Book Review: The Man Who Couldn’t Stop by David Adam

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.

Spring is coming! So we headed out to Wombat Bend park

Overjoyed at our first sunny, warm(ish) Saturday in what feels like yonks, the kid and I headed out to her beloved Wombat Bend park on the weekend. One of my favourite things about where we live is how there are parks pretty much around every other corner. We have four within easy walking distance, and another three that we drive to pretty regularly, but Wombat Bend is by far her favourite. That’s high praise given the stiff competition.

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Until I thought about it, I hadn’t realised that it had literally been several months since we went to a park. Winter can do that to you – make you want to stay indoors and forget that going outside to play for hours was ever an option.

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We came across this awesome new nature play space where you could build your own cubby house, and check out this beautiful specimen that I obviously didn’t build. I looked at all the twigs, branches and natural materials helpfully strewn around, and try as I might, couldn’t even figure out where to start. It was a little sad, really.

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The other thing we really enjoy, besides Wombat Bend itself, is the Main Yarra Trail that runs kind of along the Yarra River, a little way from the play space. I love water, and that river is the second best thing to a beach. The trail is also great for walks/runs, bikes and spotting wild rabbits – probably one of the few “sporty” things my kid actually asks to do, if it can be considered thus.

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I’m so happy that the kid enjoys nature because I’m pretty outdoorsy myself, and I harbour not-so-secret hopes that we will one day be able to hike trails and go on long bike rides together. Also, in case you’re wondering, we did see rabbits – two of them!

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I need to do better

It hit me the other night. While I was reading one of those parenting/mummy blog articles or some such. I can’t find the article now, but it was essentially about how we should treasure each moment with our kids because we never know when it’ll be the last time we… (insert mundane task here). In this particular case, it was washing her daughter’s hair.

That struck a chord. It was probably 9pm. It’s amazing how open and calm and full-of-good-intentions I am when the kid is fast asleep and the house is completely QUIET AND PEACEFUL. If I were half as good a parent when my child is asleep as when she is awake, I’d be kicking motherhood’s ass.

This isn’t a novel concept of course. Neither is it anything I didn’t already know in my head. But in my heart? In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, during moments when I can’t wait to tuck the kid into bed because she’d been whinging since we walked in the door after school? Not so much.

I need to do better.

Again, not a new idea. I’ve been thinking this exact phrase for months now. And the article was a good reminder for someone who regularly expresses her wonder and amazement at how fast time goes. We’re already halfway through the third term of school pretty much, which means it won’t be long before we hit term four, and then school holidays, AND THEN MY DAUGHTER WILL BE IN GRADE 1.

I can’t slow down time, but I can make the effort to be more present. It’s kind of morbid, I know, but imagine if you died tonight. I did. And the only thing I kept thinking was: I want to be there with/for my kid as she grows up. Not: I should have worked more, or done more writing, or watched more TV, or even travelled more.

As a single mum, I cut myself a lot of slack. I don’t push myself to take on too much, I understand what’s important to me right now, but I also think there are times when I could choose not to let the kid watch another hour of cartoons on the iPad. The great thing about parenting a 5yo is that every day is a new day. The kid is quick to forgive when I mess up, but it won’t be like that forever. She’s eager to hang out and loves to chat – sometimes I even get to choose the topic – and I can only hope and pray that this will last.

Telling myself that I need to do better is not me being judgy or comparing myself to other mums. It’s not me saying I want to be the best mum in the world because I’ll be honest and say I’m really not competitive enough to give a shit about that. It’s about me wanting to give this motherhood thing my best shot (and never give up), because that’s what I tell my kid all the time, and what would I be if I didn’t follow my own advice, right?

This, too, shall pass

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Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine I’ll ever come out of whatever funk I’m in. Logic dictates that I will, of course, that time will heal everything, but that light at the end of the tunnel can be a lot harder to see than people would have you believe. Or perhaps I’m just looking in the wrong direction – backwards instead of forwards, down instead of up. Or maybe my eyes are closed because I’m so focused on myself that I’m not even looking for the light.

