Since 2008 I have had the privilege of getting to know many people who deal with obsessive-compulsive disorder. We’ve connected through face-to-face meetings, email exchanges, telephone calls, and social media. In each of these conversations, one thing always stands out to me. Each person’s story is unique and OCD always seems to be confusing, complicated and unpredictable.

I know a fair amount about OCD. My son has the disorder and I know firsthand how it can affect the entire family. I’ve seen how OCD can devastate lives. I’ve written posts on everything from symptoms and treatment to enabling and recovery avoidance. But I don’t have OCD, and while I can pick one aspect of the disorder to focus on, discuss, and wrap up neatly with a bow, I never truly convey the scope of this illness. My posts are neat, and OCD is messy. Writing about obsessive-compulsive disorder is so much easier than living with it.

Many people with OCD also suffer from depression, GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), and panic disorder, to name a few common comorbid conditions. Of course, each of these illnesses has its own definition and list of symptoms and this classification is important and necessary for diagnosis and proper treatment. But again, reading and writing about them conveys a sense of neatness and order. Patient number one has OCD, GAD and depression. Patient number two has OCD, panic disorder, and social phobia. A lineup of illnesses. Symptoms and the illnesses are categorized and seen as separate entities, as opposed to interrelated. It is easy to forget that we are talking about a whole person’s state of being, not just a bunch of different disorders. No doubt people have manifested symptoms of these various illnesses long before the disorders were differentiated by names.

When my son Dan suffered from severe OCD, he was also diagnosed with depression and GAD. All these diagnoses made sense to me at the time. My son was completely controlled by OCD and couldn’t even eat. He would sit in his “safe” chair for hours and hours at a time, unable to move. I think it would have been odd if he wasn’t depressed! He was also fearful and suspicious of everything around him so once again, a diagnosis of GAD made sense. However, once Dan’s OCD was under control, his depression lifted and his GAD eventually dissipated; his three separately diagnosed illnesses were intricately entwined.

While many people with OCD deal with even more complicated circumstances than Dan, his situation still gives us a lot to think about. Whether we have obsessive-compulsive disorder or not, I think we all need to remind ourselves that OCD, GAD, depression, etc. are just words used to explain how we are feeling and how our minds and bodies are reacting to these feelings. They are a way of trying to maintain some order and clarity over the messiness of brain disorders. I believe, however, that we need to remember that while these labels and acronyms serve their purpose, they are not the most important thing. What is most important is that we strive to understand what is going on with the whole person, so that we can figure out the best way to move forward.