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mental health mondays :: no you [probably] don't have ocd

in the angst-ridden 'teens in which we live, one thing is for certain: everyone has ocd. we're all suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder because we need our towels folded a certain way in the linen closet, or because we need to follow an exact sequence in the morning or be off-kilter for the rest of the day, or because it upsets us when the toilet paper is hung in the wrong direction [wrong being with the flap on the underside, you perverted bastards]. but here's something that we all need to learn immediately: none of those things constitutes ocd and saying that they do is pretty insulting to people who actually have it.

we all have "quirks"- little things that we do that make no sense, but that set us at ease. some psychologists theorizes that we generally do this as a way of displacing the anxiety we feel at being safe, which sounds stupid, but our brains are not evolved to feel safe in the long term and so part of us feels like something must be wrong and we placate that part of our brain by fixating on little things to stop it from driving us crazy when it can't find anything to feel stressed about. the point is: everyone does those things and they do not constitute a disorder.

a true disorder, in case you're wondering, is when you lose a minimum of an hour a day to these sorts of rituals and ticks. needing to have your right side completely dry before you start drying your left side upon exiting the shower adds at most a few seconds to your routine. needing to turn every electrical switch in the house on and then off again before you can be satisfied that everything is off and can leave for work is an elaborate routine that will require you to make time for it every day. but people with obsessive-compulsive disorder will do this, because if they don't, it's quite possible that they'll be so preoccupied with the idea that a light has been left on and could potentially cause a short circuit and an electrical fire that they'll be unable to function properly for the entire day; they'll go to work and brood about it, start constantly checking the internet for reports of a fire, call neighbours- all the neighbours, possibly multiple times- to ask if they smell smoke or [if they have spare keys], if they can check to make sure that everything is turned off. then they'll worry that the neighbour accidentally turned something else on, or they won't be able to get a hold of their neighbour and will panic that they might have fled the building to escape the fire. at some point, they'll probably go home and will need to repeat their entire on-and-off electrical ritual, and when they return, they'll likely be so exhausted from the stress that they'll be listless, sleepy and dull-witted for the rest of the day. then they'll go home and repeat the ritual before turning on just the lights they need to prepare dinner, watch television, spend time on social media, etc. and before going to bed, they'll need to do the ritual again, until they're completely satisfied that everything is off, or else they won't sleep. they'll do this every single day without fail and any interruption in the routine will cause crippling anxiety. that, my friends, is what having ocd is.

the habits we have that we often callously describe as being "a bit ocd" usually refer to how we like things to be. i like to have the bed made, with the pillows arranged in a certain fashion. that does not make me "ocd". compulsions of the sort i've described above do not reflect how the sufferer wants things to be; they do not make the sufferer pleased when they are done properly, but prevent them from doing almost anything when they are not strictly adhered to. often, they are an anguishing process, because they interfere with the sufferer's life. reducing that suffering to the annoyance we feel about having everything on our desk arranged parallel to the sides denies the seriousness of their condition: you're essentially saying that they prefer to be mentally disordered, that its impact on their life is within their control and that they are weaker than you for being unable to exert control over it.

but that's just one way that ocd can manifest. it can also take the form of what are called "intrusive thoughts", things that get in your head and then eat away at your capacity for rational thought. like, say you were angry with a loved one and had the fleeting thought "die in a fire". then you become consumed with guilt for having thought that, consumed to the point where you're convinced that because you thought it, they will and it will be your fault. the idea gets in there, you know it's not rational, but you can't get it out. the comparison people make is like having a song stuck in your head, but it's really just the first eight bars, going around and around all the time, for weeks and the song makes you feel like a terrible person for letting it in and letting it stay there, but you've no idea how to get it out.

obsessive compulsive disorder exists on the anxiety spectrum, and is more often than not comorbid with other disorders: the sufferer is likely to have panic attacks triggered by their obsessive thought patterns, often depressed because they know that there's something terribly wrong with them and in many cases feel awful for what they think and sometimes the ocd is itself part of post-traumatic stress disorder. a person who has ocd needs help and understanding and probably a lot of both.

the disorder affects about 1% of the population, which means that if there are a hundred of you reading this right now, one of you likely has ocd. let's say two, since people suffering from mental disorders are more likely to read a blog post about mental disorders. two people. sure, you've adjusted the placement of your phone on the desk half a dozen times so that it is parallel to your keyboard and lines up with the edge of your computer monitor, but it's highly unlikely that you have ocd. statistically, you're anywhere from two and a half to four times as likely to have chlamydia. [and you should get that checked, by the way, because sexual hygiene is important and chlamydia can do some pretty awful damage without showing much in the way of symptoms.]

if you think you might be one of the two, you should talk to your doctor and get a referral to see a psychiatrist. if you're not sure you want to go down that road yet, you could also try checking your symptoms against a list from a reputable web site, or answering a quiz created by a specialist in the field.

if you happily fall on the quirky side of the equation, you're lucky and you should steer away from describing those quirks as "ocd" the same way you would avoid describing a cough caused by seasonal allergies as "throat cancer". 


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