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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder


My mother. And all her siblings. My cousins. Myself. And as it is slowly turning out, my younger sister. We are all obsessive compulsives.

While it is usually the stuff which makes of good jokes and a lot of teasing, there is something very serious about being an obsessive compulsive. Take away the odd rituals, the unbreakable rule of order, the necessity of being on time, all the double-checking (Did I lock the car?) and the hand gels, it is a disorder of the brain, that is, a psychological dysfunction. Just ask my doctor.

Knowing full well the symptoms of such a disorder, I diagnosed myself as being an obsessive compulsive and got the doctor's "second opinion." While it is highly irregular for a patient to do his own diagnosis, I did so because I recently found out that since it is a disorder, it then has the appropriate medication--not to completely do away with it, but as with other psychological problems, to manage it or handle it better. A cure for this devil in a blue dress? Sure, I'd gladly sign myself up for any medication that could help without second thought. That would be like having a three inch nail taken off my back.

But I learned something new from my doctor. That all these abnormal idiosyncrasies of making everything straight, writing everything down on endless index cards, counting how many times I remember someone who hurt me in the past, my love for details ("the devil is in the details"), and making long lists, all these, are mere symptoms of what really is the problem of obsessive compulsion. And as I found out, it hit the nail on the head.

To "obsess" originally came from the Latin "obsessus" which means "to besiege." Obsidere then meant "besiege, occupy" or literally to "sit" (sedere) "against" (ob) something, that is, an evil spirit. It is to be "haunted" much like "possession" which means being invaded by a spirit. Thus to obsess initially and for the most part does not merely describe the unusual persistence of a mind or person to set everything in order according to his pleasure and liking; it primordially means being affected or afflicted with an onslaught of thoughts, being overwhelmed by them, and thus spurring one to act in a manifestation of that overcoming of the mind. In short, to obsess about something is a form of gentle madness.

Gentle, that is, if you could keep it in check and redirect it for your benefit. It is no secret that obsessive compulsives are usually successful in their work. They can be relied on in their tasks; are very resourceful; are neat freaks, clear, precise, skilled and very responsible; in other words, the kind of people who, if they want something to be done right, do it themselves. I see how it can be useful in the academe, especially in the sciences; in business and economics; in running a household or even a country. Perhaps we owe a lot more to the greatness of people because of their having this disorder than we do acknowledge. It is this positive or productive aspect of obsessive compulsive disorder which usually more than makes up for the little eccentricities that people who have it may display.

But what they do not tell you--and I have learned this from them and of myself--is that behind the appearances of smooth order and technical adaptivity is a mind which is always in kinetic movement, that is, a mind without rest. Greatness does not come without hard work; and for these people, the hard work is all done with the mind which never ceases computing, forecasting, analyzing, imagining, and thinking. Notice an obsessive compulsive who seems to be doing nothing. But when you look closer, his eyes pierce through the walls as he is lost in thought. His legs are restless and that constant motion is like the engine of an automobile idling away energy and thoughts. His fingers are moving, as if they are computing or writing something on air. He seems to be a man resting but in reality he is under another siege which may last so long as to give him another sleepless night.

The problem with this disorder, as with other mental dysfunctions, is that it takes a developed or heightened level of reflexivity on your part in order to tame it. It is difficult to think against thinking; to counter thought with thought is to fall into its very hands. How do you stop your mind and its thinking when even deciding to think against it, to stop it, could also turn out to be an obsession? You can't, as my doctor said, but you can manage it no longer by thinking against it but by distracting your mind, that is, fooling it and giving it a real break or vacation from its siege of thoughts.

This I learned through the hard way--through practice and trial and error. Since all thinking is a thinking about something, the way to give the mind a break is to make it focus on something which it does not have to labor thinking about. What do I mean? It is to distract it by letting it focus on something other than its own thoughts. In other words, to let it join the outer world and its people, places, and activities.

The easiest form of healthy distraction for me is watching television. Since the television set requires my eyes and ears to focus and listen, my mind follows suit in trying to understand what I am watching. What you watch matters little to the fact that watching itself leads the mind out of its own domain of thoughts. It may be a local noontime variety show, a DVD of The Office, a movie or a documentary. The point is to let the mind wander elsewhere, hopefully, into something which makes it lighter and there is no better way for that than to watch comedy.

If that does not work for me, I then go out. Since I am no exercise freak and I don't like the idea of sweating if I decide to go for a measly walk, I prefer losing myself in the crowds of a mall or skimming through books in a bookstore. The whole bodily sensation of climate, seeing other people, smelling different perfumes or body odor, reading signs, names, books, etc., all help me lose myself in my self and just absorb the environment. Outside, something will always catch your gaze and therewith your attention. This makes an easy way out of your own mind.

But if going out would prove difficult, I then move on to the next possible step: doing something mindless with my hands. I wrap my books in plastic cover all afternoon long. I play NBA Live on my XBOX360. I sketch. I do something for the office. I edit my photographs on the computer. I clean my closet or fix my study. I organize my files. Anything to keep the hands busy and anything which does not require concentration. We have, according to Heidegger, calculative reason and meditative reason. When the latter already kills me, I switch to the former to balance it or to counter it. They are truly different from each other and since I am adapt with both, if one fails me, I can still remain productive with the other.

Lastly, when all else fails, I look for company: family, loved ones and friends.

The "trick," if you wish, of getting the better of obsessive compulsive disorder is knowing when to use it like a weapon or surrender it like a sword. The essence of the dis-order is that we try to force or will an idea of order upon a world which is fragmented and bifurcated. And it is this tension between a mind which seeks order and a world which does not give any which frustrates the obsessive compulsive mind to the point of being under the siege of thoughts and emotions which only lead it further down despair. We need to accept that our mind is no match for the world. Sometimes we are asked to fight and impose our way; but more often than not we are also asked to calmly surrender.

The Stoics called that calm surrender ataraxia or detachment. It means peace of mind.



  1. so that explains my countless bouts of insomnia. hehe (= a secret yet to keep? (;

    yeah, "what you focus on grows." if you say, "i will not be obsessive compulsive anymore" or "i won't think of my OCD," you're actually thinking of your disorder. rechanelling is indeed the key...

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  4. Debera5/12/2012

    Thank you for sharing your story. It is always helpful to hear other people's stories because I feel like I am not alone. I wanted to share with you a great website,, that offers advice about dealing with OCD.


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