This is a guest blog for The Secret Illness written by Christopher J. Falvey.
I have heard the argument that my OCD is beneficial to me and parts of my daily life. I have even caught myself in the trap of seeing OCD through a stereotypical lens. For example, I’m always lauded as the organized one when working on a group business activity. I’m always tasked with maintaining spreadsheets and the like, because I do indeed live a life dictated by lists and spreadsheets unlike anyone else I know.
It’s true that I’m likely the best person for the job when dealing with organizational tasks, but this is merely a byproduct of a mental disorder that haunts every action I take in life, big or small. Ultimately, my OCD does not benefit me. More importantly: my diagnosis of OCD does not benefit me. However, some believe that if I do get fair treatment for what I have—which is a simple understanding that I have things going on in my brain that others don’t—I am somehow gaining from the world unjustly. For example, I have been in situations where those close to me, who know I have a mental disorder, remark about the actions that I take as an advocate for myself as “just your crazy talking.”
That I benefit from OCD is a bothersome notion; yet a lot of people have this notion about those who are functioning with the weight of a mental illness like OCD. I have never used my OCD as a reason for doing something that would be considered wrong. Rarely has anyone I’ve known with OCD done this—because to do so would be a tacit acceptance of OCD as merely a tool and not a disorder filling the brain with more than it can handle.
OCD—even my type of OCD, Primarily Obsessional OCD (Pure-O), which has less compulsions and more inward obsessions—manifests as something that affects the physical world and those around me. My OCD affects others because it affects how I need to have our shared universe work. Yeah, that seems selfish at the single-sentence level. But the whole of my OCD is more complex than a single sentence. My brain—without any input from me—has already set out how it needs the world to be. I happen to be a non-confrontational person and I do not force my will, especially knowing it comes from a place of irrationality. The problem is that no matter how non-confrontational I am, if things are not right by my OCD, my needs are not being met.
The term “need” is something that is baked from my own head. And I realize this. I still must use the term “need” over “want” because my OCD forces me to be wholly uncomfortable—if not non-functional—if things are not “right” by my brain’s warped standards. For instance, I believe heavily in omens. We’re not talking about “knock on wood” type stuff. Rather, for example, I can’t deal with something involving the digits 110 or 1110. This isn’t a cute quirk; I very literally think keeping something at that number is an omen that bad things are going to happen. If adding a tip to a shared meal brought the total to $111.10, I would have to add a penny to make things right.
When dealing with OCD, it feels like my brain works on its own. If we’re talking agency here, the primary actor is something I have very little control over. My brain does what it does without me having much power over it. I separate “myself” (“I”) from “my brain” when talking about my OCD. If you listen to those with mental illness closely enough, with a mind that is open to empathy, you will find that we are not fully in control of a lot of what we present to the world. We are actors; our brains are overwhelmingly strong directors.
What makes me different from those without OCD, and where my different needs come from, are wholly in my head. I have a mental disorder, not a physical one, and physical disorders and mental disorders are perceived differently. For those outside of the brains of the afflicted, understanding mental disorders requires a leap of faith. I sense my OCD differently than those around me, because I am sensing it happening inside my own brain, but others can only see its manifestation outside my brain.
This leaves open a gap for others to fill in, in terms of the genesis of the disorder. When it comes to mental disorders, people want to know why a person has one. No one really asks the reasoning behind a broken leg. But indeed, people—empathetic or not—feel the need to question the reasoning behind my OCD. What is it I need? From there it is easy to jump to: what is it I feel I need? And then jump to: what is it I would benefit from if I fulfilled my needs?
I do need things to be organized in a very certain way. Yes, that is a stereotype. But this is not a matter of me having my way as a show of power or manipulation. I am quite literally depressed when things around me are not where I feel they should be. Why? Because others are bad people and I’m better than them? No! I feel wholly lost without things organized right. I’m a human being and I’m going to gravitate to things that don’t make me feel lost. The problem comes in the severity and specificity of my need to have things organized. My brain will want to give up on the whole world if things around it do not fit what it perceives as right. This of course affects how I present myself, but it is important to note that it’s my brain disorder defining “right” and forcing me to feel such a severe reaction to what’s “not right.” I need to avoid that to feel ok, I do not need to avoid that to have power over others.
In the end, let’s say I get my way. I get things organized how I want them, and everyone just goes with it. I have achieved stasis and nothing more. I am “ok.” If others think this is a benefit to me or that I’ve tipped the scales my way, that is simply not true. All that matters to me is stasis – my brain being calm for a period of time. “Benefit” suggests more than that. I don’t strive for any more than that.
Do you know what I would truly benefit from? Do you know what need I would love to have fulfilled? Do you know what I really want?
To not have OCD.
Christopher J. Falvey
Christopher runs the site/blog Yeah OCD (https://yeahocd.com). Diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder for years, he worked with doctors to uncover his very atypical OCD, which he explores on his site. As well, he is an advocate for mental health issues and writes frequently about the world of mental illness.
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