Defying stereotypes of OCD

When I used to ask him about what he was like in high school, Vincent* always vaguely answered, “I was a lot different before junior year.” Because I’m an open book and wear my heart on my sleeve, Vincent’s answer always left me frustrated in its ambiguity. Finally after three months of probing, I have gotten more fulfilling answers to that question from him. Even today, though, I learn more about this boy who has become a stable, constant presence in my life, and has slowly taken up the role of one of my closest, most reliable, trusted friends.

Many people are surprised when they learn about Vincent’s debate career. He has one of the most unassuming egos I have ever seen in a debater. On the outside, Vincent is a very classily clad, composed, light-hearted, energetic person who treats his friends with much generosity, sensitivity, and his pleasant, reliable disposition. I know that when I am around him I feel myself also in a joyous, harmonious mood where the stress of teenagehood and Swarthmore are put into a wonderful, crystal-clear perspective. His effect on people is not just observed by me; my friend Helen also confirms his enlivening, calming effect on herself too.

That’s why I was naively and slightly ignorantly surprised a month ago when he told me that as a child, he used to have an anxiety disorder. We had ended our study session for a common class, both of us then ready to head to bed after a long frustrating couple of hours spent on a problem set. When he said he would leave in eight minutes, my natural response was, “What’s in eight minutes?” As it turns out, Vincent prefers to leave for places at nice, even times — like 8:30, 8:45 or 9 PM. When I heard this, I didn’t really question it; after all, we all have our quirky habits. I have to make sure my bed is made before I crawl in for the night, which also makes no logical sense. I was more surprised when Vincent, who seldom spends time talking about himself, voluntarily offered up this piece of information: “Yeah, I used to have OCD when I was a kid.”

Ignorantly, I was in shock. We throw around that term so loosely, and the person who I envisioned with obsessive-compulsive disorder was probably the farthest thing from my composed, polished, down-to-earth, practicality-driven best friend. It turns out that, as a kid, Vincent was watching a documentary out of curiosity on OCD, and recognized a lot of similar symptoms in himself. His parents used to think he was just a hyper kid, and they never really thought much about it. Vincent also never told them how bothered he was by stepping on cracks on sidewalk; and kept many of his rituals to himself. After further investigation, his doctor diagnosed him, but assured him his case was mild, and not hampering his ability to do everyday things. His family chose not to pursue treatment or therapy.

For me, personally, this was a huge learning moment. There are horrible stereotypes associated with the term “OCD,” which we loosely throw around to describe anyone who is particularly neat or a perfectionist. My own family often incorrectly and ignorantly teases me and calls me OCD when I organize the clothes in my closet by color, or when I squat on toilets that aren’t my own because I don’t want my butt to get germy. Throwing around the term OCD trivializes the condition, and takes away from the gravity of the fact that obsessive compulsive disorder is a medically diagnosed mental illness that typically is significantly more debilitating to one’s life than sitting on a public toilet is to me. (Which by the way, is not at all).

As Vincent clarifies, “OCD is about not just wanting your room to be neat, it’s feeling disturbed to the point where it affects your ability to do other things. It also applies to more arbitrary things — some people have to wash their hands three times or they don’t feel right.”

*This name is a pseudonym.

2 thoughts on “Defying stereotypes of OCD

  • January 23, 2014 at 11:54 am
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    I read this article 3 times. backwards and forward.

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  • January 23, 2014 at 8:58 pm
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    Good article about one of the most misunderstood illnesses around. OCD can be a devastating disorder with the potential to ruin lives. Severe OCD can be so tormenting that its sufferers commit suicide. The good news, however is that OCD is absolutely treatable, and Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) therapy is the front line treatment for the disorder. I talk about anything and everything to do with OCD on my blog at: http://www.ocdtalk.wordpress.com. My son, who suffered from OCD so severe he could not even eat, is now a young adult living life to the fullest.

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