can be damaging because then other people associate the diagnosis with the hollywood version instead of the truth. Thank you for shining this spotlight and having this conversation.
3/5/2018 4:08:32 PM

Carolyn Burke
I know these feelings as I read his article. I have mental health issues and used to self medicate now in recovery and try to listen to spiritual guidance on utube such as Sunday soul hour with Oparah and Eckhart Tolle helps me. I am looking for a way to volunteer my time, I am on disability have energy and art therapy to donate. Just don't know how to find my spot that needs me as a volunteer in Sarasota, Fl.
3/5/2018 1:11:33 PM

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