Sometimes you’ll hear people talk about OCD like they have it. “That’s just my OCD,” they’ll say with a smile, as they do something they think is weirdly controlling or overly fastidious. The thing is, all of us at times do things that might look or feel like OCD, but that does not mean we all “have OCD.” The real thing is, after all, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: it’s more than just occasional compulsive doings.
People with actual OCD experience obsessive thoughts — repetitive or unusual or unpleasant thoughts that cannot easily be turned off — which they self-treat with compulsive behaviors. The behaviors constitute a precise regimen of things that “must be done” in order for the person to feel at ease. In other words, one way the internal chaos of the unwanted thoughts can be regulated is with the meticulous maintenance of an external order. A sense of soothing order can be achieved in various ways, perhaps through a pristine environment, an unshakable routine, or rituals complex enough to preoccupy the mind. Generally, the object of these compulsive behaviors is to ensure that everything is the way it is “supposed to be.” If and when that carefully achieved external order breaks down, for whatever reason, the resulting messiness can cause anxiety.
Psychologists — which, to be clear, I am not; I only taught high school-level psych — will tell you that everyone’s mental health is on a continuum that changes over time and with different circumstances. At one time or another, and to one degree or another, everyone will exhibit tendencies we associate with “disorders.” That is why people who begin to study psychological disorders often suddenly feel like they have ’em all! They hear about a mental dysfunction and think to themselves, “Oh, my God. That sounds like me. Does that mean I have __________?” Yes, it does sound like you, a little bit or a lot (because it sounds like all of us), but, no, chances are you don’t have that disorder.
Let’s take anxiety as an example. How much anxiety is “normal”? In some circumstances anxiety is perfectly normal, in others not. It would be natural to feel anxious if you stumbled in the middle of the crosswalk on a busy street, but perhaps not if you were still simply standing on the sidewalk waiting for the signal. Crossing the street with some level of vigilance is appropriate to the situation, while feeling so worried that you don’t want to cross at all would probably not be. So, when negative feelings occur at inappropriate times or at inappropriate levels, especially to the detriment of getting on with life, that might begin to be be a sign of “disorder.”
Psychologists have worked hard to put together guidelines about all of this. To qualify clinically as a disorder, a pattern of thought or behavior must meet some combination of the following criteria:¹
- The behavior is unusual or “statistically infrequent.”
- The behavior suggests a faulty perception of reality.
- The behavior suggests severe personal distress, rather than just a typical bout of sadness or anger or anxiety.
- The behavior violates social norms.
- The behavior results in failure to function adequately.
- The behavior is actually dangerous.
In essence, if a person’s behavior is really unusual (no value judgment implied); if it makes other people uncomfortable; if it keeps the person from doing what he needs to do in life; if it is severely distressing or likely to cause personal harm; or, above all, if some multiple combination of those factors holds true — then maybe that person really has a disorder. If those conditions do not apply, or if only one of them applies some of the time, for instance, then whatever the person is doing can pretty much just be considered either a temporary state of being or part of the person’s fundamental personality. If you really want to boil it down, it is almost this simple: no matter how “weird” a behavior might be, if it’s not a problem, then it’s probably not a disorder. (At the very least, there’s not much to be gained from calling it a “disorder.”)
With all of that in mind, I do not believe that I suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. And yet, on the continuum of possible levels of concern with correctness and organization and the general quelling of chaos, I am pretty far over there. For one thing, I do have obsessive thoughts sometimes. It is not unusual for an embarrassing or unpleasant memory to resurface without rhyme or reason and make me groan aloud. My wife might ask with concern, “What’s wrong?” Nothing… now. I might be cringing at something stupid I did thirty years ago. (How about the time on a little weekend getaway to the North Coast when, after much searching, my wife and I had finally located a restaurant and I, growing suddenly suspicious of something about the setup of the place — it really wasn’t the typical restaurant, I swear — literally stopped the person who had menus in hand and was about to take us to a table and asked, “Now, wait a minute: this is a restaurant, right?”) Although we laugh about it, I’d probably be better off not dwelling on that silly moment (and other less laughable ones) ever again — but the water under my bridge just seems to flow back uphill and keep coming around for another pass.
Another thing that happens to me is that weird — I think they’re weird? — sometimes violent daydreams will enter my head at random times. (How would you react to a gunman clambering down the ironwork of the Bay Bridge as you and thousands of others sat helpless in stopped traffic? I’ve been through it in my head.) It is obsessive thoughts such as these that I self-treat with some compulsive behaviors, many of which find expression through my hobby.
The hobbies were never a conscious attempt to impose control on what felt like a chaotic existence, but I have come to see that that is in fact what they do. The process of making all the models and painting all the tiny figures, not to mention lining them up, putting them in dioramas and photographing them, definitely occupies my attention, which prevents the “weird” thoughts from finding room for expression. Consider, for example, the patience and focus it must have required to produce and present this set of Napoleonic soldiers:
For me, it is ever so soothing and satisfying to put something like this little diorama together. (Or this blog, for that matter…)
In my miniatures I’ve found a way to satisfy my need for control and order, but what if I did have clinical OCD and wanted to treat it for real? Generally speaking, the goal with behavioral disorders is not to “cure” them but rather to “manage” them and bring their impact on a person’s life down to an acceptable level. There are definitely therapies that can help. This page on Psychology Today‘s website offers a great overview of treatments, as well as links to much more information on OCD in general.
Of course, if you really want to put your old ways to the test, expand your horizons and adjust the behavioral expectations you have developed for yourself, getting married and having young children in the house may well do the trick. The family is a great teacher. When something you do isn’t working, you’ll know. And if you want yourself and everyone else to be reasonably content, you’ll need to find a balanced way to adjust. For me there is no stronger motivation.
Doing my hobbies is not as simple as it used to be, but ultimately I don’t want to be as much of a control freak as I would have to be to maintain the sanctity of my little hobby universe. As a husband and a parent, I have had to let go of the need to control everything. So, I do some of the things I like when I can, and when I can’t have it just the way I would want it, I’m learning to take a deep breath and appreciate what really matters. (Oh, and I’ll give you a clue: it turns out it’s not getting the soldiers to stand in a perfectly straight line…)
¹Rathus, Spencer A. “Psychological Disorders.” Psychology: Concepts and Connections. 9th ed. Belmont: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2005. Print.