You are eight years old, and your world is made of numbers. Your friends do not know. In school, at recess, you join in the typical playground games: soccer, Capture the Flag. Each time, you run slowly, awkwardly, missing the ball, zigzagging when the field is open. The other players mock your stuttering pace, ask why you cannot simply run straight. You are too ashamed to explain that you can only move in an even number of steps—that if you transgress, take, say, thirteen strides to reach the flag instead of twelve, you will be a criminal. Though you have never been told this, you know, with a concrete certainty, that an odd number would be catastrophic. Always, the risk is death: your mother of disease, your father in a car accident. The pictures flash through your mind as you try to focus on the ball, or avoid a tagger, and your stride slows as you try to remember if this is 16 or 17, 18 or 19.
You do not want to believe these things. At times, it feels as though the belief is not your own at all, a thought implanted by some divine or extraterrestrial force and you wonder if this is what it feels like to be really, truly, insane. It is moments like these that you hate your mind—its endless, irrational demands, the way it humiliates you in front of your classmates. But when the last school bell rings and you see your mother pull up to the curb, alive and smiling, your every nerve sighs with relief that you heeded your brain’s orders.
This is the prison of OCD. As a child, struggling to make sense of my own bizarre convictions, I often wondered why no one else seemed bound by the same crippling rules. At one point, I remember anxiously explaining my predicament to my mother, hoping for consolation. It’s just your conscience, she told me, and I wondered why my conscience cared how many times I touched the doorframe before leaving my room.
In fact, it was not until I was eleven years old that a doctor explained that what I was suffering from was not some unique form of madness but rather a relatively common psychiatric disease. Like many individuals who suffer from mental illness, I was immediately relieved to be able to give a name to my condition; to know that I was not as isolated as my eccentric rituals often made me feel. Even more heartening, however, was my father’s assurance that not only did many other people struggle with OCD, but that many highly successful people—from Howard Hughes to Cameron Diaz—were plagued by the illness. OCD, he assured me, was simply the consequence of an “overactive” mind, an overabundance of discipline.
My father’s consolation dramatically changed the way I conceived of my disorder. Rather than simply being crazy, an unfortunate social outcast, I began to believe that my struggle might not be something to be ashamed of after all. Perhaps, like Hughes, my illness was simply the price of some exceptional gift I had yet to discover.
In retrospect, of course, this hope seems like exhibit-A confusion of correlation with causation. To assume that OCD is a sign of brilliance is like believing that being given a black eye will make one a professional boxer, or having athlete’s foot will make one a marathon runner. Yet this way of thinking about mental illness is all around us—just consider the popular trope of the mad genius. And OCD, more than any other psychiatric disease, has been repeatedly associated with intelligence and success. Perhaps because of the publicity of cases like Hughes’, the disorder is often understood as exclusively plaguing a high achieving and intellectual demographic—so much so that the word “OCD” has become all but synonymous with “Type A” in our vocabulary.
When I first heard the term used in casual conversation, I remember being confused. It’s true that, as far as mental illnesses go, OCD is relatively common—according to the National Institute of Mental Health, the disease affects roughly 1% of US adults. But there was no way that my peers who claimed to be “OCD” about color-coding their notebooks were actually suffering—or, for that matter, claiming to suffer— from a legitimate psychiatric disorder. As I soon realized, “OCD” has become, for our generation, simply another way of stating overly neat or ultra-organized— a way of casually excusing one’s slightly uptight and perhaps overbearing need to have one’s desk organized a particular way, or to make extensive to-do lists. As several friends have explained to me, when we use OCD in this context we aren’t actually referring to obsessive-compulsive disorder in its clinical sense—simply an above-average affinity for tidiness.
This is the same explanation that has been used to defend the use of “retarded” for stupid, or “gay” for uncool and it is problematic for similar reasons that these terms are. Though we might not mean homosexual when we dismiss something as “gay,” the word itself keeps both of its definitions, and might still be interpreted either way by a listener. Moreover, by using the same word to signify both “gay” and “awkward,” we are implicitly linking these two ideas—even if we do not actually believe that gay people are awkward.
This is slightly more complicated for “OCD” in that the connotations that most of us have with the term are not entirely negative. Though it is often used self-deprecatingly, this self-deprecation is rarely entirely sincere, especially in a competitive academic environment like Princeton where being highly organized, or “obsessively” editing one’s work, will ultimately serve one’s best interest. Whereas misusing “gay” is essentially putting down the actual gay community, misusing “OCD” actually gives the illness a far more positive connotation than it deserves. So where, then, is the issue?
Beyond being a slightly obnoxious humble-brag, using “OCD” casually does trivialize what is, for many people, an incredibly difficult psychological disorder. It’s true that many individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder do have rituals involving cleanliness and organization, but these are rarely the kinds of habits that help one get ahead academically or professionally—instead, they are often exhausting, time-consuming, and generally inefficient. By eliding these often maddeningly cumbersome rituals with someone’s need to color-code his or her flashcards, we send the message that a serious disorder simply isn’t that big of a deal.
Moreover, we continue to glamorize the illness as a sign of self-discipline and intelligence rather than treating it as the tiresome and isolating disorder that it is. This is problematic not only in that it is not accurate, but also because, like many psychiatric diseases, OCD is often incredibly hard for patients—myself included—to let go of. Maddening as the disorder’s rituals could be, I was initially reluctant to challenge them precisely because I had come to depend on them. Though exhausting, these rules were safe, even soothing: they offered a comforting sense of control over a wholly unpredictable world. Yet, like an addiction, they were also imprisoning. Breaking out of this disordered mindset is tantamount to erasing both a source of comfort and a part of one’s identity. It requires a tremendous amount of will power, and, for many people, can be truly terrifying. This is especially true if one has come to believe, as I did, that one’s disorder might actually be a hidden strength—that straight-A study habits, for example, could not exist without a slew of actual OCD symptoms.
As I grew older, my rituals eventually dissipated. Thoughts that had, years before, seemed like crucial—if bizarre—commands from some all-powerful source of knowledge now seemed merely bizarre, and I learned to talk back to the wordless voice I’d once fretted over obeying. Yet, for years, I was genuinely afraid of what the consequences of letting go of this rigid, almost militaristic mindset might be. And I still wonder, sometimes, when I hear a friend discuss her “OCD” study guide or “compulsive” gym routine, how my life would be different if I hadn’t fought it. Would I be the high-achieving, hyper-organized student I used to believe the disorder would make me? Or would I be like Hughes in his later days, distraught and running in circles inside his own head—whatever genius he had now overwhelmed by a tyrannical sickness?