The Messy Truth About Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

OCT. 07, 2019

By Ethan S. Smith


I hear comments all the time:

“My place is so perfect. I’m so OCD.”
“No, it has to be neat and clean. I’m so OCD.”
“You should see how I organized my Star Wars collection. I’m so OCD.”

I was born with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I struggled throughout my childhood, through multiple high schools and left college after just one semester—consumed by my obsessive thoughts. I barely made it through my twenties. In my early thirties, I hit rock bottom. I was bedridden in my parent’s guest bedroom, paralyzed by OCD.

One year included three psychiatric hospitals; intensive outpatient therapy; two months at the OCD Institute at McLean Hospital in Boston; being kicked out of said OCD Institute; and living on the streets of Boston in the middle of winter with little money, no transportation, no job and severe OCD and separation anxiety.

It took hitting rock bottom to get the help I needed. After eight scary therapeutic months, I was “reborn” and moved to Los Angeles a healthy, happy and thriving member of society. I finally understand the point of the therapy my loved ones had desperately been trying to get me into.

Why do most people believe the myth that OCD is just about a hyper-organized desk or color-coordinated closet? The reality is that most of the 3 million people with OCD in this country struggle just to function on a daily basis. They’re not bragging about the “benefits” of OCD.

Well, Hollywood’s general portrayal and perspective of OCD is limited. Movies and TV present OCD as quirky or fun. Characters often use their symptoms to their advantage, almost like a skill or superpower. Hollywood has created the belief that OCD is just double-checking, hand washing or a strong dislike of germs. Hollywood and the media rarely address the reality of this serious condition—it simply seems funny to watch, and not too difficult to live with. So, many individuals with OCD continue to struggle in silence, afraid to seek help.

OCD typically looks nothing like what you see on television. I didn’t wash my hands; I didn’t check, organize or clean; I wasn’t afraid of germs. My OCD was based in my fear of losing control. OCD is complicated like that; it preys on your unique fears and anxieties that have no basis in reality. For some people that’s germs, for others (like me) it’s extremely taboo topics, like self-harm.

To you, these fears and anxieties seem irrational and easy to brush aside, but the actual experience of having OCD is losing that rational perspective. Your brain can’t shrug off these fears. It’s a constant battle between uncertainty and truth inside your brain. That’s why the disorder is a far cry from: “I love when my kitchen is put away perfectly. I’m a little OCD.”


Ethan S. Smith currently lives in the Los Angeles area working as a successful writer/director/producer/author and OCD Advocate. Ethan was born with OCD and struggled most of his life until receiving life-changing treatment in 2010. Ethan was the keynote speaker at the 2014 annual OCD conference in Los Angeles and is the current International OCD Foundation’s National Ambassador.

Note: this article was originally published in March 2018.


We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices

Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.


SEP, 11, 2018 02:18:48 PM
hayden copeland
Hello im hayden im a 15 year old from ohio. The start of my sophmore year wasnt so great because I never suffered from OCD with my feelings in the past but it hit me so hard and no I dont want to eat, I cry alot, I just started going to therapy and OCD is very hard to live with. If you have any medication recommendations or coping methods please contact me at thank you.

APR, 14, 2018 08:40:41 PM
I have OCD and have struggled with it all my life

APR, 11, 2018 10:36:00 AM
I have OCD and as a child I saw a psychiatrist who helped me overcome the rituals. I have no idea how she did it but it worked without medication.

APR, 06, 2018 07:13:46 PM
Miranda Wall
What has also helped me with my ocd is slow deep breathing, counting to 10, journaling, art, thinking before I speak/act, swimming, walking, and listening to classical music. Try these techniques. They have helped me and they can help you too.

APR, 03, 2018 03:07:01 PM
The treatment I have received is case management, therapy, the med Luvox which helps with my obsessive compulsive disorder, and group meetings. Luvox is not a magic medication where it is going to make it all go away, such as causing the obsessive behaviors to disappear. Yes the Luvox is working, but I have to do my part and stand up strong, confident and that I can overcome this.

APR, 03, 2018 01:48:45 PM
JoAnne F Weiss
Miranda Wall, you've mentioned " better medication" but a couple of us need to know WHAT medication, ad our psychiatrists haven't found adequate or even partial treatment pharmacologically. I do the other therapies you mentioned, bt meds not working, and MD says nothing else out there! Please let us know.

