All too often, I hear the dreaded statement: “I’m so OCD.” When did a very serious, debilitating mental disorder become an adjective?

The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks OCD as one of the “top 10 most disabling illnesses by lost income and decreased quality of life.”

The problem with people blatantly using “OCD” as another term for clean, neat, and orderly is that it gives people the false impression that OCD is simply a quirky personality trait that is actually desirable. As someone who personally experiences the exhausting hold of the OC cycle, I can assure you that this could not be farther from the truth.

My symptoms started at 4 years old. I was so young, but my mind was already raging. This was the year I learned about germs. I frequently asked my teacher if I could leave and wash my hands. My favourite blanket had to be washed if it so much as brushed the floor. I carried that thing everywhere.

At 6 years old, my mom held my little hand while crossing the street. I managed to wriggle free, only to go all the way back across the street and re-cross it without stepping on any cracks or lines. My mom says I, “walked in a serpentine pattern”. I wonder what everyone thought about me. Did they think I was crazy?

At 8 years old, my obsession revolved around organization. The clothing in my drawers had to be perfect. Everything had to be stacked and folded just right. I would come home from school and spend the afternoon straightening up the already straightened drawers.

Then came age 11. This was my “nightmare” year.

I had no control of my thoughts. I was plagued with torturous thoughts every moment of every day. My own brain turned on itself. My hands were covered in bloody cracks from washing, washing, washing.

I did summersaults in the pool until I was dizzy. My mom told me to stop, but I couldn’t. “I have to do 60”, I’d say. So 60 summersaults I did. It was necessary.

Intrusive images of my mom dying flooded my mind. While sitting in class, the image of her being carried away in an ambulance played across my eyelids. She was bloody and still. I panicked. Why did it feel so real? Why was my mind flooded with such bad thoughts? Why did I feel like her fate was in my hands?

The teacher gave us an assignment to read in our textbook. My classmates finished quickly. I, however, couldn’t get past the first paragraph. I had to reread the sentences, over and over, unable to move on. I was embarrassed and frustrated. Why couldn’t I keep up? Why was everyone else able to read the page the first time? What was wrong with me? I performed compulsion after compulsion in an attempt to stop the image of my mom dying. I was responsible for saving her, after all. My mind was consumed.

I became terrified of my own saliva. I didn’t dare swallow. I held my spit in my mouth all day. I walked around school looking like I had a mouth full of water. I couldn’t talk. Sometimes, I would find a drinking fountain to spit into. Eventually, I started spitting into my clothes. I walked around with a saliva-soaked jacket. I had no choice; it was better than swallowing poison. I didn’t have the energy to care what people thought.

I worried that everyone in the world would disappear except for me. I worried that everyone was a ghost and that I was the only real person alive. I worried about the number 8. The number 8 meant I would become pregnant. Landing on the number 8 was forbidden.

I didn’t learn much that year. I was too busy counting the holes in the acoustic ceiling tiles. My grades dropped. My teachers had meetings about me, devising plans to make me more successful in school. It was pointless. I wasn’t capable of retaining any new information; my mind was far too busy. The obsessions and compulsions consumed every minute of every day. They were all I knew.

One morning, my world stopped. I had run out of “good” numbers to land on. All of the numbers were bad. I couldn’t land on anything. I was paralyzed. I couldn’t go on.

Food was also contaminated. I tore it apart, examining it for flaws and abnormalities. I spit out mouthfuls of chewed food in front of my friends in the cafeteria. I couldn’t care what people thought about me. I didn’t have the energy to care. I lost so much weight. My face sunk in. My eyes were hollow. I looked so fragile.

Every morning, I would weep. I would beg mom to let me stay home. Going to school was too painful. Every task was too hard. When I woke up, the thoughts hit me like a ton of bricks. They even invaded my dreams. I could never catch a break.

Finally, I broke down. I felt like I was suffocating. I remember laying in my bed, saying, “Mom, I feel like I’m stuck in a nightmare and I can’t wake up.”

I had no idea I needed help. I didn’t know my mind worked differently than everyone else’s. I had experienced intrusive thoughts since age 4 — they were my “normal.” All I knew was that I had scary thoughts all the time, and I felt the need to do certain behaviours to keep those thoughts from coming true.

In addition to the more classical forms of OCD such as fears of contamination, it is important to note that OCD has no limits to its creativity. Typically, OCD latches onto what the individual cares about and values the most. Thus, it is very common for individuals with OCD to experience fears of harming themselves or others, scary thoughts about the possibility of being with the wrong partner or not living in accordance with one’s true sexual orientation, unwanted thoughts about harming a child, fears regarding the possibility of upsetting God or doing something morally wrong, fears of the unknown when it comes to philosophical and existential questions, and even fears of acting on suicidal thoughts. These thoughts “stick” because they are the exact opposite of one’s actual character and desires, which is what ultimately makes them so terrifying.

No matter what the OCD has latched on to, it is important to note that each intrusive thought/obsession is simply a fear of uncertainty. The evidence-based treatment for OCD is Exposure and Response Prevention, which ultimately involves exposure to one’s fears while resisting engagement in compulsive behaviour.  

This all being said, OCD is a debilitating mental illness that is agonizing for those who live with it. OCD is treatable and manageable, but in order for people to get the proper help, the misconceptions around OCD need to be broken. There are people who are silently suffering, afraid to get help because their intrusive thoughts don’t match what society says OCD is (cleaning, counting, organizing, and being neat).

If you’re reading this, whether you have OCD or not, I challenge you to share this information with a friend. Take this opportunity to play what seems like a small role in educating others. You might find out that this “small” role is actually a huge role that could ultimately save someone’s life.

About the Author

Nathalie Maragoni, M.S., is working toward licensure as a Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of California. She plans on specializing in the treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and other OC-related disorders. Nathalie received a Master of Science in Counseling Psychology from California State University, Bakersfield in 2018 and is a member of the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF). She speaks openly about her own lived experience with OCD and is scheduled to present as part of a panel presentation at the International OCD Foundation Conference this July. She is also a published author of three articles for Mental Health on the Mighty and runs a mental-health related Instagram account called @mindonfire_ocd.