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget how quickly our lives can change. All it takes is a minute, an hour, a day, a week. It’s getting harder to keep track of time these days. And before I know it, a switch flips and the weight that bore down is gone. I test my heart to be sure – no, truly it has lifted. How odd. In the same way, a world that had seemed so perfect just moments before could crumble in an instant, and I am often left wondering if it had been a dream. All it takes is something, or someone.

This, too, shall pass. It is often used to refer to darkness; comforting words to encourage a wounded soul. But really, the saying should work both ways – bad and good. Because life is made up of seasons and nothing lasts forever. Remember?

Knowing that I can’t have it all, and being totally okay with it

The more I read about successful people, the more I realise that you cannot have work/life balance if you want to be extraordinary. You can have work/life balance and be comfortable, content, affluent even, but to be extraordinary? To be vastly more successful than the average worker bee on the street? There just aren’t enough hours in a day. You don’t become super successful by working the same hours as everyone else. And if you’re not willing to put in the extra hours, well, there are plenty of people out there who are.

To become very successful at anything requires dedication and hard work (read: long hours spent on that thing you do, whatever it is). For some people that might mean sacrificing family time, for others it might mean forgoing sleep, exercise and their social life. The bottom line is sacrifices have to be made, which brings me to my other realisation: I cannot have it all.

I once asked Kimora Lee Simmons what she would say to women who want to “have it all”. Her answer was essentially: yes, she appears to “have it all” but she doesn’t sleep much and she doesn’t hang out with her friends a whole lot, because her waking moments are devoted to her kids and her partner and her fashion line and her reality TV show and… In other words, she doesn’t have a lot of time to rest or have fun. Christina Soong of The Hungry Australian put it another way: you can have it all, just not all at once. Which makes sense. Because again, there just aren’t enough hours in a day.

As a writer who works from home, I have what many mums would call an ideal arrangement. I’m able to earn an income while still being a pseudo full-time mum to the 5yo. I do school drop offs and pick ups, shuttling to gymnastics and swimming, and even parent helper duty once a week. I’m available for special events and occasions at school, and I’m also available for special events and occasions with my mostly stay-at-home-mum girlfriends. Do I love it? Absolutely, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But as a former entertainment journo, to say that I’m focused on my career at this point would be a gross exaggeration.

Penelope Trunk, whom I love and frequently link to, recently wrote about giving up her career for her kids. Early this year, I had a conversation with a girlfriend about pursuing a career in media, and we agreed that we just didn’t want it badly enough. I know I’m not willing to sacrifice being here for the kid, and if I’m being completely honest, I’m not sure I want to give up sleep, exercise and my vibrant social life that, most days, only takes place between the hours of 9 and 6. That’s 9am and 6pm in case you’re wondering, not the other way around.

I’m immensely grateful for all that I have and for this season in my life, but I am neither successful in my career nor do I have it all. Even better, I don’t care to pretend that I am, I do or I want to be. Like all seasons, this will pass and there will come a time when I might make a different choice or even do something else, but for now, this is totally okay by me. And it’s totally okay to say that.

Back to where it all started

This wouldn’t be the first time I’m saying this, but I’m going to get into the discipline of blogging regularly again. Or, to use a term I prefer, writing. After all, that’s what this is to me. I’ve been writing ever since I was six years old. I still remember the first piece of any significance that I wrote – my first “essay”, if you will. It was about the different members of my family, starting with myself on the day I was born.

I started blogging in 2003, so, as you can imagine, I’ve accumulated a fair amount of thoughts and ramblings over the years. Things went a little quiet while I was working as an entertainment journo, because when you spend all your work hours writing non-stop, the last thing you want to do when you get home is write some more. And believe me, I did a lot of writing between the hours of nine to whatever-it-took-to-finish-what-we-had-to.

I don’t have that excuse anymore. Yes, I still write for a living, but I’m nowhere near as prolific as I used to be. My website – I can’t even justify calling it a blog – is the quietest it’s ever been, because life I suppose. Only now I want to start writing again. Not so much for an audience as it is for me. And perhaps knowing that hardly anyone visits this space anymore will release me from the shackles of self-consciousness.

