Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Is Not An Illness

Recently I was listening to NPR on the car radio.  The program was about so-called obsessive compulsive disorder, and a woman was describing her difficulty in this area.  I didn’t record her actual words, but it went something like this:

I have all these checks and rituals that I have to do each day.  And it’s beginning to put a strain on my marriage.  Sometimes my husband wants to go somewhere but I can’t go until I finish my checks.

I was immediately struck by the possibility that either this woman doesn’t want to go out, or doesn’t want to go out with her husband.  These avenues certainly warrant exploration, but within the present mental health system, all she is likely to get is a “diagnosis” and a prescription.  (“You have an illness, takes these pills.”)  It would be very rare nowadays for anybody to take the time to explore what payoffs might be involved in the pursuit of the rituals.

The psychodynamics of rituals are self-evident.  Most rituals are simply repetitive actions that we can do without effort, and in which we can almost always be completely successful.  And we all have them.  We get out of bed in the morning; comb our hair (those of us who have any left); shave (those who care to); wash; brush teeth, etc..  And so on at various points of the day.

In my experience, the people who get into rituals to a disturbing degree fall into two groups.

Firstly, people who are very anxious/fearful.  The rituals have a calming effect.  They’re not the best way to deal with anxieties, but they work after a fashion.  I have dealt with more effective ways to cope with anxieties elsewhere in this blog.

Secondly, people who are not feeling generally successful in their everyday lives.  This is truly the modern malaise.  So many people are stuck in jobs from which they derive no feelings of accomplishment.  In my view we all need daily doses of feelings of success.  The subject area doesn’t matter.  Raking the lawn; building a fence; writing a letter; cooking a meal; teaching a child to ride a bike; painting a door; fixing the car; etc., etc..  Many people manage to get feelings of success through their jobs – this is great.  But those who don’t need to organize their leisure time in such a way as to ensure a steady flow of these kinds of feelings. There just isn’t time for rituals when you’re teaching your daughter how to change the oil in the car or helping a neighbor fix his porch or whatever.  And everyone can find something that they can do and do well.

Obsessions and compulsions do not constitute an illness.  Rather they are ways in which people deal with sub-optimal circumstances.  They can be replaced by more effective activities through the normal methods of behavioral change.

There are no mental illnesses.

  • RenJ

    I agree! I have always thought this ever since being told by a therapist that I had “OCD.” I wish more people understood this. Everyone has anxiety! It is a built in protection mechanism. The obsessing is a form of anxiety, and the compulsions are ways to try and deal with the anxiety. People just need to learn better coping skills. And by the way, this therapist obviously needed a therapist of his own! He told me he had OCD and that there wasn’t much you could do about it. So sad.

  • Phil_Hickey


    Thanks for an interesting comment. I agree. “Learning better coping skills” is almost what life is all about.

  • Sunni David

    You are an idiot. I am sorry but me washing my hands until they bleed is definitely a problem. Me not being able to touch my sister for the last 6 years is a problem. Me trying to kill myself multiple times when I couldn’t stop obsessing about hurting people is a problem. Me losing my sense of reality and believing that people are in the vents and that if I do not watch my feet, my skin will crawl away is a problem. Me feeling things that aren’t there non stop to the point that I will try to scrape away the skin on my hands is a problem. Me at 5 years old having to push the couch cushions in for hours at a time so the “monsters” couldn’t kill my family is a problem. Me spending hours trying to eat a meal just because I had to rip it into centimeter sized pieces before I could eat it is a problem.Obviously you are an uneducated prick who has been living under a rock and is so self obsessed that you can’t see other peoples suffering.
    Not to mention the fact that OCD has been studied and is now classified as a neurological disorder, meaning that it is a real thing that actually happens and we can see it under brain scans.
    Try sticking your head out of your arse for once in your life and see that just because you have no suffering, that does not mean that other people can’t suffer.
    If you had a psychiatric illness for one day, you would see how difficult they are, not only because they make you want to kill yourself and other people, but also the fact that fucktards like you stigmatize them.

  • all too easy

    Sunni David, thanks for coming in. Yes indeed, there are morons out there denying we landed on the moon.

  • doppelganger

    Nice try, “Sunni David.” Jerk.

  • doppelganger

    Wowee, all too easy. How many different fake “psychiatric illnesses” can one person sport, pal? Sounds like you really got the book thrown at you, as in DSM-666. Liar.

  • Sunni David

    I have 3 neurological disorders, not psychiatric illnesses, not that you would know the difference. Let me guess, you also deny climate change, the holocaust, and the moon landing.

  • doppelganger

    “3 neurological disorders” Yeah, right. What a dope.

  • Ayahuasca


  • Kenneth Rivera Gomez

    First of all OCD does not make you do anything. It’s just a voice in your head speaking irrational thoughts. Their not real no matter what they are. Just agree to all of them. Don’t do compulsions and face your fears. The axiety goes away gradually and the obsessive thoughts go away as well. No studies have shown nothing and no proof that OCD is anything. The reality is we don’t know. But what we do know is that it is a behavior problem. Your like and addict. Just break your bad habits and trust me you will be fine. OCD DOES NOT MAKE YOU WANT TO KILL YOURSELF, SO STOP TELLING YOURSELF THESE THINGS, YOU CONTROL YOURSELF.

  • Family guy

    Its easy for someone to say they think ocd is not a illness when they dont suffer from it. Dont do the compulsions is something you here so often. But when you are doing these rituals and it causes other health problems and relationship problems as well as financial problems, it needs to be taken more seriously.

  • Rick McCallister

    PhD? In what, platitudes and conjecture about something you’re not qualified to discuss?

  • Phil_Hickey


    Thank you for your comment. If you have any actual issues on this matter that you would like to discuss, please feel free to come back. I welcome dialogue.

  • Julianna

    Hmm, as someone who had severe OCD between the ages of 8 and 16, where I was doing compulsions up to 14 hours a day at its worst, I have a hard time imagining you have treated many with the condition who have it severely.

    And I personally don’t think you can put a kid of ten in the second category, and the compulsions also never had a calming effect on me.. Just to give the perspective of someone who has lived through it.

  • Rob

    Many people suffer from (non-disease based) compulsions and obsessions that effect their relationships, and can lead to murder and suicide. Nobody disputes or takes lightly human suffering, but to assume cognitive challenges are biological defects is an assumption. Just because you don’t like how your mind is functioning doesn’t mean anything is wrong. Many brain messages are false and misleading, but that doesn’t mean you have an illness. Most people have voices in their heads, and experience repetitive (often negative) thinking.

  • Phil_Hickey


    Thanks for coming in. The essential point of the second category is that these are individuals who are not experiencing feelings of success/accomplishment. Although the examples that I gave were drawn from adult life, I think the general idea applies equally, if not more, to children.

    And, for the record, I have worked with hundreds of people who performed very elaborate and time-consuming rituals every day.

    I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do know that there is no evidence that the habit of performing these kinds of rituals is an illness. And that was the point of the post.

    I do, of course, appreciate your perspective.

    Best wishes.