Friday, September 23, 2011

No Room for OCD

We pass through the South Bronx on our way from Boston to Manhattan. My cell phone rings. (At this point we still call cell phones and we use them for talking.) Rene calmly tells me that Joy has been admitted to the Psych Ward at Morristown Hospital. I think WTF and ask, “why?”

Rene explains that Joy experienced a sense that she might experience a suicidal thought. She didn't actually experience the thought of suicide, just the thought that she might experience the thought of suicide. It scared her so much that she insisted on being admitted into a psychiatric facility.

I'm still thinking WTF, but instead ask, “Is she OK?”

Joy's fine. She just got this thought in her head and OCD'd herself into a total panic. She'll be spending seven days in the psych ward.

We talk some more. I explain that I'll leave the conference right after my presentation in the morning and be home in the afternoon.

As we drive on, I try to remember at what age I started scaring myself with the thought of suicidal thoughts. Was it 15? Maybe 16? Joy's 17; seems about right. I think, "Well, this is good. It will give Joy a better perspective on how sane she is."

One of the things that my daughter Joy and I share is what today would be called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). When I was a kid, they just called it, "being annoying". I would worry and I was good at it. I could turn any silver lining into a dark cloud. I'd watch Marcus Welby, MD and know that I had the fatal or debilitating illness portrayed on the show. Overhearing an urban myth was pure torture. My mind brought it to life creating a logic that not only supported its existence, but its existence in my house.

I did a lot of your standard OCD stuff (e.g., washing my hands until they were raw) and some less standard stuff. After going with my grandmother to a Sunday School class at the Southern Baptist church in Chesnee, South Carolina, I couldn't stop thinking about hell and taking measures to ensure that I was indeed "saved". My concern extended to my brother and my parents. I'd badger my mom with what-if's and but-then's. This led to a more general concern about eternity and infinity. I would lie awake at night trying to grok infinity. I was five.

I'm pretty sure that I was the only fifth grader at Whittier Elementary school who was certain he had a venereal desease. I couldn't tell you which one or how I'd got it, but once they described it in health class, it sounded so awful that all I could do was to think about how not to get it and how I might have missed something.

The poor adults who would try to console me were out of their depths. First of all, by the time I was seven I knew that adults would say pretty much anything to get you to do what they wanted. Second (as is probably the case with any seven year-old) I was way more creative than any of the adults who earnestly tried to satisfy my concerns. No matter how thoroughly someone explained the unlikelihood of my concerns coming to fruition, I could explain ways that they could.

In high school, I started to wonder about reality. How do you know that all this isn't just a dream. What if I'm totally alone and all the people in my life are just a fabrication? I scared the crap out myself.

The problem wasn't that I'd think about it; the problem was how I think about things. I emerse myself into the process and experience it. It's not an objective, arm's-length experience; it's something direct and real.

Slowly I learned not to share my concerns with others. I would keep it inside and mull. I mulled and mulled and mulled.

Over the years I learned to manage my OCD and eventually to transform obsession into empowerment. Joy hadn't learned that yet.

I sit with Joy at a small table in the Psych Ward. She's cheery and seems to have forgotten about the whole suicidal tendencies thing. She talks about all the interesting people she's met, what their challenges are and how they deal with them. She's fascinated and genuinely interested in each of her newfound friends.

She's fine.

As I listen to Joy talk, it occurs to me that her bought with OCD is a result of boredom. Joy's intense. She's creative. She's imaginative. She has what some might call an "overly-active mind". In the absence of raw materials to process, she manufacturers them from stray thoughts. The thoughts get rolled into themes, the themes into obsessions. However, when her mind is fully occupied, there's no room for obsession.

I tell Joy, "Hey, I've got to go to asia next week: Hong Kong, Soul and Tokyo. Why don't you come with me?"

Joy looks at me to see if I'm kidding or not, and then wide-eyed says, "Sure! What about school?"

"Don't worry about it, I'm sure we can work that out."

The trip to asia is another story. One thing to be said is that there was no time or space for OCD.

Over the years, each of us has learned different ways of managing obsessiveness. For me, it's become a form of empowerment. I can lock onto concepts and tasks with such tenacity that nothing can shake them from me. Put a microphone into Joy's hand, and you'll see all that imagination channeled into song. One night at the House of Blues in Cambridge, Joy won a battle of the bands. This may not seem noteworthy except that she won a battle of bands singing solo, a capela: just her and a microphone.

As kids, we often discover capabilities that overwhelm us. They're so powerful and unwieldy that we see them as forms of dysfunction. Perhaps, that's not the case. Perhaps any number of things that we see as dysfunctional (e.g., OCD, ADHD, autism, dyslexia) are simply capabilities that are difficult to harness and manage?

Happy Friday,


  1. What an insightful, beautifully written piece. We missed you last night ... hope you're on the mend soon! Sending lots of love, Jenny

  2. Thank you, QuinnMama!

    I'm on the mend and feeling soooo... much better. I even got calls today from people who read your comment, realized that I'd missed writing group, and were therefore concerned about just how sick I was.

    I've been thinking more about what I wrote this morning and began wondering whether or not the so-called dysfunctions were in fact super-function, functions so powerful that they overwhelm the gifted one.

    What if...


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