Transparency Item: The Perspectives section of the Graphic is comprised of articles based on opinion. This is the opinion and perspective of the writer.
Trigger Warning: references to intrusive thoughts, violence and self-harm
OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, is a common colloquialism used to refer to an individual’s aversion to germs, an unhealthy need to keep objects straight and a general appreciation for what is orderly.
I myself have used the term in this way. I used it throughout childhood when I was suffering from the disorder and couldn’t put a name to the unusual thoughts in my head that had become second nature.
Like many others, I thought OCD was mildly uptight behavior that resulted from the fear of disorder. It was that feeling of an itch in your brain when the lines you wrote weren’t quite aligned on the paper.
One of the first characters I saw on television who explicitly had OCD was Emma Pillsbury, played by Jayma Mays, from the television show “Glee.” Her illness is introduced with a scene in which she manically scrubs each individual grape in her bag.
It seems that a character’s OCD can make for good comedy on the screen. Like Emma Pillsbury, most characters written with the condition are intended to be a blend of sympathetic neurosis and sideshow freak, and the screenwriters torture them with their greatest fears for our entertainment.
In television and other forms of media, shedding light on mental health is only an afterthought if it is a concern at all. Accuracy is secondary to amusement, and the common depiction of OCD is often wildly inaccurate.
In actuality, the behaviors popularly associated with OCD are more common in individuals experiencing OCPD, or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. OCPD is a condition that causes excessive concern with rigid rules and schedules, according to the National Library of Medicine.
OCD can focus on cleanliness and organization, but it is mainly related to unwanted, obsessive thoughts that compulsive behaviors can temporarily ease. The experience of unhealthy intrusive thought patterns and ruminations are also common in OCD, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Movies and television often confuse OCPD and OCD in a manner that oversimplifies and mischaracterizes both. I don’t appear to fit the bill for OCD because I don’t have OCPD, and people with OCPD may be mistaken for people with OCD.
From a young age, I seemed to go through phases in which I felt intense fear of a very particular, seemingly arbitrary thing. To keep these fears under control, I organized the world around numbers, door locks, oven timers and intrusive thoughts.
These fears and rules included but were not limited to:
1. the fear that my family would die if I didn’t blink the right number of times while looking at the clock until it read 7:19
2. the fear that I would kill myself or my cat if I picked up a butter knife
3. the fear that I was inherently an evil person
4. the fear that everyone in the room would see me for who I was if I didn’t twitch my eye 17 times
Those thought patterns are impossible for a child to explain. So, I was nearly 18 years old when I found out that those taboo anxieties, bizarre rituals and funny mannerisms are bound into these three common letters, which are stretched out in the DSM-5 as “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.”
I found the accurate definition of OCD completely by chance as I was reading articles online. Suddenly, a thousand absurdities became legitimate.
I began to understand why I lived in states of excruciating panic for months at a time. This condition can make monsters out of shadows and suffuse moments of peace with unfathomable violence.
Accidentally educating myself about OCD changed my life. I sought a diagnosis and received treatment because I was equipped with the knowledge to do so, and there are many people who have not been so fortunate.
There are people who continue to live in fear of their own minds and believe they are horrible people. In a study of 50 patients with OCD, 52% experienced suicidal ideation.
I don’t mean to imply that screenwriters are killing people by misrepresenting OCD. I do mean to imply that our media matters.
It is important for creative writers to understand the depth, and sometimes the science, behind their characters. By emphasizing authenticity in fiction, we can promote public awareness of a number of topics, including mental illness.
In my opinion, some of the best representations of OCD are the ones where it appears to go unnamed. Growing up, I felt I had a kindred spirit in Brick Heck, played by Atticus Shaffer, from 2009 sitcom “The Middle.”
He is not overly clean or organized, but he repeats words to himself in a whispered tone and has to say the Pledge of Allegiance 20 times before he can go to sleep. Those behaviors strongly resemble those of many people with OCD.
It is not only up to the writers of television to create awareness, but it is up to us as consumers to be educated about the information we take in. It’s advisable to do some brief research on the experiences fictional characters are representing in addition to how that representation has been received.
This habit promotes media literacy skills and greater awareness about ourselves and others. I was better able to help myself when I knew the truth about myself.
I stated earlier that I thought OCD was the fear of disorder. This is not untrue, though the public and the media are vastly mistaken as to what kind of disorder.
An individual’s difficulty coping with the unknown brings out OCD. I and many others face problems in confronting everyday uncertainties, serious or not.
But since receiving some amount of treatment, I am often able to tell the chatter in my head to go away. I cannot make my OCD disappear, but I have strategies for navigating it now.
I am lucky to have been informed and received treatment at a young age, and I hope for a future in which everybody has the information they need.
I also wrote that OCD seems to make for good comedy. This is also not untrue.
I watched Maria Bamford address her “fellow weirdos” at an OCD conference on YouTube about two months ago. She describes a list of uncomfortable, sometimes harrowing, experiences with humor and poignancy.
People with this condition are often left unable to speak about their experiences because it seems that few people will understand. Bamford’s transparency and light-heartedness work to promote understanding as well as have a healing effect for the audience that can relate.
OCD went from something that everybody seemed to laugh at to something that I can laugh about, knowing what I do now. That sense of humor comes from confidence, which could have only come from knowledge.
Follow the Graphic on Twitter: @PeppGraphic
Email Alyssa Johnson: firstname.lastname@example.org