APR, 02, 2018 04:57:04 PM
Thank you for putting my thoughts into words. I am the parent of a 26 who, among other issues, deals w/ OCD. OCD has robbed her of her life-long dream of working w/ animals because her OCD presents as trichotillomania which leads her to want to pull out the whiskers on animals. It also presents as the need to re-write over and over which prevents her from succeeding in school. You mentioned self-harm which she also did but has improved w/ medication and therapy.
OCD is not fun, funny or quirky. It hurts. It hurts the person experiencing it and those who love her/him. Good luck to you.

MAR, 31, 2018 11:10:47 AM
Sheryl A.
Thank you, Ethan, (and everyone here) for shedding the true light of this horrible all-encompassing illness. I have schizoaffective illness along with PTSD while my husband suffers from high-functioning autism and OCD. As you can imagine when the anxiety level goes up around our home, the symptoms run rampant and have gotten to the splitting-up 'talking stages' also. It is next to impossible, at times, to hold it together when you personally feel so unglued. I wish there was more community support aside from personal therapy and psychiatry. It would help so much for people to learn about mental illness correctly and the true struggling it takes to get through one day while productively adding to society.

MAR, 30, 2018 05:28:28 PM
Rhoda Glauberg
We need support not condemnation

MAR, 30, 2018 05:27:01 PM
Rhoda Glauberg
My son has suffered with OCD for 20 years with no help from psych. What is the treatment that helped you? I am also a NAMI member.

MAR, 29, 2018 06:08:58 PM
Miranda wall
The therapy that has lead me to my rebirth is better medication, prayer, journaling, group support, and relaxing by slow deep breathing.

MAR, 29, 2018 05:48:05 PM
Carol D
Thank you for writing this piece. I have been suffering from OCD and depression for over 25 years. I have been through the gamut of doctors, hospitals and treatment including McLean (which, by the way, was not a very positive experience for me either) with very little success. My treatment continues. Talk therapy is crucial. Meds help keep things in check. Exposure Response has been helping but not to the degree to see significant results. I am curious what the life-changing treatment was for you. We all need to keep up the writing and talking to up awareness this world so acutely lacks and the afflicted so desperately needs.

MAR, 29, 2018 03:34:39 PM
Harlan E.
I find it sad that in debunking one set of myths Mr. Smith may be perpetuating another by saying, “It took hitting rock bottom to get the help I needed.” No one should have to “hit rock bottom” to get the help they need.

MAR, 29, 2018 09:49:06 AM
Lynn Davis
We would probably all be better off if we didn't pay much attention to Hollywood. It is a plastic, artificial construct of reality, and rarely portrays anything accurately. Yet it has absolute influence on our lives. The old adage "seeing is believing" should not hold here.

MAR, 29, 2018 07:25:56 AM
Martha Buckwalter
Thanks for sharing about OCD. "Losing rational perspective"----my daughter now says she is responsible for 10 children, pastor and doctor used mace and
wine, among other things, and I am a liar and deny the truth for not believing it to be true. Her OCD started after a car accident and head injury in '97. She is 43 now and single. I want to learn about EMDR therapy and where to find an understanding DR.

MAR, 28, 2018 06:56:50 PM
Miranda Wall
I have been dealing with ocd since I was a child. At times I would count things, constantly change my clothes, and as the years went by, I am now in my thirties. I tend to repeat things constantly, have obsessive thoughts, and have anxiety. I had a talk with my case manager and my psychiatrist put me on Luvox for my ocd. I now feel that I can control my obsessive thoughts, ask the questions: did I already bring this up? Yes. Do I need to bring it up again? No. Will it be taken care of? Yes. and I journal whenever I get these obsessive thoughts. Luvox is not a magic medication. Yes it helps, but I have to do my part too. I thank God for bringing me a long way with my ocd. I went to a community college and earned a certificate in Library Technology back in 2006. Also, I have a part-time job that I have been working in a library since 2012. Where I work it is peaceful, I'm able to focus on my work and not let things get to me. I attend a NAMI meeting in town and it has been supportive, helpful, and encouraging. Also, I support NAMI because I understand those who have mental illnesses. I also have anxiety, bipolar, adhd, negative thoughts patterns and schizoaffective disorder. The hallucinations and delusions have gone way down. Finally I am for those who struggle with mental illnesses or those who know family and friends that have mental illnesses.

MAR, 28, 2018 06:53:22 PM
What was the therapy that led to your rebirth?

MAR, 28, 2018 05:52:17 PM
clemencia prieto
Very helpful!

MAR, 28, 2018 04:42:28 PM
JoAnne F Weiss
As a 60 yr old living with OCD and acute anxiety since freshman in HS, and after only finding proper psychiatrists and treatment at 37, mostly due to my severe post partum depression leading to a suicide attempt, I'm able to function pretty well and my family understands and is very supportive. This is great insight, thank you.

