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OCD and Me
February 15, 2006 — 2:24 pm

Over the years a few people have wondered — if I have OCD, why am I so messy? My unbelievably cluttered office was a running joke at U.S. Term Limits, and my apartment in DC (my motto: “the floor is the biggest shelf in the house”) was the envy of every slob with pretensions of, um . . . slobbitude. My parents like to tell the story of parent-teacher night while I was in fourth grade. When they walked into the classroom, my teacher asked them if they could spot my desk out of the 35 or so in the room. They picked it out in a matter of seconds — the only desk in the room absolutely overflowing with papers and books.

I’m no Anal-Retentive Chef, but aside from tidiness I have many of the traits people normally associate with OCD, like obsessive collecting, hand-washing, and detailed perfectionism (I am, after all, a copy editor). I haven’t started collecting my urine in bottles or anything, but slovenliness can be a sign of OCD in the same way that excessive tidiness can — it’s the same perfectionist impulse, but entirely abaondoned. That is, when I’m working on something in which I have a facility for success, like editing or desktop publishing, I can be neat to the point of annoyance. But when it comes to something I’m not quite as good at, like organizing physical objects, I quickly realize that my efforts aren’t going to be perfect . . . so I give up entirely. Even though this impulse is largely subconscious, this is at least how it seems to me in ex post facto reflection. Psychologist types call this “executive dysfunction.”

It wasn’t until I read Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide, though, that I realized my OCD has followed some classic patterns. Part of the book tells the story of a planet that had been colonized eons earlier by a group of Chinese emigrants from Earth. At some point during the evolution of this planet’s society, the aristocratic class developed a severe case of OCD, passed down consistently through their genes. A common obsessive trait was hand-washing — to the point of cracked and bleeding hands, if I recall correctly. Anyway, the kids in this class had to endure a rite of passage when they reached a certain age. The story follows one girl who was locked into a room without a sink, or any source of water, and made to wait. The impulse to wash her hands eventually became unbearable, to the point that she snapped and suddenly found a substitute obsession. She realized that this gnawing impulse could be satisfied if she started tracing wood grains in the floor. She’d follow a single wood grain across the entire length of the floor; if the grain ended before she reached the other side of the room (veering off the edge of a board, say) she had to go back to the beginning, pick another grain, and try again. This became her primary obsession through the rest of her story.

Although this is fiction, Card got this idea for this story from The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing: The Experience and Treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which is a great book in itself but not quite as vivid as the extreme cases in Xenocide.

The wood grain story made me think back to one of my own OCD scenarios, during my early teen years. One day I had the idea that, when I was walking on a sidewalk, I needed to step from line to line — crack to crack. Before long, though, it dawned on me that for most of my life, when I walked on sidewalks, I had taken steps shorter than a full sidewalk square. This bugged me. I had to catch up. So I started taking steps a little bit longer than than from one line to the next, with the idea that over time my average lifetime stride length would approach, and eventually exceed, the length of a full sidwalk square. I know — crazy, right? It gets better.

It gradually occurred to me that this wasn’t enough. It would take forever to catch up with all the shorter sidewalk steps I had taken throughout my life, and I had no real way to know when I had reached my goal. Something more had to happen. Until one day, as I was flipping around the TV remote control — tossing it in the air, watching it spin a few times, then catching it again — I suddenly realized that each one of those spins could count as a single sidewalk step. I don’t know how exactly I hit upon this absurd idea, but there it was. I started flipping that remote control all the time, flipping it harder and higher, spinning it more times with each toss. In retrospect, this was kind of like a “wood grain” moment for me. Realizing that the sidewalk thing was going nowhere fast, I hit on an alternate behavioral obsession to replace it. Until one day I paused to consider just how absurd the whole thing was, and stopped.

So at least my OCD tendencies are somewhat weak. I can just decide to stop, which isn’t always true for people with OCD. My biggest behavioral obsession over the last 10-15 years has been a kind of “ghost typing” — very often, when I’m watching TV or a movie, or listening to someone speak, I’ll type the dialogue, my fingers wiggling in the air. You can’t always notice this, though, because I’ve gotten to the point where the finger movements are so slight as to be pretty unnoticeable. And if I pause a moment to consider just how ridiculous this “typing” is, I stop. So, again, it’s not an overwhelming tendency, even though it keeps popping up . . .

I’ve intended for a long time to write an entry like this, but the thing that inspired it today is Justin’s side of the blog. If you’ll glance over there with me for a moment, you may notice that every one of his entries is posted on the hour. Today’s entry at exactly 1:00 p.m., and last week he posted entries at precisely 4:00 and 8:00 p.m. And that really, really, really bugs me. When I post an entry, the time is the last thing I finish, mere seconds before I upload it. I note the exact time — even sometimes anticipating that it might be close to the end of a minute, so that the few seconds between the time I save the document and upload it to the site might make the moment the page is “published” fall into a different minute. In those cases, I set the entry’s time as one minute later than the current minute, so the entry will have the correct time at the moment it appears live on the site.

Justin, on the other hand, almost certainly doesn’t do anything even approaching this. He probably doesn’t even come within 15 minutes of the correct time on most of his entries — just sets the time to whatever rounded-off hour may be closest (or may not even be closest, for all I know), then cavalierly slaps this glaring factual error live onto the site. Over and over again. I have to stop myself from thinking about it, because I could easily obsess over this if I let myself.

And really, I have no cause to complain. I should be happpy Justin’s posting at all, and I am. But I can’t pretend I don’t cringe every time I see “:00” at the top of one of his entries. That’s just OCD and me.

— Eric D. DixonComments (1)

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1 Comment
  1. […] I’m not sure I’ve been more productive than I otherwise might have been, because my OCD tendencies can make even largely unproductive activities seem to carry a veneer of accomplishment when I fall […]

    Pingback by The Shrubbloggers » Incompetent Fitness Blog Item #4 — November 28, 2009 @ 10:43 pm

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Eric D. Dixon

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