Image by K. Ho

Social Justice Synonyms #11: “OCD” and “Bipolar”

Welcome to the eleventh segment of Social Justice Synonyms, a column at The Talon that discusses harmful and oppressive language embedded in our culture and provides ways to unlearn this language.

This week’s words are OCD and bipolar.

The terms “OCD” (short for obsessive-compulsive disorder) and “bipolar” are both medical terms used to describe mental illnesses. The DSM IV-TR defines a person living with OCD as someone who has “recurrent compulsions and/or obsessions”, where obsessions are intrusive and unreasonable thoughts, and compulsions are repetitive behaviours often carried out to neutralize these obsessions. Although the portrayals of OCD in the media often include compulsions related to checking, contamination, and organization, there are in fact many different types of compulsions resulting from feelings of fear, guilt, and anxiety that are unique to the person experiencing them. These compulsions can either be carried out externally (eg. repetitively jumping up and down) or internally (eg. counting to 500 in your head). A person who carries out their compulsions almost exclusively internally is living with a type of OCD called “Purely Obsesessional” or “Pure-O” OCD. Medical practice and research centre Mayo Clinic defines the term bipolar as a “psychiatric illness characterized by manic and/or depressive episodes”, and includes four different types of the disorder: type 1, where the individual experiences episodes of mania and depression in week-long periods; type 2, where the periods of depression outweigh the manic cycles, and the highs are less extreme; cyclothymia, which is a more mild form of the disorder, but also the fastest cycling; and bipolar disorder not otherwise specified, where the individual falls somewhere in between these various diagnoses.

Like “crazy,” “OCD” and “bipolar” have been widely misappropriated to become ableist terms. In colloquial language, the word bipolar is used to describe someone experiencing mood swings, either as an insult or descriptor of a negative quality. For example, you might hear someone saying that their teacher is “so bipolar” after getting angry in class, or referring to themselves as “bipolar” for experiencing moodiness. Although these traits may resemble the media’s portrayal of a person living with bipolar disorder, these usages of the word are reductive, offensive, and incorrect. A person who is bipolar does not simply “have mood swings,” but experiences manic and depressive episodes that can last for extended periods of time. These periods of mania and depression are much more intense than periods of happiness or sadness that a person without bipolar disorder may feel. Popular Healthline writer, Brian Krans, describes his experience with  mania as a period filled with plenty of energy where he becomes extremely optimistic, talkative, and sociable. He describes the period of depression as one where he “wants everyone to disappear” because the smallest details annoy him, and “seeing all those people carrying on… is an annoying reminder” of his bipolar disorder. He then goes on to describe the period in between these manic and depressive episodes, which he names “the middle”, as one in which doesn’t feel like “running around” or like “a mopey, lazy slug.”

Similarly, “OCD” is used in mainstream culture to describe either a “quirky trait” that someone may have or extreme habits regarding things such as cleanliness and organization. For example, someone might refer to themselves as “so OCD” for liking to keep their room tidy, or for making punctuality a priority. While these are traits that may appear in an individual living with OCD, the difference is that for a person without OCD these are simply preferences, whereas for an individual living with OCD who experiences compulsions, they are repetitive behaviours carried out to reduce the anxiety caused by intrusive thoughts (eg. “My mom will die if I don’t clean my room”). These intrusive thoughts are based on anxiety the person may be experiencing, regarding schoolwork, social situations, illness, death, or anything else relevant to their experiences.

The misappropriation of these terms in colloquial language serves to belittle the illnesses that the terms refer to, as well as those living with them. The illnesses are belittled in that they are likened to behaviours that are, in fact, not a result of mental illness, but simple personality quirks that are highly common. Although persons living with OCD and bipolar disorder are often high functioning individuals, many have at some point felt debilitated by their diseases, or have encountered feelings of distress, depression, and alienation. In contrast, a person without mental illness who has a mood swing, or enjoys being punctual, does not have to live with these same symptoms. This type of misappropriation can prevent someone living with mental illness from speaking up or reaching out for help since they might fear not being taken seriously or being met with ignorance. This is especially poignant due to the invisible nature of these diseases.

Below are a few synonyms that you can use to replace these words in your vocabulary:

Use / Context Alternatives
“My mom is so bipolar today” “My mom is being really unreasonable”
“I’m so OCD about cleanliness” “I like keeping my room clean”
“My brother is so OCD about his work schedule” “My brother likes to get to work on time”
“I’m feeling so bipolar this weekend” “I’ve been having mood swings this weekend”
“My boyfriend went completely bipolar” “My boyfriend changed his mind”