MAR, 21, 2018 02:30:28 PM
Madeline Brennan
This problem of Hollywood misinforming the public by its casual use of terms of mental illness is evident in how the word "schizophrenic" is tossed about as synonymous with "multiple personality" or "split personality." It bothers me each and every time I head it misused. We still have a lot of educating to do on the correct use of these psychiatric terms. I'm grateful to NAMI for making those attempts.

MAR, 19, 2018 02:52:19 PM
Diane Dady-Goldstein
In our house we “ joked” about OCD to lighten the mood but also so it wouldn’t be covered up- as my daughter had anx dep ocd And Body Dysphormic Disorder a form of OCD - she suffered terribly with it getting”stuck” in the mirror checking to be sure she didn’t have a monster face using different makeups so we would say oh —-is stuck in the mirror meaning she needed a little more time to get ready. Or if anx was up all the symptoms would be worse There was ADD in the house too so even my daughter would say things like my anx was better today but—-ADD was bad today. So Home was a safe place to talk about it. She knew we all have crosses she taught us a lot about patience and pain. So thank you in our house OCD was never a joke even though we did “joke around it” OCD is debilitating and robs the person of some good times robs them of what could be... takes so so much energy—.

MAR, 16, 2018 11:28:11 AM
Heather W
When my husband was diagnosed with OCD by a psychologist we were ten months married and it was strongly suggested that we separate and he learn to live alone with his disorder and I start life over again. No education about what OCD was or anything, I was confused then when reading books at the library that said how important family support was..We did not separate at that time but many years later and by then I was afraid of what I to this day haven't understood until reading this blog. So I am deeply grateful Ethan for your transparency in sharing your experience.

After his suicidal death I was diagnosed as having PTSD

MAR, 12, 2018 11:12:24 PM
Thank you for sharing! People need to understand the difference and it’s a constant daily struggle within yourself. I was always embarrassed to let other people in my life know because of the stigma around it until I went to IOP therapy. A girl spoke about her struggle and I 100% related and that made me be more open with others. The struggles of having to do things in pairs and if I don’t, it will take over my mind until I go back and flick that light switch, etc. If I don’t, I will think something bad is going to happen and if something bad does happen, I blame it on that reason. I wish others could take the time to really understand.

MAR, 08, 2018 10:37:43 AM
Thank you! I also have OCD and MANY people ask why my house us so messy if I claim to have OCD. A member of my family, who keeps a very tidy home said, "I think I have OCD, I'M not on disability". The stigma is real and very loud!

MAR, 07, 2018 09:41:39 PM
Hi. Great article. I was wondering what the life changing treatment that you received was? THank you for your work.

MAR, 07, 2018 01:13:33 PM
Ann P. Cahouet
Thank you for writing this. It is frustrating to hear people throw around the term OCD as if it's a synonym for perfectionism. As you say, living with real OCD is a tough road. By the way, a psychiatrist named Ian Osborn examined the writings and historical accounts of Martin Luther, John Bunyan, and St. Therese of Lisieux and argued that they too lived with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

MAR, 05, 2018 08:40:22 PM
Karen G
EMDR Therapy is life changing with immediate healing in 4-7 sessions for ptsd; it heals ocd, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, claustraphobia, traumas like rape, home abuse, etc. (Im living proof of a few of the above including ptsd). Discovered in 1980's "EMDR Getting Past Your Past" by Dr Francine Shapiro PhD explains it.

MAR, 05, 2018 04:08:32 PM
Lizanne Corbit
I think this is such an important read. Mental health issues like OCD and anxiety tend to give this "hollywood brush" -- I'm SO organized I'm totally OCD. If I can't find my keys I have a total anxiety attack. These instances are not actual instances of OCD or anxiety disorder and people who really live with the diagnoses know this, but it can be damaging because then other people associate the diagnosis with the hollywood version instead of the truth. Thank you for shining this spotlight and having this conversation.

MAR, 05, 2018 01:11:33 PM
Carolyn Burke
I know these feelings as I read his article. I have mental health issues and used to self medicate now in recovery and try to listen to spiritual guidance on utube such as Sunday soul hour with Oparah and Eckhart Tolle helps me. I am looking for a way to volunteer my time, I am on disability have energy and art therapy to donate. Just don't know how to find my spot that needs me as a volunteer in Sarasota, Fl.

Submit to the NAMI Blog

We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.

Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.