Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is No Joke (and No, You’re Not “So OCD”)

I hold my arms around myself, trying to stop shaking. I’m convinced that somebody I briefly interacted with earlier is dead, and that I’m somehow responsible for it. I refresh the news headlines, checking for signs that the police are searching for me. I can’t stop asking other people for reassurance that I’m not a bad person, even when it’s totally inappropriate like in the middle of a work meeting. I review my memory of our interaction over, and over, and over again searching for evidence that I definitely didn’t accidentally hurt anybody.

This was my experience of OCD – and it looked nothing like the memes.

You’ve seen the memes. “I’m so OCD,” they read, with a picture of a closet perfectly organized by color. With the arrival of the pandemic, the jokes have only gotten more popular. Because we all need to be so OCD about washing our hands now, right?

While these memes and jokes might seem harmless at first glance, they can actually be really hurtful to those of us who actually live with OCD. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is no joke, and it involves a lot more suffering than just being extra-neat and organized.

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OCD Has Become a Meme

It seems, these days, like we can’t go a single day without seeing some sort of meme or internet quiz that refers to OCD as something other than the debilitating illness it is. “How OCD are you?”, a pop-culture quiz claims to be able to tell you. Hand sanitizers have been labeled as “OCD sanitizers”. There are listicles after listicles of pictures of perfectly organized patterns that will supposedly “calm your OCD”.

Although we can’t tell you exactly when OCD became fodder for jokes and memes, it’s clear that they’re only getting more and more popular. Sadly, OCD isn’t unique when it comes to mental illness being used as a punchline; the names of serious mental health disorders are always being flippantly used to inaccurately (and most of the time, offensively) describe someone or something. If someone loses their temper, they’re so bipolar. If a situation is out of the ordinary, it’s psychotic.

Usually, “OCD” is carelessly used to describe someone’s perfectionistic or extra-hygienic tendencies. For example, maybe someone will say they’re “so OCD” about their kitchen – when really, what they want to say is that they like things in their kitchen to be in their place. News flash: I have OCD, and my house is just as messy as yours. Although some people do have subtypes of OCD that revolve around cleanliness or perfection, there are so many other OCD themes that have nothing to do with those things.

Some OCD Jokes We’ve Seen Recently

OCD jokes and memes are abundant all over the internet, but some of the most popular ones we’ve seen are:

  • “This will trigger your OCD”-type lists and galleries: Usually, these are galleries of pictures of things that would be perfect if it weren’t for one mistake or flaw. Obviously, OCD can’t be triggered by one photo. A lot of people are perfectionists – perfectionism doesn’t equal OCD. On the flip side, other pictures claim to “satisfy your OCD” – with pictures of perfect patterns and color-coded shelves. If looking at a pretty picture could make OCD symptoms go away, then it wouldn’t be the serious, sometimes-debilitating disorder that it is!
  • Jokes about alphabetization: “I have CDO: It’s like OCD, but in alphabetical order, as it should be,” one comic reads. Not funny, and simply confusing; in the years I have lived with OCD, I have never paid a second’s attention to whether something was alphabetized.
  • Jokes about cleaning: One particular meme we’ve seen jokes about inviting an OCD support group over to your house, only so you can get it cleaned. Since the arrival of Covid-19, many people have begun to joke about being “a little bit OCD” about their hand-washing practices.

Why Jokes About OCD Are Hurtful

The question is: who cares? Maybe these jokes about OCD are a little insensitive, but isn’t it a little bit over-the-top to call them offensive or hurtful? The truthful answer: no, it’s not over-the-top at all. If you’ve lived with OCD (or any other serious mental illness), you know how much suffering and pain that the most mundane tasks can bring to your life. You know that mental illness is anything but a laughing matter, and it hurts when you hear other people laughing about it.

Minimization

The truth is that these memes and jokes minimize the amount of suffering that people with OCD live through on a daily basis. People who have OCD can only wish that the only consequence of the disorder was having an extra-organized closet.

Unfortunately, this is far from the reality; we’ll talk about this in more depth later, but OCD comes with painful symptoms, from the unbearable dread that comes along with obsessions to the severe interruption that compulsions cause in your life. Believe us – we wish we could laugh about OCD, too – and we do try to laugh at ourselves when we can. Unfortunately, though, especially when you’re having an acute OCD spike, this disorder is not a laughing matter.

It’s not hard to understand how minimizing and hurtful these jokes are when you apply them to other disorders. Imagine if people nonchalantly posted memes joking about diabetes or cancer; if you saw a list of sugary foods that was titled, “These pics will make your diabetes go wild”. Vile, right? So why do people think it’s okay to make these horrid jokes about OCD?

Stigma

Stigma is the thing that causes that feeling of embarrassment and shame whenever you reveal that you live with a mental illness. It’s society’s whispers of: “She’s just seeking attention,” or “Wow, that person is really crazy – we better stay away from them,” or “He’s just making it up – it’s all just in his head.”

The world hasn’t been kind to people with any kind of chronic illness, but mental illness has carried a particularly intense stigma which is exemplified in the horrible way that mentally ill people have been treated throughout history.

