For many, “OCD” has become synonymous with words like “clean” or “organized”—qualities most would say are good. When OCD is seen as something “good” rather than as a devastating illness, it’s stripped of its reality.
“Whenever it’s kind of a ‘positive’ thing, like with OCD, it means we are encouraging these symptoms, overlooking them, or encouraging people and their family members to overlook them, potentially,” Chentsova-Dutton continued.
People may just be trying to relate. When someone first comes into contact with the term, maybe she focuses on a perceived commonality. The “obsessive” part sticks in her memory and the “compulsive” part and the “disorder” part lose their meaning. So anything that she can remotely obsess over becomes equated with OCD.
“‘Obsessive’ is a personality trait. It doesn’t get in the way of your functioning, it’s something you prefer. What people are meaning to say is, ‘I am obsessive rather than OCD,’ ” says Jeff Szymanski, executive director of the International OCD Foundation. “You’re now mixing a distressing psychological disorder with a personality preference, and when you mix them, you lose the severity of the disorder.”
Nearly one in 100 people suffer from OCD in the United States. Approximately 51 percent of those cases are severe.
"Your life becomes consumed with a fear and your preoccupation with getting rid of the fear … it becomes a vicious cycle," Alison Dotson, author of Being Me With OCD, told me in an email. “It’s scary to feel like you can’t even control your own thoughts.”
Alison’s experience with OCD is also one that stresses the effects of misguided portrayals of the disorder: “I started obsessing when I was a child, and I wasn't diagnosed with OCD until I was two months shy of my 27th birthday. I suffered in silence for years and years because all I knew about OCD was that people wash their hands too much and always check to make sure the stove is off.”
With OCD, there are obsessions (unwanted thoughts, impulses, or images that repeat in a person’s mind) and compulsions (acts that a person repeats in order to “get rid” of these obsessions). These compulsions are often done in a desperate attempt to protect oneself from the wave of anxiety the obsessions bring, not because the person actually wants to engage in the compulsion. The cleaning and checking that Alison mentioned are just two examples of the many kinds of OCD compulsions people can have.
In my teen years, I had a close friend who suffered from OCD. She told me about a time when she sat on the floor of her kitchen crying, deranged with anxiety as she tried for an hour to correctly pronounce the word “now.” Once she said the word “now” correctly, it kickstarted a stream of mental compulsions which she then could end by pronouncing the word “now” again. Once she said “now” the second time, she was able to allow herself to get off of the floor, as long as she was applying more pressure on her right foot than her left. By doing these things, she thought she would prevent her parents from dying. They weren’t in any danger, but the thought was inescapable, and she felt the only way to keep it at bay was by performing her compulsions.