The Overuse of Mental Illnesses to Describe Quirky Behaviors (and why I hate it)

I used to suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

When I was younger, I used to check my front door, ensuring that it was locked for up to 30 minutes to an hour at a time. My mornings would have to account for the time lost, otherwise I would be late for school (which I was on several occasions). Besides the embarrassment of explaining to my teachers as to why I was late to school (I’d have to make a different excuse each time), it was a pervasive and toxic thought that would consume my mind for hours after I did my last check with the door. It didn’t just stop at my door, I used to count the tiles on my garage door to ensure that it was closed. I would run circles in my bedroom ensuring that my windows were locked. I’d stand by the stove counting to exorbitant numbers, staring at the stove to make sure that pilot wasn’t on. I was spiraling out of control.

Thankfully for me, I had very understanding (and impatient) friends who thought I was out of my mind, but moreso wasting their time, that they forced me to break these rituals. I’d be in a panic but there was nothing I could do. My friends would have to endlessly reassure me that the door was locked, or the garage door was closed, or that the stove was off. I was a huge pain their ass, but it worked. I don’t have those rituals anymore, well on a day to day basis. When my anxiety is high, I see these obsessions return in small waves. It’s going to be something I battle with my whole life.

After consumption of numerous journals, articles, and documentaries about people who suffered from OCD, I realized that the debilitation it caused me was light in comparison to others. People would lose hours of their day in engaging in rituals to simply get their obsessions and ruminations to stop, if even for a moment.

I felt empathy. I felt pain. I understood deeply from my experiences. This illness was not a joke.

This excerpt from the series, Scrubs, really highlights just how much these compulsive behaviors rule people’s lives. What makes it worse is that, in the midst of these thoughts, we have rational ones, where we know what we’re doing, but we simply cannot break the cycle. It’s frustrating, to say the least.

Which brings me to my original point. It rattles me to the core when someone claims that they have OCD because they have to eat their ice cream in a certain order, or that they would “freak out”, if their Harry Potter anthology was not in order. That’s not OCD. That’s preference. You don’t lose hours of your day obsessively ruminating about it. You don’t have running thoughts several hours into your day, pondering whether eating the strawberry flavor before the chocolate favor is going to ruin your day.

I’m not asking for someone to be politically correct.

It highlights a broader and more systemic issue about the gross misunderstanding of mental illnesses.

When a person is diagnosed with any mental illness, it characterizes a deep sense of disconnect and anguish with how things could or should be. It doesn’t just cause distress momentarily, it derails you from your path.

When diagnosing anyone with a mental illness, this criteria must be clear:

The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

This is important, not just for understanding diagnostic criteria, but to illuminate just how much a certain illness is pulling a person away from their responsibilities, relationships, and ultimately, the fulfillment they can/want/need. They are actually suffering.

Next time you or a friend say that you are OCD, or you’re depressed, or you are going “psychotic”, take a moment to do some research. Look up examples and articles about people who have OCD, are depressed, or suffer from schizophrenia. Take moment to walk a day in their shoes. That ice cream is waiting for you.