OCD: Breaking Down the Mystery

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Written by Alexandria Pizzola.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, is one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses out there. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s time to talk about it.

There’s a complexity to this illness that we neglect to acknowledge when we reduce it to “frequent hand washing” or “needing things in order” or making plays on its name as Katy Perry did a few weeks ago on twitter. Like any mental illness, what we see is only ever the tip of the iceberg. The story, the severity, and of course the figurative prison of thoughts are all what make this illness so crushing, and of course are the things that we cannot and do not see.

Sometimes, it helps to break down complex things. If we break down Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, we find that the disorder is comprised of two things: obsessions and compulsions. According to the International OCD Foundation, obsessions are recurrent, intrusive, and unwanted thoughts, images or impulses that an individual can’t seem to stop. Though usually identified as irrational by those struggling, these thoughts feel nearly impossible to eradicate and are similar to types of anxious thought. Common obsessions include fears of contamination, losing control, harming self or others, thoughts related to extreme perfectionism, and more.

Compulsions, on the other hand, are actions. These are the repetitive things those with OCD do with the intent to ease the negative feelings produced by their obsessions. Common compulsions can be washing and cleaning, checking, repeating, and many mental compulsions that are harder to see. The International OCD Foundation does a great job of breaking down and detailing these categories of common obsessions and compulsions, respectively, here and here, and I recommend checking them out.

In Mental Health First Aid (an eight-hour certification course that will boost your mental health literacy beyond belief), we do an activity called “Myths versus Facts” where we take on common (usually wrong) ideas about mental illness and pump them full of fact. This process is integral to understanding any mental health challenge or mental illness, and since OCD is so shrouded in mystery (thanks, as always, to mainstream media), there are some myths out there that I’d like to dispel.

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Myth: OCD is just quirkiness, like washing one’s hands frequently or being visibly upset when things are not in a certain order.

Fact: As previously stated, OCD is more than just a person being “quirky.” It’s a diagnosable illness that can be often overlooked and misunderstood because of its ability to pass as quirkiness.

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Myth: I might have OCD if I prefer to have things around me clean.

Fact: According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the tool used by mental health professionals to diagnose individuals), the impact must be such that the obsessions and compulsions are distressing to the individual, take up more than an hour of time each day, or otherwise significantly interfere with regular functions (like going to school or work, doing chores, and sustaining healthy relationships). Disclaimer, this information was not taken from the most recent version of the DSM.

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Myth: “I’m SO OCD!” “She’s SO obsessive!”

Fact: OCD has less than a 1% incidence rate in the US, but for those who have it, it’s debilitating. Making light of a struggle, while that may help some of us feel more comfortable, does not always help those who are struggling. This comic takes on OCD and why it’s unhelpful to use it as an adjective to describe things like preferences.

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Myth: OCD is caused by poor parenting.

Fact: While there is currently no known cause for OCD, research suggests that genetics and brain composition play a large role. Like any mental illness, OCD isn’t anyone’s fault.

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I don’t have OCD, but I’ve spent the last five or six years playing the role of best friend in the life of someone who does. What I’ve watched and learned is that OCD can be debilitating, devastating, and all around confusing. Even with a degree in psychology, its impact is more far-reaching than I can wrap my head around some days.

And yet, I’ve also learned that patience can go a long way. Whether you struggle with OCD yourself or you love someone who does, be patient. Though mental illnesses aren’t things we “cure,” recovery is real and possible. Though the incidence rate is lower than many of our more-recognized disorders (like anxiety and depression), there is a community out there of people who struggle and understand what it’s like to have this disease and to support someone who does. You aren’t alone in this.

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