Saturday, October 8, 2011

OCD and Writing...OCD and Writing.

When I was twelve or thirteen, things started getting weird.  I had to do everything an even number of times.  I started worrying about germs a lot.  I worried about what other people were thinking about me.  I worried, period.  I began to over-analyze EVERYTHING.  Including my tendency toward over-analysis.  I did not know what was going on.  I was ashamed.  It wasn’t until years later, reading Howard Stern’s book ‘Private Parts’, that I realized I was not the only one who did these things and felt this way.  That there was even a name for it.  Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  Since then, things have gotten better.  I don’t worry about even numbers much.  Germs are still an issue.  I have come to terms with the fact that I think very differently than most people.  Self-medication worked pretty well, but it almost killed me.  I even tried medication from the doctor.  That did kill me.  It took away the OCD, but it also changed my personality.  I didn’t realize this at the time.  In hindsight, while I might have been ‘happier’, I like being me…germphobia and all.

My friend Rosanne Dingli recently wrote an excellent piece about writers and depression - http://rosannedingli.blogspot.com/2011/09/authors-and-depression.html.  She suggested I write about writers and OCD.  Instead, I will write about one writer (me) and OCD.  Otherwise, I might have to do research or other distasteful things like interview real, germy people and shake their hands and…you get the idea.

I recently had an interesting conversation with a colleague of mine.  We are both teachers.  I remarked to her that all the good teachers I have ever known have been weird.  Weird in different ways, but weird nonetheless.  Eccentric.  Neurotic.  We both share the affliction of having overactive minds.  I think about a million things all the time, and it is tiring.  She suggested that good teachers are weird because, when you are teaching (well), you are engaged in the moment completely.  There is no room for the myriad thoughts that swarm like mosquitos most of the time.  I think she is on to something.  It would explain why I like fishing (‘zen’ concentration) and motorcycles (‘don’t want to die’ concentration).  But I digress, let’s talk about writing.

Writing fits this pattern.  When I am writing, I am not thinking about anything else.  Not even thinking about writing, really.  I enter a weird, detached state.  It is quite soothing.  There is also the issue of control.  Part of OCD, for me, is fear of the things I can’t control, i.e. germs.  And the compulsions that help me feel like I do have a bit of control.  Washing my hands a million times a day.  The counting I used to do.  Etc.   Writing is a great way of being in control.  When I am writing fiction, I am God.  I control my characters.  I control the plot.  It is my world.  (This is not completely true, but I convince myself it is).  Regardless, writing gives me two things that my OCD craves … control and escape.  Without being hung over or strung out … and without fundamentally changing my personality.
          
OCD is an interesting affliction.  My wife always says that she could never have OCD because she can’t remember things long enough to obsess about them.  I remember everything.  Or at least the non-important things … like to check the stove twice before I leave the house (the number thing isn’t totally gone, I guess).  But that is the real bitch of the disorder.  People who have OCD realize it makes no logical sense.  I know that most people don’t think about germs all the time and they live happy and productive lives.  There are people who are afraid to write anything down because they might write something ‘bad’ in the middle of what they are writing.  When I had to turn the lights on and off sixteen times before bed, I knew it was ridiculous, but by performing the compulsion, it eased the pain of the obsession.  It is a weird position to be in.  You know what you are doing is ridiculous, but the ridiculous action (whatever it is) scratches the itch that will otherwise keep you up all night.
          
OCD is related to Tourettes and this makes perfect sense to me.  Screaming profanities in public is frowned upon.  Being so worried about doing it that you end up doing it makes sense.  My wife laughs when people hurt themselves.  My friend Kyle laughs at funerals.  They are both extraordinarily nice people, but they KNOW they shouldn’t laugh.  They want to not laugh so badly that they end up doing it.  I get it. 
          
I think a lot of people have minor OCD tendencies and don’t realize it.  When my wife and I started dating I would come over to her apartment, take my shoes off by the door, and go upstairs.  When it was time to leave, they would be neatly lined up next to each other.  No big deal.  I am not one to judge.  So, the next time I lined my shoes up neatly.  It took a couple times for me to realize that when I left them reversed (right shoe on the left side), they would be ‘corrected’ when I left.  I asked about it.  Turns out my wife can’t see shoes like that and not imagine mangled limbs.  I get it.
          
One of the nice things about having OCD is that I don’t judge other people for their ‘quirks’.  Everybody has something.  I know a lot of writers and a lot of them carry hand sanitizer everywhere they go.  It makes perfect sense.  In a world that is scary (OCD is the fight or flight response gone haywire) what better way to deal with your OCD issues than by retreating to a world where you can control everything and your mind is 100% occupied by the task at hand?  This post ended up a little longer than I had planned.  It is time to go back to the real, dirty world now.  But writing will always be waiting for me.  And that knowledge gives me more strength than booze or Paxil ever did.

