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Where are the Obsessions?

Janet Singer's son Dan suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) so severe he could not even eat. What followed was a journey from seven therapists to ...Read More

It seems to me that OCD has become the mental illness du jour. Every day new celebrities announce they have the disorder and the topic seems to be popping up on prime time television shows as well. After all, OCD does make for good TV with lots of “interesting” rituals to focus on. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is being talked about more than ever. While I believe the attention given to OCD is mostly a good thing, I feel that the disorder is still very much misunderstood. The general public isn’t getting it, and I’ve been wondering why. Is it just the misrepresentation of the disorder, or is it more?

I thought back to when my son Dan first told me he had OCD. I knew as much about it at the time as most people who had no direct experience with it. As I’ve shamefully admitted before, my initial response was, “Really? But you never even wash your hands!”

Aha. What I was focusing on, and what I think those who know little about OCD pay attention to, are the “compulsions” part of the disorder. In many cases, this is the concrete part of OCD; the stuff you can actually see. (I say “in many cases,” because sometimes, as in Dan’s OCD, compulsions are not visible. This is sometimes referred to as Pure O.) Washing hands, picking up twigs, tapping the wall, checking the stove, flicking the light switch on and off. This is where OCD gets its “cute and quirky” reputation, from these observable compulsions. So an outsider looking in might think, “Sure, it stinks that he has to check his stove twenty times before he leaves the house, but it’s not really a big deal.”

Of course, those of us who know more about OCD realize these noticeable compulsions are only part of the story. It is the obsessions, the crippling fears that drive those with OCD to perform compulsions, that are the source of their suffering. The torment that those with OCD feel varies but it can be so bad that it has the potential to totally disable them. And while we can educate people about obsessions and even give them lists of common ones, you still can’t see them. If you have a loved one with OCD or are a professional who works with OCD sufferers, then you have likely witnessed the devastating effects of the disorder. The general public has not, as those with OCD are adept at hiding their pain.

So how do we get the word out as to what OCD really is, when obsessions remain largely hidden? How do we enlighten others so they will comprehend that OCD is not about cute, quirky rituals, but about tormenting uncertainty, severe anxiety, and unrelenting fear? Many people learn everything they know about OCD from movies and television shows. While the media has made some progress in how OCD is depicted, I think there is still a lot of room for improvement. I hope they will continue to do better and better. And while it might be difficult for those of us without OCD to truly understand what it is like to suffer from the disorder, we can still acknowledge its severity and support those who are suffering from it.

We can speak out also. The next time you hear someone referring to OCD incorrectly, try to muster the courage to start a conversation. In my experience, most people appreciate being educated, as long as it is done respectfully. The more we all communicate honestly, the more people just might think twice before announcing “I’m so OCD.”

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