I’m sure you’ve all heard the phrase “I’m so OCD” before—probably in regards to how someone likes for their books to be color-coded or for their silverware to be in the same place all the time. You’ve probably used it this way before, too. I used to all the time. I don’t like it when people move my things around without telling me and I hate putting a sandwich down once I start eating it, and I would tell people I know, I’m so OCD. In casual conversation, the acronym OCD has basically become a term in and of itself, meaning particular or neat or orderly. I had seen people getting upset about this usage online, but I never saw the harm in it—after all, it wasn’t being used negatively. I thought it was okay.

My opinion changed when, for my first attempt at writing a novel, I decided that my main character would have OCD. The character creation process is by far my favorite part of creative writing, and when it comes to doing research for it, I dive in headfirst. I read articles, watched documentaries, and a dozen YouTube videos on first-hand experiences. I read psychologist’s essays on the mental and physical tolls that it can take, both on the person and their life as a whole. I realized that having obsessive-compulsive disorder didn’t just mean being clean. Some people’s compulsions don’t even have anything to do with order—they can obsess over whether all the doors are locked or what time it is, and checking is something they literally cannot help. I also learned that the obsessive part of the disorder can be related only to thoughts. One bad memory or imagined idea can get caught in their head, and they feel completely powerless to stop thinking about it.

After all of that, it was easier to see their point.

When we use the term OCD colloquially, it erases all of that struggle. It makes us think that compulsions are something that can be walked away from, or that obsessions can just be ignored. It makes us take people that genuinely have the disorder less seriously than we might otherwise, and that will lead to less people speaking up about it, which means more people are suffering in silence.

The same thing happens with depression. Rain is referred to as depressing weather. People have one bad day and lament about being depressed to their friends. I used to think that having depression just meant being sad, but it comes with its ups and downs just like anything else—it just means that the downs are much more difficult to come back from, and the idea of an up sounds like a myth. It makes you tired and can get in the way of rational thought. So when we don’t take this disorder seriously, it makes the person suffering from it think that it’s their fault. They think that they just aren’t made well enough. And thinking like that leads to dark, dark places.

Even though it doesn’t always seem like it at the time, the words that we choose to use can mean a lot more than we intend for them to. It’s a butterfly effect. Through both research and personal experience, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to comfort someone with a mental disorder is to help them feel validated. They want to know that they aren’t just crazy and that other people realize that what they’re feeling isn’t just a cry for attention. Do your part to show them some respect.