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Obsession: productive or pathological

  1. Aug 25, 2005 #1
    I find that what might be called obsessive compulsive disorder applies to my work and other competitive situations. For instance, I labor intensively to the point of being limited to part time workaholism, but with great efficiency and output. I will also edit my writing, always starting at the beginning, so I check the earlier part of a paper considerably more than the later.

    Do you find yourself experiencing the symptoms of mental illness, but muted enough so they encourage productivity, not illness? How many of us (e. g., physicists) are "Touched with Fire" (benefited from a biochemical brain disorder) as the title of a popular book by Kay Redfield Jamison suggests? Do medicines support or interfere with your creativity?
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  3. Aug 25, 2005 #2
    Obsessive-Compulsive disorder isn't the same thing as Mania. OCD generally interferes with getting things done, while Mania, in its initial stages, can lead to a surfeit of productivity. That seems like a good thing at the time, but eventually it all comes crashing down, and the Bipolar person ends up being completely unproductive during the depressed aftermath of the manic episode.

    Obsession, plain obsession, which is a part of many mental illnesses, can lead to great activity and project undertaking, but it is often of a limited, and sometimes even quite useless kind. It can often end up as mere perseveration, which is inflexible and non-adaptive.
  4. Aug 25, 2005 #3

    Math Is Hard

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    There is also a difference between OCD and OCPD (Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder). The former involves specific, recurrent intrusive thoughts and rituals to ward off these thoughts, but OCPD is marked by general traits of perfectionism, inflexibility, and preoccupation with details.
  5. Aug 25, 2005 #4

    Ivan Seeking

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    I don't know when something is a characteristic as opposed to a mental illness, but there is such a thing as being highly focused. I tend to be incredibly single minded. In fact, over the years I have learned that I must allow time to change gears when moving from one complex task to the next. This even includes multitasking. As long as I keep doing what I've been doing, whatever that may be, I can be incredibly efficient - almost machine-like at times really. But, if, for example, I go from intense programming work to a difficult math problem, the brain seems to need time switch modes. I tend to make elementary errors doing most anything challenging until I hit the groove, so to speak, and then everything flows like water. Once in that mode it is fairly common to work for days or even weeks with hardly another thought. This trait proved to be quite handy in college, and again now in my work.
  6. Aug 26, 2005 #5


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    I have a similar thing going to what Ivan described; I'm incredibly single-minded. I can't multitask at all, but when I get going on one thing, I really get going, sometimes working on a single problem or topic for upwards of twenty hours with little to no rest. Even in regular situations, though, if I'm just reading something carefully but not being obsessive about it, I still can't pay any attention to anything else. People can be talking to me five feet away and I don't even hear them.
  7. Aug 26, 2005 #6


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    The most obvious way to tell whether you have an anxiety disorder is just to ask whether those situations cause you to experience anxiety.
    I suspect that I might have OCPD and am almost certain that I have OCD. I'm not sure if you guys are talking about the same thing. For a possible example of each and the difference between them...

    Just go with me on this - in many situations, there is a best way to do something: one set of correct answers to some problems, one set of most efficient ways to perform some procedure, and so on. It's also generally good to be orderly, prepared, resourceful, etc. and bad to be unorderly, unprepared, wasteful, etc. I believe all of this and try to act accordingly. It's certainly helpful in many situations, but it tends to leak into every area of my life, into stupid or insignificant situations, or otherwise get out of control.

    For instance, I use pens regularly. I had to figure out several years ago which kind of pen was the best for me to use. I've been using that kind of pen ever since (the one pictured below). I don't like using other kinds of pens. I keep them well-stocked (I currently have 4 boxes of 12), and I always check to make sure that I have at least 2 or 3 with me when I go somewhere, in case one of them runs out of ink or doesn't work. This isn't so bad. But I also have to keep the cap of the pen lined up with the label on the pen, just as it is in the picture, because this is the 'best' position for the cap to be in; It's the most orderly.
    I know that the position of the cap is really of absolutely no consequence, and I dont' experience significant anxiety if the cap is out of alignment or I have to use another pen or whatever. The thought just sticks in my head that I'm being unorderly, unprepared, etc., i.e., that I'm not being or doing the best that I can, which is unacceptable. And I'm this way about almost everything; There's a best slot for certain cards in my wallet, a best way to wash the dishes, I can't misspell words or make this list so short that it doesn't show how pervasive the thoughts are, I can't make it so long that people get bored with it, I have to confirm that 'pervasive' is the best word, that the reference of 'it' to 'the list' is clear, etc.

