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Why You Need to Stop Thinking OCD Is a Quirky Personality Trait

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Editor’s note: If you struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. To find help visit International OCD Foundation’s website.

It seems harmless on the surface: a friend stops to straighten a picture frame, then laughs, “Sorry, I’m just so OCD.” Maybe they keep their desk extra neat, or color code their agenda. Maybe they are bothered that the text in a document isn’t perfectly aligned.

Somewhere along the line, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) became just another synonym for organized and perfectionist, a cute character flaw that could be marketed as unique.

It’s the kind of word that gets casually thrown around as if it isn’t a serious medical diagnosis. This makes it easy to discredit what OCD actually is and underestimate how difficult living with it can be sometimes.

So why is using the term OCD accurately such a big deal? What’s the problem with OCD jokes emblazoned on shirts in the aisles of Target, and how does it impact people actually living with OCD?

Let’s go back to that picture frame I mentioned earlier. Most people would be somewhat bothered by a crooked picture frame, but could ultimately walk by it without fixing it. Now imagine if that crooked picture frame was a weight on your back, and you couldn’t relieve that weight until you addressed the impulse to straighten it.

I like to explain having OCD as having a backpack that is constantly being filled with something heavy. For example, if someone leaves a document highlighted on their computer desktop and goes onto another task, that’s a weight. And that weight takes up mental energy.

Too many browser tabs, dishes left in the sink, the feeling of dry clay on my hands and having to interact with certain textures are all examples of weights taking up mental space. The list goes on and on for me, and it’s a different list for each person with OCD.

When OCD is trivialized as a quirky personality trait, it makes it difficult for others to see that these things don’t just bother me, but actually weigh me down. Not just mentally — it feels like a physical weight.

The best example for me is closed doors. If a door is left slightly open, it takes over my senses and makes it hard to focus on anything else. While I’ve spent years asking my family to be mindful about closing doors in the house, their lack of understanding on how serious OCD can be leads them to make fun of it instead of listening.

While this accommodation would be a minor, if not unnoticeable difference in their daily routine, it would make a world of difference for me.

A greater awareness of what it’s like to live with OCD is badly needed. I have yet to admit most of my more impactful symptoms out loud, for fear they won’t be taken seriously. I’m trying to get better at standing up for myself and explaining to friends how harmful using that word carelessly can be, but it’s hard.

If you’re guilty of using the term OCD (or any other mental illness for that matter) for anything other than its real definition, the good news is that’s an easy change to make. And just like remembering to fully close a door, it’s the kind of difference that would be minuscule for you, but have a huge positive impact for so many people.

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Thinkstock photo via Martinan

Originally published: June 17, 2017
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