Trigger warning: If you struggle with attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or social anxiety disorder, the following post could trigger you.
“She’s so OCD about having a clean house.”
“I can’t pay attention today—I’m feeling so ADD.”
“Why is he acting so crazy? He must be bipolar.”
As someone who struggles with an anxiety disorder, I believe that the language we use when we discuss mental health is important. And as someone who has chosen editing as a profession, I know it’s common for others to not really know what the job involves beyond “being OCD.” This is usually seen as a virtue and as being synonymous with paying attention to detail or being meticulous in one’s work. But those who struggle with an anxiety disorder and/or OCD typically don’t describe dealing with these disorders as a positive experience; these illnesses disrupt daily life and cause problems with school, jobs, health, and relationships.
In this post, I hopefully shed some light on what dealing with an anxiety disorder entails and explain why editing and proofreading involves skills beyond just “being a bit OCD.”
What OCD Is
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a chronic disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that they feel compelled to repeat.
Obsessions are repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images that cause anxiety. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that a person with OCD feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought. Someone with OCD performs these behaviors or rituals to alleviate anxiety or distress stemming from intrusive and unwanted thoughts. But the obsessions are unrelenting—doing these things makes the person feel slightly less horrible, and NOT doing them would be out of the question.
Everyone double-checks things sometimes, but it’s important to keep in mind that someone with OCD experiences significant disruptions to his or her daily life. Performing the behaviors and rituals associated with OCD provides temporary relief from the anxiety the obsessions cause.
When you think of OCD, you probably think of someone washing their hands excessively or repeatedly checking that they turned the stove off. These can be examples of OCD, but you have to consider how excessive the behaviors are. Checking that the door is locked once or twice? You’re probably fine. But if you spend two hours a day performing an elaborate ritual of locking up the house before you head to work, you may be exhibiting symptoms of OCD.
There are also other types of OCD. These include aggressive OCD, which involves the fear of harming others and asking for reassurance about being a good person. There is also a religious form of OCD, which involves thoughts about being immoral, fear of eternal damnation, asking forgiveness, and praying.
Classification in the DSM–5
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), which is the “authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders,” characterizes OCD as a separate disorder distinct from anxiety and lists it in its own category along with other related disorders.
This may be because OCD has a behavioral component that is not necessarily seen in anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, it can be helpful to view these disorders as being under the same “anxiety umbrella” or as part of the same spectrum, as anxiety is an important factor in all of them.
What OCD Is Not
First, no one can “be OCD.” One can be obsessive or compulsive, but just as no one can “be cancer,” no one can “be OCD” or “be ADD.” Using such imprecise language trivializes the fact that OCD is a legitimate mental disorder that significantly affects many people’s lives.
It is a myth that those with OCD enjoy keeping things neat and organized or that they love cleaning.
People with OCD might have cleanliness rituals, but they don’t enjoy them. They keep things clean and organized because otherwise they will experience crushing anxiety.
My Own Experience
As I mentioned earlier, anxiety disorders generally exist on a spectrum, and although I haven’t been diagnosed with OCD, I do suffer from generalized anxiety and depression (which commonly occur together).
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by persistent and excessive worry, and those with GAD may be overly concerned about money, health, family, work, or other issues. This disorder is diagnosed when a person finds it difficult to control worry on more days than not for at least six months and has three or more symptoms.
I’m on medication for both anxiety and depression, and STILL it can be extremely difficult to tell when a sudden shift in my mood is caused by my anxiety or by normal stress. I have good days and bad days and can usually tell when a bad day is going to hit, but my anxiety disorder still significantly affects my life in ways big and small.
I worry about having perfect handwriting. I sometimes wash my hands excessively. I overanalyze things I’ve said or done in the past; even though everyone involved has probably long forgotten what happened, I can recall some particularly embarrassing events with a surprisingly large amount of detail.
And I worry about my freelance editing business. I have checked and rechecked emails and manuscripts, endlessly second-guessed all of my decisions. Did I send a potential client the wrong editing test? Did I miss something in that paragraph? (Better check three more times.) How many people read that blog post? Did I quote too high for that project? What if my client doesn’t offer me more work? WHAT IF MY WHOLE BUSINESS FAILS? These negative thoughts can quickly escalate and leave me paralyzed with indecision and dread.
But these worries are separate from the skills I bring to my work, such as attention to detail, an eye for logic and consistency, the ability to create well-organized style sheets, and knowledge of the major style guides used in academic writing.
As my colleague Denise Cowle writes in her excellent blog post on the topic of proofreading and OCD, “being precise is not OCD.”
Paying attention to small details and valuing consistency, accuracy, and order are important attributes for proofreaders and editors to have, but this doesn’t equate to having OCD or an anxiety disorder.
The compulsion to order and arrange items can be a symptom of OCD, but the crucial difference is this: Those with OCD don’t enjoy the rituals they perform—they engage in compulsive rituals or behaviors to temporarily alleviate the anxiety they experience due to obsessive thoughts.
