What’s OCD and What Isn’t

To help people understand OCD a little better, here are some simple OCD and non-OCD examples.

Not OCD = washing your hands frequently.

OCD = washing your hands because you looked at a bottle of poison, and worry that poison particles might have floated onto your hands.

Not OCD = keeping a clean house, and being tidy to a fault.

OCD = cleaning your house even though you don’t want to, because of an object that touched something that touched something that touched something else that might have touched something dirty months ago that has since been cleaned, and now all of these objects are probably contaminated.

Not OCD = being conscious and careful about germs.

OCD = worrying that germs can travel in ways they actually don’t, or believing that certain numbers or colors are associated with the spread of germs (i.e. “If I looked at something blue/the number X, I’ll probably get sick”).

Not OCD = enjoying routines and following rules.

OCD = following routines and rules that you hate because you feel like if you don’t, something bad will happen.

Not OCD = keeping objects straight and neat.

OCD = readjusting an object even though you know it probably is straight, because it just doesn’t feel right.

It’s impossible to diagnose OCD based on one symptom alone and as you can see, the problem has less to do with being clean or orderly and more to do with being unable to tolerate even a small amount of uncertainty. People with OCD are more aware and afraid of uncertainty than other people. We obsess over something that might happen as though it probably will, or already has happened. We do this not because we’re uptight or even generally excessive worriers, but because our brains tell us something is wrong. It’s the same feeling we get when something actually is wrong, like when we get injured or make a serious mistake, so it’s the most difficult feeling in the world to ignore — but we must learn to ignore it. That’s why beating OCD is so difficult.

OCD isn’t something that inspires us to be cleaner, neater, and more efficient in our lives; it’s something that holds us back, because it means our brains are telling us we have to deal with problems that don’t even exist. Certainly, people with OCD can be more detail-oriented, good at focusing, and observant — and if so, we can learn to use those powers to our advantage. But those things are not the essence of OCD, and not the core of our problem.

Looking at Things

[Image of Eye]

Worried about looking at things?

For me, looking at things gives a sense of finality. With my obsessive-compulsive fear of staples, pins, and other sharp objects, there is a feeling that I can’t look at these objects while eating or swallowing, lest I somehow accidentally swallow one (?!?). This applies even if I’m looking at a book with staples that’s all the way across the room. But recently, I noticed this isn’t my only instance of ruminating about the act of looking at something. When I’m about to fall asleep, I feel like I have to look at something very blank and neutral like a wall. If the last thing I look at before I close my eyes is a person (no matter who that person is), I feel like I might not be able to stop thinking about that person. It’s similar with certain types of objects. But if I close my eyes looking at a blank wall, I can be relatively assured (for some strange reason) that my thoughts will not center on any one specific thing.

My explaining this doesn’t mean any of that logic actually connects to reality — I have a feeling if I did look at people or things like food before falling asleep, I probably would not get them “stuck” in my head as much as I fear I would. But for some reason, I get that feeling.

So sometimes, this appears to be a compulsion — looking at something bad (staples) and then “protecting” myself by looking at something “safe” (in the case of countering a staple, looking at pretty much anything that’s not sharp would help, but preferably something large, non-sharp, and not a choking hazard for small children). Other times, the obsession is actually that looking at something holds disproportionate importance. With the staples, it’s not so much about importance, but the idea that somehow I might accidentally come in contact with the object just from looking at it — nevermind that not making any real sense.