I’ve been called OCD (obsessive-compulsive disordered) hundreds of times in my life. I’ve even kind of come to embrace it and sometimes call myself that, too, always with a laugh, because of certain behaviors that everyone who knows me associates with me:
- Following the rules, and sometimes being a crank about other people following them as well (at least when those people are around me)
- Being punctual to the minute (as a general rule), neither early nor late
- Keeping my house, my car, my yard, my dogs, and pretty much everything else I come in contact with tidy, orderly and clean
- Recording every single debit card transaction, bank charge, electronic transfer and check I write, then balancing my checkbook to the penny every week
- Putting my dishes and silverware back in the cupboard or drawer from the bottom up so that I don’t have three or four plates or bowls or forks that are worn out while the rest are still brand new
- Putting currency in my billfold in ascending order by denomination, every bill carefully straightened and all faced the same way
I also pay my bills on time every month, empty my email trash every week, always use my blinker, leash and clean up after my dogs, and try never to discard anything that can be recycled. I am conscientious, organized, and careful in every aspect of my life. I follow the rules because doing so generally helps me avoid causing trouble for myself and others. I keep a close eye on my money to avoid paying foolish fees and charges. I keep my house clean because it looks nice and feels good to live in.
Many, many people in my life have considered it evidence of pathology and mental imbalance, for example, to clean up after oneself and one’s guests, or to always sniff the milk to see if it’s still fresh before pouring it over the cereal, or to check that there’s TP in the public bathroom stall before sitting down. Isn’t this just good sense? Doesn’t everyone do it? No? Am I really the only one?
OCD is a real disorder, and in its severe manifestations it can make life miserable for the people who have it. According to HelpGuide:
“Most people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) fall into one of the following categories:
- Washers are afraid of contamination. They usually have cleaning or hand-washing compulsions.
- Checkers repeatedly check things (oven turned off, door locked, etc.) that they associate with harm or danger.
- Doubters and sinners are afraid that if everything isn’t perfect or done just right something terrible will happen or they will be punished.
- Counters and arrangers are obsessed with order and symmetry. They may have superstitions about certain numbers, colors, or arrangements.
- Hoarders fear that something bad will happen if they throw anything away. They compulsively hoard things that they don’t need or use.”
Washing: I am not afraid of contamination, particularly. I wash my hands once after using the bathroom or before handling food (as well as whenever they get dirty, of course), and once is enough. I like to keep my environment visibly clean but I don’t get anxious about germs unless we’re talking cross-contamination with raw meat in the kitchen. I’m very careful to keep that from happening.
Checking: I sometimes worry when I can’t recall whether I closed the garage door behind me when I’m out and about, but since I have never once come home and found it standing open, I don’t worry too much. Closing the garage door is one thing that has caught me up a couple of times in my life to where I actually had to go back and check (of course, it was closed every time), but day to day, it doesn’t trouble my mind.
Doubting/sinning: I like to do the right thing the right way, follow the rules, and always try to be a good person. When I feel like I’m not doing the right things the right way, I do get anxious, but I make sure that doesn’t happen very often.
Counting/arranging: I like a tidy, orderly space more than most stuff, and sometimes I let myself geek out making sure every book and piece of furniture and kitchen towel in my house is exactly in its place. This is another area where I can shade a tad toward true obsession and compulsion if I allow myself the space and time in which to do so. Usually I can catch myself and move on before I start alphabetizing my spices by size or some such thing.
Hoarding: I keep nearly every single piece of official paper that comes into my house in tidy file boxes (of course), including every contract I sign, every bill I pay, most correspondence I send and receive, and every notice I receive regarding any account or asset. I have frequently needed to lay my hands on physical documentation of various events, and my files make that fast and easy. Otherwise, I am ruthless about clearing the decks and am extremely uneasy around evidence of hoarding behavior.
I had lunch yesterday with a friend whom I have always considered to be the very embodiment of laid-back good nature, a woman who lives by the mantra “it’s all good.” She told me that she has OCD, though, and at first I laughed, expecting some self-deprecating story of innocuous behavior just like, oh, I don’t know, mine. But she said no, she cannot leave the house until she has checked and rechecked that every faucet is off and that the toilets are not running. Her husband waits in the car and growls while she makes the rounds as many times as she needs to in order to calm her mind. She agonizes over whether she locked the house door or shut the garage door, and has often had to leave work to run back home and check. I thought “wow, that’s the real thing.” After all, obsessive means you can’t stop thinking about something, and compulsive means you can’t stop doing something you think about.
What I also realized in talking to my friend is that OCD is separate from personality (one can have some obsessive-compulsive tendencies without actually having clinical OCD, just as one can have clinical OCD with regard to washing or checking while at the same time taking a completely laissez-faire approach to nearly everything else in life). It was an eye-opening moment.
The biggest realization for me is that I have allowed myself to be faulted, criticized and even pathologized most of my life for behaviors that don’t hurt me, don’t hurt anyone else, and actually contribute to my own and others’ quality of life to some extent. I feel fortunate that despite the annoyance that my punctilious tendencies might cause me or anyone else, I’m actually just an ordinarily competent adult who is really high-functioning in the activities of daily living. Some people actually do find that offensive.
Well, to them I say this: