Sorry people, you're probably not “a bit OCD” #OCDAwarenessWeek

We’ve all said it at some point. My friends, family members, tonnes of celebrities. Even me before I got my diagnosis.

“I’m a bit OCD”

I try not to feel upset or angry whenever I hear the infamous phrase. I know that no one ever means it maliciously or aims to discredit the illness I have. More and more people are compassionate and open-minded when it comes to mental health, and I know most are up for learning more about how they can be supportive.

So, as part of OCD Awareness Week, I wanted to write a post on why using the term OCD to describe a tendency to like having things clean and tidy — although often said in jest and meant in good humour — is harming the progress of awareness, acceptance and treatment of a complex illness. I’ll also explain why, actually, it doesn’t even make sense!

So what actually is OCD?

Although OCD is difficult to describe in a few sentences, I am going to try my best.

Most people have fears that they hide deep down and don’t often think about. Some people might be scared of dying, for example, or something happening to a family member.

Brains with OCD have fears too, called ‘obsessions’ (although I don’t like that word!) The only difference is that thoughts relating to them pop up much more frequently, and over time the illness convinces you that the reason you are thinking about these fears so much must be because there is a real threat. As you can imagine, this causes significant anxiety. Some OCD sufferers may therefore create certain rituals in order to ease their anxiety and ‘fight against’ their thoughts. The only trouble is, these rituals increase the frequency of the thoughts. Rituals can be literally anything — both physical and mental — and often seemingly irrational. OCD sufferers often know that their rituals are irrational, but the thought of the anxiety they would feel if they did not complete them is too much to bear.

My personal obsessions include a fear that I am dying from a serious illness, a fear that I am secretly evil and a fear that I am in danger and there are people who are out to ‘get’ me and harm me. I also experience intrusive thoughts, which can literally be anything from images of horrific things happening to family members or me to voices in my head saying things that distress, disgust or repulse me.

As no cure currently exists for OCD, most sufferers learn through therapy to accept and manage their thoughts without responding to them. Simply to know that the thoughts in your head are an illness and not reality is one of the most reassuring feelings an OCD sufferer will ever experience. It is also possible to take medication (I take it every day) which decreases the frequency of thoughts and reduces anxiety.

Where does the clean and tidy bit come into it?

There are some people with OCD whose brains tell them that in order to stop their worst fears from happening, they must carry out rituals such as hand washing or arranging items in a certain order. But it is only one potential subset of OCD, and by no means the ritual of every sufferer. I, for example, am typing this blog post on a very messy desk.

Over the years, mainstream coverage of OCD has tended to focus on those who carry out these types of rituals because they are the easiest to explain and the most visible. It has, unfortunately, created the public perception that everyone with OCD must have the same thoughts and rituals.

Why is it inaccurate and unhelpful?

Claiming that you are a bit OCD when straightening a book on your shelf, for example, implies that full-on OCD is simply a more extreme version of your desire to have things arranged in an orderly fashion. This not only undermines the seriousness of the condition, it also prevents many sufferers from getting the help they desperately need. Due to the mainstream coverage and perception of OCD, I did not know that I had the condition until I was diagnosed in my 20s. Even after I was diagnosed, I refused to fully believe it for a while. I didn’t have a fear of germs or a desire for everything to be neat and tidy, so surely I couldn’t have OCD?

In my opinion, the main focus in any explanation of OCD must be on the constant and overpowering thoughts and mental images. These are the symptoms experienced by all sufferers. The rituals they may or may not carry out are simply a manifestation of the crux of the illness.

Therefore, if you don’t experience those thoughts or mental images, it actually doesn’t make any sense to say that you’re a bit OCD! Here’s a few words you could use instead to help the OCD community out and do your little bit to ensure that more people get the help and support they need…

Fussy, pedantic, picky, meticulous, perfectionist, exact, particular & many more synonyms besides!

For more information on OCD, feel free to visit the following resources: