OCD for Writers: Part 1

Colloquially, OCD means organized, clean, or precise, but the real mental illness can have little or nothing to do with those things. So what do writers need to know about OCD?

Disclaimer: This article is not meant for diagnosing or treating OCD. If you have OCD, this article will likely not be helpful for you– it is meant for writers trying to write a character with OCD. If you think you have OCD, please see a licensed therapist.

First, whenever writing about mental illness, it is our responsibility as writers to do our research to portray it accurately and fairly. OCD is often minimalized by neurotypical people saying “I’m so OCD” about being organized, clean, or precise. This can be very hurtful to someone with OCD, so it is important not to make the same mistakes in our writing. OCD is not quirky– it is debilitating and can ruin lives if left untreated.

But what is OCD?

The clinical definition of OCD can be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or at this link.

But OCD basically breaks down into three things: Intrusive Thoughts, Obsessions, and Compulsions. Intrusive thoughts cause Obsessing which is relieved by Compulsions. Someone must have all three to have OCD. And if you understand those then you have a decent understanding of OCD.

Intrusive Thoughts are unwanted, repetitive, and persistent thoughts, urges, or impulses about something that a person find “unthinkable.” For instance, driving into oncoming traffic, stripping in public, all their family and friends dying, or stabbing someone with a knife. We all have intrusive thoughts to some degree, but the difference with OCD is how the brain responds to these thoughts.

Obsessions are how the OCD brain responds to an intrusive thought. Instead of ignoring the thought, someone with OCD latches onto the intrusive thought. This obsessing about the intrusive thought has aptly been described as spiraling into an abyss where nothing but that thought exists. This obsessing is what defines OCD, and it is marked by anxiety, panic, and discomfort. It can last for hours and takes up a minimum of 1 hour per day, though it typically last much longer, especially with untreated OCD.

Compulsions are what people with OCD do to temporarily relieve obsessing. They may or may not be related to the initial intrusive thoughts. Example of compulsions are repeatedly checking, cleaning, or performing specific rituals. Rituals may be purely mental (e.g. repeating a prayer over and over, going over logical syllogisms over and over, telling oneself a single thought again and again.) Unfortunately, many of these rituals can be embarrassing but they temporarily relieve the obsessing. However, performing compulsions actually feeds into the OCD spiral eventually making the obsessions worse.

Examples of OCD in Books

  • Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
  • Xenocide by Orson Scott Card

In the next two posts, I’ll go over different types of OCD and how OCD is treated in a therapy setting.

So have you every written a character with a mental illness? How did you go about researching it?

Also, as someone with OCD, please feel free to ask me any and all questions you have, and I will do my best to answer them. I’d love to see OCD represented in more books, and I’d love to help with that in any way possible.

Peace of Christ,


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