It drives me crazy when people say things like, “I got all OCD about filling out that form” when what they mean is, “I was more thorough/punctilious/neat than necessary when filling out that form.” Obsessive-compulsive disorder is something quite different. When you have OCD, your mind is filled with intrusive, irrational thoughts often so forceful and terrifying as to render you incapable of concentrating on anything else, and you end up performing rituals with the intent of warding off whatever those thoughts make you afraid of. One of the most common obsessions, for example, is a fear that everything around you is contaminated. This is often paired with a compulsion to wash your hands. People in whom this compulsion is particularly strong can wash their hands until they bleed, and keep on washing. Often people with OCD have more than one obsession and/or compulsion; why just wash your hands when you can wash your hands and have to tap your doorknob with each finger of each hand when leaving or entering your apartment?
I speak, of course, from personal experience; my OCD, while not crippling, has shaped my life in any number of ways, some seriously problematic, others simply annoying. One of my more benign compulsions is displayed to most amusing effect at the water fountain at the gym, where I have to take sips in sets of four or go mad with discomfort. The ideal grouping is four sets of nine sips of water, but usually there are others waiting to drink whom I do not wish to anger, so it doesn’t often work out that way. Most of the time I end up taking four sets of five sips, which is satisfying enough to quiet the urge and yet quick enough not to draw the ire of those behind me in line. If there’s an urgent need for brevity I can take sets of three sips, but if I went down to two I’d have to take four sets of four sets of two sips, and that would be ridiculous.
I was telling E.S. about all this the other day as we waited for the subway. He was fascinated, unsurprising given that he is a psychiatrist-in-training.
“So you usually take 20 sips of water, right?” he asked.
“Yes, exactly.” I said.
“Four sets of five sips?”
“Right,” I said.
He paused. “Well, couldn’t it be five sets of four sips?”
It was the meanest thing he’d ever said to me and I almost pushed him in front of the oncoming train.