Did you hear the one about OCD?

A few weeks ago, the stationery company Paperchase thought it would be a wise idea to stock the following product in their UK stores:

OCD HAND SAN OCD HAND SAN 2

I don’t need to go into too much detail here about the spectacular levels of fuckery that Paperchase have reached with this shit. As a consumer, I am disappointed – I thought better of this quirky (albeit at times over priced) provider of notebooks, craft materials and birthday cards. As someone with OCD, I was disappointed, insulted and more than a little fucked off.

I am often left feeling more than a little frustrated when I hear the term ‘OCD’ being used as an adjective/insult/joke in every day life (hands up if you have heard a variation of this statement – ‘I am soooo OCD about….’), as if OCD can be used as a substitute for the words ‘fussy’/’perfectionist’/’neat’ etc. I was rendered all but speechless when Channel 4, in its infinite wisdom, decided to air a programme focusing on a group of individuals who seemed to present with severe forms of contamination OCD. Instead of seeking help for these people (one of whom spent up to 19 hours a day cleaning) Channel 4 instead chose to make the most of their misery by putting them to work cleaning the homes of people they did not know. I shit you not. I won’t go into detail here, but if you have five minutes, please do read Richard Howse’s review of this hideous programme here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/tv-and-radio-reviews/9868378/Obsessive-Compulsive-Cleaners-Channel-4-review.html

But, with the ridiculous ‘OCD Hand Sanitizer’ novelty gift (!), Paperchase have well and truly stepped up the trivialisation and taken it to whole new levels of stupidity. Theirs is a product that not only pokes fun at the condition but also at all of its cruel and horrendous components – namely repetition and ritual. If the sellers and producers of this appalling product had any comprehension of how crippling the repetitions and rituals can be, I would hope they would think twice before indulging in the marketing of such spectacular ignorance. But, aside from ridiculing the many people who live with contamination OCD, the ‘OCD hand sanitizer’ also manages to insult the many people who live with a form of OCD that has absolutely nothing to do with contamination whatsoever.

Hand washing and obsessive cleaning are often seen as the ‘textbook’ example of OCD, perhaps because it is a form that has some very obvious compulsions that are easy to spot (try disguising it in a public toilet when you’re scrubbing away at your hands like a surgeon!). But OCD is a spectrum. I am no expert, my knowledge of the condition is my own, but I doubt very much that there exist even two people whose OCD will manifest itself in identical ways. Some people fall into certain categories (contamination, hoarding, checking, for example), some people straddle more than one, some all of them. Contamination OCD is just one type, there are so many manifestations of this illness that I could not even begin to compose a list in a short blog post. My somewhat elusive point is this: by slapping the name “OCD” on a bottle of sanitising gel, the producers and sellers of this product are sending the message that OCD, by definition, is about washing your hands. Fuck that, Paperchase, fuck that!

(NB. to Paperchase’s dwindling credit, they eventually decided to remove the offending product following the perfectly warranted condemnation by several mental health charities and spokespersons.)

 And then there was Katie Hopkins. I am not really sure who this woman is, although I gather she has a large number of Twitter followers. A simple Google search brings up results relating to a stint on The Apprentice, a public spat with the late Peaches Geldof and various appearances on This Morning, which I do not watch. So, how does she fit in here? In the aftermath of Paperchasegate, Ms Hopkins took to Twitter to mock the company’s decision to remove the product from shelves, posting pictures of the product with various comments: (“The OCD bridge on the outrage bus wanted to complain, but had to go home to check the door was definitely locked”). Before long (and judge for yourself if it was a wise decision, but I have no regrets) I found myself responding to the tweet with the following comment: “Congratulations for adding to the ignorance.” Perhaps I was asking for trouble, but frankly I am sick of this shit. To which she responded, within seconds, with this peach of a tweet: “Being an OCD blogger must be really challenging. Does word have a spell double check?”

