No, You’re Not ‘So OCD!’– On the Consequences of Pop Psychology


Vick Lukaszuk

Terms like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are misused.

Vick Lukaszuk, Staff Writer

Note to readers: The following story contains descriptions of mental illness and intrusive thoughts. Observer staff writer Vick Lukaszuk shares their experience with mental illness and how it impacted their childhood. 

Where online mental health discussions are concerned, it would seem everyone thinks of themselves as a psychiatrist—at least, if their flippant use of psychology terminology is anything to go by. According to these armchair experts, everyone they don’t like is mentally ill. It’s not enough that someone is rude, selfish or cruel these days—no, they must be borderline, narcissistic or sociopathic. Being disagreeable is no longer a matter of happenstance, but an innate, maladaptive, and unchanging, aspect of one’s personality—a disorder

Now, let me qualify here—there is nothing wrong with suspecting that you or a loved one has some sort of disorder. Had I not realized that a lot of my issues mirrored the symptoms of bipolar disorder, I probably wouldn’t have sought treatment—I would have assumed, as many others had told me, that I was just weak-willed, lazy and erratic. Likewise, if you observe similar patterns of behavior in someone you’re close to, it would be in both of your best interests to point that out and guide them towards help—whatever that may look like.

Where the issue begins is when use of these terms becomes abuse—when, rather than trying to understand and cope with a problem, they are used to stigmatize it and those who suffer from it. With that stigma comes misinformation. Case in point, how many times have you heard neat freaks call themselves “so OCD” in spite of the fact that cleanliness isn’t even a requisite symptom for this disorder? However, the more concerning part is the shame that stigma brings about—and I know it all too well. 

I was 11 when I got my first taste of intrusive thoughts. Contrary to what the internet would lead you to believe, they were not quirky or fun—it was less “what if I got a silly tattoo?” and more “imagine every adult male you are close to naked…constantly.” Mental illness is rarely talked about—especially with children—so I did not have the vocabulary to articulate these thoughts and the distress that arose from them. So, naturally, they got worse. 

I was 14 when I developed what I later learned was a crush on my math teacher. Though the feelings were foreign, they were certainly natural. What wasn’t natural were the obsessive thoughts that followed. I can still remember locking myself in my bathroom—the way I huddled in the fetal position, an instinctive response to the harm I anticipated my brain to inflict upon me; how my stomach lurched and my hands clammed with sweat at the thought of him in sexual scenarios; how my mind taunted me with visions of him moaning my name that I did not want

I was 14—up to this point, my most pressing concerns were “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” and Disney movies. My mind—infantile as it was—never grappled with its own mortality. But in the dark of that bathroom—of my mind—the prospect of not being alive was tempting. 

I want to say I left that bathroom after an hour; though, in my obsessive bout, I hardly had the capacity, nor desire, to keep count. Nevertheless, the thoughts persisted well beyond then. My math teacher became my brother, became my sister, became my father, became my English teacher and became my nephew; with each perverse permutation, my disgust at myself soared. Again and again, I became that 14-year-old; terrified, ashamed, confused and suicidal.

I cannot make this clear enough—I did not want to have sex with any of these people. Though I was likely sexually attracted to my teachers, I found the idea of consummating that attraction as a minor understandably disagreeable—and I was definitely not attracted to my family members. Intrusive thoughts are distressing precisely because they involve things you do not want. Pedophilia, incest and rape—these are all things I find revolting, and things my brain is wired to inundate against me. 

I was 21 when I first shared these thoughts with a medical professional. As part of my new therapist’s standard intake procedure, she asked me if I had any concerns about my mental health beyond the ones I was seeing her for (my bipolar disorder). I tensed—a physical manifestation of my mental block—before I revealed that I had struggled with obsessive and intrusive thoughts. When she pressed me on their specific contents, I relented. Though I knew it was her job to be non-judgmental, the 14-year-old in me was shocked when she met my thoughts with absolute indifference. 

10 years. 10 years of mental anguish; 10 years without the words to articulate how my mind worked; 10 years without another soul to confide in. This is the cost of mental health stigma—needless, suffering and isolation. This is the stigma neurotypicals (those without mental illnesses or developmental disabilities) perpetuate when they co-opt our language without understanding the weight behind it. When you come to understand mental illnesses as nothing more than the butt of a joke, or a scapegoat for your problems, it can be all the harder to cope when you’re hit with the real thing.