Stigma doesn’t just feel terrible, though – it can actually be deadly. Research shows that stigma, or the fear of it, is one of the main things that prevents people from getting treatment, even when they really need it. Without treatment, OCD can grow into a huge monster that controls our lives – and sometimes, tragically, the pain of this can lead to suicide.

Misinformation

Another dangerous consequence that these jokes carry is the spread of misinformation about what OCD even is. Think about it: all people think about when they think “OCD” is about germaphobes washing their hands, or people who like things to be perfect. Although these things can sometimes be indicative of OCD, the experience of the disorder, in reality, is so much more complex.

When people who actually have OCD unknowingly see these jokes, they can start to think: “I don’t really care that much about washing my hands. I don’t need anything to be super organized. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but it’s clearly not OCD.” It might not even occur to them that the devastating symptoms they’re facing are signs of OCD, and this might prevent them from getting the diagnosis and specialized treatment they need.

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OCD is More Than Just Cleanliness

Not only are these jokes about OCD hurtful, they’re also just inaccurate. The memes are always so focused on cleanliness and organization themes, and while some people with OCD do experience those obsessions, reducing OCD down to just being a neat-freak misrepresents the core of what OCD really is: a cycle of unbearable obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions that keeps you trapped, unable to fully live your life.

So What is OCD, Exactly?

OCD is a mental disorder that causes people to experience obsessions – which, in turn, makes them feel like they need to perform a compulsion in order to relieve the intense anxiety that the obsession brings. When we think of the word “obsession” in layman’s terms, we think of anything we become fixated on. In reality, an obsession is much more complex – and much more painful.

OCD obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts; most people actually experience weird, intrusive thoughts now and again, but the non-OCD brain is able to brush them off as just that: a weird thought. Instead, OCD brains get fixated on the thought as if it were reality. Why did that thought just come to my mind?, they might think. What does it say about me as a person that I had that terrible thought? In short, people with OCD place more importance on their intrusive thoughts than other people, and this is what is called an obsession – not just a fixation on cleanliness.

OCD has often been called “the doubting disease” because of this relationship those of us with OCD have with our intrusive thoughts. Even if we know that the intrusive thoughts are irrational, OCD whispers: but what if? OCD cannot tolerate any amount of uncertainty, no matter how minuscule.

This uncertainty and doubt is what leads to the second part of OCD, the compulsion. A compulsion is any kind of repetitive action that the person performs because it feels like they must do it to escape this horrible thing that their obsession has convinced them might happen or simply to ease their anxiety.

Compulsions can be things like rituals, counting, checking locks, and washing hands – but it needs to be repetitive to qualify as a compulsion. They can also be invisible; many, many people living with OCD experience mental compulsions, which might be things like reviewing their own memories, reassuring themselves, seeking reassurance from people around them, and so on.

The problem with compulsions is that they just feed the OCD monster. The OCD brain starts to think: Good. I avoided danger by performing the compulsion. That must mean I have to do the compulsion again and again, every time I have this fear. This is why OCD is such a debilitating disease – people can get locked into the cycle of obsessions and compulsions, and it robs them of the rest of their lives.

Why You’re Not So OCD

Again, OCD is made up of two parts: the obsession, and the compulsion. Most OCD jokes focus on the compulsion; for example, washing your hands, or cleaning your room. But the invisible part of OCD – the obsession, and the debilitating anxiety it brings with it – is a huge part of what makes OCD such a painful disorder to live with.

A lot of people like to keep their closets organized, but what differentiates an obsession from a personality quirk is that an obsession is an intrusive and unwanted thought. It’s more than just: “A messy closet drives me crazy.” It’s: “If I don’t keep my closet perfectly organized, then something really, really, really, really bad will happen.” It’s: “Organizing my closet over and over and over again is the only way I know how to keep this terrible dread and anxiety from taking over my brain.”

Not only do they completely ignore obsessions, but these memes even misrepresent and minimize the compulsions of OCD. People with OCD don’t just wash their hands, or fix something that’s not perfect, and then get to walk away to enjoy their days, satisfied.

Research shows us that the brains of people with OCD actually have less activity in the area that produces stop signals; we know that we don’t need to keep doing this compulsion, but we just can’t seem to stop. That’s why people with contamination OCD, as an example, wash their hands again, and again, and again, and again, and again – no matter how many times they wash, it never feels like they’ve done it enough – and they just can’t stop.

The important thing to remember is that OCD is a diagnosable mental illness – and to meet the diagnostic criteria, your symptoms need to cause a decrease in functioning in at least one area of your life. If you like to keep things organized but this trait isn’t causing you significant emotional pain or distress, then you probably don’t have OCD.

Just because you like things to be organized, you’re a perfectionist, or you’re afraid of germs doesn’t mean you have OCD. If you think that your rituals around hygiene and organization might actually be a symptom of OCD, then see a professional for a diagnosis and treatment – there is great help out there. If you’re just a neat person, though, then you definitely shouldn’t be joking that you’re so OCD – you’re probably not; and trust us, you don’t want to be.

