Those who suffer from OCD often feel isolated, as we recognize our abnormal thought patterns and behaviors are different from those around us. We often have a mistaken assumption that we are the only ones in our lives who struggle in such a way, but in fact, many people who struggle either don’t receive a diagnosis or, if they do, rarely share it with others. Often, they do this because of the stigma surrounding OCD. I want to address a few misconceptions about the nature of OCD.
1. It’s not about cleaning.
This is perhaps the biggest one, and it’s a misconception I had early on. OCD is not simply liking order, being a germaphobe, or perfectionism. Germ OCD is just one manifestation of OCD, but there are so many others. It can take more than one form. Somebody may struggle exclusively with religious OCD. Or, they may simultaneously struggle with obsessions about their relationships, worry over an intrusive thought about violence, and feel urges to check their alarm dozens of times before going to sleep.
OCD isn’t about being super neat. Cleaning and organization is one way that OCD may manifest in an individual; however, not all people with OCD are super neat. Just ask my family!
2. Not everybody experiences it.
I’ve heard some people say, “I’m a little bit OCD sometimes,” or “Oh, that’s just my OCD showing up,” when they do not have OCD. Maybe they have great organizational skills, or maybe they’re just a little bit particular or perfectionistic. But those are not diagnostic criteria for the disorder; many people with OCD don’t even struggle in this way. In addition, you can’t be “a little bit OCD”; you either have the disorder or you don’t. And when you have it, it’s very distressing.
It can also be harmful to say phrases like “I’m so OCD.” I’ve run into this countless times, and I’ve never felt personally offended. I know the people who use the phrase do not mean any harm. However, the reason I point out the harm in these phrases is that they can perpetuate the feeling of misunderstanding that those with OCD probably already have.
People can use mental health disorders in other phrases, too, such as “You gave me a panic attack!” over a mere startle, “Are you schizophrenic?” when someone is acting overly nervous, or “You’re so bipolar” when someone has a day full of mood swings. These phrases have come naturally into our everyday speech, and yet none of these are accurate representations of the disorders they mention. The label of a mental disorder provides a helpful description for a struggler’s experience, but it’s unhelpful when used as an adjective to describe a personality trait.
3. I didn’t choose it, and I don’t enjoy it.
I don’t know anyone who actually thinks OCD is chosen and enjoyable. But sometimes in Christian circles, obsessive-compulsive cycles can be met with misunderstanding, and I can get the sense that I am consciously choosing them. For instance, if I’m anxious, I must have brought it upon myself. However, I didn’t wake up one day and think “I’d really like to start obsessing about my salvation right now!” I am an image-bearer with conscious choice and free will, but that doesn’t mean everything that happens to me is my own doing.
In addition, as the common phrases tend to communicate, OCD is not an enjoyable thing. It isn’t a quirky but useful personality trait. It isn’t an attribute. It disrupts my daily life with incessant doubts that consume my thoughts. It strips my relationship with God of comfort, peace, and joy. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
4. I can’t “just stop.”
I haven’t experienced this one too much, but I know it can be a common phrase in some Christian circles when talking about a suffering or struggle in general. Often we want a quick fix, and especially if we care for the suffering person, we want to offer advice that is once-and-done, easy, and sure to bring relief. However, we with OCD can’t turn off our obsessive brains. We can resist compulsions, but not as easily as being told to. Often it requires counseling/therapy and sometimes even medication.
I can’t “just stop thinking about it.” If I could, it wouldn’t be OCD! I literally cannot stop thinking, and certainly not on demand by mere willpower. Nor can I “just not do a compulsion.” There’s a lot more that goes into the struggle and—like most forms of suffering—it is not resolved by quick fixes or easy answers.
5. It doesn’t disqualify me from service “until I’m cured.”
The other points are addressing what others may say to OCD strugglers, but this one is targeted at myself. Perhaps I’m not alone. So often, I have this mindset that I can’t be of true service to the church until I’m “cured.” I think I must have full assurance of salvation and stop doubting all the time in order to be a true, fully-functioning believer: I can’t witness to nonbelievers if I’m not sure I’m a Christian! This simply isn’t true. My struggle is not elevated above others, nor does it render my work futile and unworthy. We can bring any struggle before the Lord in honesty, and he can use any struggle for his own glory and purpose. The church is full of members struggling against sin and suffering, and we have more in common with each other than not.
Don’t Miss the Individual
These misunderstandings, as well as many others, only add to the sense of isolation we already experience. Those of us with scrupulosity in particular already feel an acute disconnection from God, so this human misunderstanding only compounds the isolation.
Beyond the struggle of OCD, I think we could all benefit from better listening skills. Instead of passively accepting unhelpful stereotypes, let’s be quicker to actively hear from the strugglers themselves, letting them describe their experience. Let’s be sensitive to unhelpful language and gestures that communicate to the individual we’re not safe confidants. Let’s use a label—whatever it is—as the helpful description it is, and not miss the individual whose soul is suffering from it.