The Man Who Couldn’t Stop by David Adam, a book about “OCD, and the true story of a life lost in thought”, is worth reading if you have an interest in the subject – which I do. I joke about “my OCD” a lot, but I also wonder if my quirks are indeed manifestations of the disorder.
My sister thinks so. I like things in my house to be a certain way, and I often can’t sit down to start a day’s work without first making sure that everything in my house (and my head) is organised and “in order”, as I like to call it. Since she used to lie awake wondering if one of her pencils were pointing a different direction from the others, I guess my sister knows what she’s talking about. These days she has other quirks, but, like me, nothing that really interferes with our daily lives. That’s the benchmark of whether or not we have OCD, isn’t it? Can you be “a little bit OCD”?
The answers to these questions and more are covered in this book, which starts off with a story about a girl who compulsively ate an entire wall in her house. Not all at once, obviously. But even though the book is a personal memoir and eases you in with a bunch of interesting stories, it’s not all anecdotes. Adam also explores in-depth around 10 possible causes of OCD, among them genetic, evolutionary, family, psychological and traumatic, as well as methods of coping and “cures”.
I won’t lie: there were parts of it that put me to sleep every night for almost a week. About halfway in I contemplated giving up, but – here’s the irony of it – my OCD demanded that I finish a book I had already started. (Apologies for what I now realise might be flippant use of the term, it’s the only way I know how to describe it.)
In hindsight that was my chance to nip this urge in the behind; all I had to do was put the book down and return it to the library the next day. But for better or worse, I finished the book. And I learned so much about OCD and mental health and lobotomies and a bunch of other things that I have stored away in a warehouse in my brain marked “general knowledge”.
Don’t read this if you’re already tired, it’s not stay-up-all-night material. What it is, is well-researched, simply written, great work. It wasn’t easy for Adam, who, right up till he wrote the book, hid his OCD from his parents. His reasons for writing this were personal, but also to raise awareness about what OCD really is, and remove the stigma attached to some of the more challenging (but harmless) obsessions that people have.
A few stand-out points that come to mind: his argument that mental health should be viewed not so much in terms of strictly defined categories (as they are now) but perhaps on a spectrum; the reason why it’s so hard to develop drugs to cure mental illness; and the fact that if you’re horrified by your “dangerous” obsessive thoughts, for example to harm children or drive your car into oncoming traffic, it actually means you won’t go through with them because a psychopath would not find thoughts of harming people repugnant at all.
As my sister and I have figured out, one of the ways to deal with OCD is to simply face the “fear” head-on, i.e. not give in to the compulsion. So really I should have stopped reading. But then again if I did, I wouldn’t have understood that you can be a “little bit” OCD and there’s actually an online test that you can take to find out where you stand.