My Reality Isn't Your Reality

Twenty minutes of brushing my teeth and it still wasn’t enough to satisfy the voice in my head screaming that my teeth were going to rot and fall out. Realistically, I knew that two minutes of brushing my teeth twice a day was enough to have healthy, cavity-free teeth. However, when I went to brush my teeth all I could see and think about was my teeth slowly rotting and falling out. So I continued to brush my teeth, hoping that by doing so I could avoid the terrible fate. I managed to stop once I tasted blood in my mouth, knowing that I would have a high chance of getting a mouth infection now. I have since gotten my teeth brushing more under control, only doing six minutes twice a day and having a mint or gum every time after I eat something. At this point you are probably wondering what on earth is wrong with me, because my reaction seems very unrealistic and overdramatic. The scene I depicted above is only a small part of something that dictates and controls my entire life: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Many people falsely believe that OCD just has to do with germs and neatness, but that is only a small aspect of a very diverse mental illness. The abundance of jokes about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder perpetuate this misunderstanding and actively prevent those who actually have OCD from getting support. We need to stop joking about mental illnesses like OCD and give those who suffer support without judgement. I hope that by reading this paper I am able to educate you about what Obsessive Compulsive Disorder really is for me, and how you can stop the stigma surrounding it.

Many people don’t know what OCD really is, and falsely assume through the joking they commonly hear that OCD is an adjective for clean or neat. So, what actually is OCD? Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a debilitating mental illness that affects 1 to 3% of the US population, and 1 in 200 children. There are many types of OCD, such as contamination, mental contamination, checking, hoarding, rumination, and intrusive thoughts. These disordered thoughts and behaviors surround many topics, including but not limited to a fear of: harming oneself or others, religion and of upsetting the god(s) of the religion, germs, being uncertain about one’s sexuality, being a pedophile or having sexual thoughts about others, and a need for things to be “just right”. The mental illness is made up of obsessions and compulsions, which is why it is called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Obsessions are unwanted intrusive thoughts that the sufferer has that cause them great distress. No matter how hard they try, the thought does not go away and causes the person extreme anxiety. In order to relieve some of the unbearable anxiety the thoughts are causing, the sufferer often engages in actions that neutralize the thoughts, and these actions are called compulsions. There is a type of OCD called pure O OCD, but that is the only case where there aren’t any compulsions. Compulsions can either be performed physically or mentally.

The best way I know to explain an obsession is when you are out and about and you have this thought that you left your phone somewhere and lost it. If you don’t have OCD, you have this moment of panic. Then, your hand flies to your pocket or purse to check to see that you do indeed have your phone. After checking the person would relax and move on with life. However, someone with OCD would check to see that they have their phone, but once their hand left the phone they would have the thought that they don’t have their phone again, and have to check to make sure that they have their phone again, and the cycle would continue. In order to be classified as OCD, the obsessions and compulsions must take up a large part of the person’s day and significantly interfere with their life. Since the public idea of OCD is a perfectionist or germaphobe and the stigma of mental illnesses in general, only an estimated 10% of those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are currently receiving treatment. Many aren’t aware that they have OCD at all and are suffering in silence. The general public needs to be educated about what Obsessive Compulsive Disorder really is so that people seek out the help that they need.

My own Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has many forms, and does not represent everyone with OCD. I was formally diagnosed with OCD in 9th grade, but I have had it since I was a child. Due to the lack of knowledge about what Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is, neither me nor my parents knew that there was a reason behind my weird fears and behaviors. Currently, the biggest obsession I have is surrounding school. I have an extreme fear of not graduating high school or being accepted into college, and no matter how much people reassure my that I can pretty much get into any college I want, I am still plagued by the distressing thoughts. My compulsion is overdoing all school work and being extremely over prepared for everything at school. I go to extreme lengths to make sure that I have all of my homework done as close as I can get it to perfection, and I get an average of 4 hours of sleep a night because of this. My GPA is a 4.39. I don’t say that to brag, but to show just how extreme my OCD is around school.

