October 14, 2015

By Luna Greenstein

At what point did it become socially acceptable and even trendy to use obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as an adjective for being particular, meticulous or organized?

What started off as a small trend has turned into a part of every day language. Companies even use it for branding—one beauty company has named itself Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics. And social media and news sites use it to be entertaining, such as the Twitter profile OCD Things and Buzzfeed articles with titles like “33 Meticulous Cleaning Tricks For the OCD Person Inside You” and “5 Types of OCD Friends You Know and Love.

At the same time, I think people are starting to realize that living with OCD is often very challenging and distressing for people. It is not something that they would liken with being trendy. If someone were to start using physical illness such as cancer in the same context, most likely, no one would view it as cute. To make up for the many articles Buzzfeed has posted extrapolating the misconceptions of OCD, they have also posted a video compiling anonymous confessions about what it feels like to have OCD and another video called “Why we Should Stop Using Words like OCD and Bipolar.”

The truth is that OCD isn’t just eccentricity that someone has. It’s an illness that causes a person to have frequent, intrusive thoughts that lead to irrational and excessive behaviors that are unwanted and often emotionally, and sometimes physically, painful. Examples of the kind of obsessions people living with OCD face may include unpleasant sexual thoughts, doubts about having done something—such as locking the door, turning off the stove, etc.), thoughts about harming someone or the fear of saying inappropriate things in public.

So now I ask the question, is it harmful for anyone who lives with OCD to see society constantly using this type of phraseology?

I ask this question not to shame those who are guilty of following this trend or to say that we should discuss mental health in serious and hushed tones. I’ve often referred to my actions or myself as OCD, and I would usually say these comments in a way that was bold or cheeky rather than serious. Even if there were times when I was genuinely unsure about whether my thoughts and actions might have been symptomatic, I would slip OCD into conversation casually in order to get my point across.

After doing some research about the symptoms and hearing stories from people who live with OCD, I realized that there appears to be a large and growing misconception about what they are and what people who live with OCD have to contend with. If OCD simply caused people to want everything to be neat, organized and color-coded all the time, than it would not be an illness.

I asked NAMI’s Facebook community what they thought on the issue, which led to a variety of responses. On one end, people found it hurtful (It frustrates me because OCD is a disorder, not a personality quirk and it has caused a great deal of suffering both in my life and in my father's life.”). On the other end, some people felt that it wasn’t an important issue (“If we get upset over every faux pas in language, we are in for a Hellish existence.”)

Other people saw this trend as a potential outlet to teach people about OCD. “While it can be frustrating, I see it as an opportunity to educate. People rarely have any idea what OCD is or looks like. So far people have been receptive and have been interested in learning more,” Lauren Schimming wrote.

For example, while the obsessions and fears people living with OCD are sometimes related to cleanliness, it is very common for them to be completely unrelated. “[These type of remarks] unfortunately perpetuates [sic] the idea that OCD is only about cleanliness, or numbers, or organization, or repetitions. For some of us, that couldn't be farther from the truth. Ruminating thoughts manifest in all different ways,” commented Lauren Kirk.

There is another type of behavior called pathological grooming that does relate more to cleanliness and organization and shares traits of OCD, but they are distinct conditions. While pathological groomers also engage in excessive behaviors such as washing hands repeatedly, they do not do so out of fear. In some cases pathological groomers actually enjoy their excessive behaviors. Someone living with OCD does not engage in compulsive behavior because they want to, they do it because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t.

I say all of this as a person who is completely guilty of this growing trend, but willing to admit that it also perpetuates misconceptions about OCD. I believe it’s important to raise issues like this because the misuse of words like OCD can distort our understanding of an illness and make us forget that OCD can’t be solved by reading a listicle on Buzzfeed—even if that listicle was pretty useful. What do you think?

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