Updated: May 19, 2022
You hear it all the time. Someone neatens their desk and smiles 'I'm a little bit OCD'.
People have adopted the acronym with alacrity, using it to describe any activity that seems a little bit fussy and particular.
And I guess we should be happy that awareness of OCD is growing.
But the World Health Organisation categorises OCD in the top 10 most debilitating diseases, and recognise that it can lead to severe disability.
As a sufferer in recovery, I'm here to explain a little more, and to ask you a favour: please stop joking that you have OCD.
Neat freaks and knob twiddlers
The popular view of an OCD sufferer is a neat freak who tidies their home obsessively. Maybe you think of someone turning light switches on and off in their own personal disco.
It can be a funny idea, I know.
But it is more than that. OCD isn't checking the cooker is off or touching door handles ten times. It isn't Sheldon Cooper cute. It is debilitating and cruel.
And with an estimated 750,000 sufferers in the UK, you might be working with someone living with the disease.
So what is OCD?
OCD is a serious anxiety disorder where people suffer from intrusive thoughts. These can be so distressing and all-consuming that they become seriously debilitating.
That is the 'obsessive' part of the disease.
Obsessions may or may not then be accompanied by compulsions.
Compulsions are habits or rituals that the sufferer completes to distract themselves from the thoughts or to mitigate against them.
For example, obsessive counting may distract from distressing thoughts that your house may burn down, whilst obsessively checking your oven is turned off seems to mitigate the risk.
Other compulsions might be purely physical, such as blinking or twitching. Or avoidance activities, such as staying away from knives, roads or certain people.
Not all obsessive thoughts are accompanied by compulsions, and people who just experience the thoughts are often said to have 'pure O'.
Sufferers of OCD can be so badly affected by the disorder that they may not be able to work, and may consider or attempt suicide.
I like my clothes folded in a certain way, do I have OCD?
Unless you think something terrible will happen if you don't fold your t-shirts like that, no, you've not got OCD.
And just because you like your highlighters in rainbow order doesn't mean you've got OCD.
As humans we're designed to delight in patterns and order.
Focusing on colours, for example, is an important survival mechanism that helped us erstwhile-apes to recognise good berries from bad, poisonous snakes from harmless ones, the best place to hide from bigger, badder monkeys.
So it is a perfectly normal part of the human condition to like things in specific orders or patterns.
Maybe I'm autistic then?
I have a friend who is an autism advisor, who uses his experience of the condition to help people make their services more autism-friendly. He gets the same sort of questions.
'Do you think I'm a bit autistic...' before being given a range of examples from not liking the office party to being superstitious about a lucky tie.
The truth is that finding social situations difficult, being a bit anal, loving order and patterns just means you're human.
It doesn't make you mentally ill or unwell.
And it doesn't help anyone who is, when you imply that you are.
Think I should lighten up...?
It's just a joke, I know, when you straighten your papers in a meeting and apologise for being a bit OCD.
And I laugh along and chastise myself for flinching inside. Lighten up, Lib!
But it matters because it perpetuates the idea that OCD is a widespread, low impact laughing matter that can be managed by achieving straight lines and tidy stationery.
Rather than being a massively debilitating mental disorder that can have devastating consequences for sufferers.
It matters because three-quarters of a million people in the UK are thought to suffer from OCD in the UK, and there may be people in your office who are living with this disorder.
And if a colleague or friend needs to disclose to you that they are a sufferer, responding, 'oh gosh, me too' isn't going to help that person get the help they need.
So whilst I appreciate it's just banter to lighten the atmosphere of the work day, please think before you identify as OCD.
Think you really do have OCD?
The good news is, there's help available. Make an appointment with your GP and explain. If they don't understand, find another GP who does.
Cognitive behavioural therapy, talking therapies and medication can all help.
You don't have to suffer in silence or in shame. And you CAN get better.
Check out www.ocduk.org for more information.
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About the author
Libby is a freelance copywriter and content marketer from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She worked in marketing and communications for 18 years before turning freelance in 2019. She's written for big brands and boutique businesses, crafting customer-friendly marketing content for print and online.
An advocate for honesty around mental health, Libby has personal experience of pregnancy depression, OCD and social anxiety. She seeks to confront the stigma around these conditions - and support other sufferers - whenever possible.