Saturday, January 24, 2009

OCD Misunderstandings

I'm sure you've heard it: People using OCD as an adjective.

"I'm really OCD about my apartment." "She was really OCD over him." "I'm really OCD about paying people back when they lend me money."

These people have some vague idea that OCD has something to do with needing order, being particular, or washing your hands repeatedly. This knowledge qualifies them to use "OCD" willy nilly. While this doesn't bother me nearly as much as it bothers my husband (in noble defense of me and my feelings), it's not the worst way that OCD could be misunderstood.

Jumping to Conclusions
The other day I was working on a project in my parents' basement. My dad was down there, too, organizing the newest toolboxes he acquired. It was chilly, so he set up a space heater for me. Using care to situate it just right so my legs would be warm, he put it under the table I was working on--except that it was just a little too close to some papers and cardboard for comfort. I said, "No, move it up a little bit. A person with OCD doesn't like that those papers are so close to the back of the heater," hinting at the fire worry that a lot of us have. It didn't really bother me, but I guess I was taking a little advantage of my habits. I was warmer, so I started working.

I was soldering metal for a project I'm working on. To do so I first clean the metal with flux, a liquid that roughs up the surface so the metal will stick. I accidentally dropped a Q-tip I was using to apply it into the flux bottle. Knowing my dad solders and welds and is generally a knowledgeable guy when it comes to the practicalities of tools and such, I sought his advice.

"I just dropped the Q-tip into the flux and I don't know if I can get it out. Do you think that matters?"

--an abrupt "Don't worry about it."

Worry? He said it as if I had some wild idea conjured up, like this Q-tip in the plastic bottle would start a fire, or someone would decide they needed to clean their ears with this very Q-tip.

"I'm not worried about it, I just wondered if it would ruin the flux." Purely a pragmatic concern; I didn't want to be out $8 for a brand new bottle of flux now ruined. He didn't believe me.

"Don't worry about it."

Not Qualified to Judge
Now, as a person of frequent irrational thinking, it would not have been unlikely that I was obsessing over impossible situations that could happen as a result of this Q-tip having fallen into the flux. I can admit that. And my dad knows me, and he knows what my OCD is capable of. But this was not one of those OCD situations! But in his mind it was, and his prior experience with my OCD made him feel qualified to judge so he quickly chocked it up to obsession.

This is the kind of OCD misunderstanding that hurts most. It's different than a person thinking he knows how to use the term "OCD." It's thinking he know when to use it.

Tip #1: Accept that people will misunderstand sometimes.
OCD is nothing to hide, but surely I keep it private from most people for this reason exactly: I cannot trust that they understand it. Of all the people that are close to me, my dad has been through it with me the longest, yet he still can be quick to judge my feelings and make assumptions--proof that even those who think they "get it" will sometimes misunderstand. It's ok to let them.

Tip #2: Be assertive.
If a misunderstanding arises, express your feelings. Assertiveness shows mental clarity, and mental clarity is never present during an obsession. I gently said, "You know, sometimes I wish you didn't know me so well."

"Did I hit the nail on the head?"

"No, you didn't, actually. And it's not always nice to be discounted like that." Point taken, and he didn't say anything about it. He's not a man of apologies, so I didn't expect one. The satisfaction that I had expressed myself was enough.

*Footnote for loved ones of OCDers*
Yes you've been through a lot with them. They have shared a lot of deep feelings with you. You know they trust you. But you don't know what they're thinking. Let the person with OCD have her feelings, and share with you what she feels comfortable sharing, but don't ever jump to conclusions. Listen, love, and offer advice.


  1. Wonderful entry. I have OCD, too, and I hate when people use it as a verb! I agree about not telling everyone because they can never understand it really. How could anyone really get it if they hadn't experienced it?

  2. I just started reading ... you have a great blog going here. I'll be continuing to visit.

    I get kind of miffed when people use "OCD" in a misinformed way as well. If people only knew of the torment I go through with my obsessions.

  3. Amen! My husband tends to be like your dad. He assumes I'll obsess about something, so he acts annoyed, when really, it's just a legitimate question. Or he'll go out of his way to do something a bit differently so I don't obsess about it, when really, that's not something i would have obsessed about in the first place. And the things that do bother me, he's oblivious to, even though I've told him before.
    poor guy. he tries.

  4. Shana,
    Yeah, the "doing something differently so you don't obsess" thing is dangerous!

  5. As a wife and mother to two OCD'ers, thank you for this insight and advice. Thank you. :)

  6. If you substituted "anxiety" for "OCD" in your last paragraph, it would apply perfectly. I still occasionally try to 2nd guess my wife...and get it wrong...

  7. Oh....excellent post. I am afraid I have surely done this to my dh.

    And I *hate* when people use ocd casually like you're describing. The other day I was actually listening to a radio show that had people call in to describe their most "ocd" beahviors. Yuck! I switched the station.

    Seriously though, this post opened my eyes a bit wider.