I am Gerald: OCD and The Harm of Ableist Language

There is never a classroom that exists without someone, anyone, who tells everyone they have OCD.

I am sure you know that person. Straight A student, immaculate transcript and a stuffed pencil case. She sits next to you in class, pulls out her Macbook and her notebook. She places two yellow #2 pencils next to her blank paper and meticulously arranges her pencils to be parallel.

“Sorry”, she giggles. “I’m just so OCD about stuff like this.”

That girl, however, is NOT the one with OCD. If she was, she wouldn’t be telling you she had OCD. Instead, she would be the girl arriving five minutes late, running behind schedule because she couldn’t get the door to close just right. She would be the girl who you notice takes forever to get out of her seat at the end of lecture. You attribute her touching the pull-out desk so many times to an itch or exhaustion, but something seems off. This girl- the one who moves around in her seat, speaks with panic in her voice, spends every waking moment in panic- she is the one with OCD. That girl is a lot of people, and that girl is me.

OCD isn’t cute. It’s not quirky and it’s not fun. It’s something I have lived with every single living day of my life, day in and day out. Your pens may be in order, but my brain never will be. It is¬†painful. It hurts. When you have OCD, you feel like Mario running through a level on a gameboy. Your life stops being about pleasures and fulfillment and starts being controlled by impulses and needs. Walking, eating, exiting a room is a struggle. There is an idea in our society that OCD, or Obessive Compulsive Disorder, is a quirky little disorder, which consists of a massive fear of germs, an immaculate room and lots of hand washing. These attributes often make their ways into OCD, but are only a few ants in a colony of thousands. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a demon of many faces.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is defined as a disorder which consists of an impulsive need to indulge oneselves in obessive thoughts, habits or rituals. While it manifests for some in the form of neatness and cleanliness, others it can manifest itself in little habits and tics. This umbrella diagnosis can include behaviors such as obsessive thoughts like the constant panic about the demise of wildlife, or a bizarre fascination with eye color. It can also include rituals: the need to turn lights on and off, the need to check a door multiple times before leaving a room, the need for ritual, habit and symmetry.

The problem in American culture and OCD is that it isn’t taken seriously. Valid representation of the disorder comes few and far between. Monk, a long lived series about a detective with OCD, often played deep into stereotypes and only scratched the surface of the disease. While the show did a great job focusing on his outside behaviors- his quirks, cleanliness and orderly life, they hardly ever took a look inside his head.

The common trope for someone with OCD always falls under two categories: young, intelligent, high strung woman and the quirky, overweight, balding man who lives alone well into his 40’s. Both of these characters, when played in TV and movies, are always white and always loners. The truth is, OCD is not something only “weird” people get. OCD exists in all types of people- from those whose whole lives define it to those who hide it deep within themselves. Yet regardless of how one presents their OCD on the outside- the inside is what brings those with OCD together.

When I talk about my OCD, I describe it as a little troll living in my head. For the sake of this post, let’s call this troll Gerald.

Gerald controls my actions. He makes me turn lights on and off seven times in a row. He makes me turn my head back and forth until he feels it has sufficed. He tells me how many exclamation points I can use in my texts and what words I am required to ommit from my text messages. Gerald tells me what numbers I can like and what numbers I must avoid. For the last few months, Gerald has loved the number eight. Recently, it changed to seven and nine. Now, the pleasure Gerald used to get from the number eight (eight potato chips, eight words in a sentence, eight people sitting in a row) but now he cannot stand that number.

One time, Gerald told me I wasn’t allowed to swear in my texts for an entire week. If I did, my boyfriend would break up with me. He gave no reason why. Gerald never gives a reason why.

The best representation I have seen of OCD is in the HBO show GIRLS. Lena Dunham, who plays Hannah, channeled her real life struggles with OCD into her character which gives a really accurate description of OCD:

 

This Poem by Neil Hilborn also does a wonderful job describing OCD in its real, purest form: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnKZ4pdSU-s

 

Yet, despite rising depiction of honest and true OCD, American culture still has not opened their arms to those living with OCD in a way that makes it feel okay to be out about it. Whenever someone attributes something like organizing their pencils to OCD, they minimize the real effects of the disorder and silence those actually living with it. 1 in 100 children have OCD to some extent, yet those who have it rarely speak up. It’s still unintegrated into modern conversation and not understood the way other mental illnesses are. It is uncharted territory, something that needs a lot more attention and a lot less of a wisecrack used to make fun of little quirks that everyone has.

 

The only solution to this problem is to destigmatize OCD. To talk about it. To cut out the harmful language and light play people make out of OCD and start treating it for what it is- a disease that affects all kinds of people. Because the girl with the pencils may want them perfect. But the second class ends, they’re right back in her brain. But Gerald does not go away. He will be here for the rest of my life. And that is something that deserves respect.

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