    It's not very difficult to dismiss or resist the stupid ones, when I try. It's just usually easier to acquiesce. The ones that make sense are very difficult to resist, and I may not even want to resist them. If they are costly in time, effort, etc., I have to figure out the most efficient way to do them in order to avoid being wasteful.
    It also bothers me when others don't live up to my standards, though I don't actually expect them to do so; I just can't help but notice. And I don't judge others negatively because of this; I'm only hard on myself. I think this may be OCPD.

    What I am almost certain is OCD is very different. For example, I may be just sitting at the computer when the thought that there's a lion in the hallway about to break down the door and attack me just pops into my head; I may also get an image of the lion walking my way. I know that a lion actually being there is highly improbable and it's just my OCD, but arguing about this doesn't do any good. Depending on several factors, I may have to check to confirm that there is no lion or, if that is too scary, move a piece of furniture in front of the door or keep some kind of weapon or the phone next to me (to call 911). If the thought persists and I don't do these things, my body reacts as if the situation were real: I experience severe anxiety, perhaps escalating into a panic attack. I can't 'just control it' either. The presence of anxiety is huge factor in making a diagnosis of OCD. If you read cases of OCD sufferers, you'll see that it's nowhere near the normal experiences of anxiety or worry. It can become seriously disabling.

    I have been effectively trapped in a small area for several hours due to an attack. The last time this happened, it was from the thought that there was an intruder in my mother's bedroom (the door was closed). I was stuck for two and half hours standing in a position where I could keep my eye on the doorknob (to see if they were coming out) and have a straight line to the front door, so that I could escape and run for help. The whole time, I was trying to argue myself out of the situation - I knew it was just my OCD. As hard as I tried, I couldn't even approach the door to check inside, make any noise at all, or let the doorknob out of sight for more than a few seconds. I couldn't leave the house for other reasons. I couldn't even sit down, because it would just take longer to get up and run for safety. I was prepared to run for my life the whole time. It only ended because my bother unexpectedly came home. I had already gone through all of my options and was resigned to the possibility of having to stand there for another 4 hours until my mother got home from work. And it would have gotten even worse when the sun went down. These attacks can make me unable to move, no matter how hard I try.
    So it's no small thing, and I can't imagine how it could be helpful to experience anxiety or panic attacks in the absence of any real threat.
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  8. Aug 26, 2005 #7
    The DSM-IV says that the personality disorder often occurs together with the disorder in the same individual, so it wouldn't be unusual for you to have both forms, and it sounds from the above like you do.

    As I was telling Loren, OCD is not the same thing as an obsession and more often than not, interferes with getting things accomplished, as your story illustrates, rather than providing some extra drive to productivity as you sometimes see in bipolar disorder (and probably by extension, schizoaffective disorder, where the same emotional ups and downs are present).

    I don't think the single-minded focus on the task at hand mentioned by Ivan and LYN is anything in the arena of mental illness. Obsessions can't be shut off, and tend to drive a person's life. Think: Captain Ahab.
  9. Aug 27, 2005 #8

    Thanks for the insight that what I have been feeling is probably mania, not OCD. My doctor had me complete a questionnaire asking about all different types of obsessions. The results showed that I most likely do not suffer from either OCD, or (I guess) OCPD. But boy, when I am up until dawn working on a problem, I wonder if mania alone could be the culprit. The drive to finish a puzzle interferes with my need for an early bedtime.
  10. Aug 27, 2005 #9


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    Heh, I wasn't sure if anyone was actually going to read all of that. :surprised
    Yeah, I'm not so concerned about the OCPD yet, if that's what it is. It doesn't interfere with my life as much or cause as much pain as the OCD.

    Depending on what the obsessions are, they can certainly drive people to do all sorts of things - that's what the compulsions are! :smile: But while the person is still suffering, I imagine that the accompanying anxiety would negate most if not all benefit. For example, some of my obsessions have driven me to learn about venomous snakes, in an attempt to neutralize the anxiety about them (this doesn't work, BTW). But I can't use this knowledge in any productive way because just thinking about it triggers the obsession and anxiety.
    I guess one benefit is that it keeps me pretty safe. But the anxiety isn't necessary for that and not worth it.
  11. Aug 27, 2005 #10
    If you are working on it despite feeling appropriately tired, then I would call it an obsession. Many mental illnesses have this kind of obsession as a side symptom.

    If you were feeling great, and not fatigued at all, then it would more likely be mania. Often manic people stay up for days, feeling no particular fatigue.

    I recall you said your diagnosis was schizoaffective. The affective part of that means a person has had a major depression or manic episode along with the other symptoms. Even if you haven't had a manic episode you could be prone to them, so it's good you ran this all by your doc, to keep him or her up to date.