In the hours after this tweet three things happened. Firstly, I was amazed at the number of people who sent me some truly spiteful and angry tweets telling me (among other things) that I need to ‘get a sense of humour’, ‘get a life’ and get off Twitter completely – extreme? I think so. Anyone for freedom of speech? Secondly, I was genuinely touched by the number of people who seemed to show support for what I had been trying to say with my short but sweet tweet. Thirdly, I noticed a soar in the number of people viewing my blog. So at least I can thank Katie Hopkins for that.

For me, incidents such as this just highlight the fact that, when it comes to OCD – and mental illness in general – we are still faced with eye-watering levels of ignorance, an ignorance that is only turbo-charged when people take it upon themselves to make a mockery of human suffering. I am not saying that we should not have a sense of humour. There is a logic in humour, particularly with OCD, because I do believe that, if you can laugh at something, you are – on some level – taking away at least part of its power. Sometimes I do have to laugh at the fucking ridiculousness of my own rituals, because they just seem so whacky. But having a sense of humour does not extend to ridicule, and that is what the Paperchase product is all about. Ridiculing and trivialising a horrific condition. If people really understood how horrendous, debilitating and isolating mental illnesses can be, only the truly cold of heart would take it upon themselves to mock those who suffer from one of the many conditions that ruin the lives of millions.

A few years ago I watched a documentary called A Little Bit OCD, where we follow comedian Jon Richardson as he seeks to understand OCD and his own experiences with the condition. Richardson visits a lady named Joyce who appears to have a form of contamination OCD. Anyone watching as Joyce proceeds to disinfect bags of shopping before putting them away cannot fail to be moved by the way in which this condition has taken over her life. It permeates everything that she does.  She explains how OCD has affected at least three generations of her family: she suspects that her father was a sufferer (which eventually resulted in the breakdown of her parents’ marriage) and that she herself was diagnosed when she was pregnant with her son. Her condition at the time was so severe that she could not take care of her own child.

She reveals that her son was later diagnosed with OCD whilst studying at university. His life became so consumed by his condition (“all he could do was pace, and he paced all day and all night”) that, whilst in the midst of completing his PhD at Oxford University, he took his own life. He was, as she says, “a victim of this horrible, horrible, illness.” Undoubtedly one of the most heartbreaking moments of this documentary is when Joyce shows Richardson her son’s death certificate: the cause of death is listed, clearly and in black and white:

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

And that is the point. Disorder. Not quirky habit, not personality trait, not adjective, not marketing joke. A disorder. A lack of order. A chaos. An out of control compulsion to act on a fucked up obsession that no one chooses. This is not order. This is not a choice. This is not straight edges and even numbers. This is not being neat. This is not cleaning. This is not handwashing. This is being afraid. This is being a mess. This is being scared to death every single day. I do not believe that there was a maliciousness in Paperchase’s decision to sell their ‘OCD sanitizer’, nor do I believe there was maliciousness in Ms Hopkins’s attempt to make light of an illness that is so misunderstood. She simply does not understand. Very few people understand, which is why it takes people like me 17 years to go and see a doctor, 17 years of hell and shame. The only reason I agreed to go to the doctor at all was because I really did believe that I was on the verge of a complete mental breakdown. I wanted to die. So, please do not trivialise our experience by ridiculing it with cheap jokes. It is just not funny. It makes us feel so small and so weak, it makes us feel like we are the joke. If I am alone and afraid, please do not make me the butt of your joke. I am not a joke, I am a walking bomb.

There is a moment when Joyce sums up the whole point of this post better than I ever could: “This illness, in its worse form, kills… It is a time bomb ticking in our heads.”

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4 thoughts on “Did you hear the one about OCD?

  1. Ms Hopkins appears to delight in having a career as a professional troll and has a need for attention of any sort so best ignoring anything she says.

    As for OCD jokes in general I agree with you that most people are not being malicious – there is a genuine misunderstanding as to what OCD is about. Definite need for an effective awareness campaign as it stops sufferers like us from getting treatment.

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  2. What I don’t understand is how civilized society finds it acceptable. Medical conditions would never be met with such laissez faire attitudes. If there were a product on the market poking fun at downs syndrome, autism, etc the world would revolt. Targeting an illness where the sufferer suffers from horrible shame and embarrassment like this is cruel at minimum.

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