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No joke: OCD is not a punchline



‘You’ve got a bit OCD about all this handwashing, haven’t you?’ People say things like this all the time, to mock others’ habits and the routines they follow a little too closely. Usually, it’s not meant to be offensive. Just harmless teasing.

Man telling joke to upset woman (fizkes/Getty Images)

But when I hear someone say something like this, it hurts. Because I actually have OCD.

Obsessive compulsive disorder is a serious disease which interferes with daily functioning and causes significant distress. At its worst, it is totally debilitating. Those who suffer most severely can become housebound or resort to substance abuse as a coping mechanism.

The disorder has two aspects. Obsessions are intrusive, repetitive thoughts. Compulsions are actions which the sufferer cannot help performing over and over again. Often, compulsions are linked to obsessions. If someone worries obsessively about hygiene, they might wash their hands compulsively. If they worry obsessively about their home being burgled, they might check their locks repetitively before leaving home. But it is also possible to have obsessions without associated compulsions. Some people worry obsessively about whether they are acting morally or in accordance with religious beliefs; some have intrusive sexual thoughts that they cannot banish; others worry obsessively that they might lose control of themselves and do something violent.

There are obviously degrees of severity but, when you have strong compulsions, it can feel like you simply have no control over what you are doing. When you have severe obsessions, it can be like you are being suffocated by your own thoughts.

OCD is also relatively common. Around 2 per cent of the population in Australia has the condition. There is some treatment available, mostly in the form of counselling and medication, but it is often therapeutic rather than curative.


'I certainly do think people should stop treating OCD as a joke as soon as they know better. This joke stops being funny when you understand it.'


You might be thinking: if 2 per cent of the population have OCD, why don’t we always see people who cannot stop washing their hands or tidying their workspace? There are a few reasons.

First, for those sufferers who have obsessions and no compulsions, there simply is no visible manifestation of the condition.

Second, many compulsions are easy to hide. If someone saves every file on their computer in three different places before leaving the office each day because they worry obsessively about losing their work, it is not that hard to make sure no one notices.

Third, those people who suffer so severely that they become housebound, worrying perhaps about germs or the lack of hygiene outside, are just not out in public to see.

And, on top of all this, it may be that those people whom you playfully suggest might have OCD when you see them checking something a few too many times do in fact have the condition. 

How might someone with the condition feel when they hear such remarks? Well, how would you feel if someone made a joke about whatever causes the most pain in your life?

Of course, no decent person would ever use the term in a flippant way if they realized that someone with the condition might hear them, but this is not a possibility most people would even countenance. People tend to think of the condition as extremely rare and strange.

Actually, I think there is a tendency to think of OCD as if it is a fictional disease. Maybe some character in a movie or TV sitcom has the condition — probably some sad, comic character — but it’s not really out there in the world.

And that is a reasonable thing to think. Probably, no one has ever told you that they have the condition and you may not see much evidence of it (or realise you are seeing evidence of it) when people in your midst do suffer from it.

But that’s the thing. Someone might be suffering terribly from OCD, but they won’t tell you about it, and they will try to hide its manifestations, because it is treated as a punchline. Would you tell anyone that you have high cholesterol, or low blood pressure, or an iron deficiency, if these were things people laughed about?

I don’t think anyone needs to feel guilty if they have sometimes used the term ‘OCD’ in a disrespectful way. I confess: I did it myself before I was diagnosed. (Strangely, I had no idea I had the condition until a psychiatrist told me, and then everything made sense). It was naïve of me to do so but I don’t think it was worse than that. Sometimes we do things innocently which cause unforeseen harm. We might regret doing those things, but we shouldn’t condemn ourselves for them.

But I certainly do think people should stop treating OCD as a joke as soon as they know better. 

This joke stops being funny when you understand it.



The author is an Australian academic working overseas. He was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder in 2016.

Image credit: Man telling joke to upset woman (fizkes/Getty Images)

Topic tags: OCD, mental heath, mental illness, mental health week



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Existing comments

How else might a cartoonist drive home the point that elected politicians with their obsession on holding on to power become compulsive liars? E.g. the President of the United States? We keep praising people who Raise Truth To Power. Surely that's a political cartoonist's function? Can I no longer refer to Gambling as destroying the livelihood of the indigent like a deadly Cancer. I suppose for some punters Gambling might be a form of OCD but I'm not going to joke about it. Being Irish I know what it's like to be the butt of Irish jokes, religious & secular.

Uncle Pat | 15 October 2020  

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Jesus

AO | 15 October 2020  

I have lived with someone with OCD. I have seen their suffering. It was excruciating. I have lived with people dying with cancer, yet I have never seen anything like the suffering I saw in the person with OCD. It can not always be hidden and at its worst, it is light years away from a person who washes their hands frequently or who can't leave the house without checking several times that the door is locked. Community ignorance about complex illnesses wrongly called mental is a tragedy

Sheelah | 15 October 2020  

This is a lovely piece: calm, reasoned, convincing. The world bristles with “new” ways of causing offence, and I was prepared to be a little cynical. But I was won over, easily. Moreover, its value as an example of how we might conduct our discussions, our pleas, may be even more important than its immediate on-topic success (at least for this reader). Thanks to the author and ES.

GJW | 15 October 2020  

A very insightful article. Thank you. Like many mental illnesses (I hate that omnibus term) it is hard to fathom for those who do not suffer it. I guess, as we become more aware and there is earlier diagnosis and general recognition of the illness, having gone to school with Bill or Jenny who had OCD may help non-sufferers cope better. Functional knowledge of the condition in general society has to become better.

Edward Fido | 15 October 2020  

What will we do about comedy when bodies and souls are reunited at the end of time? When Eve took the fruit, she seems to have introduced into the body sin and infirmity. It’s very likely a sin to joke about infirmity. Sin is only contingent upon Earth remaining un-regenerated. One must presume foible is consistent with perfection, or there will be no comedy under the New Heaven. Christian comics who believe the end is nigh had better now start locating the foibles of clean-living or they won’t have any material for their post-apocalyptic gigs.

roy chen yee | 16 October 2020  

Its the very sensitive blend of fact with "how would you feel if " that make these words so personal. In a bigger picture it is challenging us all to walk in the shoes of others - so much more challenging when our pre conceptions make us blind to the shoes of others.

PJG | 16 October 2020  

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