If you’ve chosen a career as an editor or proofreader, it’s a safe bet that you get some amount of pleasure or enjoyment from your work.
It could be argued that ordering a reference list or checking word usage may provide relief from anxiety, but it’s entirely possible to, for example, enjoy checking page proofs and also experience intrusive thoughts about the possibility you will harm your roommate.
As a fellow editor notes:
OCD is hell on earth. Having an eye for detail is not the same thing as begging a neighbor to check your house to make sure you didn’t leave the straightening iron on when you didn’t and never have. And now not being able to leave the house without doing a sweep of it to make sure that there has been nothing that has been left on that could cause a fire. Even though I have never left anything on that could cause a fire. And even if you do the sweep, you’ll be in the car thinking, “But maybe it was plugged in and I didn’t see it!” And this can ruin a good trip until you can find someone willing to check for you, because you imagine losing everything in a house fire.
OCD is worrying endlessly about the worst possible unanticipated possible horrible outcome of simple events. Sometimes the illness is quiet. Other times, you can’t enjoy life because there is always something to dread. Making sure that the word is just right is not OCD. Counting commas is not OCD. Neither is finding errors in other people’s misspelled social media posts. In fact, if a wannabe editor jokes about OCD, I think they probably are going to inflict zombie rules on the manuscript anyway, and if it’s an author, I don’t want to give them the benefit of the doubt about any misstep in their work.
OCD is doing four passes when two would do and worrying that I sent Client A the manuscript of Client B when I have never done that and the organization of my files makes impossible, but now I have to get up at 3 a.m. and check my email to be sure anyway. . . . It’s worrying if you accidentally deleted good paragraphs from the manuscript when you have never done that before. And I can’t bill my client for those extra two passes, so it costs me money or free time, too.
Others may disagree with me, but I would argue that my anxiety actually hinders my work instead of helping it. As with OCD, the anxiety I have is something I can’t control.
So where does the stereotype of “proofreaders and editors are OCD” come from? And why is this problematic?
The media plays a big role—however well-meaning or unintentional, there are many instances of publications and companies using imprecise language when discussing mental health and the editorial profession.
Consider this article, which suggests that “perhaps all copy editors are a little bit OCD.”
Even though the article praises copyeditors and discusses their importance, I had a hard time reading through the whole text because of this troublesome language. (Where was the copyeditor when this was being written?)
In this post, which discusses how to become an editor, the author writes that “those interested in editing as a career tend to have one main thing in common: obsessive–compulsive editing disorder (OCED).”
Which, of course, is not a thing. Again, exhibiting attention to detail and being precise with language are not synonymous with having OCD.
Or consider this ad for a proofreader, which asks “Have you successfully channelled your OCD into a career as a proofreader? If so, you may be the person we’re looking for.”
No. Just . . . no. Having OCD is not a job skill! Having an anxiety disorder does not make me a more effective editor! If you want someone in the job to show great attention to detail, say so. But don’t use a mental health term as a form of hyperbole to describe work-related skills.
It’s easy to use the term OCD as a type of shorthand for worrying about small details. But OCD (along with other related mental disorders) is a debilitating condition that people suffer from and desperately want to be rid of. No one enjoys having OCD or an anxiety disorder!
Using this type of language dismisses the severity of these disorders and is incredibly insensitive to those who suffer from them.
I wonder: Do other professions deal with this stigma? Are forensic scientists—who also must have strong attention to detail and analytical skills—referred to as being OCD when they examine a crime scene?
Surgeons are also known for their precision, but it’s hard to imagine a doctor saying, “Sorry, I’m being a little OCD about removing this gallbladder.”
I don’t care if I’m being sensitive—language matters when we’re talking about mental health.
Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “between 76% and 85% of people with mental disorders receive no treatment for their disorder. In high-income countries, between 35% and 50% of people with mental disorders are in the same situation.” There are many reasons why people may not receive treatment, but I won’t try to address them all in this post. But I believe that a large part of this is due to stigma and shame.
Those with mental disorders are often perceived as being dangerous or worthless, and this perception is often fostered by the media portraying those with a mental illness as violent perpetrators (the horror movie Split in particular really struck a chord with me). They also have higher rates of homelessness and are seen as a danger to society and themselves.
This in turn can lead to those with a mental disorder becoming socially isolated and lonely, and many individuals feel great shame for having a mental illness. As a result, they may not seek treatment due to fear of being judged or not being taken seriously.
We need to do better. It’s important to communicate openly and to educate others about mental health, but we must also be conscious of the language we use, especially when discussing certain professions.
Don’t refer to someone with a mental disorder as being “crazy,” “psycho,” or “schizo.” If you’re feeling a little distracted, don’t laugh and say, “I’m being so ADD today.”
And PLEASE do not refer to editors or proofreaders as “being OCD.”
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of OCD, anxiety, depression, or another mental disorder, contact your primary care doctor or check out these resources:
If you need immediate support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or go to http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.
To find treatment services in your area, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
To learn more about specific mental disorders, visit the Mental Health Information section of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website at https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/index.shtml.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)
Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD)
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)
International OCD Foundation