The mainstream media is rarely accurate in their portrayals of mental health disorders. Our society often paints illnesses such as bipolar disorder, BPD (borderline personality disorder) and schizophrenia in a poor light. One disorder that is warped by these stigmas is OCD.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is defined as “a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions).” So what does this mean exactly?
OCD can occur in many forms and, like any other mental disorder, there isn’t a specific set of symptoms or signs to look out for. The behaviors of one person with OCD will differ from the other.
There are two pieces of obsessive-compulsive disorder. First, there are the obsessions. Mental health professionals will often refer to these as intrusive thoughts. These thoughts are persistent and will often cause severe anxiety. Many of these unwanted thoughts can be disturbing. On the mental health blog “Made of Millions,” Matthew describes his intrusive thoughts.
“I remember being in my kitchen cutting vegetables, and I became so scared I was going to impulsively stab myself against my will that I actually threw the knife away,” he says. “Then I emptied the trash at a park near my place, just to be totally sure I wouldn’t hurt myself.” There are many categories for OCD obsessions. Some people describe having thoughts of their families dying, hurting themselves or even of hurting others.
The second piece of OCD is the compulsions. While having compulsions isn’t the norm for all OCD sufferers, many still experience them. Compulsions are actions that the person feels they must take in order to ease their intrusive thoughts. This is where the stigma comes in. We often categorize OCD in the media as someone being a clean-freak or ultra-organized. However, while some people have OCD compulsions related to cleanliness, this isn’t the case for everyone. Compulsions can vary from person to person.
I sat down with a friend who is living with OCD. They wished to remain anonymous for the interview.
“My thoughts and compulsions can be so different throughout the day,” they said. “It’s a constant guessing game of what my mind will make me do next. A lot of my intrusive thoughts are violent. I’ll be hanging out with friends, having a nice time and suddenly I am thinking of a meteor crashing into the dining hall and killing everyone. And then my brain will force me to do compulsions in order to erase the thought. In my case, compulsions are usually handwashing. Sometimes I’ll stand at the sink for hours. I have to wash them until my brain decides that it’s right. It’s terrible.”
It is clear to see how OCD can be misunderstood by larger society. Intrusive thoughts are scary, especially if they’re based on death or violence. But it’s important to remember that you are not your thoughts. Having these thoughts doesn’t mean you’re a violent or dangerous person. They don’t mean that you are secretly crazy or sick. These thoughts can be upsetting for the person experiencing them, but it’s important to remember that this is all they are. Just thoughts.