I hear it all the time — “My place is so perfect, I’m so OCD.” “OMG, it has to be just right, I’m so OCD.” “You should see the size of my Star Wars collection, I’m so OCD.”
Guess what… you’re NOT actually OCD.
As an OCD sufferer living in Hollywood and working in the industry, it frustrates me so much when people say this to me, as if it’s a “cool” adjective to describe yourself. I was born with OCD, struggled throughout my childhood, through multiple high schools, and eventually left college after just one semester, so consumed I was with my obsessive thoughts. I barely made it through my 20’s, and then finally in my early 30s, hit rock bottom — bedridden in my parent’s guest bedroom paralyzed by OCD. The next year would look something like this: 3 psychiatric hospitals, intensive outpatient therapy, two months at the OCD Institute at McLean Hospital in Boston, being kicked out of the OCD Institute, and living on the streets of Boston in the middle of winter with little money, no transportation, no job, and still severe OCD and separation anxiety. Hitting rock bottom was actually the best thing that could have happened to me — though I didn’t feel that way at the time. Just surviving became more important than my OCD, and finally I could understand the point of the therapy that my treatment team and family had been trying desperately to help me with. 8 months later, I was “reborn” and moved to LA, a healthy, happy, and thriving member of society.
Hollywood’s general portrayal, and perspective of OCD, is limited. Films and TV shows present OCD as quirky, almost fun. The characters can use their OCD to their advantage, almost like a skill or superpower (Monk?). Hollywood has created the belief that OCD is just checking, hand washing, or germs. It’s funny to watch, and not too difficult to live with. All of this, feeding the “OCD stigma” fire to a point where having the disease (YES… it’s a disease, not a decision) is like having a bad day and “you” just need to buck up! Rarely if ever, does Hollywood, or even the media, address the reality of OCD. Even the shows that do well showing that OCD is more than just germophobia, such as the popular HBO show “Girls,” start complicating the issue when a character is portrayed as being immediately cured with a bottle of medication.
The reality is that most people suffering with OCD in this country — 3 million and counting — are functional but not happy, barely functioning, or completely debilitated. A lucky few (like me) have found effective treatment and are thriving and enjoying life again. But we need to reduce the obstacles to treatment. We need to reduce the roadblocks that prevent people from asking for help. And the media has a lot to answer for when it comes to stigma around mental health issues, especially OCD.
For many people, OCD looks nothing like what you see on television — I didn’t wash my hands, I didn’t check, I wasn’t afraid of germs. My OCD was all fear of losing control — I was terrified of unintentionally harming myself. Have you ever been driving on the highway and had the sudden terrifying thought, “What if I accidentally drove into oncoming traffic?” That was what my mind felt like all the time. I was constantly besieged by these thoughts, such as, what if I accidentally drink that Clorox under the sink? What if I overdose on my meds? What if I bash my head against that wall and cause a traumatic brain injury? OCD is complicated, and preys on your unique fears and anxieties. For some people that’s germs, for others it’s fear of harming someone. These fears and anxieties seem irrational and easy to brush aside from the outside — but the actual experience of having OCD is such that, you lose that perspective. Your brain can’t shrug off these fears.
Knowledge is power. Can we laugh at cancer on television or in the movies? Of course. We can and we have, and that’s because most people understand the gravity of cancer. There have been jokes about baldness, jokes about losing weight fast, even jokes about tumors. But no one mistakenly thinks that cancer just means losing your hair. Society and Hollywood knows what it means to have cancer, what the repercussions are, how it changes a life, what’s needed to get better, and the reality that one could die.
Imagine now if we didn’t have this knowledge, only the people suffering did. How would those people feel dealing with the media’s portrayal of cancer as funny or cool? What if someone lost weight on a diet and said, “Look at me, I’m so cancer”?
Welcome to the world of OCD. It’s a world where people only know the side they see on television, that “bald” and “skinny” side. All the while the OCD sufferers know the truth, and for the most part, struggle with this truth alone. In today’s world, calling into work because your OCD is flaring up again, doesn’t mean you’re sick… it means you’re crazy.
We’ve made such exciting progress on a variety of issues, from race to sexuality, gender equality, and religious tolerance. Unfortunately, mental health education and acceptance is still far behind the times. Every day, millions are affected by mental illness, yet incredibly, it takes the most rare and extreme case, a school shooting or celebrity suicide, to spark a public conversation.
So, let’s change the status quo. Let’s educate. Let’s make a change so that those not suffering will better understand those who do, and those who do, won’t have to suffer in silence. Let’s begin a mental health movement. Because in the end, we just can’t afford not to.
October 13–19, 2014, week is OCD Awareness Week. To learn more about OCD, please visit iocdf.org or join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #OCDweek.