My fingers gripped the handle of the infamously stubborn door and ripped it open. Inside, the radiators greeted me with a warm, comforting buzz. To my disdain, I was the first student there, and that meant I faced Mrs. Anderson alone. My head down, avoiding any eye contact, I shuffled to my seat. The tall, metal stool creaked in disapproval as I mounted it. After the embarrassing outburst of my chair, only a crushing silence filled the art room.
“Morgan,” Mrs. Anderson started, “Can you please fix that painting over there? It’s off center and I am so OCD about these things”.
Oh really? Was she so OCD about these things? My soul burned with annoyance. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is not an adjective nor a quirky personality trait; it is a lifelong, debilitating illness. An educated grown woman should not perpetuate those harmful stereotypes.
I hopped off the stool and trudged to the corner of the room where she gestured. The picture was one of her own, a beautiful orange sunset over a foamy blue ocean. I spotted the flaw: the painting hung slightly tilted to the left. I reached out and perfectly centered the stiff paper, now capable of satiating even the most observant critics. A fierce battle erupted in my mind the second she made that comment about OCD. I must inform her of her ignorance; even though she taught me, that didn’t make her immune to correction. The cautious side of my brain fought back. What if she really had obsessive-compulsive disorder and liked joking about it? Was appeasing my conscience worth a potentially awkward conversation? I decided it was. By the time the combat in my brain eased, more students had entered the room. Now I had an audience. I marched through the trench formed by my chattering classmates and over to her desk. Bracing myself for the worst, I took a deep breath.
“Mrs. Anderson, before when you were talking about the painting you said that you ‘were so OCD’. My grandmother suffers from OCD and I don’t think it’s a great idea to say things like that if you don’t really suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder,” my voice trailed off slightly at the look on her face.
“You’re right Morgan,” she softened, “I shouldn’t have said that and I am sorry your grandmother has to deal with that,” she admitted. My heart pounded in my throat as I walked away. I knew I did the right thing.
For centuries, ignorance and fear have obscured understanding of mental illnesses. With the rise of social media, however, those afflicted with these illnesses finally have a broader platform to educate others about their experiences. An estimated “26% of Americans 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year”, yet vicious misunderstanding still surrounds mental health. Education on anxiety and depression is more widespread because more people suffer from those particular illnesses. 18% of Americans will have an anxiety disorder in a given year, and 9.5% will have a depressive disorder (“Mental”). The percentage of those affected by OCD is significantly lower, only 1% of the US population (“Facts & Statistics”). The increased ignorance surrounding OCD compared to other mental illnesses stems from two main factors: the smaller percentage of those affected and the nature of OCD symptoms. The smaller percentage of those with OCD means their voices are not as prominent. In this era of technology, information spreads through the internet and social media. If a celebrity or public figure suffers from a more common mental illness like anxiety, they can spread awareness about it on their social media platforms. OCD’s rarity inhibits it from this advantage. People are ignorant about OCD and therefore make generalizations about its manifestations. Secondly, the common symptoms of OCD are particularly susceptible to appropriation. When the majority of people think of OCD, they imagine someone who suffers from chronic neatness, an observant eye, and maybe a particular love for color coding and organization. Those don’t seem like such harmful afflictions. So, people like Mrs. Anderson, consciously or not, steal the term for themselves. OCD means quirky and neat to them; they don’t understand the actual burden of obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD symptoms come in two parts: obsessions and compulsions. “Obsessions are thoughts, images, or impulses” that occur in an endless cycle in the mind, and the OCD sufferer feels no control over them. The compulsions of OCD are intended neutralizers of these obsessive thoughts; compulsions come in a wide variety of actions. A person may repeat a particular activity until it feels correct, check something multiple times, avoid specific triggering situations, excessively clean oneself, repeatedly asking others for reassurance, or put things in order or arrange things until it feels right (“What is OCD”). However, these actions are only a temporary escape from the obsessions.
My grandmother, or Lola, as we call her, suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. From a very young age, even without knowing the exact condition, I felt the toll it took on her and our family. I never knew exactly why she performed her little rituals; I even found them entertaining at times. Her disorder became a part of her personality. Once, Lola and I decided to play Jenga. I picked up the worn box and spilled the pieces onto the large wooden table. Lola stood in the kitchen, hunched over the marble sink, carefully cutting uniform shards of basil into a glass bowl. Large, bright yellow gloves hid her hands whenever she stepped foot in the kitchen. One eye still fixed on her rubber monstrosities, I stacked the Jenga blocks, three pieces vertical and three horizontal, until the tower formed. Whenever I played Jenga, I insisted the tower stand unsteady from the start, increasing the challenge.
