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3 Things to Remember When You See That 'OCD Christmas' Shirt

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Sarah Schuster, The Mighty’s mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Ah, it’s that time of year again. Holiday lights, warm cups of cocoa, gatherings with family and friends, and — one of my least favorite traditions — discussions about whether or not it’s OK to sell and distribute Obsessive Christmas Disorder merchandise.

It happened a few years ago at Target, and unfortunately has been revived by BooHoo, a U.K.-based fashion retailer. In the case of BooHoo, the item in question is a pajama shirt that reads “Obsessive Christmas Disorder,” which is a holiday riff on obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Because, get it? You’re, like, obsessed with Christmas.

When a new product like this comes out, the conversation is fairly predictable. Some mental health advocates get angry, explaining how the phrase reinforces misconceptions about OCD. Others fight outrage with outrage, lamenting, because people just can’t take a joke anymore. “Snowflakes” always find something to complain about. If you don’t like the product JUST DON’T BUY IT. 

The retailer responds. Target replied to angry tweets, but ultimately didn’t pull the product. BooHoo dropped the pajamas from its website.

Frankly, I find the cycle exhausting. People who like to get outraged about outrage are always going to think anger they don’t understand is due to overdeveloped sensitivities. Brands will respond in ways they think best serve their bottom line. People will forget about it until next Christmas rolls around and another retailer makes the same mistake.

But, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. You don’t have to agree, but hear me out. Here are three real reasons why I personally roll my eyes in disgust when I see an OCD Christmas product. This doesn’t mean I think it’s the biggest deal in the world. This doesn’t mean this is the mental health issue of all mental health issues. It just means it’s happening, so let’s talk about it. Then, I hope I never have to write about it again.

1. Obsessive Christmas Disorder is not even funny or clever.

I’m certainly not a queen of comedy, but I’d like to think I can appreciate a good joke. And sometimes good jokes aren’t politically correct. Regardless, “politically incorrect” jokes tend to be more acceptable (and usually funnier) when they punch up instead of punching down. This means a joke makes fun of something or someone in a position of power versus making fun of a group that’s already marginalized, misunderstood or less systematically powerful.

In this case, the joke punches down … and it’s not even funny. That’s a double fail of a joke. So before you blow your whistle on the PC-police, think: Is this really the joke you want to go down defending? A kind of half-pun about really liking Christmas? Is this joke really more important than people’s feelings about the joke? You do you, but I’d beg to differ.

2. It would be easier to laugh at an OCD joke if more people understood OCD.

One of the reasons this joke is an example of “punching down” is that OCD is already pretty misunderstood. The OCD Christmas sweater is only one in a line of examples where “OCD” is misused and appropriated, from those “Are you so OCD?” quizzes you’ve seen online to Khloé Kardashian’s video series, “KHLO-C-D.” So it makes sense that seeing another item trivialize OCD is pretty frustrating.

In case you need a refresher, one of my favorite ways to explain the difference between being “obsessed” with something and OCD comes from activist and radio news anchor Jeff Bell. In a blog on Psychology Today, he wrote about two behaviors that could be considered “so OCD”: organizing his closet and compulsively picking up rocks and sticks.

Although his closet might look it belongs to someone who is “so OCD,” for Bell, it’s actually unrelated. Organizing his closet is something he likes to do. He does it by choice. Picking up rocks was different. During what Bell describes as his “worst years,” he couldn’t walk down the street without picking up every rock and twig he passed, afraid that if he didn’t, someone would hurt themselves and it would be his fault.

The obsession was that someone would hurt themselves because of his negligence. The compulsion was picking up rocks and sticks. It was debilitating because he would do this for hours, and it affected his life in a negative way.

This distinction is everything — it’s the difference between preference and mental illness. And it matters. It matters because for people who are diagnosed with OCD, this misunderstanding demotes something they live with that can be very debilitating to an everyday quirk. It takes away the meaning of the sentence, “I have OCD.” Sweaters and pajamas like BooHoo’s only add to the misunderstanding.

3. Minimizing OCD minimizes its impact.

When I was in college and my brother was in and out of hospitals for his obsessive-compulsive disorder, I didn’t talk about it with anyone. The few people I did tell usually didn’t understand the impact of my words when I told them what my brother lived with. I was actually met with, “I understand, I get really stressed about where I should put my shoes.” Cliche, I know, but it happened.

I do believe this misunderstanding about OCD made it harder to talk about. No one understood how something that was “just OCD” could impact my brother so much. They didn’t understand why it was such a big deal. They didn’t understand why something they associated with “being neat” could drive someone to attempt suicide.

The World Health Organization ranks OCD as one of the 10 most disabling health conditions. While OCD, like any other mental illness, ranges in severity, it does affect people’s lives. It does cause people to struggle. And because people in my life still struggle with OCD and while people feel isolated and alone, I’m sorry if I don’t think an OCD Christmas sweater is funny. I hope a retailer would consider that — both for their bottom line, and because it’s the right thing to do.

Or at the very least, they could use their resources to mass produce a much better joke.

Originally published: December 14, 2018
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