When I sat down to write this article about misconceptions about OCD, I had no idea where to start. When most people hear “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder,” they either think of Tony Shaloub's character in “Monk” or Jack Nicholson's character in “As Good As It Gets”-the quirky, lovable goof or the cantankerous neat freak. In reality, it's much more complicated than that. In a nutshell, OCD is characterized by involuntary thoughts or images that occur over and over in your mind (obsessions) and/or behaviors you feel compelled to act out (compulsions). This can take a lot of different forms, but the idea is that these things get in the way of a person's daily life. Here are some of the more common misconceptions about OCD and my attempt (note the word “attempt”) to explain them.
1. It's Always about Germs and Neatness
One of the most common misconceptions about OCD is that it only looks one way when there are actually several ways it can show up. Some people with OCD are “hoarders,” collecting seemingly-insignificant objects (newspapers, old receipts, etc) to the point where their houses are cluttered beyond belief; others are extremely superstitious and/or scrupulous, fearing punishment if something isn't done “just right”; still others have to check things (like locks) a certain number of times before they can relax. This is just the tip of the OCD iceberg-visit ocd.about.com for more information.
2. It Will Be Obvious if Someone Has OCD
Not necessarily. Like I said above, it doesn't look the same for everyone. You might be able to tell an “order-obsessor” by his alphabetized collection of candy bars, or a “germaphobe” by the packs of wipes in her desk, but you wouldn't usually know a hoarder unless you've been to their house and you can't know the disturbing thoughts someone has unless they tell you. Chances are, they won't.
3. ”No Wonder He's so Picky, He's Got OCD!”
While it is true that a lot of people with OCD are overly-concerned with things like having their Reese's Pieces separated by color or using the exact same knife and fork for each meal, that's not the case for everyone. Like I said before, OCD doesn't always manifest itself the same way. If your boss throws your dog down the laundry chute or brings his own silverware like in “As Good As It Gets,” maybe he does have OCD. It's more likely, though, that he's just a jerk.
4. ”You'll Be Fine; Just Think Good Thoughts.”
While this might work for most people, the big problem with OCD is that the thoughts and compulsions are irrational and uncontrollable. Most of us know that we're not going to die in a car crash on the way to school or abuse our favorite pets, but someone with OCD can't get these thoughts out of their head. They come in at the most inopportune times, too; on a number of occasions, I've had to make up stories in my head to get to sleep at night because the image of my husband dying of (nonexistent) cancer might come instead. When you consider that many people with OCD also have other disorders alongside them, this makes sense.
5. ”They're All a Bunch of Weirdos.”
Yes, and no. If sites like ocdtypes.com are to be believed, several celebrities-Howie Mandel, Charlize Theron and Frank Sinatra, to name a few-have some form of OCD. On the other side, I have OCD tendencies and am a weirdo. If you need proof of that, just read some of my other articles; my taste in men in one of my “Project Runway” posts seems to be particularly “suspect.” Again, you don't always know.
6. It's Brought on by Stress/bad Parenting/etc
No. It's a physical disorder, treatable with a combination of medication and therapy. As for being caused by stress, it's actually the other way around-not being able to complete a cleanliness ritual or get a disturbing thought out of your head is what brings about the tension, it's not the result of it. This isn't to say that things won't be worse during stressful events (i.e. planning a wedding), but the symptoms can happen at any time.
7. "She's Just Quirky."
Sure, maybe your "hands cracked from using sanitizer" friend is weird. It happens. However, OCD symptoms are more serious than "quirks"; unless your quirks consist of flashing old people or insulting everybody, they're not likely to get in the way of your daily life. Constantly worrying about body odor (guilty), keeping year-old food containers or not being able to sleep until you're sure you've checked your locks five times, however, will.
As you can see, OCD is often a lot more nuanced and confusing than the movies make it seem. For more information, here is a very helpful website, in addition to the ones mentioned above: helpguide.org. Do you or does someone you know have OCD? If so, how did you know and what does it look like? Can you think of any other misconceptions people might have? Let's talk.