Obsessive-compulsive disorder much more than just a compulsion

By Max Fisher

Are you the kind of person who locks the door to your room twice before going off to class? Or maybe you are the kind of person who organizes your closet by color. 

To you, these habits may seem part of your daily life, but to those who don’t partake in the same rituals, they may seem unusual. In fact, when your friends wait for you to lock your door twice or move that yellow sweater, they just may exclaim, “That’s so OCD.” 

This simple phrase has turned millions of people into instant psychologists with their split-second diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I confess having used this phrase on some of my friends who have odd habits. 

Even some of our more famous gentry claim to have this disorder. 

Just Google “celebrities with OCD,” and you will find that people like Cameron Diaz and Howie Mandel have their own compulsions. For example, Cameron Diaz has to open doorknobs using her elbows due to her fear of germs, and Howie Mandel fist bumps his fans instead of high-fives or handshakes because he also has a fear of germs.

This is not to discredit or debase these or any celebrities that have OCD; it is just that the public’s focus is on the physical manifestations of this disorder when there is much more beneath the surface. 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a two-sided disorder. 

While most people focus on the aforementioned compulsions that usually manifest themselves in visible ways, they regularly disregard the obsessions. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by unreasonable thoughts and fears — the obsessions — and these unreasonable thoughts and fears lead you to repetitive behaviors — the compulsions.  

For people like Olivia Loving of “The Atlantic” the obsessions are much darker. 

When Loving was a child her obsessions manifested in thoughts and fears that were beyond just “unreasonable” for a child at her age. She recalls thoughts of child molestation and fearing that she could hurt the people she loved. 

Once having these thoughts, she would immediately “punish” herself by imitating a church ritual through kissing or pressing her tongue against the ground. 

This disorder is not some desire for organization and cleanliness gone horribly awry, but rather a serious malady of the mind that poisons the victim’s thoughts. 

We must fix the public’s biased view of OCD that only focuses on the compulsions. The media is responsible for perpetuating this biased view of OCD because it constantly de-emphasizes the seriousness of OCD. 

For example, the MTV series “True Life” dedicated an episode to individuals with OCD, where the entirety of the episode was focused on highlighting the individuals’ most unusual and bizarre thoughts and behaviors, rather than addressing OCD as a disorder. 

The media is more focused on the idea of “selling the story” by highlighting the compulsions, while minimizing the educational aspects of OCD such as the obsessions that lead to the compulsions.

In some instances, as Loving’s narrative explains, patients who mention their OCD can sometimes be unjustly prescribed as dangerous.

In fact, co-founder of the International Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Foundation, Fred Penzel, Ph.D., recalls a patient’s child being taken away from her after hospital personnel overheard her expressing fear that she may hurt her child. It wasn’t necessarily that this patient was undoubtedly going to harm her child, but rather that it was an illogical fear of hers arising from her OCD. 

Essentially, rather than the hospital personnel considering her OCD as the cause of her fear, it was assumed that she truly wanted and intended to harm her child.

According to Penzel, these obsessive thoughts are typically nonsense, and that should be acknowledged. 

The way to differentiate between OCD and dangerous impulses is that patients with OCD have an inner dialogue — where they constantly question their obsessions — that normally talks them out of the action. While the truly dangerous people have no inner dialogue or second thoughts, explains Penzel. 

Either way, simplifying OCD based on what we see from celebrities and television shows won’t spread awareness; it will spread misinterpretations. And, as an unintended result, it will attach a negative stigma to those living with OCD.

It’s not just a matter of acknowledging that OCD is a real condition, but working to realize who and what we’re hurting while saying, “That’s so OCD.” 

Max is a freshman in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected]