The cup in the photo is one of six I recently bought from the reduced shelf in a local discount store. Two of the cups are emblazoned with the word TEA, and four say COFFEE (I drink more tea than coffee, but hey ho).
When I make a drink in this new crockery, I must use a cup that bears the name of the beverage I am about to prepare in it; I can’t make tea in a cup that says ‘coffee’, and vice-versa. If I fancy a cup of tea and there are ‘coffee’ cups in the cupboard, and no clean ‘tea’ cups, I will either wash a cup or make coffee. Yet if someone gives me tea in a coffee cup, I will happily drink it; it is only when I am in control of the situation that I must impose these odd rules.
This irritating episode is a typical example of the obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) that dictates certain areas of my life. Here are some more examples.
I used to live in an apartment block where twenty copies of the local free newspaper were left on a shelf in the lobby for tenants to take. I would never take the top copy, but I’d always pull the second or third newspaper from the pile. I have since moved from that building, but I sometimes buy a newspaper on a Saturday, and when I do, I take a copy from below the top one.
I must put on my right shoe, sock, slipper, flipper or flip flop before the left. If I inadvertently put on a left boot first, and I was merrily lacing it up when I realised my mistake, off it would come.
I avoid chopping or slicing vegetables twelve or thirteen times (twelve slices means thirteen pieces). I had a tin opener that required thirteen turns to open a tin can. I avoided this number by putting in several short turns. The big question here, of course, is why count cuts or turns at all?
I’m no expert, but I think the answer to this may stem from my youth when I worked as a roofers’ labourer. I would go up the ladder 100 or so times a day, often in isolation, as the tiler might be finishing another roof while I prepared the next. For some reason, I started counting the rungs of the ladder in my mind as I went up. This mental counting stayed with me and, I think, branched out into other areas, including food preparation.
This is one area of my OCD where there has been some improvement, however, and I am pleased to report that I have almost completely banished counting from my mind, and I no longer slice my mushrooms in the manner of the Sesame Street vampire.
The challenges facing an OCD sufferer were brought to the fore in the 1997 film, As Good As It Gets, which stars Jack Nicholson as Melvin Udall, a genius writer but awful neighbour. His OCD sees him avoid cracks in the pavement, while simultaneously dodging physical contact with other people. He takes brand new plastic cutlery to his local restaurant every day, where he is rude to staff and customers. At home, he turns every lock and flicks every light switch five times. He washes his hands with a brand new bar of soap, which he bins, and then he washes again with a second new bar, which he also bins.
Although As Good As It Gets is a comedy, the manner in which OCD intrudes into Mr Udall’s everyday life shows that it can be a debilitating affliction that can cause considerably more unpleasantness than the relatively minor inconveniences I endure. Yet, like Tourette’s Syndrome, which many people percieve to be nothing but comical outbursts of profanity, OCD is often viewed as an amusing condition, a sort of eccentricity, rather than a genuine mental health condition. It is certainly no laughing matter.
You may think that the OCD symptoms suffered by Melvin Udall were exaggerated for effect, but this is not so. A look at genuine cases of OCD shows that common traits, such as aversion and repeated actions, are prominent in the lives of many sufferers. One such sufferer was the Serbian/American inventor, Nikola Tesla (1856 -1943).
Here are some similarities between the real Tesla and the fictional Udall:
Medical experts can offer no definitive answer as to what causes OCD, with various schools of thought suggesting genetic, neurological, behavioral, cognitive, environmental, or a combination of any of these factors as the primary cause. As for me, I’ll continue to take a newspaper from below the top copy, I’ll put on my right boot first, and when I compare my own OCD to that of the likes of Tesla and Udall, I’ll count my lucky stars (as long as there aren’t thirteen of them).