We are each born with different genetic predispositions. Some are good, some bad, some neutral. For the most part, I never used to give much thought to my genetic makeup or how it affected my daily life. Things just were the way they were. But now, as an adult, I’m beginning to see how these different puzzle pieces I inherited from my parents are shaping my life. And, like I said, some are good, some bad, and some neutral. But they are all a part of who I am.
There are a select handful of people who know about the specific genetic predispositions I inherited. But, for the most part, I tend to keep things like this silent. Maybe a part of it is shame, I don’t know, but I think most of it honestly has to do with not having the energy to try to make people understand. Because, when you say, “I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder,” people tend to respond in less than understanding ways.
Why is that? Honestly, I wish I knew.
For whatever reason, people tend to severely misunderstand OCD, thinking of it as an affinity for neatness and order and not an often debilitating anxiety disorder. The term “OCD” gets thrown around on the daily, but it is often misused. “I’m so OCD,” people often say (which annoys me simply for its grammatical incorrectness, much less the fact that the statement, 9 times out of 10, is false). Or, they might jokingly say to one another, “OCD much?” or “Stop being so OCD!” What is worse, though, is when people treat those friends who actually struggle with OCD as though it’s some sort of a game. They re-arrange things that have just been arranged or intentionally do the opposite of their friend’s compulsions just to get a rise out of them. And, while it may seem funny to watch a friend compulsively move to fix whatever you’ve just undone, they may never be able to explain the amount of anxiety your little joke just caused them.
Fact is, most of the people who say and do these things unfortunately have only a very limited understanding of what it actually means to be obsessive-compulsive.
OCD is a disorder that centers around anxiety. People who struggle with OCD suffer from what are called obsessions (uncontrollable thoughts, feelings, mental images, etc. that repeatedly occur and most often push the person toward their compulsions) and compulsions (the ritualistic behaviors they follow in order to lessen the anxiety they feel and/or the presence of the obsessions). There are many variables to OCD, and it looks different for different people. But the anxiety, obsessions, and compulsions are always there.
And I’m pretty sure this is also true across the board: Having OCD is exhausting. It means being hyper-vigilant, even when you don’t want to be, never being able to just “turn it off.” Always keeping track, always counting, always trying to appease the obsessions in order to get just a moment or two of peace. Sometimes it is more of a background issue, like an itch you can’t scratch. And sometimes, it takes up the entire forefront of your mind and makes it difficult to focus on more important things. Overall, it takes more energy than you might think.
I’ve lived my entire life with OCD. And, while I’m able to handle my obsessions and compulsions much better as an adult (and after years and years of prayer and concentrated effort) than I was as a child, it can still be debilitating at times. My compulsions fall into the category of “counters and arrangers” (I only recently realized there were categories, and it made me happy to have this bit of normalcy), which basically means my compulsions are all about things being symmetrical and/or corresponding with certain numbers. Thus, because I’ve always struggled with things being symmetrical, getting ready for the day has always been (and may always be) the most frustrating part of my day. And, depending on how I feel when I wake up in the morning, it may be either a routine part of the day or close to a meltdown-level catastrophe.
Throughout my life, getting ready has consisted of the following rituals (and other small things):
- putting all clothing on right-side first, only (and putting both sides on in exactly the same way)
- (as a small child) putting on/taking off clothing a certain number of times before actually being able to put them on
- putting the correct socks on the correct feet (yes, socks have specific feet) and in an exact way
- hair being perfectly symmetrical, esp. in tightness
- shoes being the exact same tightness
And that’s just the getting-ready part of the day. My days have, in addition, been consumed with hand washing, counting everything, overstepping sidewalk cracks with alternating feet, opening/closing doors all the way, doing things in specific number/time increments, and other compulsions. And, like I said, I’ve come a long way since I was a child. Things that once sent me into tantrums/meltdowns now are much less debilitating. But I still struggle.
For example, I recently bought new socks from the store, only to get home and realize (after putting them on) that they all have a logo on the upper left-hand side. Which means, whenever I wear them, one foot will have the logo over the baby toes and the other over the big toe. The first time I put these socks on, I nearly, as a 22-year-old woman, started screaming and crying like a small child. The anxiety that rose up in me over something so small and inconsequential is impossible to explain. Needless to say, I quickly took off the socks and shoved them back into my drawer.
But here is one major difference between my child self and my adult self: I wore those socks. Not at the moment, no. I waited for a day on which I was less stressed. I mentally prepared myself for the lack of symmetry. And, throughout the day, I made a valiant effort to not look at my feet or think about the socks. When I would feel myself starting to panic, I would think of other things, distracting myself until the panic subsided.
