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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.

8 Comments

  • Thank you for this. The cancer analogy is a great parallel to explain that most people don’t have OCD. This has been a pet peeve of mine since I was diagnosed in 2006. Comparing a neat house to debilitating anxiety is insulting to say the least.

    Reply
  • WOW WOW WOW. This post is PERFECT. There are so many quotable pieces I’m going to start using in my description of OCD and the general misunderstanding of it. Thank you!

    Reply
  • Ethan Smith, your article about “I’m so OCD” was “so right on”…I gasp when I see, hear or read people say I’m so OCD, like the record/CD collector., the slightly messy person or anything that definitly is not OCD…These people should know that being a “checker” with OCD is not an enjoyable thing, such as CD collecting..I am into my 80’s and in retrospect, I can recall all those OCD behaviors that used to make me very upset and sad because I felt I was insane…I used to say to myself, if people knew what I was thinking and why I was checking things, they would commit me and throw away the key…I’m so happy that people in this day and age that still are suffering from what ever OCD has to offer, but can get help readily…

    Reply
  • Megan

    I don’t know if I exactly qualify as OCD. I have obsessions and I have compulsions, but I don’t fit the strict definition. Whatever the diagnosis should actually be, here is what I experience:
    I know many folks hold a different personal definition of obsession. Or compulsion. I have had people try to tell me that they relate, but I know that they do not have that constant and incessant fixation that I know. It is like being stuck in a thought loop. Even if I can do other things, it is a program always running in the background of my mind. I have obsessive behaviors regarding people. Every now and then a person becomes a trigger and I become fixated on them. I try to connect. Messaging the person becomes ritualistic and irresistible. I have had it descend into arguing back and forth, for over a year. The previous fixation wanted to escape. It was shameful and hard to handle emotionally, but I just kept doing it. I drove away someone who I cared about, and I kept pursuing. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion, and then adding fuel to the burning wreckage while watching in horror. I am lucky now, because the fixation has shifted to someone else. The person that I have now handles this well. He does not respond, but he reads my messages and tolerates my behavior. I text at least once a day. It is sometimes reassuring, and sometimes distressing. I try to minimalism the problem by being positive and affirming, lest I be driven away. I am afraid to lose him, lest I turn my obsessive thoughts to someone else. He is like a lightning rod.
    I have concerns about calling myself OCD, because I do not meet the exact criteria. The new DSM-5 may explain some of my other problems, such as excoriation. I also do not feel that my rituals will prevent a disaster. Compulsions are more like a drive.

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  • Jess

    Thank you so much for your blog! I cringe whenever I hear my friends or people in public say something like “I’m like sooo OCD about keeping my floors clean”. In my head I start the dialogue I wish I could have: “Really?? Are you *really* so OCD about your floors? Have you ever had to miss school or work because you felt so anxious about the state of your floors? Have you ever felt that the cleanliness of your floor was some how connected to the well-being of you or your loved ones?….(etc.)”
    This continues until I can take a breath and remember that they don’t mean to degrade all of the work I do daily to combat my OCD — that I can talk to my close friends to explain and educate and just pray that people like you and other organizations will do the same for the greater public.
    Thanks again and best wishes to you!

    Reply
  • julie

    Great article. My daughter has OCD. She said that whenever classmates casually remark that they “have OCD” because they like their socks to match, she wants to respond with, “Me too! What dosage are you on?” She totally owns it and isn’t ashamed.

    Reply
  • A person with OCD

    I used to take offense to people saying “omg I am soooo OCD,” but now I also see the unintended benefit of it. Though they are incorrectly minimizing a serious condition, people who equate OCD with a cute/positive personality quirk are, albeit unintentionally, eroding the stigma associated with this particular mental illness by normalizing or even “trendifying” it.

    Reply
  • Ethan Smith
    Ethan S. Smith

    Re: A Person With OCD

    I do understand where you’re coming from and there is some truth to your statement in terms of a discussion happening about OCD in main stream America. Any press is good press, right? However, the people that are not educated about OCD are the ones making the claims. Quirks and habits are not OCD, but they’re making the connection that they are. The reality is so many suffering with OCD are homebound, not functional, barely functioning, painfully functioning. The depths of despair that OCD can take you are not what those people are referring to. In fact, they’re most likely unaware of the severity of OCD. And therein lies the problem. There’s nothing cute or trendy about not functioning. And the conversation those individuals are starting don’t dive any deeper than a superficial understanding of OCD like traits, not Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as a whole. That can be dangerous.

    Reply

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