I spend a ridiculous amount of time on homework for English class alone. While doing the readings I have to look up every single word that I have even the slightest doubt about the meaning, and after I look it up I have to start over at the beginning of that paragraph. If I do not do this, I experience intrusive thoughts about not understanding the reading and failing the next reading quiz. In addition, I have to read Sparknotes and Shmoop to make sure that I actually understood what I read before answering the guided reading questions in detail. If I was even slightly confused about an answer, I would have a friend who has already taken English read over my answer to make sure it is okay. That is just the stuff I have to do for one class, and with all of my classes combined it adds up. However, if I fail to complete this impossible standard, I am convinced of my impending failure in school. All of my grades have to be an A+ (for an AP class it only has to be an A because for GPAs an A+ and an A are equivalent for those classes) or else I am bombarded by intrusive thoughts. So far in my high school career I have had only one class where I did not achieve my standard: English I. My failure to achieve my standard caused an extreme amount of stress when I started Advanced English III, and every reading quiz and paper I was convinced I had failed. People often don’t understand why I get so stressed about school, because from their point of view my grades are great and I don’t have anything to worry about. However, from my point of view I am one bad grade away from complete destruction.

While my obsessions surrounding school are extreme and take up a huge part of my time, the issue that I forsee causing a lot of issues in the future is my issue with touching people. I have an easy time hiding my OCD about school since a lot of people are stressed about school and it is seen as normal. However, not touching someone is seen as very weird in a time when a lot of people are dating. I have obsessions regarding contamination and being contaminated by others, which causes me to not be able to touch other people without being in extreme distress. This is very hard for my parents, because I avoid hugging them at all costs. I can’t avoid all contact, and in the instances I have to touch people (seeing extended family), I do so, but underneath my smile I am dying inside.

Recently my OCD surrounding touch and teeth has combined to form obsessions about diseases of the mouth, mainly oral herpes. Now, you are probably thinking how ridiculous it is that I live in fear of something that seems very inconsequential to you. Keep in mind that your reality and my reality are very different, and my fears seem very real to me despite the fact that they are outrageous. In addition, being in band and playing the french horn, I am surrounded by other peoples’ spit all the time. An estimated 50 to 80% of people have oral herpes, and once infected they have it for life. That means 50 to 80% of the spit I am around on a daily basis is infected. Due to my obsession about mouth diseases, I have to use an extreme amount of willpower to not increase the number of times and length I brush my teeth. In addition, I know realistically unless I learn to control my fear, I will not be able to have a relationship with someone, since that would involve kissing. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is extremely limiting my life, and actively gets in the way of me being a normal teenager and dating someone.

However, among those with OCD, I am very lucky. I am able to live my life and appear relatively normal, while many of those who suffer from OCD are unable to leave the house. I share my story to give an example of a realistic portrayal of what living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is really like. There are so many people who are struggling but aren’t getting help because they aren’t aware that they are struggling with OCD. While I have only given a very brief snapshot of what I go through on a daily basis, it breaks the stereotype that people have for OCD. Also keep in mind that every person who struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder struggles differently, causing an extremely broad spectrum of obsessions and compulsions.

The jokes and memes about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are very harmful to those who suffer with the mental illness. OCD is not a synonym for liking things neat or being a perfectionist. When people say things like “I am so OCD my color pencils need to be in rainbow order” or “I have OCD: obsessive cooking disorder lol”, I get rather annoyed. Their “joke” invalidates the pain and anxiety I go through on a daily basis because of my OCD. The jokes spread the false stereotype of OCD and prevent those who are suffering from getting the help they need. Would you want to take the big step and come out about having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder only to have someone go “Me too! My room always has to be clean and I love it!”? Probably not. That would be like breaking your leg and having someone else go “Same! I totally scratched my leg the other day, we are in the same boat suffering together”. A broken leg and a scratch are two very different things, and they are not comparable. That is exactly the same as with OCD and liking things neat; they are not comparable and one cannot ever be used in place of the other and have the same meaning. We need to stop using OCD as an adjective for being a perfectionist and as a punchline for jokes. Instead, use it in the proper context and educate those who mistakenly use it in the wrong way. Spread awareness about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, because you never know who could be suffering in silence.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is not a joke, it is a very real and debilitating mental illness and we need to end the stereotype surrounding it. Those who have OCD go through a great deal on a daily basis, often going to great lengths to hide it in order to function normally and blend in with society. These people need help, and that starts with ending the stigma. I am one of the many people who suffer from OCD, and I suffered for far to long before learning what was causing my weird thoughts and behaviors. With so few people getting help for this debilitating disease, we need to step it up and spread awareness and understanding. Stop telling jokes about OCD, and gently inform those who do tell jokes about what OCD really is. We cannot keep people suffering in silence. Spread the word, educate others, and be compassionate to those who are within the grasp of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.