Organizing Theory & Artistry

February OCD Recap and Reader Comments

Daily inspection of teeth and finger nails. Older pupils make the inspection under the direction of teacher who records results. This has been done every day this year. School #49, Comanche County. Location: Lawton, Oklahoma. (1917). Photo by Lewis W. Hine. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division."

This month we have been discussing obsessive-compulsive disorder and its relationship to compulsions regarding organization and cleaning. As I indicated at the beginning of the month, I chose this subject because it was something I have not experienced personally and have trouble comprehending. This month’s discussion has corrected a lot of my misconceptions about this condition.

First, in the overview of OCD symptoms, it was a surprise to me to learn that cleaning and organization compulsions are not pleasant to the person who suffers from them. While they may help the person accomplish a lot of work in a short period of time, the person is not doing them out of a sense of pride but rather to alleviate extreme anxiety the person feels. However, I think we can all sympathize with Sal’s comment on this post:

“I wouldn’t mind being OCD about keeping my house clean and organized . . . “

In order to relate to this month’s discussion, I had to think long and hard about myself to find something I do that could be considered a compulsion. Even my husband could not come up with something. Finally, I realized that recycling must be my compulsion. I take extra time to wash out glass bottles, carefully check each plastic bottle for its recycling code, collect and sort white office paper, and junk mail and feel guilty if I accidentally throw something away that could be recycled. It is an automatic reflex for me. For many people, recycling is just a burden and they feel no qualms about tossing stuff in the trash. In part, I am recycling to help the planet but I realized that I am also recycling to alleviate my own anxieties about throwing things away.

I appreciated this great anonymous comment:

“From personal experience, I think we all could be diagnosed with mental illness of one kind or another. . . .”

I also found a wonderful quote somewhere on the web (that alas, I cannot now locate) that indicated that perfectionism is often a sign of OCD. Ultimately, perfectionism is the fear of failure and the perfectionist fears that if they don’t do everything absolutely correctly, something horrible will happen. The same anxiety/compulsion that occurs with OCD often occurs with perfectionism.

I also realized that when you are dealing with someone who has a cleaning or organizing compulsion, it helps to think of the compulsion as a sort of disability rather than assuming the person is judgmental and intolerant. How you decide to react to the person depends on your circumstances. If the individual is your boss or someone else who you need to stay in the good graces of, you probably need to try to accommodate the compulsion to the best of your ability. If the individual is someone you live with on a day-to-day basis, you probably need to consult the person’s therapist to determine whether you should be accommodating the compulsion or working with the person to get over the compulsion.

It was also an interesting coincidence that of the 3 personal stories of OCD we discussed, Howie MandelSammy, and Jared Douglas Kant, all of the affected persons had above-average intelligence. This leads to two possible interpretations to me. Is there a price for genius? i.e. in exchange for the brain specializing in a particular area is the brain less effective in other basic functions? Or is it simply the case that more intelligent people have a natural advantage in coping with mental illness in general? Perhaps we tend to hear more of their stories because the illness does not incapacitate them as it does people with fewer intellectual advantages.

We saw from the profile of Howie Mandel that an OCD diagnosis does not have to limit your potential in life. You can have OCD and still be highly successful. There are at least a few prominent examples in the business world of OCD behavior. We discussed them as well as the trend toward fist bumping as a replacement for the traditional handshake.

We saw in Ruly Ruth’s post that disputes between spouses about cleanliness and organization are relatively common. Perhaps this is the maxim, “Opposites attract” at work.

Finally, as a parent, it was very helpful to know that we shouldn’t consider our children fully developed psychologically until they are approximately 21 years old. During the tumultuous teenage and young adult years, parents should keep in mind that this is also the period when most mental illness appears. If something seems wrong with your child, don’t hesitate to get them evaluated. We know from the stories of Jared Douglas Kant and Sammy that it can take years of treatment to arrive at an effective treatment strategy. The sooner your child begins treatment the sooner your child will understand what is happening and figure out how to cope. Ignoring the problem or hoping the child will grow out of it could be a recipe for years of heartbreak.

On the lighter side this month, in celebration of Valentine’s Day this month, there were also two posts related to friendship and romance. I shared with you my daughter’s valentine project and Andrew Huang shared a great Ruly Mix honoring his wedding anniversary.

I hope this month’s discussion has been enlightening to you. Perhaps you recognized yourself or someone you are close to. If you did recognize yourself, I hope that you keep in mind that while OCD can be beneficial in certain, limited contexts, like cleaning and organizing, it can also go too far. The most damaging aspect of OCD, I believe, is its spreading effect on others. Just because you are personally bothered by something doesn’t mean that others are too and it certainly does not mean that you can expect everyone else to conform to your expectations and make them feel terrible if they don’t. At some point, you have to recognize that occasionally it is someone else’s problem or defect that bothers you but sometimes you are the problem. Likewise, if you identified someone else in your life as being affected by OCD, it is helpful to acknowledge what the problem is and understand that their compulsions can impact you, positively and negatively, as well. There is no perfect solution for OCD and sometimes you are going to have to compromise to meet their compulsions.

Has this month’s discussion changed your thinking in any way? Would you like to revisit this topic in the future? Please share in the comments.

P.S. When I found the above photo from the Library of Congress, I at least breathed a little sigh of relief that we are no longer this obsessive-compulsive in the public school system!