This morning I woke up to a "How OCD Are You?" quiz trending on my Facebook newsfeed. Three of my "friends" had taken the quiz and subsequently posted the results to their timelines. Of course this quiz -- and others like it (a quick Google search turned up four similar quizzes related to OCD or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) -- is not intended to measure and analyze the symptoms of those who are legitimately concerned about their mental health; rather it is meant to be fun and humorous.
As someone whose life was once consumed by OCD, I cringe every time I see such quizzes because they relegate my experience -- and those of others with OCD -- to nothing more than an idiosyncrasy, a quirk, something that warrants laughter and ridicule. Unfortunately, trivialization of OCD is not isolated to internet quizzes. Indeed, people with OCD are often a caricature for anal-retentiveness and perfectionism, the butt of the joke on Saturday Night Live and a frequent punch-line for stand-up comedians and improv comics. And I don't think a week goes by when I don't hear the phrase "I'm so OCD" or "You're so OCD" used in casual conversation to describe behaviors that are mildly perfectionistic.
OCD is also a popular theme in hipster and variety stores. I have seen mugs, hand sanitizers, apparel, even OCD action figures that exploit, trivialize and make fun of OCD, all at the expense of people who actually have OCD. Indeed, there seems to be an emerging industry profiting from the exploitation and trivialization of people's very real and deeply painful struggles. And while such products are meant to be humorous and light-hearted, the pain of their cumulative impact cuts deep.
So what exactly is OCD and how does one distinguish between OCD and the common idiosyncratic or superstitious behaviors popularized by the quizzes and products mentioned above? To start, superstitions, quirks, and ritualistic behaviors do not fall under the umbrella of OCD unless they significantly interfere with day-to-day life. In fact, only about 1.6% of the population has OCD, an anxiety disorder characterized by unwanted and recurrent thoughts, feelings, and impulses (obsessions) and/or repetitive thoughts or behaviors that a person engages in to neutralize or counteract the obsession and decrease anxiety (compulsions).
While films and television all too often reduce obsessive-compulsive behaviors to checking and hand washing, OCD is vastly complex and manifests in a variety of ways from praying and symmetrical obsessions to having intrusive, unwanted violent and sexual thoughts. For me, OCD first emerged as anorexia nervosa at age 13. By 15, and with my eating disorder under control, my OCD began to change shape. I started praying incessantly, always repeating the same prayer. The more I prayed the more I needed to pray, not for spiritual fulfillment but rather to quell my anxiety and feed my obsession. In addition to praying, I engaged in counting compulsions. From blinking and walking to eating and touching, all of my behaviors had to be done in multiples of five. Of course, such actions impacted all aspects of my life. As a high school student, my obsessions and compulsions kept me from paying attention in class; thus, my evenings were spent re-teaching myself the day's lessons. My OCD grew so severe that I could not drive for nearly three years and had to live at home during my undergraduate studies. My social life was also impacted: I was secretive and insecure, too afraid to have my experiences further invalidated, trivialized and misunderstood.
Yet like others with OCD, my experience has not been one-dimensional. OCD has made me more patient, resilient, and empathetic. I have learned that my strengths and perceived weaknesses are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, my propensity for obsessions and compulsions also fuels my persistence and unrelenting determination. Indeed, the will of character that sustained my OCD is the same will of character that has helped me beat anorexia, cope with OCD, train for a marathon, fight for social justice and obtain a doctorate.
To paraphrase Joshua Walters, I am learning to see the "mental skillness" in my "mental illness" and I am beginning to rewrite the narrative of what it means to live with OCD. In doing so, I am finding the confidence to speak out and say that my pain is not a punchline; my struggle--and the struggles of all those who have OCD -- is far more complex than a clean bathroom, a color-coordinated closet, or a clever one-liner on the side of a coffee mug. So the next time you consider posting the results of an "OCD quiz" on social media or saying that your organized desk makes you "so OCD", think about the broader implications your words and actions have in perpetuating a narrative that belittles people's lived experiences.
Be more intentional, think critically, and educate those around you. Such actions, while seemingly insignificant, are the building blocks for a kinder, more compassionate world.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.