OCD has shown me how harmful mental health misconceptions can be

What does “I’m so OCD” even mean?

a person dusting their neatly organized bookshelf, with a thought bubble that reads “I’m so OCD”
ILLUSTRATION: Ananya Singh / The Peak

By: Saije Rusimovici, Staff Writer

Content warning: brief mentions of self-harm and suicide.

The last place I expected to meet another person with OCD was in the stands at a baseball game. Three of us sat there together cheering on the local men’s team. “. . . I’m just so OCD about that kind of stuff,” one of them said. “No, you’re not. I’m medicated.” The other girl said firmly, shutting down her statement. I looked up at her wide-eyed. Me too. Until then, the only person I knew with obsessive compulsive disorder was Howie Mandel, who has been very open about his experience. It was the first time in years I hadn’t felt alone. After this encounter, I turned to social media to connect with more people with OCD. The lack of formal education for conditions like OCD is concerning, and it contributes to people using the disorder as an adjective. Are you really “so OCD,” or just particular about certain things?

OCD is not an adjective. The number of times I’ve heard people use the phrase “I’m so OCD” is truly disheartening. Symptoms of OCD can be so severe that it could impact one’s ability to go to school, hold down a job, or even leave the house. Having experienced the effects of this disorder since I was a child, my response to people calling themselves “OCD” whenever they have the urge to straighten a picture frame or set the table a certain way is this: just stop

When I was 11-years-old, I experienced the feeling of impending doom for the first time. Fascinated with YouTube, I decided to post a video of myself singing. This was in 2011, when the online world was expanding quickly, and middle-school aged children were constantly being lectured about the dangers of cyberbullying. The gnawing, cold-sweat inducing sensation trapped me in a state of fear about people’s reactions. The worst part was that it felt like I would feel this scared forever. I didn’t think that something terrible could happenI was convinced that it would happen, so I deleted the video. 

Obsessive compulsive disorder is a chronic, usually lifelong disorder. It causes people to experience unwanted, uncontrollable, recurring thoughts and feelings (obsessions) that lead to behaviours to alleviate the anxiety brought on by these sensations (compulsions). A compulsion can be physical or mental, and often presents itself in the form of a ritual that may or may not relate to the subject matter of the obsessions. Obsessions can present in many ways — not just contamination obsessions, like many assume. Common OCD obsessions include intrusive thoughts and worries about sex, violence, self-harm, or the harm of others, gender, sexual orientation, or suicide. 

In my case, some of these obsession and compulsion combinations included driving back and forth to make sure I didn’t hit anyone, changing my clothes multiple times a night for fear they were dirty, and walking back and forth because there were certain places I felt I could and couldn’t walk on the sidewalk. I’d also go up and down stairs, and constantly seek reassurance from family and friends that nothing bad would happen to me if I didn’t do these things “properly.” When you call yourself “OCD” simply because you’re particular about organizing your desk, you overlook the impact this disorder has on individuals. The phrase perpetually contributes to misunderstanding, and makes many people afraid to be open about their diagnosis.

Seeking help was not easy. It took me over 10 years to get the support I needed, due to a collective lack of knowledge about the condition. No name was ever given to my diagnosis until I was nearly 18-years-old. I didn’t start taking medication to combat the effects of the disorder until that point, and before then I would struggle to get through each day without doing my compulsions. If I tried to ignore an obsession, it would prevent me from sleeping, eating, engaging in social events, and going to school. I often avoided places that I thought would trigger an obsessive thought as a result. 

My family and friends were supportive, but when I was younger people made jokes about my situation due to miseducation. It was only after I started doing my own research and connected with online platforms that I was able to educate myself and the people in my life about the disorder. I didn’t want to take medication for the longest time because there was so much stigma about what antidepressants supposedly do to people. I was also ashamed of not being “strong enough” to deal with whatever was happening on my own. After starting medication, all I could think about was that my obsessions took years away from me. 

I’m grateful for the online platforms that acted as educational tools and support systems throughout my mental health journey. Some resources that helped me navigate the ups and downs of obsessive-compulsive disorder include Alegra Kastens and Jenna Overbaugh, who dedicate their accounts to providing genuine first-hand experiences and advice about OCD. 

Social media has provided me with the mental health knowledge that formal education lacks, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to destigmatize OCD. We need to provide accurate and usable resources for children displaying symptoms of the disorder, so we can collectively work to support those who are struggling. We also need to shut down improper uses of the acronym, “OCD.” 

Going undiagnosed for so long, there were many times where I felt hopeless and alone. I hope the growth of online platforms means more awareness about the impact of obsessive compulsive disorder and pushes towards formalizing mental health education in Canadian schools. Beyond that, I hope we can all play a part in destigmatizing the condition through our language.