Deviant, Disabling, Distressing: OCD vs Anything Else

If you have ever said the words “I am a little OCD” you are probably wrong. OCD is a terrible mental disorder that doesn’t get the attention it deserves likely in part because so many people claim to have it and then it doesn’t seem so bad. It is. I’m actually excited to talk about OCD because I think if one is thinking about giving their character a common enough disorder, this is a great one to use. Also I just think OCD villains are pretty cool…although the disorder itself is terrible.

Just a reminder: deviant, disabling, and distressing are the three criteria that psychologists use to define a disorder. If it’s significantly deviant from what’s “normal”, if it causes problems for every day life, and if it is distressing, either to the afflicted or the afflicted’s close associates (y’know, like family), it’s a disorder.

That said, yes. Some mental disorders for some specific people are not book disorders. Maybe you have all the symptoms of some anxiety disorder (deviant), but you cope well enough it doesn’t affect your every day life, and maybe (somehow?) you don’t find your excess anxiety distressing. Technically speaking, you don’t actually have a disorder. But let’s be honest; most disorders are distressing for the afflicted.

Anyway I digress.

I’ve encountered a lot of people who say things like, “I’m a little OCD” as justification for their desire to have things be clean or organized a certain way. These people are (usually) wrong. For one, no one IS OCD. People HAVE OCD so stop saying “I am OCD”. (I admit, I’ve done this too. Let’s all start saying the correct thing.) For…the other? people apparently don’t understand that OCD isn’t about being particular. It’s a terrible mental disorder that ruins lives. Let’s learn what OCD really is, shall we?

OCD is comprised of two parts. Obsessions, and compulsions. It is the most extreme anxiety disorder. (I did say in my previous post about anxiety disorders that I feel I have a more tenuous grasp on them – the exception is OCD.)

Obsessions are intrusive, unwanted thoughts. Have you ever been driving and the thought, “If I just turned the wheel a little, I could crash into the car next to me and cause a huge accident!” not in a, “that’s what I want to do” way but as a horrifying realization? Or maybe you’ve been walking across a bridge or on the second floor of a mall and thought, “I could fall over that ledge. I could die.” That’s what an obsession is/is like. It’s not a thought you really have on purpose, and it’s uncomfortable to have. You might follow it up with, “why would I think that!?” but you can’t help having it. For OCD, an obsession is a thought you have over and over again. You can’t stop having it.

Obsessions are commonly about cleanliness/contamination, symmetry, checking, and hoarding – with checking meaning checking that the oven’s off or the door’s locked, that sort of thing.

Compulsions are behaviors to cope with obsessions. It could be anything. People associate hand washing with compulsions because it’s common. If someone’s obsessions are focused on getting germs, frequently washing one’s hands is a good way to banish the thought. It could be something else, however. A tic, like a head shake or a jerk, could also be a compulsion. Checking locks five times every night before going to bed to make sure no one breaks in is a compulsion. Touching the doorknob, kissing your fingers, turning around, and then going out to make sure you are safe is a compulsion. Compulsions can become habits not even attached to an obsession any more, if they effectively banish the obsession.

You only need to have one, an obsession OR a compulsion, to be diagnosed with OCD. However, remember that mere symptoms are NOT enough to be diagnosed with a disorder. Deviant, disabling, and distressing must all be present. If you find yourself self-diagnosing, remember that just because you may have small rituals or intrusive thoughts does not mean you have OCD; OCD makes it very hard to operate on a day-to-day basis because of the time spent dwelling on thoughts and performing rituals.

Now, to compare OCD with being a control or clean freak, a micromanager, etc.

If you are determined to keep your house clean because:

You want your house to look nice

You don’t want your guests to think badly about you

You like having a clean living space

It just kinda bugs you to have a mess around you

You are some sort of Stepford Wife

You probably don’t have OCD. You’re probably just someone with cleanliness standards of some sort. You should say things like, “I care about cleanliness” instead of “I have OCD” when you try to justify your need to clean. By the way, having a clean house is a good thing! You don’t really need to justify wanting to clean your house with a mental disorder that is TERRIBLE. You could probably just say, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness!” and make everyone else feel bad about not wanting to clean rather than you feeling bad for wanting to.

