Monday, February 17, 2014

The Truth about OCD: A Real-Life Example

I am thankful for all of the organizations and people who have worked to make the public aware of mental illness and convince them that is nothing to joke around about.  At the same time, I constantly encounter people, including friends, who joke about their "OCD" acting up - when they see something out of place, when a line painted on the road is crooked, when a pencil is upside down, whatever.

What a coincidence - my annoyed psychologist senses are tingling
As a response to these jokes and comments, allow me to present something that just happened to me.  I went out to my car to run a quick errand, and saw one of my neighbors outside cleaning off her car that was parked next to mine.  She said hello and kept brushing.  I've seen her before and strongly suspect she has OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), but will admit I don't know that for sure.  She always seems very sedate when I talk to her, so she is probably on some pretty heavy anti-anxiety meds to help control the condition (or she has something else I'm not aware of and can't detect because she's so heavily medicated).

She walked around her car once, continuing to brush as I started my car and got my brush out.  And when I say she was brushing the snow off her car, I mean she was brushing each and every flake off of her car, off of the windows, the sides, the tires, the headlights.  Her car was clean - far cleaner than mine was even after I finished brushing.  The wind picked up and blew some of the snow from my car onto hers.  I apologized, and she smiled and kept brushing, each new flake that flew onto her car being immediately brushed off.  And as new snow started to fall, she continued walking around her car, brushing.  

I don't know how long she had been out there before I came outside, or how long she was there after I left.  But my heart went out to this poor lady, who could not stop brushing her car until every single flake was gone.  I look out the window and see that it is snowing now, and I think of what a futile task it is to want - no, need - every single flake of snow off of the car.

Desiring order in all things, being really bristled when something is not perfect - that's not the same thing as what this woman experiences, where desiring order, obsessing over each little detail, keeps her from being able to move forward; where her compulsion for things to be perfect keeps her from being able to complete a simple task like cleaning off her car.

I'll resist the urge to go on.  And for my friends out there who make comments about their OCD, I will only say - if you really truly think that your need for order and perfection constitutes a mental illness, please get help.  But if you are just using this diagnosis as a joke, or a "prettier" way of referring to your anal retentive nature, think about this woman, and how every single flake on her car needs to be gone before she can get in and drive away.

Thoughtfully yours,


  1. I've seen the effects first-hand working in the elementary school system. They can be devastating. Imagine a child that looks as if he suffers from a nervous disorder, bouncing his head back against the collar of his shirt "8 x 8 x 8 x 8 time" because it touched once, or feeling compelled to touch his desk with his left hand, because he touched it with his right hand when picking up his pencil. Think about how many times a day that child must pick up his pencil . . . bumping into people with his left shoulder, because he bumped someone with his right shoulder, turning around one full time before going up a staircase, wiping his mouth raw because wiping it with one hand requires wiping it a certain number of times with each hand . . . and unfortunately, children are not as mentally equipped to understand or deal with the disorder. Often times they develop the capacity to control it cognitively as they get older. There are medications that can be taken, but unfortunately, there are side effects and often times one medication requires another to offset the effects of the first, as many children with this disorder also have other diagnoses accompanying it, such as ADHD, ODD . . . I know as a psychologist you're informed, but for those people out there who aren't, it can be an extremely disabling condition.

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