Lots of people feel bothered when they see something misaligned or disorganized, but society has wrongly colloquialized the term Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – OCD – distorting the reality of a serious mental health issue to talk about normal behavior.
When portrayed in the media, people with OCD appear at the unrealistic ends of a fictional spectrum. Sufferers appear either completely debilitated, like Howard Hughes in “The Aviator,” or just have a personality quirk, like Sheldon Cooper in “The Big Bang Theory” and Monica from “Friends.”
Often OCD is used for comedic effect, where characters who may or may not have the disorder are the butt of the joke. In some of the examples included above, a character’s rituals or obsessions such as concerns about contamination or cleanliness appear ridiculous, and other characters may purposefully do things to provoke a reaction from them.
These characters all show very stereotypical behaviors associated with OCD like excessive handwashing, organization and repeated actions like door knocking. However, the actual range of compulsions is practically limitless. Less recognized examples include repeatedly checking things, counting, motor tics and unwanted thoughts, all with infinite variants.
In fact, a person doesn’t necessarily have to perform rituals to have OCD, but they don’t warrant a diagnosis until they consume at least an hour of the day or start to intrude on an individual’s ability to function.
While Hollywood may have normalized – albeit poorly – the existence of some rituals, the obsessive portion of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is largely ignored. Intrusive thoughts that spark compulsive behaviors can center around violence, religion and sex. For example, a person might have unwanted thoughts about a loved one getting sick or injured.
A particularly frustrating element of the disorder is that someone who has OCD can’t control their thoughts or behaviors but usually recognizes that they are irrational. While performing behaviors may briefly alleviate the anxiety caused by undesired thoughts and obsessions, they are not pleasurable, and may cause physical harm, emotional distress, or just plain inconvenience.
In an article from the Atlantic, Fatima Tipu describes the specific experience of a friend who suffered from OCD and was stuck on the floor for an hour trying to pronounce the word “now” correctly.
“Once she said the word ‘now’ correctly, it kickstarted a stream of mental compulsions which she then could end by pronouncing the word ‘now’ again,” Tipu said. “Once she said ‘now’ the second time, she was able to allow herself to get off of the floor, as long as she was applying more pressure on her right foot than her left. By doing these things, she thought she would prevent her parents from dying. They weren’t in any danger, but the thought was inescapable, and she felt the only way to keep it at bay was by performing her compulsions.”
So how can you personally counteract these misleading stereotypes about OCD? First of all, don’t use it as an adjective or a state of being. For example, “I’m really OCD about the way I fold laundry.” Nothing can be OCD, it’s a disorder you either have or don’t have.
Second, do your research. The more education you have, the more likely you will be able to recognize stereotypes and offer support to real sufferers. Finally, hold others accountable. You can make a big impact by educating others and stopping the spread of misconceptions.
“OCD affects 2.2 million adults, or 1.0% of the U.S. population,” according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Given this percentage, it is pretty likely that you or someone you know is affected by OCD, so it’s about time the disorder is thought of as something far from funny. OCD is often coupled with other symptoms or diagnoses of depression, anxiety and panic attacks. People with OCD often struggle to hide their behaviors in public and face dirty looks, insensitive questions and sometimes even bullying from those whose understanding of the disorder might only come from what they’ve absorbed from society.
“Negative portrayals not only diminish the severity of the problem, but…also lead to silence and suffering for those who fear they will be dismissed or mocked for their OCD,” said Lisa Whittington-Hill.
The world really needs depictions of OCD that show the true, unfunny reality of living with the disorder instead of downplaying the symptoms of real sufferers. “Turtles All the Way Down” is a novel by John Green, author of “The Fault in Our Stars,” that is based on Green’s actual experiences with OCD. It serves as an example for popular culture that might just help viewers understand the battle that people with OCD fight every day.