OCD goes deeper than organization and cleanliness
Editor’s Note: Some names have been changed to maintain privacy
“I just need my books organized in rainbow order — I get so OCD about those things.” “Ew, don’t drink out of my straw! Sorry, I’m just kinda OCD about that.” “I’m so OCD about the lock on my door. I always double-check it before I leave the house.”
It’s common for people to associate preferences about the organization or cleanliness of their belongings or personal space to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) without having an official diagnosis or true symptoms. Stereotyping OCD as a disorder that makes those affected only preoccupied with cleanliness and organization diminishes the intensity that the disorder can have, as well as push a narrative that OCD looks the same in everyone who has it.
OCD “is characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions),” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Repetitive behaviors such as hand washing, counting, checking, or cleaning are often performed with the hope of preventing obsessive thoughts or making them go away.” However, the symptoms and behaviors that OCD causes go beyond those.
A common misconception about the disorder is that people living with OCD choose to be obsessively clean, organized or safe. What usually causes these behaviors, however, is a recurring thought or fear (obsession) that leads one to complete an action, ritual or phrase (compulsion.) It is common for people with OCD to feel that if they do not complete their compulsion, the obsessive thought or fear will come true.
One of the most frustrating things about OCD is that even when the compulsive behaviors are completed, the pattern of thoughts and fears return. According to the Mayo Clinic, this often creates a “vicious cycle of OCD.”
“Ultimately, you feel driven to perform compulsive acts to try to ease your stress. Despite efforts to ignore or get rid of bothersome thoughts or urges, they keep coming back. This leads to more ritualistic behavior,” reads an article published by the Mayo Clinic Staff.
The unwanted thoughts that come with OCD can range from mildly bothersome to intensely disturbing, and depending on the person, do not revolve only around cleanliness, organization, germs, or illness.
“It’s very hard for me to share my diagnosis with someone else and to be met with stigmatized comments like ‘you’re not very organized though,’ or ‘then why is your room so messy?” said Gina Arndt, a junior criminology student at DePaul.
“I think the most common response that makes me feel the most invalidated is when people downplay it, or when people assume that surface-level compulsions like washing my hands are the only thing I struggle with.”
Ardnt was diagnosed with OCD her sophomore year of high school but began showing symptoms of the disorder in middle school. She experiences contamination-based OCD, causing anxiety, obsession and paranoia about the sharing and spreading of bodily fluids.
Ardnt believes that her OCD stems from childhood trauma, which is a common risk factor of developing the disorder. Other factors include family history, stressful or traumatic events, and already existing anxiety disorders, according to a report by the Mayo Clinic.
When people respond to her diagnosis with comments like, “I wash my hands a lot, too,” Ardnt feels it displays their lack of understanding of the disorder. “Many people’s shallow understanding of OCD comes from their perception of what it looks like, rather than how it functions within someone’s brain,” she said. “When people reduce my experience down to just being ‘clean’ or ‘’hygienic,’ it’s very hurtful.”
Ritual and routine are common behaviors found in people with OCD. Checking habits can take up hours of one’s day, depending on the severity.
“[OCD] affects my organization. It makes me late sometimes, it can make me on edge sometimes. It affects my productivity a lot of the times, as well as my emotions, and kind of the way I carry myself,” said Sean, a senior at DePaul. (Sean is not his real name; his name has been changed to maintain privacy.)
Sean was diagnosed with OCD when he was 18, but started experiencing symptoms at age 12. OCD causes him to repeat motions, words and rituals. For example, he says that his main ritual is checking the doors and windows before leaving the house. Fear of a break-in motivates this compulsion.
Additionally, knocking on wood is a repetitive ritual that Sean uses to cope with anxious or obsessive thoughts. “Superstition manifested into a ritual that way. I have adopted the mindset that when I have a negative or disturbing thought, that’s the ritual I do to make sure that it doesn’t manifest itself into reality,” he said. “Coping with [my OCD] is pretty difficult. My thoughts can be invasive, to the point where it gets to be overwhelming.
Although there is no way to prevent OCD, there are certain forms of therapy that can help. Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy is a proven method that helps people with OCD cope with their obsessions and compulsions. According to the International OCD Foundation, ERP is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that exposes patients to the sources of their anxiety or obsessions in a safe and controlled environment. Through these exposures, the patient can gain more control over their responses over time.
Sean started ERP therapy over a year ago as a way to cope with his OCD and recommends others to try it. Before trying ERP, he relied on methods of distraction like listening to music to keep him from indulging in disturbing thoughts. After beginning ERP, he overcame some of his rituals and repetitive behaviors.
“Getting reassurance from a professional saying that [your obsessions] are all in your head and and then doing the practice along with the instructions is super helpful for the more intense rituals and behaviors that come with this disorder,” Sean said. “It’s definitely hard to complete all of that, but for the easier or less intense aspects of OCD, [ERP] can be pretty successful.”
While the disorder ranges in intensity from person to person, the unwanted thoughts, anxiety and time-consuming compulsions that manifest from the disorder can be exhausting. In addition to ERP, the disorder can be managed with traditional talk therapy and medication. It’s important to listen to the real experiences of people with diagnosed OCD, and correct others when they push stereotypes, minimize the disorder, or claim to be “OCD” about certain subjects.
Header image by Samarah Nasir