Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is one of the many misunderstood illnesses because it is so easy to throw the term around: I have had many moments where I had to pause and take a breath when I would hear yet another person say that they are ‘so OCD’ because they love having their desks neat. I believe that the trivialisation of this term has become detrimental to those who feel so alone and alienated because of it. It is not always a nicely folded pile of clothes. (I know because my wardrobe is organised close to never). In reality, it is a disease that eats away from within.
My journey with OCD began when I was 7 years old, long before I had any idea about what mental illness even is. I was always described as an ‘anxious’ child. I was called a perfectionist, an overthinker, many things before I had the luxury of a formal diagnosis – obsessive-compulsive disorder. I did not know why I did the things that I did, such as rearranging my toys and all of the carpets and paintings around the house for hours. I could not explain it to you if I tried – all I knew is that if I stopped before I felt like it was ‘right’ in some way, something terrible would happen. I could not even tell you what that something terrible was, all I knew is that I was filled with dread.
Things became more complicated when my ‘quirks’ started to become apparent to those around me. My mother did not understand why her child refused to sleep, but even more so she did not understand why instead of seeking to play for longer or watch more cartoons, my alternative to sleep was moving a single pair of slippers a millimetre at a time for more than an hour (I wish this was an exaggeration). Now, this does not mean I had a thing for arranging things nicely – on the contrary, my room was messy most of the time. It just meant that I developed obsessions over certain things and I just would not let them go. My sister would often joke about how I had to be the last one to say ‘goodnight’, and if I wasn’t, I would stand outside of her door and whisper ‘goodnight’.
A lot can become complicated when people around you do not understand what you are going through. Now, this does not at all mean that I blame those around me that couldn’t understand it – I’m sure it does feel bizarre if you have never experienced something like this for yourself. But as someone with OCD, it is important for me that these things have the capacity to become less bizarre – the stigma needs to go. And this can be achieved through spreading awareness.
As I grew older, my OCD shifted very much to the mental. I stopped having physical representations of it, although I was still often tempted to move a carpet, years of therapy have taught me how to fight against that. What years of therapy did not prepare me for, was the inability to escape my thoughts. I would often get anxious about what people thought of me, and I would pace around my room in circles, re-thinking the same interaction over and over again in a numerical pattern. After a while, unable to satisfy my mind with the ritual I have been performing, I would break down in tears. It sounds crazy to say, but should it sound that way? OCD is not something I chose, nor was it something I knew how to cope with, and even when I learned how to subdue it, I would be lying if I said there weren’t moments where I struggled to overpower my own mind.
And that boils down the main thing about OCD – it is not something one ‘likes’ or ‘chooses’. I have heard someone once say, ‘if I have OCD, I don’t mind, because in my case it actually makes me very happy’. And personally, that was a dead giveaway that this person did not in fact struggle with OCD because anyone who does would never claim to enjoy it. It can be a real challenge in one’s life and worst of all, they did not choose this. So, while those that are afflicted are doing their best to cope with it, the rest of us should understand that their struggle is not trivial and goes way beyond preferring a neatly arranged desk.
Maria Marfina is a student at LSE. She is passionate about educating others on what living with mental illness can be like.