So here we go, my (renewed) attempt to write regularly – even when it’s utter rubbish. To go back to where it all started, how it all started. Ask any good author and they will tell you that you just have to sit down and write. It doesn’t have to be the much bandied about 1,000 words a day but having a number in mind apparently helps. I wouldn’t know; never tried it. Some days it will be nonsense, but once in a while, you just might strike gold. The point is to keep doing it, even when you think you have nothing to say.

(The photo above was taken on a quiet Saturday afternoon at a local park. I love being outdoors and taking pictures of the sky and trees. When I look up to the heavens, it reminds me of how small yet significant I am. When I’m in nature, I’m reminded to breathe and behold the big picture. In a world where it’s so easy to get simultaneously self-absorbed and lost in the numbers, that’s important.)

Once in a blue moon

(Photo: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz)

Of course I would forget my phone on the night we had the school family disco and a blue moon. It was stunning. The moon, I mean. Everyone was talking about it the next day. Though the disco was pretty awesome too. Really well organised, lots of fun, I even busted a move or two in the semi-darkness of strobe lights and smoke machines. (Yeah, imagine that.)

I wasn’t too keen right up till the eleventh hour, but I’m glad the kid convinced me to drag our tired asses there. We both ended up having a great time, and it was a good chance to hang a little bit with some of the other parents. Plus we wouldn’t have seen the blue moon otherwise.

Aspiring to minimalist living, or my version of it

While hardly a true minimalist, I do love having as few possessions as possible. Either it appeals to the OCD side of me, knowing that everything is “in order” and “sorted”, or I really don’t care all that much about material stuff. Maybe it’s a bit of both. In any case, this article inspired me so much that I went through my entire house one weekend in an effort to declutter. I came away with half a recycle bin full of paper, mostly my 5yo’s artwork from the past year, a bag of trash and three bags of stuff to donate to the Salvo’s.

As I unceremoniously dumped a bag of the kid’s kinder artwork into the recycle bin, I remembered this quote from the article about memories not being in things. So true – mine are mostly in my head and hard drive, and besides, I honestly don’t think I’ll miss that stuff.

I read an interview with Will Smith in Esquire about how his son Jaden only has one pair of shoes, three pairs of pants and five shirts. A part of me wonders if it’s really true, but I admire the aspiration behind it all the same. Disclaimer: I love Will Smith, I think he’s all round one of the coolest people on the planet.

I know I will never be able to survive on just 100 items or whatever it is that minimalists do, but this is my version of living a minimalist life and I’m trying my best dammit. Also, I suspect most minimalists are not raising a 5yo in their super compact and trendy abodes.

The most important thing I’ve learned about priorities

“Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option,” said the very wise Maya Angelou.

This has probably been one of the most important lessons I’ve had to learn over the past couple of years. I imagine most people already know this, instinctively if not in so many words. But I’m loyal by nature – perhaps too much so – and it’s taken me far longer than it should have to realise this.

My loyalty means I will continue to make someone a priority because of what we experienced together once upon a time. It means I will remember the good times, and, on the basis of what was once good, defend someone who is no longer worth defending. It means I will keep on trying, even when it is apparent that the other person is not.

It meant… My loyalty meant… Because I can only hope that I’ve learned my lesson.

What I got for Mother’s Day this year

My Mother’s Day gift from the kid. It’s a definite step up from the tangled mess of a bead necklace she made in kinder, which I actually wore on several occasions. Her joy when I did was worth it. Besides, fashion was never my forte anyway.

I’m proud to say that my 5yo has shown far more aptitude for fashion than I ever did in the first 20 years of my life combined. Apparently, fashion sense and an interest in dressing-up aren’t inherited (I could blame it all on the likes of advertising and peer pressure but I don’t think they are wholly responsible). Neither, it seems, is girliness and an affinity for Barbie dolls, princesses and sparkly things, because, well, look at me.

She picked this bracelet because it’s blue, and blue has become her favourite colour ever since Frozen invaded our lives. It’s a wonderful change from pink, I must say. And yes, I wear it all the time.

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