“Lola I finished building it. Can we play now?” I pleaded.
“Yes dear, but first go into the foyer and put your shoes in your bedroom, please.”
I nodded and left. When I returned, Lola had rebuilt the tower, placing the final piece on top when I sat down. Her newly formed tower stood perfectly straight, not a single block out of line.
“What was wrong with my tower,” I questioned.
“Nothing honey, it just didn’t look right,” she offered vaguely.
Small, peculiar moments like these coat the majority of my memories with her. Initially, I viewed her cautious nature as a beneficial thing, like a superpower. To me, it felt as though she could see the future and sense things I could not. However, as I grew older, I paid closer attention. As I watched her nervously pull on her earlobe precisely four times on the left side and three on the right, I realized her OCD was far from beneficial. Her thoughts and mind were against her; they imprisoned her in a world of worry that she could never escape.
To outsiders, the most elusive aspect of OCD is the obsessions. The relentless flow of disturbing thoughts come in a wide variety. Obsessions can occur about almost anything: germs, diseases, body fluids, dirt, stealing, harming others, making mistakes, forbidden sexual impulses, superstition surrounding numbers and colors, losing control over one’s actions, forgetting important information, perverse sexual thoughts, fires, harming oneself, blasphemy, morality, or blurting out obscenities (“What is OCD”). No matter the subject, these thoughts deeply disturb and ruthlessly bombard the sufferer.
Imagine you are driving to the airport on a crowded highway during rush hour. You know, deep down, that everything is fine and you are well prepared for your journey. Then, the panic-inducing thoughts flood your brain. Is the stove still on? You checked twice, but what if you made a mistake? What if you started a fire that killed your neighbors? They just had a baby. What if their baby died? Did you lock the door? What if someone breaks in and steals your stuff? Your eyes focus on the stretch of highway beyond, then slowly shift to the wheel. What if you jerked the wheel right now? You could do it. What if you killed the people beside you? You could turn the wheel hard right now. Nothing is stopping you. Your hands are right there. Panic floods your body again as the horrors of that action flash in your mind. You smother that thought, but it comes back stronger this time. Angrier. You could hurt them. You have the power. Look at your hands on the wheel. The thoughts keep scratching and clawing, demanding control of your brain, your actions. You glance left into your rearview mirror and spot the flashing blue lights. It’s the police. What if they pull you over? What if you have illegal drugs in your car or a gun? Did someone put drugs in your car? What if you say the wrong thing and they arrest you? What if you hurt them? What if they hurt you? What if they shoot you? Is there a secret gun in your car? The worry shifts back towards your apartment. Did you lock your door? Did you remember that special gift for your friend, or did you leave it sitting on your bed? You check your seatbelt twice and tap the wheel three times because it usually calms your mind. Wrong. That felt wrong. Do it again. Finally, The thoughts win. You find yourself at the next exit, driving back towards your apartment because you definitely left the stove on.
The raw, unfiltered nature of obsessive-compulsive disorder is horrific. The illness takes over the sufferer’s thoughts, attacking them with an endless cycle of disturbing images. These obsessions hoard valuable time and mental energy. The compulsions of OCD, what the general public is more familiar with, manifest in countless ways. Cleanliness and organization are factors of some people’s compulsions, often used as neutralizers for obsessions about contamination and perfection. However, the public does not experience the thoughts behind the compulsions; all they view is a person who is chronically organized and clean. To the ignorant, these symptoms don’t seem negative. What’s wrong with being organized? Therefore, the public appropriated the term OCD for themselves. It became a synonym for a neat freak. In reality, however, these compulsions are devastating time consumers. The person with OCD has no desire to perform these rituals, but it is their only release. That is why I walked up to Mrs. Anderson, for the people who genuinely suffer from this illness. Those in constant battles with their mind do not deserve the severity of their experiences diminished by those who can’t find a different term for neat.
“Mental Health Disorder Statistics.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, 21 October. 2020, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/mental-health-disorder-statistics.
“Facts & Statistics.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, 21 October 2020, adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
“What Is OCD?” International OCD Foundation, 7 Oct. 2020, iocdf.org/about-ocd/.
Veale, David, and Alison Roberts. “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” BMJ: British Medical Journal, vol. 348, 2014. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26513796. Accessed 18 October 2020.