OCD Themes You’ve Never Heard Of

Almost all the OCD jokes we’ve seen focus around contamination (hand-washing) or “just-right” (perfectionism) themes, but these two subjects only make up a fraction of the types of obsessions (and accompanying compulsions) that people with OCD experience.

These are the subtypes of OCD that you never hear about, often because the subject of the obsessive thoughts is so taboo that people who suffer from them are too ashamed to ever talk about it.

Harm OCD is a subtype of OCD that causes people to have intrusive and obsessive thoughts about accidentally or intentionally harming another person. This person might suddenly think, “What if I just lost control one day and murdered my entire family?” They can’t just brush the thought off, even if they know it’s unlikely, because what if? Their compulsions might be to refuse to hold a knife around a family member, even if they’re cooking, or to constantly check on their family members to make sure they haven’t been hurt.

Similarly, people with Suicide OCD have the obsessive fear that they might someday kill themselves. They’re not suicidal, but they can’t stop thinking about the possibility that they’d lose control one day and commit suicide anyway.

Pedophile OCD causes people to obsess over the possibility that they might secretly be a pedophile without knowing it. In a similar vein, some people worry that they are subconsciously into other illegal sexual practices like bestiality. Perhaps the most tragic compulsion of this type of OCD is avoiding becoming a parent because one is so afraid of “accidentally” sexually abusing their child someday.

People with HOCD or Sexual Orientation OCD (outdatedly called Homosexuality OCD) are irrationally, obsessively worried that they actually don’t identify with the sexual orientation that they’ve always identified with. A person who is heterosexual might suddenly start obsessively worrying that they’re actually gay without knowing it, and vice versa. Similarly, there is an OCD theme around being transgender (or not actually being transgender, if one has identified as transgender before).

Relationship OCD is a subtype that causes people to obsessively question whether their partner is actually right for them. Everything could be fantastic in the relationship and the person with OCD could feel 100% happy and in love, but they fixate on intrusive thoughts that might enter their brain, like “How can you know for sure that you really love her?”. Of course, one can never know for sure – but OCD won’t accept any level of uncertainty.

All of these themes of obsessive thinking (and there are many more) lead to compulsions, whether they’re physical or mental – otherwise, it wouldn’t be OCD. Some people might avoid certain situations altogether (which can quickly become compulsive); others might repeat certain “good” words back to themselves when they have an intrusive thought, or compulsively check with people around them for reassurance that their fear isn’t true.

It’s important to keep in mind at the end of the day, OCD is OCD, and many people’s obsessions jump from one theme to another throughout their lives. We’re pointing these common OCD subtypes out here to raise awareness that OCD does not always look like hand-washing or perfectionism – and it’s minimizing to reduce it to something so black-and-.

If having OCD only meant being extra-careful about hygiene, then maybe these jokes wouldn’t be so hurtful. Unfortunately, it’s a lot more painful than that. Hopefully, now that you have a better understanding of what people with OCD actually face, it’s clearer to you why using the term “OCD” in such an inaccurate way is minimizing and offensive.

How To Talk About OCD Without Being Hurtful

With the new understanding that joking about OCD in this casual way isn’t appropriate, you might be wondering: so how can I talk about OCD without offending anyone?

First of all, you might be surprised to hear that those of us with OCD often do try to laugh at ourselves – in fact, we’re sometimes encouraged to do so. During ERP (the gold standard in OCD treatment), people with OCD are asked to expose themselves for prolonged periods to the obsessive thought that’s causing so much anxiety – and after a while, sometimes, it starts to sound silly. Laughter, although it’s not medicine, can be a fantastic relief from the suffering of OCD.

However, this doesn’t take away from the fact that OCD is a real illness, and a painful one at that – and there’s a big difference between laughing with a loved one with OCD and laughing at or about OCD in general.

When you’re about to use “OCD” as an adjective, think: “What do I really mean when I say that I’m so OCD?”. Are you trying to say that you’re scared of germs? That you’re a neat-freak? A perfectionist? That you love beautiful, perfect patterns? Then say that. Use those words. Don’t use “OCD” as a flippant, replacement word for those characteristics.

If you hear someone making a joke about OCD or using the name of the disorder inaccurately, then correct them. Here’s some language you can use: “Hey, I know you don’t mean to hurt anybody, but using ‘OCD’ like that is actually really hurtful to people who have to live with the suffering of OCD every day. I’d be happy to brainstorm other words you can use instead!”.

Think You Really Are “So OCD”?

If, after reading this, you think that you or a loved one might actually have OCD, it’s important that you see a licensed therapist specializing in OCD treatment right away. The sooner you can get assessed for a diagnosis, the sooner you can start tackling the symptoms of OCD that have been causing you so much suffering.

You can also use self-help programs like Impulse Therapy to learn evidence-based tools that will help you start to tackle the most painful parts of OCD.

If you don’t have OCD, though, please stop joking about this disorder. As you can see, OCD is no joke – and it hurts to have the world making it into one.

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