On Thanksgiving morning, I mindlessly scrolled through the numerous posts about food and family gatherings on my Facebook feed until I landed on a picture of a pumpkin pie haphazardly cut into a plethora of shapes and sizes. No two slices within the pie were equal. The tagline on the photo read, “How To Drive Your OCD Family Members Crazy This Year.”
The post had dozens of “likes” and comments remarking how comical the image and supposed joke were. Some commenters said that the picture made them feel #SoOCD, a phrase that has become far too common and has contributed to the normalization and dismissal of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a mental health diagnosis that is often devastating for the people who truly suffer from it.
While the photo of pie with its chaotic slices was funny, the words attached to it were not. When I first saw the post, I audibly gasped. I showed it to my partner, who echoed my reaction and said, “That’s not okay.” As I scrolled through the comments and saw the number of “likes” rising, I grew increasingly upset. I tried to see the humor that so many other people clearly derived from the post, but I just couldn’t. I can’t imagine anyone posting a picture of hair wigs with the tagline, “How To Drive Your Cancer-Ridden Family Members Crazy This Year” or a picture of alcohol with the tagline, “How To Drive Your Sober Family Members Crazy This Year.” So why is it seemingly okay to joke about OCD?
I contemplated why this post had hit such a nerve for me. The reason, it turned out, was very simple: I have an official OCD diagnosis, and my life with it has never once been comical nor dismissive. The diagnosis has wrecked havoc on my life, from my relationships to my professional endeavors to my ability to make friends as a child.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is classified by the DSM-5 as, “(The) presence of obsessions, compulsions, or both.” People diagnosed with OCD often suffer from obsessive and/or compulsive thoughts and actions that can become so severe that their daily lives are negatively affected.
The stereotype of OCD includes extreme tidiness and organization. Some people with the diagnosis experience their symptoms as stemming from cleanliness and orderliness; however, the ways in which they experience such manifestations is often detrimental. A person experiencing a compulsive manifestation through hand washing may wash their hands until the skin becomes dangerously dry and irritated. Someone else experiencing an obsessive manifestation through color-coding their closet may do so at the expense of attending social events. While the traits of being tidy, orderly and clean are often positively regarded, the ways in which they show up in an actual OCD diagnosis are far less celebrated.
As for me, I am one of the most disorganized people I know. When I confide in friends that I have an OCD diagnosis, they often laugh and accuse me of joking since my lack of organization does not align with the stereotype of the diagnosis. But I’m not joking. I have lived my entire life with OCD, and it hasn’t been easy. My obsessions and compulsions manifest through rumination and excessive thought. I have sacrificed professional projects because I simply couldn’t stop ruminating over the fear of failing and hyper-focusing on details that could prohibit perfection of my work. I’ve obsessed over the most minute aspects of situations until I am mentally paralyzed and unable to take action. I’ve jeopardized relationships because I simply can’t stop myself from re-playing conversations and moving on from situations, ultimately causing stress and frustration for the other person. I also experience “skin picking”, which often leaves painful wounds on my shoulders and prompted feelings of insecurity.
Because my symptoms don’t manifest in stereotypical ways, I’ve often found myself too embarrassed to admit my diagnosis for fear of ridicule and judgment. Society praises tidiness, but looks down upon people who “can’t let things go” or whose shoulders are littered with polka dot scars.
The fear of embarrassment I feel when I think of disclosing my diagnosis is one of the many side effects of the normalization of OCD. Joking about being #SoOCD and flippantly assigning the title to anyone who desires organization and cleanliness creates an environment in which those who truly have the diagnosis become embarrassed of admitting their condition, and subsequently don’t seek out any necessary professional help. Additionally, normalizing the diagnosis risks sending the message that behaviors associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are so common that they aren’t worth being treated, even if they are impacting daily activities and relationships.
To be clear, I don’t blame my friend for causing harm by perpetuating a dangerous mindset. My friend is a caring, kind person who prides themselves on being open-minded and accepting. I don’t believe that my friend was trying to upset anyone, nor to violate their core values. Rather, I think that the normalization and appropriation of OCD has cultivated an ignorance to the offense behind statements such as, “I’m #SoOCD that I can’t stand when my clothes don’t match!” and “Ugh, seeing the napkins folded unevenly makes me feel OCD!” Statements like these have become so regular that the gravity behind the actual diagnosis has become obscured. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has become reduced to a punchline, rather than the life-altering condition that it is.
Jokes about physical health conditions are generally frowned upon. It would be in poor taste to joke about cancer, amputation, or heart disease. It’s time that mental health conditions are held in the same regard.
I know what it feels like to be humiliated because of a diagnosis I didn’t choose. I know what it feels like to be a child unable to explain why I can’t stop re-reading the same sentence of the book I am presenting to the classroom. How it feels to scroll through my Facebook newsfeed on Thanksgiving morning and land on a post mocking the very diagnosis that has so distinctly impacted my life. Now, in sharing my experience living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I am making an earnest plea to stop joking about being #SoOCD and to instead learn the stories about those living with the diagnosis. Spend five minutes searching Google for educational resources and quick facts so that you can learn about the reality of OCD. And if you have a little extra time, explore advocacy efforts to help dismantle the stigma surrounding OCD and other mental health conditions. Creating change can be as simple as posting a fact about OCD on your social media page instead of a joke that perpetuates the appropriation of a mental health diagnosis.
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