Easy · Mental Health

The C in OCD does not stand for cleaning


Image: David Jackmanson

I love having my room organised and tidy, I’m really OCD about that.

My friend refuses to step on cracks on the pavement when we’re walking, she can act so OCD sometimes.

I need to go wash my hands, I’m OCD about germs.

My Dad get’s so annoyed when I leave a glass on the side, he can be so OCD!

Perfectionism is not the same as OCD.

There, I said it.

OCD sufferers are sick and tired of people using their disorder as reasoning for their cleanliness or tidiness. OCD is an everyday struggle. It’s a cyclic battle of obsession followed by compulsion, obsession followed by compulsion until you feel relief. But it’s always short-lived. The obsessive thoughts always come back.

OCD is different to perfectionism. With perfectionism, the obsession is typically rational such as making sure that your bedroom is tidy before you leave the house. The compulsion that follows is gratifying and makes you feel relaxed. OCD obsessions are more irrational.  Everything in your bedroom must be in order. Your shoes must be lined up in a specific way and your belongings must be at the correct angle and in the right place. The thought of leaving your room when it is not organised makes you anxious and you cannot think about anything else until you’ve put your room in order. You feel relief, until something in your bedroom becomes out of place, which sets off obsessive thoughts, starting the cycle again.

It is not just being a “neat freak”, or a “germaphobe”. The C in OCD doesn’t stand for cleaning – it stands for compulsive. To shed some light on the daily struggles of someone with OCD, here are examples of the thought processes of an OCD sufferer compared to a non-sufferer.

No OCD:I hate it when I’m washing up and some dirty left-over food touches my hand, it’s so gross. I’ll just wash my hands and scrape food off plates before washing up next time.

OCD:The feeling of food touching my hand when I’m washing up makes me feel sick. I need to wash my hands. The thought of it touching me won’t leave my mind. If I count to 10, but only the even numbers because odd numbers are bad luck, then maybe the bad thoughts will go away. How do I make it stop? How do I make my brain stop? Please stop. Please please please please please please. I repeat six times because again, odd numbers are bad luck. I’ll wash my hands twice more before I go to bed and that will make me feel better. Maybe I need to wash them four times? I’m in bed and my brain is torturing me over the thought of touching dirty food in the sink. I cannot push the thought out of my mind. The more I try, the more this horrible thought torments me and makes me uncomfortable and disgusted. Stop stop stop stop.

No OCD: I just hit a bump in the road. I think it was probably a pothole. There’s no way I would have hit an animal, I would have felt it more. But what if I did? Oh well, I’m nearly home now anyway.

OCD:I felt it in my car. I’ve hit a bump. I think it was a pothole. What if it wasn’t? Did I hit an animal? Or a person? Am I a murderer? The bump didn’t feel that big but what if I ran over something small? Just carry on driving home, you haven’t hit anything. But what if you did? Murderer murderer murderer murderer. I have to turn back to check. What if I’ve killed something? What will I do? I feel sick.

The obsessive thoughts that go through your mind control you. The obsession is always followed by a compulsion to try to remove these thoughts from your mind. It is a vicious cycle of obsessive thoughts, compulsions to stop these thoughts, and then a sense of relief. It doesn’t end; sometimes the obsessive thoughts can go through your head for weeks, even months.

You may have to organise your desk a certain way. Someone gives you a look. You laugh nervously, and say “sorry, I can be so OCD about my desk”. You use OCD as a self-defence mechanism to justify your tidy nature. Or perhaps, you notice your friend has washed their hands a few too many times to appear normal, so you throw out the comment “you’re so OCD about germs, are you a germaphobe?” to try to break the ice. But OCD is not an adjective; it’s a mental disorder. You never know if the people around you are suffering, because it’s not as noticeable as something like a broken leg. OCD sufferers try their hardest to hide what’s going on in their brain, because they fear that people will think they are weird, mentally disabled, or just different. Next time you are watching someone cleaning scrupulously or see someone repeatedly wash their hands, or you notice that everything in their home or on their desk is organised in the same way every time you visit, hold back on labelling them as OCD. This has such a damaging effect as it attaches a stigma to OCD – we can see this in other mental disorders, such as depression or anxiety. Someone who keeps things tidy may not suffer with OCD, while someone who hoards items and lives what you may consider an untidy life may suffer.

I think it’s time to stop seeing OCD as an adjective and embrace the movement of mental health becoming less stigmatised. You never know who may be suffering. It’s time to ditch the label and embrace the fact that everyone’s minds work differently, and we all need to learn that it’s time to stop using mental disorders as adjectives and educate each other on what they actually are.

If you think you may have OCD, please do not hesitate to contact your doctor. Let’s start a conversation about mental health. 

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