The language we use to talk about mental health conditions such as OCD is just as important as the actions we take to destigmatise them. This OCD Awareness Week (12-19 October) Stylist’s junior digital writer Lauren Geall explains why calling yourself “a bit OCD” is more damaging than you probably realise.
When I tell people I have OCD, they’re often quite surprised.
Why, you ask? Because I’m a fundamentally messy person. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not unhygienic or completely averse to organisation and tidiness – I just generally don’t mind if things get a bit unordered and unruly every once in a while.
And when people think of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), they think of tidiness. They picture pencils and pens lined up perfectly in order of the rainbow, and kitchen utensils neatly organised into dividers in their respective drawers. They think of sparkling white surfaces, colour-coded wardrobes and beautifully neat handwriting.
What they don’t think of is me, sprawled on my bedroom floor among the piles of clothes I’ve tried on the day before, scrolling through Instagram with reckless abandon.
But here I am, a real-life person with what was described upon diagnosis as “severe high-functioning pure OCD”, living a life that’s relatively chaotic compared to the stereotype many people expect.
While I can joke about it now, those stereotypes have a real-world impact. Despite the fact that in 2019 we’re talking more than ever about the stigma that surrounds mental health conditions and the people who live with them, there is a metaphorical virus which continues to exacerbate dated, harmful stereotypes about OCD: the fact that we continue to use OCD as a shorthand for things that aren’t, well, actual OCD.
If you’ve ever heard someone describe themselves as “a bit OCD” you’ll know what I’m talking about. Whether they’re explaining away the thought process behind their perfectly tidy desk space or justifying the introduction of a new organisation system, the phrase “a bit OCD” has snuck into our modern-day vernacular – and it doesn’t show any signs of stopping.
Even on Sunday – the second day of OCD awareness week – the phrase slipped into a column in a well-known newspaper supplement. “I’m very easy, then very annoying,” the passage reads. “I’m proud to say I’m a bit OCD. There’s no anxiety, I just like everything to be ordered.”
There sits the crux of the issue. There is no OCD without anxiety – it’s a disorder characterised by feelings of anxiety and discomfort. OCD is not a preference, or a personality quirk, or a light-hearted reference. OCD is a serious, debilitating disorder which effects over 750,000 in the UK – and your words have the potential to do more harm than you might expect.
First of all, using OCD as a way to describe a personality quirk not only undermines the severity of the disorder (the risk of death by suicide among people living with OCD has been estimated as 10 times that of the general population), it perpetuates the idea that people living with OCD choose their compulsions, and therefore have the power to stop or restrict them. But it’s just not as simple as that. The obsessions (and resultant compulsions) experienced by people living with OCD are driven by such intense fear and anxiety that they’re often completely unavoidable.
Take myself, for example. Now, thanks to a combination of antidepressants and CBT therapy, I know how to coach myself through periods of obsession and anxiety (my OCD largely focuses on how I could cause emotional harm to others by harming myself as a result of depression and suicidality). But previously, my compulsions ranged from flooding myself with positive thoughts of the future (so I could convince myself I wasn’t severely depressed) or making sure I was never alone “just in case” I suddenly became suicidal. When you’re in the midst of OCD, you don’t trust your own brain; the compulsions seem like the only way to navigate the world safely, and you become consumed by them.
Calling yourself “a bit OCD” in reference to cleanliness and tidiness also undermines the experience of people whose OCD does not fit into those boxes. Yes, there are people whose OCD does revolve around extreme cleanliness and hygiene (which is often powered by a debilitating fear of illness or dirt, not a simple preference for tidiness), but there are so many other types of OCD people may find themselves living with. People with OCD have been known to check the hob over 100 times just to make sure they’ve turned it off and won’t burn the house down, or struggle with intrusive, unwelcome thoughts about causing harm to others which make them worry about whether they’re an “evil” person, despite being completely repulsed by the thoughts themselves.
These stereotypes even stand to get in the way of diagnosis, because they shape the way society – including the person living with the OCD – sees their symptoms. In my case, getting a diagnosis was hard, because both me and the people around me had never heard of pure or harm OCD before. My courage to speak to the GP about what I was experiencing only came when I discovered a YouTube video of someone giving a speech about harm OCD. The video gave me the words I needed to describe my experience to the people around me, describe it to my GP, and the courage to leave that GP (and seek a diagnosis elsewhere) when they refused to listen to my suggestion.
Let me get this straight: if you’ve used the phrase “a bit OCD” in the past, or slip up and use it in the future, that is completely fine. Before my diagnosis, I used the phrase casually when I laughed about my neat handwriting with friends or joked about choosing a font for my latest school project. Language grows and evolves as we use it – and the words we use sometimes become second nature to us when we’ve heard them used in the world around us.
But next time you go to call someone “a bit OCD”, I want you think about the impact your words could be having. The same applies to all the language we use to describe mental health – the weather is not “bipolar” because it’s a bit all over the place, and you’re not “so depressed” just because something made you feel sad. The language we use is just as important as the actions we take to destigmatise mental health conditions – and if my words can help one person vocalise what they’re going through and reach a diagnosis, then I consider that a job well done.