The ABC’s of OCD: Addressing the misconceptions

Obsessive compulsive disorder is often associated with organization and cleanliness. We often see fictional characters with cutesy, obsessive habits and their OCD can be magically cured when they fall in love.

The idealized version of the mental illness is far from the reality.

“When you hear that someone has OCD, it’s like, “oh they clean all the time!” Well, no, that’s not what it is. And I can’t control it. Just because you don’t see me doing something doesn’t mean it’s not going on in the back of my head,” said Katherine MacGregor, a student at the University of Waterloo.

The reality behind OCD is much scarier and disheartening than the cultural representation.

“The disorder is comprised of compulsive behaviours, thoughts and obsessive thoughts,” said Julie Gamble, a registered nurse with certification in psychiatric and mental health care at the Wellness Centre.

Typically, the compulsive behaviours are used to provide temporary relief from the obsessive thoughts.

According to OCD UK , the leading national charity supporting people with OCD in the United Kingdom, there are four main strains of OCD: checking, hoarding, contamination and ruminations.

Checking can involve obsessively making sure that something is how it should be, whether it be memory or physical objects, to make sure that nothing has gone wrong or ha been forgotten. This is where the stereotype of switching on and off the lights can come from.


Hoarding, like the type that can be seen in popular television shows such as Hoarding: Buried Alive, is also a classification of OCD. The compulsion to keep all physical objects can stem from an obsession of always being prepared, the fear of being hurt by throwing something away, or as a response to emotional trauma.

Contamination is the strain that is most often portrayed: hand washing, cleaning and organization. What isn’t typically shown is the obsessions behind the compulsions.

“It’s something that they cannot help themselves doing and it often gives a very temporary relief when they do engage in things like hand washing or cleaning,” said Gamble.

The compulsion to clean often comes from the obsessive thought of making their loved ones sick if they don’t. To someone with the contamination strain, something as simple as leaving dishes in the sink could manifest into giving a loved one food poisoning when they try to use that plate the next time.

That’s a lot less quirky and cute than thinking of them just being organized when they finish a meal.

The last strain, rumination, is a blanket term to cover the rest of the intrusive thoughts. It could manifest in anything from numerical counting to excessive perfectionism.

“I have numerical OCD and a lot of that has to do with balance,” MacGregor explained.

“Certain numbers in my head are really good: like four, 14, eight, are good numbers, where other numbers like three, 13, and numbers with no order are considered bad.”

For MacGregor, this obsession can manifest in many different types of compulsions, even in something as simply as working out.

“So say I do 18 arm stretches on one side, I have to do 18 on the other, or else I feel like that arm is going to get broken,” she said.

OCD, just as much as some of the more common mental illnesses, can seriously impede on a student’s ability to preform in a university setting.

For one, the obsessions and compulsions take up an extraordinary amount of a student’s life. Compulsions are not something that they can ignore during midterm season when they need to study.

“Sometimes they can get caught up in that perfectionist kind of approach so much that it delays their ability to get that paper handed in on time,” said Gwen Page, the associate director of the Accessible Learning Centre.

The Accessible Learning Centre provides accommodations for students with disabilities, including those with OCD.


However, as OCD is more rare than some other mental illnesses, Laurier doesn’t have specific resources to assist students with it from a medical standpoint, though the university can assist students in finding other resources.

“At Laurier, we can definitely refer you to some local resources. We have a few different practitioners, as well as a few different clinics that have multiple practitioners … who specialize in the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder,” said Gamble.

In my attempt to get diagnosed at Laurier, I was diagnosed with other mental illnesses, but there was no way to scan for OCD. I was also unaware of the resources in the greater community.

If anything, I think this shows the emphasis placed on the more common illnesses — like depression and anxiety. Though I applaud the attempts to treat the majority of students, I’m a bit concerned for students who may slip through the cracks without the support system that I have.

The accommodations at the Accessible Learning Centre at Laurier attempt to help students with OCD as much as possible by creating a plan that is never one-size-fits-all-with-OCD.

“We ensure that our accommodation plans are incredibly individualized, so it’s not like every student with a mental health issue gets [one plan] and every student with a learning disability gets [another],” explained Page.

A diagnosis is one thing, but the individual experience is something else entirely.

“We can have great documentation from a treatment provider but that may mean something on paper, but manifest differently for the student,” Page said.

As the Accessible Learning Centre tries to provide the resources for students, they understand that OCD doesn’t prevent anyone from having success.

Like any mental illness, people with OCD are not completely defined by their mental state, it just means they may have to do things in a different way than the average.

Look at the famous examples: Howie Mandel, Leonardo DiCaprio, Amanda Seyfried. They’ve all been incredibly successful with their OCD, not despite it.


At a more everyday level, MacGregor showed her personality as soon as I sat down with her, joking that I should lie and say her occupational title was a doctor. Her OCD is just one part of her, but she has so many other beautiful layers that make her the person that she is.

Everyday things can become difficult, but we persevere to the point where people may not even notice. Even with my rumination of having a mistake, I’m still able to write this article.

OCD can be dangerous. It can completely take over a person’s life — but it doesn’t make them any less of a person. That being said, breaking the stigma around OCD has become incredibly difficult.

“OCD in general, you see it in Glee and The Big Bang Theory and it’s portrayed so negatively, as if it’s a joke. Oh, Sheldon has to knock so many times! That’s the closest to my strain that I’ve seen and it’s a joke to people,” MacGregor explained.

“If Penny had an eating disorder, that wouldn’t be a joke. That would be [a] really serious manner. Every single episode you have OCD as the butt of a joke and that’s why I think it’s the hardest for people to understand and accept it.”

The word choices of everyday people and objects can have an impact on people’s lives.

Until we stop using OCD as a descriptive word to describe someone with organizational skills, the stigma will still be prevalent. It’s not a joke to those who actually experience it.

“At [a store in the mall], they had a pillow with ‘obsessive Christmas disorder,’ [written on it] and it was just like great! My disease that could kill me is on a pillow!” MacGregor claimed.

But representation can work both ways.


“It was actually Howie Mandel coming out and explaining all the different spectrums that made me understand and look more into my OCD,” MacGregor confessed.

With initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk, the stigma around all mental illnesses is starting to wane. It is important, however, to break the stigma even in the less common illnesses.

“I am seeing a lot more [students coming forward about mental illness] because of the other initiatives on campus and in the community,” Page said. “All those education efforts are certainly making a difference on what we’re seeing.”

But as we head forward and the stigma begins to break, we have to be mindful of all mental illnesses.

“Because OCD is more rare, the more rare disorders tend to come behind the rest of them,” Gamble explained.

If you or someone you love has OCD, it’s important to learn as much as you can about the individual illness.

“If you feel like you have anything, you know yourself the best … so I always encourage people to come in and ask some questions and we can help direct from there,” Gamble explained.

No one has to be knowledgeable about everything, but it’s important to listen to the people who are in the situation.

“There are great resources online to help family and friends [of those with] with mental health issues and how you can assist them because the signs aren’t always very noticeable,” MacGregor suggested.

“It’s just keeping the discussion going and educating people is the biggest thing.”

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