10/03/2013 08:51 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The One Thing Not to Say to Someone With OCD

I get it -- knowing how to respond to someone's disorder or disease can be tough. I'm one of those people who gets uncomfortable extremely easily, so I have sympathy for people that look similarly awkward when it comes up that I have obsessive compulsive disorder.

I also get the desire to not only sympathize, but to empathize by finding some way to relate to this very important, and often dominating, part of my life. Which is the only reason I can assume that I hear this (or some version of this) response so often: "OMG same! I keep my closet perfectly color-coded!"

Now, it's not always color-coding closets -- it could be anything from polishing silverware, to double-checking locks, to eating the same thing every day for breakfast. And yes, OCD symptoms present both in a variety of ways as well as varying degrees. But unless you are educated on the disorder, have seen a therapist, or have some sort of confirmation other than your own unfortunate desire to connect with me about this -- I'm going to be honest and let you know I really, really don't want to hear your superficial self-diagnosis.

Here's why: It's insensitive to diminish OCD to the one, slightly obsessive or compulsive behavior you have. It shows a serious lack of understanding of what OCD is and does, and is a subtle yet powerful way of saying "Oh, we all have that! It's not that big of a deal." 

Because even if color-coding your closet is an annoying habit -- and I'll give it to you, maybe even an "obsession" or "compulsion" -- your comment comparing this to actual, medically-diagnosed OCD comes off as an underhanded way of telling me that it's not only something that everyone has, but something that doesn't warrant psychiatric or therapeutic attention. For my disorder, it's a response that I would equate to saying that you understand someone's pain over the death of an parent because you once had a pet that died. Thanks for the effort, but no thanks for comparing my dead mother to your dead goldfish.

Now, I know this isn't your intention, and I try to keep this in mind as I grind my teeth and try to explain somehow, that no, that really is not the same thing. And don't get me wrong, I'm happy to explain it to you -- but I would much rather do so in response to a question or genuine interest, not a backhanded attempt at empathy.

My OCD has affected me for as long as I can remember -- and although it's now managed well enough where it's not necessarily something people notice on their own (a proud accomplishment, if I do say so myself), there have been times it has been debilitating: severe anxiety; bleeding knuckles from obsessive washing; rapid weight drops from stress-related appetite loss; intricate and obscenely repetitive bedtime routines.

I'm happy to explain this to you, to answer any and all questions -- anyone who knows me knows I'm not exactly a shy or private person. But please, take this route instead of attempting to relate in a way that, unless you actually have diagnosed OCD, you would never be able to. I know you don't mean to come off as both uneducated and insensitive, so please, don't respond as if you are.

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