So what’s my point?
Mainly, this: I know it’s routine for some people to joke about having OCD or to intentionally get their obsessive-compulsive friends riled up, but is this really the best way to love people who actually are obsessive-compulsive? I’ve overcome so much in the way of my OCD in the last 5 years or so, but I’ve needed the help and understanding of my friends and family along the way. We need your help, people of the world. Not your jokes.
To make things simple (and hopelessly cliche), I’m going to make one of those “6 ways to love your obsessive-compulsive friend” lists. 3 negative, 3 positive. Because who doesn’t like lists, especially when they’re perfectly symmetrical?
1. Stop calling yourself obsessive-compulsive.
Yes, we know you alphabetize your DVDs and make your bed every morning. Good for you. That does NOT make you obsessive-compulsive. Unless you suffer debilitating anxiety when those things don’t happen, unless these habits interfere with your daily life and occasionally even make it a living hell, you don’t have OCD. And, by claiming that your affinity for neatness is actually OCD, you’re diminishing the battle we fight every day to live normal lives.
2. Stop undoing our compulsions.
Do me a favor. Close your eyes and picture the thing that drives you crazy faster than any other thing. Imagine that thing is happening. Imagine your stress building. Now triple that stress. Now triple it again. Sucks, right? Now imagine you take the time to right that wrong (whatever it is). Take a big sigh of relief. Feels good, right? Now imagine someone comes by and intentionally undoes all of your hard work. The stress comes back, only tripled again. You’re starting to panic. Do you give them the reaction they’re looking for and let them laugh? Or do you hold it in and pray they leave before you explode?
That’s more or less what it feels like when you intentionally mess up something I’ve just compulsively fixed. Panic upon panic upon panic, upon anger and frustration. It doesn’t feel good. You may laugh about it, but it makes me feel like crap ten times over. Ask yourself honestly: is it worth it for a laugh? If you’re that desperate, go watch a comedy.
3. Stop saying, “OCD much?”
Believe it or not, I know I’m obsessive compulsive. I don’t need you to remind me and make me feel even more stigmatized than I already do. Even though we know you’re probably just teasing, it can often just make things more stressful for us.
4. Offer to help us, but don’t be too offended when we say no.
I know, this is a little counter-intuitive. When you see us floundering, starting to panic over something as small as packing a suitcase or tying our shoes the same tightness or whatever else, it makes sense to want to help. And to get upset if/when we say no. We do appreciate it, really. But chances are, at least for me, that I will say no. Because it’s my compulsion, and having someone else’s hands in it may just increase my anxiety. But, if you can handle the possibility of rejection, please do keep offering. It means a lot to us. And, besides that, we just might surprise you every once in a while and say yes.
As a side note: You don’t necessarily have to offer to help with a particular task (i.e. folding laundry or packing). Sometimes, if you see us stressing, the best reaction is just to ask, “What can I do to help?” rather than offering to do a particular task. And we’re much more likely to let you help that way, too.
5. Ask us about it.
I find it incredibly ironic that people joke constantly about OCD, but when it comes down to finding out a friend actually has OCD, people freeze. They either keep joking (which honestly doesn’t help) or ignore it altogether. I don’t want you to talk about my OCD all day, every day, but I’d love the chance to tell you what it’s like or explain what specifically sets me off. When we’re so used to people misunderstanding what OCD really is, we usually choose to not talk about it. You asking shows you really care and want to understand.
If you want to go the extra mile, do some research! Look it up on the internet. Check out research books from the library. Read novels with obsessive-compulsive characters (Two examples that come immediately to mind are Martin in Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger and Jake Martin in Compulsion by Heidi Ayarbe. I’m sure there are others).
6. Treat us like normal human beings.
This probably goes without saying, and thankfully most people do this very well. But aside from acknowledging our obsessive-compulsiveness in the moment and trying to not to make it such a laughing stock, really the best thing to do is just treat us as normally as you can. (For most of you reading this, you probably didn’t even know I had OCD before now, so I’m sure that’s been no problem before. ;) ) Believe me, we don’t love living with the constant reality of our OCD. Sometimes its nice to not let it have the stage (and it can be incredibly healing to focus on other things).
So there you have it, folks. Hopefully this was a helpful little post and not too harsh. Also, please note that I’ve drawn mostly from my personal experience here. So if anyone who reads this disagrees with me, please do let me know. But also realize I can only speak from what I’ve experienced. OCD is a vast and varied disorder, and everyone’s experience is in some way different, just like with any other part of life.
Thanks for reading!