If it “just kinda bugs you” is actually, “it REALLY bugs you” and it’s because of something that is irrational, or a rational reason that still manifests as a recurring, distressing thought, then you might have OCD. But uncleanliness in its own can be distressing so unless it’s actually tied to an obsession, like maybe your house is just average dirty and you’re freaking out that PEOPLE WILL JUDGE AND HATE YOU! or that a million bugs will move in and live under any laundry left on the floor, you are probably a normal person. Which is good!

If you are really particular about where things are, you may or may not have OCD. You might just be picky and particular. You might be a control freak. Maybe you have good reasons for why things go where they do. The salt stays in the exact center of the table so that people can reach it no matter where they sit and it’s out of the way for when you come home and dump the mail or whatever on the table. You probably don’t have OCD.

If the salt has to stay in the very center of the table because it is then symmetrical, you  probably have OCD. If things that aren’t at right angles or are even or whatever cause you discomfort because it just feels WRONG, you probably have OCD. You know how Monk always wants things angled just so or whatever? That’s the symmetry obsessions.

As far as TV representations of mental disorders go, Monk is actually pretty decent. It does, however, glorify OCD (like it’s part super power) and it’s not a disease to glorify. It’s TERRIBLE.

Have you ever touched something with one hand and your hand got cold and you just had to touch your other hand so it was even and didn’t feel weird? It’s like that. For me, if I’m walking on a sidewalk and step on a crack, I need to step on the next crack with my other foot or else I just feel unbalanced. I am driven to do this and it will bother me until I do. That’s an obsession of symmetry.

If you want to have everything ‘just so’ because it looks nice, you probably don’t have OCD. You should “excuse” yourself by saying “I’m particular” or “I like things to be just so”. Hey, that might not be considered an admirable trait, but at least you don’t have a MENTAL DISEASE which is TERRIBLE.

I hope the difference between OCD, clean freaks, and control freaks (and the lesser versions) is clear. Clearer. Obviously someone could appear to just be particular when really they’re doing something to suppress an obsession. Someone could clean obsessively because they ARE obsessive. But most of the people I’ve encountered who have said “I’m a little OCD” did the things they did not because there was some thought niggling about, refusing to leave, but just because they had high standards of cleanliness or were a total brat who wanted everything to be convenient for her regardless of what the other three of us wanted, even if we generally had reasonable requests or her reasons were selfish and our reasons were beneficial to all or one of us actually DID have OCD and went slightly crazy because she was totally unreasonable about something that didn’t matter or shouldn’t have mattered except it did because mental disorder. Not. that. that’s a specific example or anything.

Now that you (hopefully) know the difference, if you say “I have a mild case of OCD” I hope it’s because you do and not because you’re trying to excuse behavior that probably doesn’t need excusing. And I hope you don’t have OCD, even if it’s very mild, because it’s not fun.

If you picked up that I indicated I have OCD, I mean I have a really mild case. I’ve never gotten formally diagnosed because it doesn’t really debilitate/disable me (except for within some oddly specific situations). But I do have some obsessions and I do have some compulsions. Just try to go to a fast-food restaurant with me and get me to sit down when I can’t judge any of the tables as ‘clean’. People with full-blown OCD, however? Their lives are worse than ours. Mental disorders are terrible. You don’t have a small cough and want to say you have bronchitis; don’t say you have OCD because you like things to be a certain way.

About Rii the Wordsmith

An aspiring author, artist, avid consumer of storytelling medium, gamer, psychologist (insomuch as one with her bachelor's is a psychologist), wife, mother, DM, Christian, a friend to many, and, most importantly, an evil overlord.
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