Thursday, November 18, 2004

Touch You Once, Touch You Twice 

One time I was working at another branch and heard a patron softly and rhythmically grunting by one of the bookshelves. The noises sounded painfully and forcefully abbreviated, like an aborted hiccough. As I watched him I noticed that he would touch the spine of a book on the shelf, mutter the call number, grunt, and then move to the next book and repeat the process. His behavior, although strange, seemed harmless. One of the regular librarians explained, "Oh, he does this every time he comes in. He starts at the beginning of the Dewey Decimal system and works his way through each book until the very last one in the 900s. Then he will move onto the fiction section and work through it until the library closes."

Lucky for him it was a small branch. How terrible to be enslaved by such a boring and monotonous compulsion. OCD is such a dreadful but fascinating condition. David Sedaris's essay "A Plague of Tics" describes his bout with OCD when he was a young boy. Although he lived less than a mile from school, he would take well over an hour to get there because of of the elaborate sequence of rituals - tapping his shoe against his head, licking and touching objects, performing bizarre, dance like motions, circling trees - he had to perform en route to school. His OCD wasn't just limited to his walks to school, however. Whenever he rode in the car and passed particular landmarks he felt compelled to lick the windshield. This habit infuriated his father and when he leaned forward to lick the windshield his father would tap the brake so David's face slammed against the glass. Even though he knew his father was just waiting to punish him this way, the need to lick the windshield was so overpowering he couldn't resist. He claims that once he began smoking his OCD vanished. OCD seems to be caused by some brain chemical not switching on or off properly. Nicotine fiddles with brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, and he credits medicating himself this way with curing him of OCD. Even though getting his face slammed into the windshield by his father made for great material, I still felt sorry for Sedaris that his father was so unsympathetic, until I went to a book signing and Sedaris signed my copy of Naked, "To -----, a young slut in Alabama." Then I thought of his face slamming against the windshield and I felt glad.

In Xenophobia, science fiction writer Orson Scott Card creates a planet of geniuses who act as the intellectual minions of an interplanetary empire. The most brilliant geniuses of this planet of geniuses are inflicted with crippling OCD, and the rituals they perform are revered and considered holy, a gift from God. It is discovered that the empire intentionally infects them with a virus that causes OCD, so that the empire can exploit their brain power without fearing that the geniuses will rebel or try to usurp control of the empire. Their OCD keeps them hobbled.

I believe everyone has a touch of OCD. Even though I know that I turned the iron off I will sometimes obsess and feel a siren call, this maddening itch, to stop what I'm doing and go make sure, even if I'm out the door. Even though I find the iron cold and unplugged, I still am rewarded with a flood of relief. Just from that little taste of the compulsion disorder makes me feel a deep sympathy for those who are really inflicted.

Suggested further reading, Emily Colas' hilarious memoir of OCD: Just Checking

ok, i listened to sedaris as a book on CD and when i heard that part you just wrote about, I almost crashed the car on the PA turnpike. that was way too hilarious.

keep up the posts,
god i wish i could remember the web address of the guy who has obsessively cataloged everything in his house - you can navigate the site by room by room, cabinet by cabinet, & browse nearby objects - it's really incredible.
found it:

"Just Checking" was *awesome.* You sent that book to me, and I made my mother read it.

I have a little bit of OCD, too -- in a public bathroom, I have to have three, no more, no less, paper towels to dry off my hands. I like to have odd numbers of things on display, rather than even ones -- but I chalk that up to some designer tip rather than OCD. Hey, it works.

Though I am a bit embarrased to admit that I count art and other display stuff in other people's houses, thinking to myself, "Don't you know you'res supposed to have an odd number, instead of an even number, of picture frames on display? Sheesh!"
p.s. -- "Won't let go, at any price."
You know your great-great-grandfather had a little thing about touching doorknobs and shaking hands and that sort of thing. Actually, I think it a fairly strong feeling on his part. Wore gloves a lot. You know whom to ask about it.
Oh yeah - I almost forgot about my great bumper sticker idea. Ready?

OCD - It gives you something to do!
I read a great post on Metafilter which included various pieces of advice for living with OCD; my favorite was:

"Don't wash the soap"
I know it's a little late, but the book is Xenocide, not Xenophobia. But the link seems to go correctly to Xenocide anyway.
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