    Getting a good night's sleep every night is the best way to ward off a manic episode. Every bipolar person I know starts shooting off into the stratosphere by staying up all night.
  12. Aug 27, 2005 #11
    I saw your thing about the pen cap. It's OCPD.

    Cognitive Therapy will actually work on that without question. There's a whole chapter in the book I have about overcoming perfectionism.
  13. Aug 27, 2005 #12


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    Okay, I'll look into it. What book, BTW?
  14. Aug 27, 2005 #13
    Feeling Good by David Burns, M.D. Available everywhere.

    Other Cognitive Therapy books I've looked into weren't nearly as good.
  15. Aug 27, 2005 #14

    Are you going for an advanced degree in psychology?
  16. Aug 28, 2005 #15


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    Definitely. If I suffer from any mental illness, it's in the realm of sociopathic disorders. Single-mindedness might annoy people when they're trying to get my attention, but that is certainly not a problem for me.
  17. Aug 28, 2005 #16
    Hehe. No. Sounds like it sometimes, though, doesn't it?

    When I meet someone who says they've been diagnosed with this or that, I tend to research what that means.
    I have met lots and lots of bipolar people, lots and lots of depressed people, some schizophrenics, some schizoaffective people, some people with personality disorders, a couple people with Asperger's Syndrome, one genuine Autistic Savant, and, most recently, have been picking up alot of info about OCD, and OCPD from HonestRoseWater, which I've been contrasting and comparing with what I know about the OCD and OCPD suffered by Nikola Tesla. I'm also checking what I find out against "fictional" portrayals of OCD like the TV show Monk, and in the movie The Aviator asking myself if they are portraying it accurately.

    I actually went out and bought a DSM a few years back so I'd have a reference for the "official" definition of all these things. I also occasionally read books like Touched By Fire, or anything that might give better insight into any given illness.
  18. Aug 28, 2005 #17


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    From my own experience and what I've read, a lot of OCDers can and do control their behavior in public. Some even manage to hide it from everyone, including their spouses, for years. I haven't watched Monk recently, but I remember his OCD being overt, almost immediately observable. Some people may make no attempt to hide their problem, or not be able to, but your best friend could have OCD without you knowing.
    The only other difference that I can think of is just the obvious - it's a comedy about a painful and frustrating disorder.
  19. Aug 28, 2005 #18
    Howard Hughs, as depicted in The Aviator was more like this. The audience was always let in on it, but the people he interacted with didn't see it, except when something extreme happened. He also had a co-occuring, occasional (stress-induced) tourette's disorder, that caused him to repeat the same sentence over and over uncontrollably, which, according to the film, happened in the presence of others many times. The DSM says OCD and Tourettes often occur together.

    I'm glad you brought this up, though, because it isn't often mentioned, and didn't occur to me that it wouldn't be apparent in most sufferers.

    This is delicate. Normally I can't stand anything that seems to be making fun of a disorder. What saves Monk in my opinion, is that he always ends up as the protagonist, he is always the hero, and the viewing audience always likes him, feels warmly toward him, despite the fact that his phobias are often presented in a comic light. You never really lose sight of the fact that he is unhappy, uncomfortable, and often going through hell, and can never really laugh at him.

    I've often wondered what kind of mail the producers get from people with OCD, because any show hovering so close to being politically incorrect could easily be killed by an outcry from people, but Monk has lasted several seasons.
  20. Aug 28, 2005 #19


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    Googling "ocd OR hide OR secret" turns up lots. One site said that it's "often referred to as the secret illness", but I don't recall ever hearing that.
    Yeah, I don't have any problem with the show or think it's making fun of him or OCD; I actually think it's doing some good things. I meant that when he gets upset because of his OCD, he usually gets upset in a funny way, and this just isn't what usually happens in real life. OCD is very silly in a way and bringing that out, laughing at the stupid things it makes you do, can help when you're recovering. I guess that's it: he's recovering more than suffering (not that recovery isn't difficult). I don't recall him ever, say, breaking down, crying, and getting seriously frustrated while he performs some of his cleaning compulsions as if they were torture or whatever, which is what happens in real life. I do recall things about his wife having a serious tone, and I might just not remember the other serious parts.
    Anyway, I don't mean that the show being a comedy is necessarily bad. It's just a superficial observation: a comedy is about funny experiences and having OCD is not a funny experience. They can still make the idea work in the details.
  21. Aug 28, 2005 #20
    I believe I once read that OCD, of all mental disorders, goes longest undiagnosed on average.

    The DSM itself is an obsession.

    Didn't the protagonist in Monk get an Emmy?
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