Trivializing OCD: How Culture Makes a Serious Mental Disorder a Punchline

How often have you heard this? “Oh my god- I’m so OCD!” The speaker is usually talking about something trivial, like wanting to clean his house or even something like straightening out her desk. “I hate when my desk is cluttered!” they’ll say, “I must be so OCD!”  It’s a common enough expression that chances are you don’t even notice it. It’s become shorthand for being quirkily organized, usually so that the speaker can self-define as someone with interesting habits. Most people don’t even give it a second thought.

That’s unfortunate, though, and possibly even dangerous. While no one actually believes that the speaker has OCD, it suggests OCD is merely a quirk, rather than an actual mental condition that requires treatment. This can be harmful, because it can discourage people who actually have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder from seeking treatment. Understanding what OCD is, and the role language has on action, is key to understanding why this is dangerous behavior.

Understanding vs. Political Correctness

One can hear the counter-arguments from the beginning, the cries of “political correctness” run amok. Indeed, there was a semi-popular forward that went around (some vulgar language), which was making fun of this tendency, noting that people used to say “dumb” to mean mute, and how “moron” and “imbecile” used to have scientific meanings to signify people with low-IQ. The idea is that language evolves as culture co-opts phrases, and then doctors come up with new ones, so everyone should lighten up.

A couple of points, here. One is that people who decry political correctness often do so to put the onus of decency on the person being offended–because they find it too heavy a burden themselves. It’s wrapping indecency in a martyr’s cloak. But the broader point is that, yes, historically, this has been what has happened–but it assumes that the co-opting of medical terms is the way things have to be. It was and is offensive and rude and belittling and demeaning to use “retarded” as an insult. Just because something has always been done doesn’t make it right. “Well, we used to make fun of the mentally handicapped all the time–so why stop now?”

That’s what the argument boils down to. And of course, people who say “I’m so OCD!” only do so as a joke, but that’s precisely the point. It’s like we’ve made a decision as to what mental disorders one is allowed to have compassion for and which can be made into jokes. No one would ever say “I’m thinking about losing some weight–I must have severe body dysmorphia!” and expect a laugh. The problem with OCD being reduced to a set of quirks is that no one even notices. No one, that is, except for a person suffering from the actual mental disorder.

The Danger of Trivialization

In an essay, a Kenyon College student talked about her frustration with people joking about OCD for things like making their bed every morning. She has a parent with OCD, and can’t get people to take it seriously. They have sympathy for her because she has a brother with an eating disorder, but the OCD parent isn’t something that makes the cut. People don’t seem to find it to be a real issue.

It is, though. It is the irrational preoccupation with an action or a behavior. It is a fixation on something that might seem rational (let’s say checking to make sure you turned off the stove) that then becomes irrational. It’s something that can’t be controlled. The stove is in your thoughts at all times, and you have to keep checking it. It can destroy lives, as they have to be rotated around this obsession. There’s nothing amusing about it.

One of the main issues is that, most of the time, people who suffer from OCD know just how irrational their behavior is (though there is a related disorder, Anankastic Personality Disorder, where the person doesn’t know their behavior is irrational and wants others to do the same thing). They are already ashamed by their actions and suffer several social stigmas. Turning their disorder into a joke can only make them more ashamed, and because of that, less likely to seek treatment.

Treatment Can Help Get Life Back In Order

Having OCD can be very scary. You are unable to make the world into a shape that fits, and are constantly feeling like things need to be changing. It is a haunting and pursuing illness, and one that requires treatment. A trained and licensed staff at a residential mental health treatment center like Bridges to Recovery can make all the difference in getting you the help you need. With a comprehensive approach to treatment, we use therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, group therapies, and various holistic methods to bring a renewed sense of understanding, acceptance, and control over your disorder.

When it comes down to it, there is no reason to joke about having OCD. It isn’t funny–it is too expected to be shocking, and too cliched to be original. No one thinks the person making the joke is being clever. Society needs to remove it from their joke repertoire–they won’t lose anything, but others stand to gain. For those whose already-difficult lives are made harder by having their suffering trivialized, an increased respect and understanding of OCD may help them accept that their disorder is nothing to be ashamed of, and that it needs treatment. Acceptance, by the person suffering and by society at large, is the first step toward healing.