OCD: More Than Just an Acronym


Rachel McCrea/Mikayla Nguyen

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is isolating and terrifying, filled with many diverse symptoms.

It’s a cloudy Tuesday, and you bring your umbrella to school. It swings from your wrist as you walk through the halls. You make sure to place the ball of your foot on every crack in the tile. You look up to see a girl you know walking towards you, on her way to choir. She smiles at you, and an image flashes through your mind of you shoving her into the lockers, her head slamming against the cold metal. You wince, but don’t pay much attention to the unwanted thought.

This is normal, after all.

Second period. You touch a piece of gum under the desk, and panic surges through you. You rush to the bathroom where you wash your hands, the same pattern over and over. Left hand over the back of your right. Right over left. Rub your palms together twice. Add another pump of soap.

Do it again.

And again.

And again.

You return to class fifteen minutes later, your hands raw, red, and freezing. You shove them in your pockets and ignore them.

This is normal, after all.

On your way to lunch, you wave to a boy you know from math. He remains deep in conversation with his friend and doesn’t glance up at you. Your heart drops to your stomach. Of course. He hates you, he must, or he would have waved back. He had seemed like a really good guy, but he didn’t wave back. You think you must have done something wrong. Thousands of thoughts run through your head. 

But this is normal, after all.

At least, it’s normal for 2.3 percent of the American population.

Affecting hundreds of thousands of people across the nation, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) ranked among the top 20 causes of illness-related disabilities. According to BeyondOCD.org and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 1 in 40 adults have it, as well as 1 in 100 children.

It’s possible a teacher suffers from it. Or a teammate. Or a cousin. Although the disability is so common, most of America seems completely oblivious to what the mental illness actually is.

Take the hit sitcom Friends.” For example, in season 4, “The One With Phoebe’s Uterus, Ross decides to share his personal life with his coworkers at the Museum of Natural History.

“I’m Ross,” he says. “I’m divorced and I have a kid!”

What followed was the rest of the museum workers sharing their personal secrets (“I don’t know squat about dinosaurs!”). One scientist stands up nervously and takes a deep breath.

“I’m Scott!” he says. “I have to turn the light switch on and off 17 times before leaving a room or my family will die!”

Canned laughter blares. The screenwriters congratulate themselves for using mental illness as a punchline.

However, it’s not just television that misrepresents the mental illness. “I’m so OCD,” is used in conversation describe the desire for tidiness or organization. “I’m so OCD about my pencil case,” or “I’m so OCD about my room being clean.” In today’s society, OCD is synonymous with neatness or liking things a certain way.

These perceptions are inaccurate, and in some cases, truly harmful. In reality, obsessive-compulsive disorder is far darker and more serious than canned laughter and organization.

In order to understand OCD, one must grasp its two main factors: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are characterized by intrusive thoughts and fears, including, but not limited to, perverse or violent images, excessive fear of contamination, and extreme superstitious or religious fear. Inability to throw items away, and a deep, inexplicable need for everything to be even or exact are also common obsessions.

Compulsions are urges felt by a person with OCD, often in response to those obsessions. Some common compulsions can be checking things over and over again, repeated rituals and actions, and excessive organizing. 

Sky Yonehiro, diagnosed with OCD at age 15, is a senior at Carlmont High School.

“I would waste hours of my life just trying to get something to my standards, and no matter what I did, I could never get it,” Yonehiro said. “I would waste a lot of time trying to do a really small, menial task that didn’t need to be done. I [would] have to have everything be symmetrical. It just took up hours and hours of my life. I would do all these things and it was never enough.”

Though OCD is not characterized as an anxiety disorder, it commonly coexists with depression, anxiety, and anorexia, and can cause extreme distress to those who suffer from it.

“I’d get this horrible itchy feeling like I didn’t want to be in my skin anymore, and it would bother me and bother me and bother me,” Yonehiro said. “I was just stuck, thinking about that one thing. I’d just be crying over something so small, or yelling, and I didn’t know why.”

Another problem that Yonehiro faces as part of the disorder is what she calls “black-and-white thinking.”

“Black-and-white thinking is a really hard cognitive distortion to realize, but basically, I thought, ‘If you weren’t this, then it didn’t matter,’” she said. “If I wasn’t the best at something, [I would think] ‘Well, I suck. I will never matter. It won’t matter if I die. I don’t need to be here because I’m not the best.’ Or, ‘If you’re not my friend, you’re my enemy. If you don’t say hi to me, you hate me.’”

Yonehiro also mentioned the distressing, intrusive thoughts she has experienced. Thoughts like the ones she deals with can severely impact relationships, school, work, and family life, as well as cause anxiety and stress.

“I’d just be going along my day, and it would be — and it still is sometimes — ‘You should jump off this high place. You should push someone. Your whole family is gonna die, and it’s gonna be your fault,’” Yonehiro said.

To this day, Yonehiro is still impacted heavily by the effects of OCD.

“I work hard to counteract my symptoms and to learn, but sometimes I get really upset or mad for really bad reasons,” Yonehiro said.

However, years of dealing with the illness and learning how to cope has made her stronger.

“Now, I not only know a bit, but I’m able to deal with it,” Yonehiro said. “I’m able to say ‘Sorry, it’s not you, I just need to step outside and deal with it.’”

Payton Vogt, a junior, has also struggled with obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Despite the fact that she is not officially diagnosed, she displays most of the symptoms.

“I do have most of the symptoms. I always fix things on people. I always have to fix hair. For some reason, I need things in order,” Vogt said.

For Vogt, having things in order is not just a preference, but a necessity.

“I just start getting really anxious and antsy,” Vogt said. “I just have to look away [from people] because it’s so bad sometimes.”

Usually, Vogt’s symptoms hit her hard in crowded places like hallways, which are filled with triggers for her obsessions.

Both Vogt and Yonehiro believe that proper research is key to accurately representing the disorder.

“If you research about it a lot, it’s going to be good. If you don’t research that much about it and you just think you know about it, it’s not going to be that good,” Vogt said.

Some symptoms of illnesses are not always obvious or known by the general population; OCD is the same.

“OCD has a wide variety of symptoms that a lot of people don’t know about,” Yonehiro said. “It’s not just about being clean or neat. People can [have] OCD without being neat. Some people have something called purely obsessional OCD where they just have these thoughts, and not compulsions, and that’s just as valid.”

Yonehiro is also eager to debunk the “I’m so OCD” misconception.

“OCD is not just a mild, ‘Oh, I like to color-code my binders,’” she said. “It’s an obsessive, ‘If I don’t write in blue pen in history, I’m gonna kill myself.’ [It’s] ruining hours of my life reciting every fact from the textbook. It’s a horrible disease that kills your will to live.”

OCD has oftentimes been reduced to a stereotype, a cartoon, and an equivalent to neatness. It is frequently used to get a laugh, to describe your desire for organization, or to create a “quirky” character on TV. But the cold, hard truth is that OCD is none of these things.

“I heard someone say, ‘OCD is a noun, it’s not an adjective,’” Yonehiro said. “You wouldn’t say, ‘I am so cancer,’ or ‘I’m so tuberculosis.” That would be horribly offensive. No one would say that, so why do we say it for mental illness?”

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255