OCD and Organized Chaos

by stuart miles freedigitalphotos.net

by stuart miles freedigitalphotos.net

This week I’m sharing a  revised post from 2011….

As I said when I first began blogging, I am not an expert on obsessive-compulsive disorder. In fact, sometimes I feel the more I learn about the disorder, the more confused I become.

Latest case in point: Many  people with OCD deal with compulsions that revolve around the need to arrange things in some type of orderly fashion. Maybe certain items need to be lined up or spaced an exact distance apart from each other. Or perhaps there can only be a set number of items visible (usually an even number). This type of OCD is often referred to as evening up OCD. (To prove how not an expert I am, when I first heard this term I thought it referred to OCD in the nighttime!). Evening up compulsions can also include mental compulsions such as counting, as well as other compulsions such as tapping or touching things a specific number of times. So I get it. Order, symmetry, evenness are important to many people with obsessive compulsive disorder.

Then why is disorganization so common in those with the disorder?  One of the first things I said to my son Dan when  he told me he had OCD was, “Why is your room so messy? Isn’t it supposed to be really neat?” My ignorance showing through again. Many people with OCD have unbelievably messy living areas. I’m not talking about hoarders. That’s a whole ‘nother blog. I’m talking about not being capable of keeping your space and belongings in any kind of order.

When Dan was suffering from severe OCD, I saw his dorm room, and that memory still haunts me.  There were papers and artwork, sketchbooks, schoolwork, clothes, art supplies, paint, books, towels, food, and toiletries, all completely covering the floor. He said that once he lost control of the order, he just couldn’t get it back. Is it that his OCD took so much time and energy that there was nothing left for daily living tasks?

For others with OCD the need to do everything “perfectly” leads to procrastination in cleaning. They wait until they feel they have enough time, motivation, and focus to clean perfectly. Chances are that time never comes, and like Dan, the chaos builds.

Another explanation some people with OCD give for not being able to keep their living space neat and clean is the fear of germs. While it might seem counterintuitive (if they’re afraid of germs, you’d think they’d clean up), it makes sense in a convoluted way. Perhaps a piece of food was dropped on the floor while cooking. Now the person with OCD feels that food on the floor is seriously contaminated and won’t touch it, so there it stays on the floor. Before you know it there are “germs” everywhere, and nothing can be cleaned or put back in its proper place.

It’s not hard to see that giving in to OCD’s demands creates the world that those with the disorder are trying so desperately to avoid. They’re deathly afraid of germs, but are now surrounded by them. They crave order, yet are living in chaos. The list goes on.

Thankfully, nobody has to live this way if they are willing to get help. The vicious cycle of OCD can be beaten with exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, and the ability to keep a clean home will be just one of the many benefits of freedom from OCD.


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6 Responses to OCD and Organized Chaos

  1. Martin says:

    Hi Janet,

    First of all I’d like to say that I think your work with OCD is fantastic and I always read your e-mails when I receive them as they help me to stay on the right track and not let OCD take over my life. Just to clarify though, I think that the reason people with OCD often have such messy living quarters (I am one of them myself) is that it is unusual to have every form of OCD simultaneausly. If neatness, orderliness and/or germs is not something currently invading your life then people with OCD are likely to put these tasks on the back burner whilst they focus on a debilitating symtom that is. They might still make a half-hearted effort to clean, but this is likely to be significantly less thorough than somebody else who is being mindful and living in the present. I remember when I was at university and had health related OCD which chiefly revolved around a back injury I had sustained. I went to see a chiropractor and he told me to ‘move carefully’ for a month or i wouldn’t get better. In typical fashion for somebody with OCD, I took this to a whole new level, hardly bending even an inch forward and as a result my room looked as if a bomb had hit it! This is just an extreme example of how having OCD about one thing can make a person appear blase about something else. If you’d consulted my housemates, I’m sure non of them would have though of me as suffering from OCD even though i spent the entire day thinking about every tiny movement!

    • Hi Martin, Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and your insight. Of course what you say makes perfect sense and I appreciate your letting us all know of another reason why those with OCD might have trouble keeping their living areas neat. And your last sentence is so true…….how amazed your friends at that time would have been to find out you have OCD! It can be such a hidden disorder. Wishing you well and hope to hear from you again!

  2. ocdtrials says:

    I was literally just conversing with another blogger with OCD about the ironies of this condition, and cleaning is definitely one of them! I agree with the points in this blog and comments–perfectionism, procrastination, and hoarding…all of that contributes. For me it’s little bits of all of those, plus lack of motivation–it just doesn’t seem worth it to clean while your brain is giving you so much trouble. Easier just to ignore it.

    • Thanks for sharing, ocdtrials, and my guess is that, for many people with OCD, it’s a “little bit of everything.” Funny that you were just having that conversation – YES, so many ironies when it comes to OCD!

  3. Laurie says:

    Janet do you mind if we post your blog from time to time on our Facebook Page? We (a new psychotherapy practice in the Philadelphia area) are looking for interesting material to share related to mental health issues. Check us out http://www.wayfarerscounseling.com, building the Facebook Page now and just happened on this and thought we might launch the page with it.

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