Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing

Even though I'm only reading about a chapter a night, Judith Rapoport's THE BOY WHO COULDN'T STOP WASHING has me enthralled.

It's written by an M.D. with plenty of experience in the field of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders, so even though it's about fifteen years old, the science is solid.

Habits are survival traits. If we didn't wash our hands after going to the toilet, we'd end up back in the days of the plague. But when a habit takes over, it can destroy lives. Where is the line between someone with a sense of order and someone who is controlled by their compulsions?

I used to have my own little rituals back in the days of primary school. Whenever I walked past a doorway, if my right hand brushed the side, I would have to go back and brush the other side with my left hand. After a while, this wasn't enough. Because one hand touched the doorframe first, that seemed uneven as well. My way of compensating was to touch the doorframe with my left hand, then my right. Then left, right, right, left. It's easy to extend this pattern exponentially, out to infinity.

But that still didn't solve it. I could never go back in time and touch both hands on the doorframe simultaneously.

Writing this now, twenty years on, it sounds strange. But I can truthfully say that I never felt a strong compulsion to do it. If I was bored or distracted by something else, I just wouldn't. And after a few months, I forgot all about it.

The people in Judith Rapoport's book have no such luxury.

There are boys who need to wash their hands or pass through doorways or make 'stringing' motions with their fingers for hours on end. A father never gets to work because he keeps driving back down the road to check if he ran someone over. A little girl can't make it to school because no matter how she dresses herself, it feels wrong, and she has to take all her clothes off and start again each time.

As a writer, I feel the need for obsession in my work. I obsess over repetition, redundancy, making sure each paragraph starts off differently, avoiding useless adverbs, keeping my who's, whose, it's and its all in the right spot, the list goes on.

I feel painfully sorry for those that suffer from OCDs. They have done nothing to bring it upon themselves. With the introduction of better drugs and behavioural therapy, they had a chance at improving the quality of their lives fifteen years ago, even more so today, but not all of them.

I'm not sure exactly what drove me to write this post, and I'm not sure what my conclusion or resolution is. All I know is that the subject fascinates me as a writer, a programmer, and as a person.

Even now, I'm obsessing over how to end this post. Why did I write it in the first place?

I guess I just had to.

For further reading, visit OCD Online.


Sandra Ruttan said...

People wash their hands after going to the bathroom?

OCD is an interesting topic. Personally, I have a bit more experience with ODD, having worked with a few kids that were well on their way to psych wards. By comparison, OCD sounds not so bad.

Interestingly, someone asked Mark Billingham on his forum about rituals he had and he talked about buying the same type of notebook when he started each book. Apparently, he's not the only one who does that, which I found interesting.

Daniel Hatadi said...

I haven't heard of ODD before, but after looking it up, it sounds like a combination of OCD and Tourette's. THe human mind is an extraordinary machine.

Being a computer nut, I keep most of my notes in files, but I do have a couple of Moleskin notebooks I carry around for quickies.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yeah, I carry notebooks, because you learn travelling to always carry something to write with (and reporting, for that matter) but I keep my main notes on computer.

Eventually, I want to do something in writing that touches on some of the conditions I've seen people struggle with, but it's very challenging. That child with ODD I worked with put myself in the doctor's office, and I wasn't the only one. But that's what happens when one condition is exacerbated by another.

I know I'm anal about certain things, but I don't think to the point of being OCD. I'm working on eating my M&M's in any order, though, instead of lightest to darkest.

M. G. Tarquini said...

Oliver Sacks (the psychiatrist of Awakenings fame) wrote a book titled, 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat'.

Highly recommended. I often draw on what I learned from it.