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I have benign habits which often attract an accusation that they are obsessive and thus that I suffer from Obsessive-Compulsion Disorder, OCD. For example, if there is only a small portion of ice cream left in the tub after everyone has had a dip, I will suggest I finish it off rather than return the tub to the freezer. When challenged, I point out that finishing off the ice cream makes room for another tub in the freezer – a perfectly logical explanation as far as I’m concerned but rarely accepted as the reason I want to polish off the remaining portion.

In general, I am loath to leave food uneaten on my plate at meal times. I’m a ‘finisher-off-er’, a habit that dates back to my secondary-education schooldays at a boarding school where the food was plain and often inadequate for a growing teenager who played a lot of sport.

Here are some of my other habits that cause the obsessive label to be pinned on me:

Left: crumpled toothpaste tube.
Right: tube tidied up and secured with a foldback clip.

Left: shower gel bottle with gel trapped in the hooked end.
Right: bottle after being left on its side for 24 hours to allow the trapped gel to move sluggishly and unwillingly back into the bottle.

Left: pair of shoes with the right shoe on the left and left shoe on the right.
Right: shoes properly ordered.

Left: almost empty loaf of bread with long plastic wrapping ‘tail’ secured with a clothes peg.
Right: ‘tail’ docked.

Left: bookcase with books arranged in a higgledy-piggledy order.
Right: two options for re-ordering – mountain-valley-mountain or valley-mountain.

Do these habits merit the label Obsessive-Compulsion Order? No. OCD is a serious mental health condition wherein repetitive thoughts and/or behaviours occur in an uncontrollable way and, once diagnosed, are usually treated by psychological therapy that aims to uncover the root of the obsession and to overcome or otherwise tame the fear that created it. The OCD UK charity lists five types of OCD behaviour:

  • Checking: e.g. constant checking and re-checking that doors and windows are shut and locked either before retiring for the night or departing from a house.
  • Contamination: e.g. a fear of germs that leads to incessant hand washing and other cleanliness actions.
  • Hoarding: an inability to throw away something that is either no longer required or in need of replacement.
  • Symmetry and Orderliness: a need to line things up in an orderly fashion or, like my bookcase above, in some form of a symmetrical fashion.
  • Ruminations and Intrusive Thoughts: deep thinking and concern about basic concepts – is there a God, what happens when you die, ethics and morality.

You can argue that we each have some form of these behaviours but what turns them from normal concerns, the result of an inquisitive mind, or just a habit into an obsession depends on what happens if the behaviour is prevented – that is, what has caused the behaviour in the first place. For example, if someone takes a book from my bookcase and returns it in a way that destroys the symmetry, do I get mad and shout at that person or do I just restore the symmetry? And what if my shoes are moved to allow access to a vacuum cleaner and then replaced right-to-left, left-to-right? How do I react? With a shrug or a shout?

In the five pictorial examples above, am I being obsessive or am I just being tidy? Am I compelled to do these things for reasons that cannot be rationalised (an obsession) or am I just responding to a behavioural reaction that I can rationalise? I could argue the reason I tidy up my toothpaste tube is to make it easier to squeeze the paste onto the brush. Similarly, regaining lost shower gel from the bottle’s hook end is simply so as not to waste the gel. And positioning my shoes left-to-left, right-to-right makes it slightly easier, or more efficient, to place them on my feet. And so on.

I do not believe I have OCD. I do not feel compelled to do the things I do for reasons I cannot explain and which, if not done, cause uncontrollable emotions such as anxiety or other forms of mental stress. I am more a neat freak; someone who likes the elements of their life to be tidy and in order where order = control and control= security (as stated within the Urban Dictionary’s definition cited). But I’m not a compulsive neat freak. My desk and surrounding paraphernalia of a filing cabinet and printer occasionally becomes very untidy, and I am sometimes asked to tidy up my clothes in the bedroom or my books and magazines downstairs.

The next time I’m accused of suffering from OCD, I shall refute it vigorously and claim to be a neat freak instead. That’ll cause an interesting reaction!