You can find my books HERE. And my fiction blog HERE.

20 comments:

  1. This is amazing - so sincere and authentic. So simple in its lesson. (Yes, there is one. I learned.)
    If we see the quirks in others, we can live with their 'annoying' habits, and realize we must be annoying to live with too - even occasionally, to the ones who love us to pieces.
    We are all blessed with something we can only marginally control, and to those of us to whom control is vital, it's nice to know we are not alone.
    I understand why it can seem dangerous to allow shoes to stray.

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  2. Great stuff, Dan. By writing it, by putting it "out there" it becomes palpable, understandable. Revisable.

    As you wrote it, we all got something, and writing can be the way to either become aware of it, to work it over, to accept it, and somehow bring it into a state that eases our minds.

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  3. Thank you Roseanne and Leonardo. Your comments are much appreciated. And yes, writers are all a little crazy, I believe. Why else would we expose so much for so little. ;)

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  4. This is such an honest description of what you have experienced with OCD. I commend you for sharing it so others can understand a little about how it affects people.

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  5. Thanks Diane! I'm glad it is resonating.

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  6. Dan, great post. You're right, we all have our quirks. And as a musician, I'm a bit compulsive myself. Probably as a result of playing thousands? of performances, I count sounds and beats. Can't help it. Thus, certain sounds drive me totally insane, like the beep-beep when trucks back up. But I take heart, and you might too, in knowing that the incredibly talented musician with the genius IQ, Oscar Levant, was OCD and wrote about it in one of his 3 books: let's see if I remember the titles: Memoirs of an Amnesiac, The Unimportance of Being Oscar, and, um, can't remember the other one.

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  7. Thanks Susan! 'Can't remember'...ah, the agony. I had a "great" idea (who knows?) writing wise last night and wrote it into my phone. Promptly erased it when I woke up (unintentionally). It was probably garbage, but I will always be convinced it was the ONE. I hate when that happens. ;)

    The internet has made it so much easier for easing the pain on the tip of the tongue! Doesn't access my brain though.

    Leaf blowers. I HATE the sound of leaf blowers. ;)

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  8. My gawd, I'm glad you tweeted out the link to this post again. Dan, you are not weird or odd but thank goodness you are you profoundly, uniquely you! This is an amazing post.

    You are the second very smart fellow that I've known in my lifetime who said "Everybody has got something". I gasped when I read that in this. Everybody does indeed and it's the key to understanding much of the world I think.

    Thanking you for sharing this. Sending you many virtual germ free hugs.
    Jo

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  9. You'll be relieved to know I washed my hands twice before typing this and I plan to wash them after I finish typing this. Just because someone doesn't have OCD doesn't mean they want to get the flu (or smallpox, anthrax, the list goes on.) You can't put a label on happiness, its not for sale. The best things in life are truly free. Like this article. I am happier for having read it. I'm happier knowing you are writing. If that meant you had to spin around three times and toss a handful of salt over your shoulder before the start of each story, so be it. So long as you are writing, I'll be happily reading, washing my hands, and commenting.

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    1. Ha! Thanks brother. Truly appreciated.

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  10. "Everybody has something." A line I use a lot is "Everyone has a story". By that, I mean that we all have things others' don't know, stories that make us who we are and cause us to behave in particular, usually unflattering, ways. None of us is free from that. When I came to realise it, it made me a much more accepting person. Now when I see someone behaving in a way that doesn't appeal to my sense of 'right' or 'good' I know there is 'a story' behind that behaviour.

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    1. You're absolutely right. Historically, I have judged others (and myself) in ways that were warranted only by my lack of understanding. It is still we all need to be reminded of. Thanks, Yvonne. I try to walk a mile in everyone's shoes now, including my own. ;)

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  11. I have CDO. It's kind of like OCD, but it's in alphabetical order, THE WAY IT SHOULD BE.

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    1. That actually made me laugh all alone in an empty apartment. ;)

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    2. Mission accomplished. ;)

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    3. That actually made me laugh out loud in a crowded downtown library. I'd feel stupid if 90% of the people around me weren't schizophrenics just trying to find a warm dry spot to communicate with the voices in their heads. Like they worry about being OCD...

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    4. It makes me laugh every time I see it. :)

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  12. Great post JD. I know I have my something's. Whatever you have, you're hell of a writer.

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