Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.
Someone walks into my kitchen for the first time looking for something they will more than likely find the cupboards nicely arranged. I like things with the labels facing out, neatly lined up, dressed to the front. I like to have like items together (my cooking items are in a separate area from my baking items, and snacks, to begin to scratch the surface) to make it easier to find things. Our Korean apartment is smaller than we are used to in some areas, so being organized is a must when it comes to storage. We have Tupperware canisters lining the counter tops with frequent used and bulk items in easy reach, and also in the fridge w/ the produce already prepped. When we bring meat home from the market we divide it into portions and vacuum seal it before storing it. Some of this is for space sake, some of it is because I like to cook and will use spoons I sometimes steal from elsewhere to do so, and having the kitchen arranged as such makes that easier. I have had more than one guest wander through the kitchen chuckling and mention to me how OCD it is (which really doesn’t make sense if you think about the acronym).
No. My kitchen is clean. It is neat. It is sometimes meticulous (when the dishes are done), it is user friendly, well organized, color coded, over-the-top arranged, even. My aunt would say you could eat off of my floors (some days, but we do have a seven year old).
OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, isn’t just the tendency to keep things all tidy like Mary Poppins on a sugar rush. It doesn’t mean that you like your clothes hung in chromatic order or your socks folded a certain way, or even that you sort your M&M’s into color groups before eating them. It isn’t your friend with her dust free home or Bree VanDeKamp hair or Emily Gilmore six-inch tapers.
It does mean that you tend to have thoughts (obsessions) that intrude into your mind and make you extremely uncomfortable, because you know that they are unreasonable. Some people have thoughts where they hurt themselves or their loved ones. When I was much younger I once had repeated visions of shoving a corkscrew into my eye while at the bar where I was working. Understandably it was bothersome, and actually there were times that it worried me to tears, because I knew I wasn’t going to shove a corkscrew into my eye, and I couldn’t figure out why my brain was giving me that picture. People often engage in repetitive actions (compulsions) to alleviate the stress of these thoughts. I wiped bar glasses and liquor bottles until they were spotless, and later at home plucked my eyebrows into oblivion because they were never quite symmetrical. I brushed my teeth until my gums bled…anything to keep my mind off of that fucking corkscrew. In your mind you know that having washed your hands or brushed your teeth fifteen times before school has probably already taken care of any germs (and skin or enamel), but you can’t get the thoughts of those germs gone. So you brush, or you wash. And you still think your hands are covered in bacteria or you can feel your teeth rotting in your head (even though you know it isn’t true). So you wash again…and you miss that first class…even though you know better.
It overcomes your life. OCD isn’t just some cute little habit you have of always placing everything on your desk perpendicularly or always lining shoes by the door. It actually interferes with your life and how you are able to live it.
When I was in college I knew that I wasn’t going to blow up my apartment. My rational mind was well aware of that fact, even though I could see the building on fire and me standing outside of it. But after cooking, when I had to leave for class, I had to go over to the gas stove and turn all of the dials on to make sure I had turned them off…even if I hadn’t used them. The oven too. I just couldn’t stand the thought of leaving the gas on and having something happen to my roommate while she slept. Then I would grab my bag…and even though I knew I had just. checked. the. damned. knobs. I had to go back and check them again. After this I might get out the door and lock it, but then I’d have to go back in and check again. The next time I might make it all the way down to the main door of the building. “What if you missed one? You could blow up the whole building!”. Back up three flights of stairs, unlock the door, and check the knobs again. Of course they were fine, just like the last three fucking times I checked. That didn’t stop me from having to go back two more times, once after thawing my car, and once after I had actually left the parking lot, made an illegal U-turn, and gone back. I kept seeing the whole building go up like a giant bonfire on a July evening in Michigan.
I was two hours late for class.
I was obsessed with numbers. If I had pieces of something I couldn’t eat it unless it could be divided into odd-numbered groups of odd numbers. My weight became an obsession, which isn’t at all uncommon in people with OCD, and no matter how much I lost I was certain that I was disgusting and fat and gross to everyone who saw me. I actually measured “ins” and “out”, and I will leave you to those pleasant details all on your own.
Years of therapy later I am able to find myself in a place where I can control my OCD, and I have come a long way in managing it. This isn’t true for everyone, because each of us are unique and what worked for me isn’t going to work for the next person. I am by no means “cured”, but there is something to be said for being in a stable home environment for the first time in my whole life that has turned the corner for me. There are things that will cause me to slip…
Some other fun facts about OCD.
There are some lesser known offshoots, such as Trichotillomania and Dermatillomania. These conditions begin with the same intrusive thoughts, but instead manifest with compulsive hair pulling and skin picking. I have both of these conditions. The hair pulling left me with little to no eyebrows, and an embarrassing bald spot on the back of my head that covered nicely with a military style bun. Without babbling on as I am wont to do, it was another thing I had to work through with a mental health professional (and one awesome esthetician). The skin picking is still a challenge, and as stress in my life heightens so does that. This is the most embarrassing of my anxiety issues because this leaves the most obvious marks on my face. My arms I can hide with long sleeves. Even though I am incredibly aware of the marking and scarring left, most people don’t notice it, unless they are very close to me, and even then most don’t unless I am comfortable enough around them that they have actually seen me doing said picking.
So, I believe we can see why the usage of OCD is ableist here: it isn’t some funny quirk. You are trying to be witty. I get that. But your witty words mean things about my life, parts of my life that I have worked to overcome, and which people I know are still living with daily and that just isn’t funny. It isn’t something we close up in a cupboard and laugh about with friends*. It is a daily struggle for people who absolutely know that they are doing things that are unreasonable to help them cope with the anxiety of things that they also know are unreasonable. We slog through it, grind it down over years, beat it back, and work our asses off to gain chunks and pieces of our lives back from it. That is no joke to us. It is extremely ableist for a person who is in control of their thoughts and actions to appropriate this term to mean that someone is really particular about the way they like things.
So, no, your very tidy friend is not OC. Unless sie is. And then, ha ha, sie probably doesn’t appreciate having hir life poked at.
*OK, you got me. Sometimes we do. But that is our right, not yours.