People get a lot wrong when talking about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. First of all, just because you like order or consider yourself organized, it’s not okay to loosely throw around the fact that you are “soooo OCD” about something.
Being organized and liking right angles and lists do not qualify you as having a very serious and often crippling mental health disorder. Another misconception is that all of us who do have OCD are obsessed with cleanliness and germs. While fear of contamination and a compulsion to clean or hand wash are common manifestations of OCD, there is so much more to the story of living with a very invasive mental illness. In fact, OCD can be pretty disgusting at times.
People with OCD may have reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) or behaviors (compulsions) they repeat over and over. Or they may have both obsessions and compulsions like I do. The obsessive, intrusive thoughts are terrifying. I have worried I hit someone with my car. I have imagined stabbing and killing loved ones. I have seen myself drive off of bridges and swerve my car into oncoming traffic. I have had flashes of hurting animals. None of these thoughts are about tidiness or sparkling clean counters. These false memories are gory and repulsive. The fear that these visions could become real eats at me—not because blood is messy, but because I don’t want to be a person who causes a grotesque scene of pain. Hurting someone or myself is not something I want to do even when my brain forces me to see it happening.
The more I try to make my obsessions go away, the stronger they get. Usually, I just let them come and go. I have been dealing with them long enough to know I won’t act on a thought in the same way I perform my rituals or compulsions.
While fear of contamination and a compulsion to hand wash are common manifestations of OCD, there is so much more to living with an invasive mental illness. In fact, OCD can be pretty disgusting.
I have checked locks and alarm clocks like many fellow OCD sufferers, but OCD has never been about dirt or messes for me, not in a way I fear. I don’t worry about sanitizing myself or a surface after someone shakes my hand or before I touch public surfaces. I am on the other end of the spectrum when it comes to germs and bacteria; I believe they are good for our immune system. I also love to sweat, get dirty, and have zero issues with blowing my nose on my shirt or wiping my hands on the grass in order to “clean” them.
I have had people get into my often messy car and say things like, “I thought you had OCD. This is disgusting!”
First of all, my car is not that bad, folks. And second of all, buckle up, because many of my compulsions and rituals really are nauseating. I don’t enjoy or want to be performing these behaviors that even I recognize are gross. OCD doesn’t care, though. Once the urge to do something strikes, it’s like a poison that can only be released by the act of performing the ritual. Yet, the poison is never really gone; the release of it just loosens what feels like suffocating anxiety and fear.
And there isn’t always a reason for a specific ritual. Many years ago, when I was in the early stages of figuring out the right medicine for my OCD and PTSD, one of my rituals became smelling my dog’s shit. If he pooped on one of our walks, I would clean it up with a plastic bag and then proceed to bring it to my face over and over again. I would take long inhales as if I were taking a drag off a cigarette. I didn’t like the smell. I wasn’t checking for signs of illness. But once I got started it was hard to stop; in order to end the ritual it would take throwing the bag of shit into a trash can. The longer I sniffed the bag, the more I hated the smell and myself.
I didn’t understand why I was doing this. I knew others wouldn’t either, so I kept it a secret. That felt dirty too. If shame is allowed to grow, it will. And that shame fed more cycles of anxiety and compulsive shit smelling. I eventually told my therapist about it, and we made a plan to work through it. Understanding that there wasn’t much to understand about this particular behavior helped too. It was part of my OCD, and it was gross.
I have also nose and skin picked. I have looked at and touched things that would make many people gag because I couldn’t help myself. OCD has caused me to stare, tap, and sniff to the point of exhaustion. No level of filth has been too high.
And I have sat in very smelly and unsanitary places just to satisfy an obsessive urge to pee. I know we have all had to make sacrifices in order to relieve ourselves, but in my case my body doesn’t actually need to pee. My bladder isn’t full or even close to it. My fear of thinking I will be in a position of not being able to find a bathroom is what propels my anxiety into a state of sitting and trying, over and over before I leave the house, a rest stop, restaurant, or hotel room. I have walked out of bathrooms to turn around and go back in to do the process again. Then again. I have held my nose for upwards of 15 minutes while sitting in a porta potty with piss on the floor, the smell of it intensified by the summer sun beating on the blue plastic rectangle I willingly closed myself in.
I have imagined stabbing and killing loved ones. I have seen myself drive off of bridges and swerve my car into oncoming traffic. None of these thoughts are about tidiness or sparkling clean counters.
It’s kind of perfect really because OCD often feels like being stuck somewhere you don’t want to be. It doesn’t mean life is always tidy and in control with a view of perfectly aligned and dust-free frames on the wall.
For me, OCD is about trying to gain control. My brain is busy and messy, and it takes me to dark and smelly places with little regard for hygiene.